Inland Sea No. 6: Miyajima
Photo: Miyajima Travel Guide
Ah, Miyajima! One of the most photographed spots in Japan. That fantastic torii gate in the sea, the vermilion Itsukushima Shrine, magnificent Mount Misen…those damn deer!
Luckily, the “deer problem” has been nipped in the bud. For years there were complaints (and bad publicity) about the wild-yet-eerily domestic deer running rampant on Miyajima, stealing anything out of tourists’ hands thinking it was food. They now prohibit tourists from feeding the deer. The deer, no longer interested in the tourists, have returned to the mountains. This doesn’t mean you won’t still see a few walking around busking, but at least they no longer run up and frisk the first newbie off the ferry.
Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture, is home of the “Great Torii Gate” and Itsukushima Shrine, built in 593 A.D. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1996. Miyajima is also designated as one of the “three most beautiful spots in Japan.” As a result, it is pretty much over-run by tourists year-round.
You’ll see the big torii gate in the sea via ferry from mainland Hiroshima. From Hiroshima JR station, take the trolly to Miyajimaguchi. From Miyajimaguchi, two ferries run constantly back and forth between the mainland and Miyajima Island. Only one of them is a JR ferry, so if you have a JR rail pass, the pass will also cover that ferry. You’ll have to ask which one it is as they both look similar.
The best way to catch the beauty of Miyajima, (birthplace of the rice scoop) is via private boat. From a distance the torii is like a tiny replica of itself, with a backdrop of a tall tree-covered Mount Misen. By boat, at high tide, you can get up very close to the gate which stands 200 meters in front of Itsukushima Shrine. Through this gate is how commoners entered the shrine back in the sixth century.
If you can’t get a hold of a boat, you can actually walk out to the shrine at low tide. Otherwise, just view it from the banks of Miyajima and you will get plenty of great photos. The torii looks different at different times of the day and according to the light. It is also very beautiful at night.
It is possible to do Miyajima and the Hiroshima Peace Park/Museum in the same day but only if you do Miyajima first. Itsukushima Shrine closes at 4pm but the Peace Museum stays open until 6pm, so plan your day accordingly. At all times, Miyajima becomes a bit of a ghost town after 5pm when everyone except that overnight tourists leave. Stay overnight on Miyajima if you can so you can experience it without so many people.
This will also allow you to have time enough to climb Mt. Misen. There is a map titled “Miyajima Mount Misen Guide Map” in excellent English “ranslation” available at the Tourist Information Center at the ferry station. It outlines the different routes to the top of the mountain.
On Mount Misen you may encounter monkeys, deer and tengu goblins. Yes, goblins! Mount Misen is where all the tengu goblins of Japan gather—so it’s goblins galore.
Tengu are supernatural creatures that happen to be very deft with a sword. It is also said that on Mount Misen, you can hear them clapping pieces of wood together at night. So if you’ve ever wondered if there are alternative life forms out there, the answer is yes, and they have swords.While climbing the 535 meters to the top of Mount Misen, you’ll recognize the tengu by their trademark long noses. How the Japanese distinguish them from gaijin holding swords, I don’t know.
There are three established hiking routes to the top of Mount Misen: The Omoto Course, the Momijidani Course and the Daishoin Course. The Daishoin Course was closed for a few years for repair after a nasty typhoon in 2005 prompted Mt. Misen to get angry and heave itself onto the ground below in the form of a landslide. A mountain belch, so to speak. But the biggest belch ever was in 1945, when Mt. Misen sent down 20,000 cubic meters of earth and sand, burying the Itsukushima Shrine and grounds. They have now restored the path, bit by bit, with cement and other wonders of modern art.
Yes, modern art. You’d be forgiven for mistaking parts of the hiking course for an outdoor art exhibition because of the amount of sculptured nature. Nature rearranged to be balanced and pleasing to the eye. Having borrowed from the Bonsai method of tugging, pulling and coercing trees into specified directions, you’ll see the same method applied to streams and hiking trails on Miyajima. But this is a different kind of control—erosion control.
In 1948, Hiroshima prefecture started re-defining nature to control the movement caused by the mountain belches. The result was erosion control methods hidden in a Japanese garden style.Rocks were strategically placed in streams to encourage the water to flow in certain directions, creating scenes that look more like paintings than nature itself. The water from Momijidani stream flows perfectly down a manicured stream bed and shimmies over a stone wall. The stone wall has evenly spaced troughs of predetermined widths in it to create pleasing water flows. The basin below is full of fish — plump, round and smiling.
Like managed health care, this is a managed forestry retirement plan. After all, this primeval forest has been around a long time and needs some guidance if it wants to survive in our modern world.
I made it to the summit of Mt. Misen and back in three and a half hours, ascending via the Momijidani Course and descending via the more difficult and less maintained Omoto Course. It’s a pretty good hike, so make sure you have proper footwear. And remember, just because the Japanese girls are doing it in heels doesn’t mean you should.
Facts: Tourist Information Center with brochures in English at the ferry station. Also 100 yen coin-operated internet.
Bicycle rental available.
Private Boats: This is one of our favorite places to go by boat because the people at the guest pontoon are so friendly and it is only 50 yen per day (!) to dock here. We’ve stayed several days and no one has ever said anything. The guest pontoon is right next to the ferry terminal. The port side of the pontoon is preferable as you won’t get the waves from the ferries coming in and out. Public toilets at ferry terminal. Sento at the public welfare center, about a 20-minute walk from the pontoon. Follow the car road to the left out of the parking lot and up through the woods. It’s on the right. We have also used the onsen at the hotel directly in front of the ferry terminal, but it is often booked with schools, in which case they don’t open the onsen to outsiders. The island has small grocery stores and you can even buy big blocks of ice for your coolers here.
Restaurants close early on Miyajima since most over-nighters are in minshuku or ryokan where meals are provided, but the restaurant in the back of Kinsuikan is open till 11pm. They also have an onsen in the basement, but it is pricey. 100 yen coin operated internet in the lobby.
The Moooo! Bar offers boat trips between Miyajima and Shiraishi Island during the summer. Inquiries: shiraishireservations at yahoo.com