Miyajima. The island that stole my heart. The most beautiful place that I’ve visited in Japan (so far). It’s actual name is Itsukushima and is found nestled in Hiroshima bay, but it’s lovingly known as the ‘Shrine Island’ or Miyajima to non-Nihongo speakers. According to legends, Miyajima has long been regarded as an island of the gods and I can see why they liked it. Romantic, stunningly beautiful beaches (something I didn’t expect in Japan), peaceful and the home of some of the most delicious food that I’ve ever tried.
We arrived at Miyajima on a misty September morning. The island was covered by ominous looking clouds and low-lying, thick fog. Oh dear… the day before we had spent in Hiroshima and had been thoroughly monsooned. The rain was incessant and the sumo-size drops actually hurt a little as they hit us. I was wearing espadrilles, they went straight in the bin on the return to my hotel room.
Ten minutes on the ferry from Miyajimaguchi, a train station about 50mins from central Hiroshima, we docked and decided to check-in to our ryokan and cross our fingers that the weather would clear. Obviously those gods that looked so favorably on Miyajima were on our side, the clouds parted, (almost biblically) and we were blessed with blue skies.
And yes, these pictures were taken a mere hour apart.
After checking out our fabulous view from our traditional tatami room, I hurriedly found a new set of shoes (poor espadrilles…) and we set off back to see the sights of Miyajima. Famous for it’s ‘floating’ Itsukushima shrine and the great vermillion Otorii jutting from the sea, these symbols of Miyajima are wondrously imposing.
The atmosphere of the island is really one of a true kinship between locals and the natural world. The Otorii is believed to be the boundary between the spirit and human worlds and the vivid colour is thought to ward off evil spirits and keep the islands inhabitants safe, including the thousands of deer that roam free and try to steal one’s deep-fried oysters. Or any other snack for that matter, they even tried to snaffle my cappuccino.
I quickly forgave them though due to their cutesy little faces and the fact that they love a selfie as much as me. After making a few new friends and suddenly remembering that I hate to share my food, we decided to pursue our path of exploration. The old town had a lovely covered market full of deer-related memorabilia and the obligatory Hello Kitty themed presents, I myself purchased a Hello Kitty facecloth embroidered with HK herself enjoying the autumn sights of Miyajima. I absolutely adored this little street. The smell of momiji manju (maple pastry) filled the air and the delightful little sweets filled shop stalls along the way. Momiji Manju can be filled with anything from chocolate to anko and are a delicious speciality of Miyajima.
After picking up a box of anko-filled momiji manju and a couple of local Miyajima beers we headed up to Mount Misen (the highest mountain in Miyajima) via the Itsukushima Shrine. A registered world heritage site, Itsukushima has been built into the sea so that it appears to float on the water during high tide. The intense orange corridors sitting on the Prussian blue sea, with a lush green backdrop of the virgin forest highlights the spiritual sanctity of Miyajima. It’s clear as you walk the painted halls that the creators of such a stunning place had a deep love and reverence for the island. There’s a subtle simplicity in the air and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so calm and filled with a wonderful warmth, but that could have been the 32C heat of the afternoon…
We left the shrine and wandered through the old town towards the mount misen ropeway. I’d heard that the views were exceptional and the hike was a good workout but having spent so long in the town we only had enough time to ascend or descend on foot. We chose the descent. I’m not sure what I expected of the ropeway. I’m petrified of heights and yet I didn’t even think when I boarded. 14 minutes of sheer terror ensued with my friend getting the brunt of my agitated state. I stared at the floor the entire time but she assured me the views were spectacular. Looking back, I’m actually glad that I didn’t look out of the window and spoil the total awe that I felt upon reaching the Shishiiwa observatory. The weather couldn’t have been better and the Seto inland sea was sparkling beneath us.
The ropeway drop off point was not quite the summit and so we hiked the final half an hour to the top and saw even more incredible views. The summit observatory is crafted from Japanese Hinoki wood, which that day had been baking in the midday sun, releasing the most wonderfully incense-like scent reminiscent of cypress spa baths. Just lovely.
We took a little rest before tackling our descent, which we were told would take about two hours and would be filled with beautiful temples, shrines and sights along the way. What we weren’t told about were the snakes… luckily we weren’t ambushed on our way down, but the warning signs pinned to trees put us in a rather apprenhensive state where every rustle sent us soaring a few feet in the air. Once we settled down and got into our stride the hike was lovely. Long but lovely. At the bottom of our trail there was a very cool looking brook. We decided to reward our poor feet with a dip after their two and a half hour jaunt before heading back to our ryokan for a relaxing onsen evening and a Japanese feast fit for a couple of Queens.