Places of Magic and Wonder: Miyajima Island, Japan

1 April 2018

I’ve been lucky enough to visit many different parts of Japan during my time here. The last major place on my list was Hiroshima, a city I was desperate to see but I’d been putting off visiting because of geographic restraints. Hiroshima is to the far west of Honshu island, and isn’t directly connected to Kanazawa. You can probably get there by taking buses or local trains, but it would take forever, and although taking a combination of express JR train and Shinkansen reduces your travel time to 4 hours, it isn’t cheap, running about ¥15,000-¥16,500 (US$139-$153). But with of my dear friends leaving Japan soon, our group decided to take the plunge and visit Hiroshima together, so Saturday night after work found me on a train bound for Hiroshima.

Hiroshima is situated on a bay dotted with islands and peninsulas, and one landmark I was desperate to see was the great Torii at Miyajima Island. This massive vermilion gate is situated just off the shore, in the sea itself, and after seeing stunning photos of this religious monument appearing to float in sparkling blue water I wanted to capture some postcard-worthy shots myself. I had my Nikon F3 film camera in tow and a selection of various color film stocks, each waiting to be selected as the best one to capture this special moment.

To get to Miyajima, we took the JR rapid train from Hiroshima station to Miyajimaguchi station. I hear that it’s possible to get there via one of the cute and historic trams in Hiroshima, but that it takes a lot longer! From the station, we joined the hoards of tourists and boarded a ferry to the island. As we approached, we marveled at the interesting topography of the island. It’s not a big place, but has several hillsides jutting up and curving sinuously against the sky. Many people stay overnight at the island, and there are several hikes through these hills to picturesque shrines. As we got closer, I could make out the great Torii, currently so tiny in the water. A thrill of excitement ran through me.

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Sinuous hills of Miyajima – you can just spot the great Torii in the water!

Within minutes of exiting the ferry, we spotted a deer, chilling nonchalantly by the road while excited women posed for pictures next to it. I was well familiar with the deer at Nara, but had not heard of deer at Miyajima! Where could we find more? Deer-sightings were now a priority for our day.

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This wasn’t the first sighting, but a pretty normal occurrence in Miyajima! Photo courtesy: Jenny Lee

Of course, Miyajima is incredibly picturesque, and for much of the day we simply wandered around, admiring the beauty around us and taking pictures. We ambled up a set of stairs to a hilltop pagoda, the wind causing cherry blossoms to rain like confetti around us. We strolled through Omotesando street, a crowded covered shopping arcade selling an incredible variety of delectable street food, many of which were shaped in the iconic maple leaf that is a symbol of the island. We traipsed through Momijidani Park, where, away from the other sightseers and picnicking families we found a small herd of deer, all of which seemed pretty unimpressed by us as we fawned and ogled over them. We rambled down a back alley and ate giant, steaming oysters that had been grilled by two old Japanese women who were aided by their young grandson that did the busing and cleaning up.

After passing a few hours like this, we realized we had better get a move on and see the major sights we had come for: Itsukushima Shrine and the great Torii. My excitement had diminished a bit, however, when earlier in the day my beloved camera had mysteriously stopped working. I tried to play it off like it was no big thing, but inside I was a bit devastated. One of my friends realized how put out I was and graciously offered to let me shoot a bit on her camera, which made me feel a bit better. I could still get those lovely floating shrine photos of my dreams!

Imagine my surprise then, when we approached the shrine and it’s massive gate and realized the tide was out, and neither were surrounded by water, but by crowds of people! My heart sank. First my camera, now this? This isn’t what I’d imagined at all.

But that’s the thing about travel. Often times things happen that you don’t imagine. All you can do is acknowledge it, and then move on. The crowds of tiny people, milling about in a state of wonder on a beach that was deserted save for a giant red wooden structure: this was still compelling. One couldn’t deny that the gate was still incredibly impressive and was still worth photographing. In fact, I realized that the tide out gave me a great opportunity: I could walk right up to the gate, usually inaccessible. So I tiptoed across the wet sand and joined the others approaching the great Torii.

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The great Torii as I approached across the wet sand. 

It is hard to get a sense of just how big this thing is. Standing 16.6 meters (54.5 feet) high and weighing 60 tons (132,277 pounds), the gate towers over the flat surroundings of the beach and is painted a striking vermilion color to keep away evil spirits. Miraculously, it stands completely under its own weight. Up close, I could see that the pillars of the gate had been made from whole tree trunks, and they retained their natural shape and texture while holding up this giant structure. I reached out my hand and gently stroked one, sensing bark beneath layers of lacquer. This incredible gate, in this stunning location, was such a great example of the harmony with nature that Japanese people have always lived with.

Itsukushima Shrine itself was no less impressive. Although the tide was out, you could see how the unique construction of the shrine allows it to “float” over the sea that it is dedicated to. We silently walked through the corridors, viewing various shrines and sculptures, as well as empty music rooms and even a Noh drama stage, observing the devoted praying and receiving stamps in pilgrimage books.

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Isukushima Shrine
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You can get a sense of the structure here, how the shrine is made to extend over the water when the tide is in. 

After a day filled with nonstop walking, stalking deer, and photography, we needed a rest. Fortunately, Miyajima Island has a craft brewery, so we enjoyed beer flights of local brews and watched families digging for oysters on the beach as the sun began to sink in the sky. Soon after, it was time to catch the ferry back to the mainland and take the train back to our lodging. It had been the perfect daytrip, the perfect escape.

The next day would be a much more sobering experience, with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

Happy Travels,

Mo

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Admiring the sakura. Photo courtesy: Jenny Lee.