If you’re planning a visit to Miyajima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture you will probably have Itsukushima Shrine at the top of your list of things to see. The waterfront shine is famous for its ‘floating’ tori gate and shrine buildings and is especially dramatic at the high tide. While Itsukushima Shrine is the primary shrine and attraction on Miyajima, Daisho-in temple is the oldest and most significant of the Buddhist temples on the island. It’s located not far from the shrine and is an entry point to the most popular hiking trail up Mt Misen so is easily included into a day visit itinerary.
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The history of Daisho-in
Back in the year 806 the monk Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi) stopped at Miyajima to perform 100 days of gumonji practice on Mt Misen during his journey from China. Gumonji is practiced in the Shingon school of Buddhism and involves reciting the Kokuzo mantra 1 million times. When he was done it is said he founded Daisho-in temple on the island.
The temple also has long associations with Imperial rulers. In the 12th century Emperor Toba founded a prayer hall at the temple and Emperor Meiji stayed at the temple in 1885. It remained an important temple until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 growing to include 12 affiliated temples and being the administrator of rituals performed at Itsukushima Shrine.
Today the temple houses many Buddhist teachings and treasures in its precincts and is a fascinating temple to wander around. There are English language brochures for the temple but they aren’t always available so here’s our guide to exploring the temple and understanding the background to a little of what you are seeing.
Exploring the temple grounds
We approached Daisho-in through the shrine and around the waterfront. As we walked up the narrow road leading to the entrance we were joined by this small family of local deer. The deer on the island are quite tame and if you don’t offer them food they are very serene and gentle.
These ones were happy to walk along with us for a while then wander off on important deer business. We’ve not had any issue with the deer anywhere in Japan but I did see a lady wrestling her hat back from one and a child unintentionally shared his ice-cream with another. Messengers of the gods or not it seems they do have a bit of a mischievous streak.
As you arrive at the temple the Niomon gate is the first thing you see, it’s the main entry to the temple watched over by the two Nio guardians. The guardians are there to ward off evil and preserve the Buddhist traditions. This gate was particularly beautiful because the statues weren’t enclosed behind bird wire as they often are.
The 500 Rakan Statues
As you climb the steps through the gate you can’t miss the Rakan statues. These enlightened beings are known as arhats in Sanskrit and were the original disciples of the historical Buddha, called Shaka Nyorai in Japan. The statues at Daisho-in are cast in the Chinese style and displayed in a group of 500. Look closely and you will see they are each unique in their expressions and poses. I love the little touches of humour and ‘kawaii’ at this temple, can you spot the little monk peeping over the tree roots, there are loads of these all over the temple so I’ll include a few of my favourites at the end of the post.
Mani Prayer Wheels
The prayer wheel sits on a spindle enabling it to turn when rotated by hand. Inside the embossed cylinder is a long strip of rolled paper with mantras, or in this case I believe the Heart Sutra, written on it. Spinning the wheels at Daisho-in is said to accrue blessings equal to reading one full volume of the Heart Sutra called Hannya-shinkyon in Japan. Traditionally hand held prayer wheels are spun in a clockwise direction so in the absence of any direction I used the same logic here.
The Dai-hannyakyo Sutra
These are a second version of the Mani Prayer Wheel within Daisho-in. A Chinese monk called Sanzo brought the six hundred volumes of the Dai-hannyakyo Scripture from India. It is believed that touching these sutras will bring good fortune.
Shaka Nehan Hall
This statue depicts the historical Buddha entering Nirvana surrounded by 16 of his disciples. The statue isn’t on the enormous scale of the reclining Buddha in Thailand but at life size it’s still impressive,
The Henjokutsu Cave
The cave is very dimly lit but it’s an indication of the prestige of this temple that it contains Buddhist icons and sand from the 88 temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage route. For those who believe, worshipping here earns the same blessings as making the pilgrimage to all the temples on the route.
The boddhisatva Jizo is the protector of the spirits of deceased babies and children. By pouring water from the ladle over a Jizo statue you bring consolation to the souls of the loved ones. Jizo statues are well tended across Japan and you will often see them dressed as here with bibs and even knitted hats and scarves.
Statues within the temple
Kawaii! Little monk statues
These cute little monk statues are all around the temple grounds. While they share the shaven head and baby face of some modern Jizo statues you won’t see them dressed in bibs and hats. They are also not depicted with the walking staff or jewel normally carried by Jizo. I believe these are simply decorative or perhaps to remind us that enlightenment and content are available to everyone and are present in our everyday actions. They are modern but really adorable so I had to include a few of my favourites.
Getting there, costs and other information
Miyajima Island is an easy day, or part day trip from Hiroshima. It is also possible to do it as a day trip from further away cities on the Shinkensen line such as Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe if you are happy with the longer commute. I have included it as one of my top 10 day trips from Kyoto.
Getting to Miyajima island from Hiroshima station is quite simple and if you have a JR pass both the train and the ferry costs are included.
When you arrive at the island most people will head to the right for a view of the floating tori and to visit the shrine. You can get to Daisho-in either through the shrine itself or walking around the street behind it and following the waterfront around then straight ahead toward the hill. You’ll cross over a bridge and no doubt see and photography a good number of deer along the way.
Entry to Daisho-in is from 8am until 5pm every day. There is no entry fee but a donation in the box is appreciated.
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