CONTRIBUTED BY KEVIN “ELVIS” KING
The interior of the diminutive Buddhist hall was dark and uninviting. The top half of the open entry was filled with thick, sooty smoke attempting to escape confinement within the enclosure. The imposing yet mysterious chamber was too much to pass up, and like a curious cat, I ducked below most of the effuse and entered, all senses alert….
At more than 535 meters (~1,800’) above sea level, Mount Misen (弥山) is the highest peak on Miyajima. It is considered a holy site situated within the World Heritage area of Itsukushima Shrine (the subject of a soon-to-be published blog). On clear days, it affords spectacular views of the dramatic Shikoku Mountains in the distance and the beautifully island-studded, oyster-farming waters of the Seto Inland Sea. A number of Buddhist structures, most of them near the summit, are found here, including the gloomy Reikado Kiezu-no-hi (“Hall of the Eternal Flame”), described above.
My eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom, but not to the smoke of the smoldering fire. The effuse continued to sting my eyes, and the acidic vapor irritated my nostrils. But the scene that assaulted my very consciousness was something out of Tomb Raider meets Indiana Jones (see Tomb-Raiding Angkor for more adventuresome explorations). The ceiling of the space was covered in soot so thick that stalactites were forming, as if to reach down to the Eternal Flame from wince it came.
Buddhism was first practiced here by Kobo Daishi, founder of its Shingon sect and one of Japan’s holiest religious persons. The “Eternal Flame” is a holy fire said to be lit by he himself in 806 and continues to burn here, uninterrupted, even now. The temple structures near the summit all are satellites of the fabulously intriguing Daisho-in Temple found at the mountain’s base on the outskirts of town.
There was no flame visible, only the red-hot embers of a number of logs meant to feed the fire for quite some time. Smoke filled the cavity, tainted the walls black and stained dark brown all the recently hung wooden ema (see Shinto Shrines and Snake Oil Sales for more on this intriguing way of praying). The far recesses of the chamber were home to a whole wall of various statues and figurines, whose meaning was lost on me. We were the only visitors, the silence broken only by the crackling of the fire pit. The full frontal blitz of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell created an ambiance that was transformative.
Water boiled in a large iron cauldron over this fire is believed to provide curative powers over various ailments, and although we didn’t know it at the time, the water is always available for anyone to drink. The flame here also served as the source of the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, a pilot light transferred in 1964.
This holy fire, burning continuously for over the last 1,200 years, is designated a Lover’s Sanctuary by no less than Japan’s First Lady of Brides, Yumi Katsura. Seems a logical connection has been made of an eternal flame being akin to the burning passion of eternal love. Yumi, Born in Tokyo, spent time as a young woman studying haute couture while living in Paris. Returning to Japan in the 1960s, she realized there was no bridal industry of which to speak. Seeing an opportunity, Kumi opened her first bridal salon in 1964, and soon after presented the first bridal collection show ever held in Japan and published The bridal Book, the first Japanese book specializing in bridal fashion. Now one of the world’s most prolific wedding dress designers, she has expanded globally, her collections now found in some of the most exclusive stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel and Neiman Marcus.
The Hall itself, however, is a relatively small building. Although the interior is completely unlit and filled with murky smoke, the lure of the eternal flame proves irresistible to most. If you enter, be forewarned: you will smell like delectable beef jerky for the rest of the day, until your clothes are changed and hair thoroughly washed! Of course those leaving locally purchased ema inside are said to be granted their loving wish(es). I, more cynically, believe it’s yet another way religion has found to keep itself – like the eternal flame, self-sustaining.
Jody and I, of course, left our own personal ema within the hall. While more of a declarative statement than a prayer or wish, surely we would not tempt the gods without paying our respects. To them and to our shared Love, both of which hopefully remain eternal.
While the hiking courses to the top advertise a 1½ to 2 hours climb, a more realistic number is probably actually closer to three. That is, if you stop to admire the scenery, check out the temples you might pass along the way, take a few photos, and rest to enjoy a swing of water every now and then. Even taking the ropeway roundtrip, we were still gone for easily 4 hours. Hiking the mountain up and down is clearly at least a full half day’s endeavor. But the true beauty of the area’s national forest, replete with rugged landscapes and giant rock formations, along with the dotted islands floating on the Seto Inland Sea below, are all probably at their most enchanting on foot. Thankfully, for those lacking the time or the willpower, a ropeway (cable car) leads up most of the mountain.
But when the ropeway ends, don’t believe that you’re close to your goal! Getting to the summit and seeing the main attractions that the mountain has to offer will require a consider amount of further walking. The ropeway station near the summit sits more than 100 meters (~330’) lower than the peak, and situated across a small valley. The path climbs and drops and then climbs again. Besides the energy-draining up and down serpentine design of the course, the summit is about 1 km (~0.6 miles) in horizontal travel away.
When you’re in Miyajima, take the time to journey up Mount Misen, if not to the summit, than at least to enjoy Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, either with that special travel partner you might have in tow, or in the hopes of gaining one in the very near future.
Getting Around Mount Misen:
The ropeway station is about a 15 minute uphill walk inland from Itsukushima Shrine or a 25 minute walk from the Miyajima ferry pier. The ropeway ride up the mountain takes about 20-40 minutes, the exact time depending on any delay in ropeway transfer that is required along the way. From the ropeway’s upper station at Shishi-iwa Observatory, it is still at least a 30 minute fairly strenuous walk to the summit. The Misen Hondo (main hall) and Reikado buildings are located along the trail, about five minutes before the summit.
Hours: Daily 9:00 to 17:00 (hours of operation vary slightly by season)
Fees: 1000 yen (one way), 1800 yen (round trip)