Ocean Newsletter

No.57 December 20, 2002

  • Repair and Preservation of Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage Site Michinori Fukuda
    tsukushima Shrine
    Selected Papers No.5
  • The Sea and Buildings, Buildings and the Sea Kazuo Nishi
    Professor, Kanagawa University
  • Seto Naikai (the Inland Sea) and Modern Art Soichiro Fukutake
    President, Benesse Corporation

Repair and Preservation of Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage Site

All the splendor and gravitas of the Heian period are captured for people to admire today in Itsukushima Shrine, which was registered in 1996 as a World Heritage site. The structures have been destroyed many times in the past by natural disasters, and each time they were repaired and restored. Today, however, the deterioration of the earth's environment is raising the incidence of abnormally high tides, causing the main shrine building to be submerged with increasing frequency. Itsukushima Shrine is in graver danger than ever before.

Origin of the shrine

Itsukushima(Miyajima), located in the southwestern area of Hiroshima Bay, is about 30 kilometers in circumference, Away from the mainland across the Ono Strait. Itsukushima Shrine is located deep in a small bay facing northwest at the northern base of Mt. Misen on the northeastern part of the island. Residents along nearby seacoasts and on islands who have sensed the aura of Mt. Misen (its primeval forests were designated as a natural monument on December 17, 1929), which is the main peak covered with primeval forests, have embraced the island itself as a god. The shrine pavilions were constructed at the present site by Kuramoto Saeki in 593 when Empress Suiko ascended the throne. The shrine pavilions were built in the sea because the island itself was considered a god and people were hesitant to build a shrine on it.
In the 12th century, a group of magnificent shrine pavilions, which can be seen to this day was constructed by Taira no Kiyomori, a power lord at that time. These magnificent shrine pavilions constitute a superb architectural design with shindenzukuri, the architectural style of the Heian period, having been adopted. The natural landscape with the shrine built in the sea and the mountains incorporated into the background is unparalleled. The architectural concept was brilliantly conceived by Taira no Kiyomori, and it is one of the representative assets that demonstrate his accomplishments in the Heian period.

Spiritual and cultural significance of the Japanese

The shrine pavilions were built in one of the typical styles of shrine pavilions developed in Japan with a mountain worshiped as a god in accordance with the worship of nature, and a remote place to worship the god at the foot of the mountain. The spectacular sight of the shrine buildings in harmony with the surrounding environment set the standard for the Japanese aesthetic sense for generations thereafter. The shrine buildings are unique among extant shrine buildings in Japan. The style of the shrine pavilions adopted at the time of their construction has been well maintained, and the shrine is one of the few buildings constructed in the Heian period. Though the shrine has been rebuilt many times, it is a rare example that conveys remnants of pavilions originally constructed in the Heian period. The shrine is also unique in the sense that it built shindenzukuri, the architectural style of the Heian period, with the use of a border between the mountain and the sea. The shrine additionally provides an important example of a group of shrine buildings constructed in the old style.
Itsukushima Shrine is a facility for Shinto, an indigenous religion rooted in Japan's natural features. The shrine is important for us to understand the characteristics of Japanese religious spaces as cultural assets that demonstrate a history of interminglement with, and separation from Buddhism. It is also an important asset for Japanese to understand their spiritual culture.

Disasters and restoration

n the Meiji period, Itsukushima Shrine was instructed to burn down its shrine pavilions as part of the government is policy to separate Shintoism from Buddhism because the shrine pavilions contained prominent Buddhist features. However, Mr. Motonobu Nosaka, the last Tanamori (current Guji, the chief priest of a Shinto shrine), petitioned the government and obtained approval to keep the shrine pavilions as they were, and are seen now. The large torii gate collapsed in 1840 and was rebuilt 24 years later in 1875. The shrine was damaged by heavy storms in the Meiji period in 1877 and 1892. Major repair work that started in the Meiji period was completed in the Taisho period in 1919. In 1898, the shrine pavilions were designated as specially preserved pavilions. On September 17, 1946, the western part of the shrine pavilions below the floor was buried by 15,000 cubic meters of earth and sand by a avalanche caused by the Makurazaki Typhoon. It was completely removed in 1948, and major repair work in the Showa period continued until 1957.
After World War II, the Law for Protection of Cultural Properties was amended, and the shrine pavilions were designated as a national treasure, and partially as important cultural properties. After which, annual plans were formulated by engineers specializing in buildings designated as cultural property, and consultations were held with the Agency Cultural Affairs on repair work for preservation, such as roofing replacements, paint work for the shrine pavilions, and column underpinning. While the repair work was under way, the shrine was severely damaged by Typhoon 19 on September 27, 1991. The repair work is still under way. In 2003 and 2004, the roof of the Haraedono was replaced, and the repair work will soon be completed.

Architectural ingenuity

Itsukushima Shrine is considerably superior structurally. Though the shrine has been damaged by numerous natural disasters in its long history, the original forms of the shrine pavilions are still intact. For instance, roofed corridors are flooded above the floor when the shrine is struck by typhoons, or the tide rises abnormally. But the roofed corridors' Flooring has slight gaps between each floorboard, so they can resist the tide. Architectural elements such as removable floorboards are removed in order to lessen water pressure and to resist external forces from the sea such as high tides. Wooden columns below the floor can be underpinned so that parts of the wooden columns supporting the raised floor can be easily replaced. In this way, through cooperation and efforts of people at different times parts that are not damaged easily and parts that are replaceable are skillfully combined allowing the Shrine to remaining a structure of unchanged beauty floating on the sea for the past 800 years.

Future of Itsukushima Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine conveys the magnificent and splendid architectural beauty of the Heian period to us today. Its design of wooden buildings on the sea with the use of tidal ebbs and flows is unique in the world, and has been highly rated as a "wonderful cultural property". In December 1996, the shrine was registered as World Heritage. The reasons for the recommendation were that Itsukushima Shrine, lacquered in vivid vermillion, resting serenely on the sea, is set against the mystic back-drop of the divine Mt. Misen. In perfect harmony with the surrounding nature, Itsukushima Shrine and its' surrounding buildings are of great historical significance, and were constructed using superior architectural styles which have had a tremendous influence on following generations. Due to these beautiful and unique characteristics, Itsukushima Shrine was registered as a "World Heritage" in 1996.
In recent years, the number of abnormal high tides has increased probably due to unusual weather patterns caused by the worsening global environment. Consequently the shrine pavilions have been more frequently flooded. Therefore, in order to further protect the valuable World Heritage, I think we should investigate the causes of the deteriorating global environment on an international scale, and take measures to prevent the degredation of the global environment.

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