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  • Takeshi Kazui

厳島神社: My Grandfather's Shrine

We all have places that hold precious memories. However, it's not particularly beautiful or famous, it's just a place where I projected myself as a child. The place I'm going to show you today doesn't show up on Google search or TripAdvisor. It is my precious place.

Route 311

A view of Kuju, Kumanogawa Town, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan: Route 311, the Kitayama River, and an unnamed mountain.

I grew up in the countryside, deep in the mountains of Wakayama. The area is surrounded by mountains, and the Kitayama River, flowing through them, has brought benefits to the area since ancient times. And there is only one road, Route 311. Nowadays, the road has been improved so that even a poor driver can pass safely, but when I was in elementary school, the road was so skinny that I was worried that the bus to school would fall off the cliff. I'm sure the bus driver was good at what he did.

I attended Kujū Elementary School, which was closed when I was in the second grade because there were no newly enrolled children. At that time, there were only eight students in the whole school, six unique teachers, and one kind lady who cooked delicious school lunch every day. It was not a school, it was my family.

The school building was almost demolished several times due to old age and typhoon floods, but now it has become a cafe with a stone oven bakery, and once a year a festival is held there with local stores. Below is the Instagram of the store there and my post from when I went to that festival.

Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社)

First of all, I should explain the history of this shrine, but instead, I found it on the shrine's website in an easy-to-understand format.

Enshrined Deities
市杵島姫命(いちきしまひめのみこと) 田心姫命(たごりひめのみこと) 湍津姫命(たぎつひめのみこと) Ichikishimahime-no-mikoto Tagorihime-no-mikoto Tagitsuhime-no-mikoto
The three deities of Itsukushima Shrine were born when Amaterasu Ōmikami (goddess of the sun) and her brother Susanoo-no-mikoto made a pledge on the Celestial Plain, using a jewel and a sword. Since ancient times, they have been revered and worshipped as deities that ensure the well-being of the imperial family, guard the nation and protect seafarers. When the deities were looking for the best location to settle, Saeki no Kuramoto, who governed the island, received an oracle. Led by a divine crow from the Celestial Plain, he sailed around the island with the deities and decided to build a shrine at this place where the tide ebbs and flows. According to an ancient record, this took place in 593, the year Empress Suiko ascended the throne. In 1168, Taira no Kiyomori, who worshipped at the shrine, rebuilt it in the shinden-zukuri style, an architectural style in which residences of the nobility were built in those days. As Kiyomori assumed higher posts in the imperial court, not only the Taira clan but many other eminent people also visited the shrine, including members of the imperial family and aristocrats, such as former Emperor Goshirakawa, who had joined a Buddhist order, in 1174 and retired Emperor Takakura in March and September of 1180. They brought with them the culture of Kyoto. After the Taira regime, the shrine was revered and patronized by the ruling Genji clan, then by Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358) and Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) and other shoguns of the Muromachi period, and by the Ōuchi and Mōri clans during the Warring States period. “Miyajima of Aki Province” became well known as one of the three most scenic places in Japan, along with Matsushima and Amanohashidate. In 1996, Itsukushima Shrine was registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.

Itsukushima Shrine reflecting the sunlight in Kuju, Kumanogawa Town, Wakayama Prefecture, in the Kumano Kodo area of Japan's World Heritage Site.

Taira Clan (平家) established the first samurai-dominated administrative government in the history of Japan, and Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛) enshrined Itsukushima Shrine as the guardian deity of the Taira clan. However, the head temple of the shrine is located in Hatsukaichi City (廿日市市), Hiroshima Prefecture (広島県), so why do you think there is a shrine with the same name 500 kilometers away deep in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture?

The clan was defeated and destroyed in the final naval battle of the Genpei War (源平の乱), commonly known as the Battle of Dan-no-ura (壇ノ浦の戦い), which took place in 1185 at Dan-no-ura in the Shimonoseki Strait at the southern tip of Honshu. However, some Taira bloodlines survived, hiding their identities, changing their names and surviving in secret, these people are called Ochi-musha (落武者) in Japanese.

My grandfather's name was Taira Kiyochika, so he was the heir to the bloodline, and in his later years he was a Shinto priest at his clan's shrine.

After his retirement, my grandfather became the Shinto priest of Itsukushima Shrine, he really wanted to give back to the place where he was born and raised. This shrine was a playground for children and a gathering place for the residents. Whenever there was a celebration, we thanked the deities here, and when a child or grandchild was born, we prayed here. If the place to relax was a café, he would have served home-roasted coffee and bread baked in a stone oven.

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The torii gate and giant tree at Itsukushima Shrine in Kuju, Kumanogawa Town, Wakayama Prefecture, in the Kumano Kodo area of Japan's World Heritage Site.

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