A Beginner’s Guide To Miyajima
by Jordan Mounteer
Although Hiroshima is famous on its own and a great place for locals and tourists alike to visit, many people often overlook one of the more amazing and unique attractions. Just off the mainland and accessible via a ferry, the island of Itsukushima – better known as Miyajima, the ‘Shrine Island’ – is both a culturally and spiritually significant location in Japan. The first thing one probably notices when getting off the boat is how crowded the northern half of the island is. In fact, the island does have a number of permanent residents, but there are quite a few shops set up as well that cater to the influx of tourists, especially during peak seasons, festivals, and holidays when it can literally be swarming. Nevertheless, some of the restaurants and souvenir shops are a great place to get your bearings before exploring the rest of the island.
If you hadn’t already noticed them, the second most obvious thing about Miyajima will be the presence of shiku, or tame deer. Like the city of Nara, deer here flourish in a half-wild sort of existence, and are very familiar and comfortable with humans. It’s not unusual to see a huge crowd circling around and feeding them crackers or food bought from nearby vendors. It’s also a great opportunity for a photo shoot – but be wary: just because they’re tame, that doesn’t mean they’re domesticated, and they can sometimes head butt people that get too close or threaten them, and if they have antlers it can be quite dangerous.
As you walk along the seawall, you’ll eventually see one of the more famous installations on the island. The gigantic Itsukushima torii is a massive orange-red gate – in the Shinto tradition, these are quite common and meant to welcome visitors. A unique feature of this particular torii is the fact that it is built on the beach, so during the high tide the water will actually submerge its lower half, giving the impression of it floating on the ocean. If you’re lucky enough to come at the right time during low-tide you can get right up close to it (if you don’t mind getting your shoes muddy).
Further up the banks of the island is another important spiritual center. The Daosho-in Temple, a Buddhist structure, is nestled right next to a seasonal creek, and during the fall the maple trees here turn it into a veritable fireworks display of multi-colored leaves. You can also get a glimpse at many of the small jizo statues that line the gardens – small stone statues, sometimes with knitted red hats, that represent Bodhisattva incarnations.
If you keep following the steep stone steps up the mountain, you’ll eventually reach a difficult trail that switchbacks all the way to the very top of Mt. Misen, the highest point on Miyajima. It may be strenuous, but it’s worth it when you’re finally able to plop yourself down on a rock and get a 360 degree vantage of the Seto Sea and Hiroshima in the distance. There are numerous shrines and temples interspersed across the terrain and winding paths lead to all of them in a rather convoluted – but nevertheless adventurous – circuit. It’s also possible to cheat and take the ropeway, although if you really want to get an authentic feel for what it would be like for the monks and devout of the past, stick to the trail system.
Up here you can also get a good glimpse of spiralling golden eagles that take advantage of the naked rocky plateaus to leap off into the air where they catch thermals. There’s other wildlife that shares this habitat, but sometimes you might be hard pressed to find them: local monkeys occasionally brave the trials as well and are very sneaky, often taking the opportunity to steal food that’s left unattended – and of course, being a wild animal, it’s never a good idea to approach them or tease them with scraps. As you descend again there’s still plenty to see in the actual village of Miyajima. One of the more impressive structures is the five story pagoda which was restored in 1553 and is said to house the Buddha of Medicine (so, as you can imagine, many people with illnesses come here to pray for good health). Also be sure to take advantage of the local aquarium. Hiroshima and the areas around are famous for their oysters, and for 1400 yen you can get an up close and personal look at some of the local sea life and hang out at a penguin exhibit or take a detour to the ‘petting zoo’ to touch starfish.
There is enough on Miyajima to easily take up a full afternoon, and it’s a good idea to plan ahead and bring some warmer clothes as the weather can change on a dime, and the top of Mt. Misen can be extremely windy. But if you’re heading to Hiroshima, this place should definitely be on our list!