Location: Miyajima, Japan
If you’ve seen photographs of Japan then you’ve probably seen images of a giant vermillion red gate that seems to have grown out of the sea; then you’ve seen some of Miyajima. Japan is already an island of stark contrasts mixing elements of modern and traditional, natural and man man; but here on Miyajima, is where humans and Gods intermingle to add to the complexity of Japan’s cultural make up. The island is located on the southerly end of Honshu at only 20 km away from Hiroshima, and is one of the most popular and scenic sights of Japan. Usually accessed via Hiroshima, you can make a day trip there from Osaka and Kyoto however, an overnight stay on Miyajima will gives you the best chance to discover this mystical place; especially once the tourist hoards sail off on the last ferry. Apart from the iconic O-Torii gate, you should also take your time to explore the Itsukushima Shrine, the Senjokaku wooden hall, and explore the many trails around Mount Misen and the many temples that line them. A visit to the southern part of Honshu is not complete without making the trip to this spiritual and naturally beautiful island, and you’ll be glad you came.
Miyajima (or ‘Itsukushima’ as it’s known in Japanese) is most commonly access through Hiroshima, however you can get there from Osaka and Kyoto on a long day trip by riding the Shinkansen down. I personally wouldn’t recommend going all that way for such a little amount of time, and instead recommend a stay either on Miyajima itself, or in Hiroshima; that way you will have enough time to see the island at a good pace. The JR Train ride to Hiroshima and also the JR Ferry between Hiroshima and Miyajima are both covered by the JR Pass, and the ferry will leave you at the pier where you’ll be greeted by wild deer who’ll charm you into giving you any snacks or food you may have. The ferry pier is also a short walk (less than 15 minutes) from some of the main sights on the island and some accommodation will actually pick you up from here if you prearrange it; but I’m cheap so we just walked!
The impressive O-Torii gate stands at around 16 metres tall, and during low tide you can walk out to the gate and see just how big it really is; but don’t wear shoes that you wouldn’t want to get dirty as the ground is very muddy and sticky. Not too far from the red gate is the sprawling Itsukushima Shire, also in matching red, and although it costs 300 Yen to enter it’s a steal for how incredibly expansive the shrine is. The structure is made up of an interconnected maze of shrines, halls, corridors and bridges; but all with a view out to the O-Torii gate and Hiroshima. And if you think that everything on Miyajima is super sized, then you’d be correct with the largest structure on the island actually being the 27 metro tall five storied pagoda. Behind the Itsukushima Shirne is the older and more austere Toyokuni Shrine, with its bright vermillion red pagoda behind it, and you can’t really miss it! Like a spiritual beacon touching the sky, for 100 Yen you can enter the shrine and pagoda. Although by this stage I had seen my fair share of them in Japan and passed on the opportunity, however we were told that it was quite nice inside.
Unfortunately for us when we visited Japan it was the hottest summer on record, and we perfectly timed our visit with the worst heat wave they had all summer (it got so hot in Tokyo that the soles of my shoes melted). This meant that all the hiking we had hoped to do was promptly taken off the list, including the hikes around Miyajima. There are a lot of different hikes on the island and all offer you views out to sea and back to the main land. We were going to take the ropeway up to the viewing platform on Mount Misen, however by the time we were here it was nearing sunset time, and we choose to take sunset photographs of the O-Torii Gate instead (and if you plan on snagging a good spot, get there early because it gets packed with photographers!).
As I mentioned before, there is an abundance of deer on the island. They are pretty well adapted to people and you’ll see them everywhere! Unlike the aggressive deer you’ll find in places like Nara, these deer are more chilled out and look to be very well fed. And you can also camp on Miyajima Island, although I imagine the deer might be a bit of a problem for campers, but this is something I’d like to do along with the hiking if I have the opportunity to return to Miyajima.
Food and Shopping
Unlike the temple stay I did at Mount Koya, there is a large variety of food here which does include vegan and vegetarian if you are that way inclined. The cafes and restaurants are centered around Omotesando Shopping Street, and most accommodation will also have a restaurant or offer meals. Miyajima is famous for its oysters, which you can smell being grilled on every corner, and the sweet and gooey filled maple leaf shaped sweets called Momiji Manjyu; these delicious sweets are traditionally filled with red bean paste but you can get them in all kinds of flavors, and you just have to try them because they are delicious!
One thing that Siu On and I didn’t account for was the early close time of the restaurants in town since we had been out photographing the O-Torii gate until past 7pm; luckily for us our hotel had room in their restaurant and we could eat, otherwise we would have been eating our box of Momiji Manjyu sweets for dinner! This also goes for the shopping, most of the souvenir shops had closed by 5pm so get your shopping done a bit early to avoid missing out on your very own traditional ‘Shakushi’, a rice scoop made of wood; and you can’t miss the world’s biggest rice scoop, ‘Oshakushi’, while you’re there!
Behind Omotesando is the old town known as Machiya-Dori, and is filled with traditional wooden two story buildings. These buildings are mostly home to local residents, accommodation and galleries and makes for a nice stroll through as some areas of the old town give you nice views of temples in the area, including the five story red pagoda.
When planning for this leg of our Japan journey, I found these sites really helpful to give me an idea on what there is to do on Miyajima besides viewing and walking up to the O-Torii Gate.
I know I’ve said this a million times about a lot of things I did in Japan, (I seriously love visiting this country), but Miyajima really does rank up there with my top five highlights of Japan! If I were to do it again, I would visit in either the spring or autumn when the weather is cooler, and do the hikes in the area. Miyajima wasn’t much of a budget destination in terms of accommodation and food, however, having the JR Pass did cover the costs of getting there which halved our expenses. I felt that for a quick taste of the island, an overnight stay with a full day would be enough to cover the main sights, however if you wish to do the hiking on the island then a stay of two days would be more than enough to do at a leisurely pace.
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Photography by Jelena Stipanicev.