Miyajima, the quintessence of Japan
A giant red torii emerging from the water, a temple and a tall pagoda, wooded hills overlooking the bay: that’s the extraordinary view awaiting visitors taking the ferry to Miyajima, a little island close to Hiroshima. The day I spent there is part of my best memories of Japan. The peace of the tiny lanes, the beautiful temples, the gorgeous nature offering dozens of hiking options and the best Okonomiyaki I ever ate… there was so much to see, taste and enjoy! Follow me to Miyajima, the quintessence of Japan.
Arriving in Miyajima
Miyajima is located in the Seto Inland Sea, very close to Hiroshima in the Hiroshima Bay. The actual name of the island is Itsukushima but it’s more often referred to as Miyajima, which literally means “Shrine Island”. From Hiroshima it took me about one hour to get there: first with a train to Miyajimaguchi station which is a 3-minute walk from the pier and then the ferry sailing to the island. Both are operated by the JR group and are included in the JR Pass.
Miyajima is mostly a pedestrian island; there aren’t many vehicles, but everything is easily accessible by foot anyway. I was there during spring and the sight of the cherry blossoms in many places around the island was great, but Miyajima is also very renowned in autumn because of the beautiful colours of its maple trees.
Miyajima-cho is the only village on the island. The ferry terminal from where I arrived is located north of it, on a nice square with the statue of Taira no Kiyomori on one side, a military leader from the 12th century. I was surprised to see a lot of deer waking around the visitors; they aren’t timid at all, at the point that I had to keep a close eye on my food as they were trying to steal sandwichs or biscuits from everybody’s hands or bags!
From this square, I started to walk along the waterfront with a few stands selling grilled octopus on the way (not for me, thank you!), until a huge torii made of stone showing the way to the Itsukushima Shrine (see below). I had planned to visit it, but I also wanted to explore the village so I walked back, first through the Omotesando Shopping Arcade where most of the shops and restaurants are located (and most tourists as well), then via the much quieter Machiya street parallel to it.
I later came back for lunch in this peaceful lane forgotten by most of the people, in a tiny restaurant named Kichibe where I had the most delicious Okonomiyaki of my 2 weeks in Japan. There were only a dozen seats around a counter behind which two old women were preparing the food; a delight for the eyes and for the palate!
After this first stroll, it was time to visit the Itsukushima Shrine! It’s the most famous of Miyajima, built on pier-like structures which makes it look like it’s floating on the water. The giant red torii off the shore, emblem of the island, is also part of the shrine.
The visit is a one way walk and the entrance is to the north, shortly after the stone torii that I previously mentioned. I highly recommend to do the visit at high tide, because at low tide the water withdraws very far away, to the point where even the torii gets accessible by feet. Therefore, the view is way less magical, and sadly the huge number of tourists walking to the torii contributes to damage it.
I then went back next to the entrance of Itsukushima Shrine to take some stairs leading to Hukoku Shrine, and its impressive five-storied pagoda. I then kept climbing through the little lanes behind the pagoda to enjoy the best view over Miyajima. The sight was even more beautiful with the cherry blossoms blooming!
If you want to go a bit further and escape the crowds around the temple, take the Uguishuodo Nature Walk, a lovely and peaceful stroll that will bring you back to the entrance of the village, close to the ferry terminal.
This Buddhist temple is at the extreme south of the village, at the beginning of the walking path leading to Mt Misen (see below). It might be the most gorgeous temple I visited in Japan, even compared to the stunning temples of Kyoto!
The access to this huge complex is after walking through the “niomon” gate, guarded by the wooden statues of two impressive warriors (picture above). I spent a long time walking around from one temple to another, enjoying the view over these buildings that seemed spread out in the middle of the vegetation.
But what I particularly liked were the dozens of statues of Buddha with extremely realistic faces, some of them dressed with hats and scarves which are supposed to protect them and keeping them warm. An unforgettable moment!
Mount Misen is the highest point on Miyajima, at 535m. I took one of the hiking trails starting from to Daisho-in and meandering through the forest. It took me about 1h30 to reach the summit, with a few steep sections and some stairs on the way.
Other option: using the cable car to (almost) the top. Whatever you decide to do, the 360° view from the top is really beautiful and I could even see Hiroshima in the distance!
And then it was eventually time to walk back to the village via a different path and take the ferry back to Hiroshima, with one last look over Miyajima at sunset and a lot of amazing memories!