Before we came to Japan I received suggestions from several people about the places we shouldn’t miss. The advice to visit Miyajima was unanimous. Reading a little further into this I discovered that Miyajima is also listed as one Japan’s three most scenic spots. I felt compelled to find out for myself what the fuss was about.
Miyajima is a small island in the Hiroshima prefecture, only a few minutes by ferry from the mainland and less than an hour’s journey from the city of Hiroshima. It is one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations, as anyone who has had to battle their way through the ferry terminal to reach the island will testify.
The star attraction on Miyajima is the 10 metre high Torii gate standing out in the sea and appearing to float on the water at high tide. In fact, the majority of visitors head straight from the boat along the short road lined with tourist shops and make their way to the Itsukushima shrine.
At the first clear sight of the gate the done thing is to pose at what must surely be one of the most popular photo spots in the world. Large group tours, company outings, families, couples, friends: within a few minutes we saw all of these standing to attention with the red torii as the backdrop to their souvenir snap.
Once you’ve seen enough of the torii gate there are plenty of nearby places to spend your precious yen. Gift shops, food stalls and chocolate sellers make the most of the daily flow of people and their well-trodden path. Yet for those looking to lose the crowds there is a tempting option that is constantly staring you in the face: the looming 535m peak of Mount Misen that dominates this tiny island.
No-one climbs Mount Misen in the midday heat, as we soon discovered once we left the shoreline and started climbing the well-marked track. With temperatures at around 35C and very little shade it is not for anyone with a shred of sanity.
We did pass a couple of folks heading down the hill (and at one point were even overtaken by four guys running up with their rucksacks) but for the most part we were alone for the slow and exhausting 90 minute climb.
Imagine then, arriving at the top and finding this monstrosity:
Whoever built this in such a beautiful location should be ceremoniously thrown from the summit (or made to walk up in the midday sun without water). Our instinct to indulge in architectural critique was soon cast aside when we found that the eyesore did in fact contain a vending machine and even a cafe selling ice cream. The views from the top across the Inland Sea were, needless to say, magnificent.
Another highlight of a visit to Miyajima is a look inside the Daishoin Temple. Hundreds of statues adorn the walkways around the site while there are several beautiful shrines within the site that remain in regular use.
We were very fortunate to stumble upon a couple of violinists playing in one of the temples. They were rehearsing for a later concert and were happy enough to have a couple of tourists sit quietly at the back of the room and admire their music. I couldn’t have been happier, resting our weary legs after our day of hiking and enjoying the haunting sounds of the violin in a lovely old Buddhist temple with the evening light fading rapidly outside.
The vast majority of visitors to Miyajima return to the mainland before sunset. The island empties quickly, shops and restaurants close and very soon only a few couples can be seen sitting on the sea wall or strolling hand in hand through the quiet streets. Many paths are candlelit and with the pleasant evening temperatures this is perhaps the best time to enjoy the tranquility of Miyajima.
Staying on Miyajima
We stayed in a traditional ryokan – Yamaichi Bekkan – on the solid recommendation of James from Inside Japan (who helpfully provided me with several other good tips for our journey). The rooms were comfortable and clean, while the owner Shinko-san is one of the most delightful hosts you are likely to meet on your travels.
A stay in a ryokan can blow a hole in a travel budget, but it’s worth splurging on at least once on a trip to Japan. We paid 13,000 yen (a little over £100) for a room for two at Yamaichi Bekkan which is probably one of the cheaper prices you’ll find to stay on what is generally an expensive island. Here more than anywhere else we felt we were getting good value for money in our ryokan experience.
Miyajima is certainly worthy of the hype. There is plenty to enjoy on the island in the daytime, but if time allows an overnight stay you can experience a very different, far more peaceful side to Miyajima.