Some cheeky deer and the famous floating torii at Miyajima
One of the biggest surprises on our trip to Japan was how much we enjoyed visiting Miyajima. It’s a small island not far from Hiroshima, and most of the guidebooks dismiss it as a bit gimmicky and overly-touristed. Perhaps we didn’t get that experience because we visited on a week-day in the off-season, but I thought it was quite charming! We had to take a train for about 30 minutes south of Hirohima, and then a ferry across a small part of the Inland Sea. (It sounds more dramatic than it was … the ferry only took about 10 minutes!)
Miyajima is famous for the Itsukushima Shrine, which frequently just called Miyajima Gate or the Floating Torii. If you’ve seen any tourism or promotional pictures of Japan, the odds are that they included at least one shot of this torii. A torii, for those of you not up on your Shinto architecture, is a gate or entranceway commonly found at Shinto shrines. It marks the passage between the profane and the sacred; its presence is the easiest way to identify the entrance to a religious site. I believe that most of them are painted orange and black, although sometimes we saw them in stone. (There was even one gorgeous torii in Kyoto that had gilded caps – the gold was glinting in the sunlight and looked lovely against the bright orange and crisp white.)
The torii gate at Miyajima is special because it was built on the water. The gate sits out in the bay, and marked the only approach to the island. You had to approach the island by boat, and pass beneath the torii before approaching the shrine. The island itself was long considered sacred, and commoners were not allowed to set foot on it. (I guess forcing people to approach by the water was a way of guaranteeing to keep the riff-raff out!) According to Wikipedia, even today, pregnant women are supposed to go to the mainland when they get close to delivery, and there are no burials allowed anywhere on the island.
The cutest thing about the island were the deer. Apparently deer are sacred in the Shinto religion, as they are considered to be messengers of the gods. The guidebook we were using (which shall remain nameless) said that the deer were particularly “cheeky” … we weren’t quite sure what to expect, but as soon as you get off the ferry, the deer are RIGHT THERE to see if you brought any treats. At first we thought they were really charming, but after a while we realized that they are probably considered pests by the locals. They chew up everything, even plastic, and have no fear of humans. Alex even petted one (before we saw the sign warning visitors not to pet the deer, of course).
While the deer are cute, of course, the main attraction on Miyajima is the Itsukushima Shrine. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and although Alex and I have had our differences with UNESCO in the past (there was a disastrous trip to a cemetery in Stockholm a few months ago), this one definitely deserves to be on the list. The floating torii is a slight misnomer though, because it only floats during high tide. Luckily we checked the tidal information, and planned our arrive for mid afternoon. The high tide was at 6pm, so we were able to watch the whole area become flooded. At low tide, the torii gate just sits in the mud, and it’s not very attractive. But once the water comes in, it’s quite magical.
The approach to the shrine is along the coast, and you get a great view of the gate from the walkway. There are lanterns strung all along the path, and carved creatures (I can’t decide if they are dragons or dogs…) guarding the entrance. After sunset, it was pretty dramatic seeing all the little lights along the water. The shrine itself is not free, but the entrance fee is worth it. There are walkways suspended over the water, and the hollow decks beneath your feet give an eerie echo. We walked out to the point that extends into the water, facing the torii, for a few pictures.
After visiting the shrine, we explored a bit of the rest of the main town. The town is definitely touristy, and I can only imagine what it’s like on a peak weekend in August. But after dark, on a Tuesday in December, it was just lovely. We could look at the souvenir shops without being swamped, and we even stopped to by some Momiji manju, which is a famous treat. It’s a small cake baked in the shape of a Japanese maple, with chocolate, custard, or azuki (red beans) inside … delicious! It was so good we went back for seconds, and then bought a box to take home to London (we ate it on Christmas for desert!)
One of the other unique tourist attractions in Miyajima is one of the “big things” that really kills me. Australia is apparently famous for big things, but Miyajima has the world’s “largest rice scoop” … surely a winner! (Funnily enough, our guidebook called it a spatula, I assume because they thought Westerners wouldn’t know what a rice scoop was…?)
By the time we walked back through the town on our way back to the ferry, it was quite dark. Alex, being the adventurous fellow that he is, recommended that we take a brief side-trip to a “scenic overlook” mentioned on the map. And me, being the gullible fool that I am, agreed. So we take some twists and turns down these little roads, and eventually find a stone staircase leading up into the darkness. “Well duh”, we both said. “If it’s an overlook, it’s got to be above everything else, right?” So we started climbing. And climbing. And climbing. In the dark, without a handrail. Just when we get to the top, I look up and see another flight of stairs. (Seriously … do you remember that scene where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are climbing those crazy stairs behind Minas Morgul trying to get into Mordor? It was just like that, except without all the ringwraiths and stuff.) When we finally get to the top, we can’t see a damn thing because it’s dark and there are trees everywhere! It was a disappointment, to say the least. But the worst part was trying to get down, because now we’ve realized we can’t see anything, there is no handrail, and the steps are all crumbly and uneven. So I am embarrassed to admit that we actually came down on our bums, step by step. I can only say that I’m grateful it was so dark, because no one could see our humiliating descent!
After THAT little adventure, it was time to catch the ferry back to the mainland, and then the train back up to Hiroshima. I was quite disappointed that we didn’t schedule more time in Miyajima. There are TONS of other shrines to visit, and there is a great mountain with lovely hiking and a ropeway to explore. So if you’re planning a trip, prepare for touristy, but it’s one of those places that is worth it. We’ll definitely be going back.