The island of Miyajima has long been considered one of Japan’s holiest islands. It is a place so sacred that for many years women were forbidden from stepping foot on its shores, and the elderly were shipped elsewhere to die so as to prevent the island from being contaminated by their impurities. Lucky for us, in recent years they’ve loosened up on the entry requirements, and now two profane individuals such as ourselves can freely follow in the footsteps of the great monk Kobo Dashi and enjoy Miyajima’s scenic vistas and various iconic shrines. And did we mention that there is also a mountain to climb?
The trip to Miyajima could not be any simpler for JR Pass holders: just take the train from Hiroshima to Miyajimaguchi, then transfer to the JR ferry. It’s all covered by the pass and in less than an hour, you can find yourself on Miyajima’s hallowed ground.
You will also find yourself almost immediately besieged by deer.
It’s unclear whether the deer here are considered inherently sacred (as in Nara) or if the Japanese obsession with all things kawaii (cute) simply encompasses them, but for one reason or another the deer of Miyajima are given the run of the island. They amble down the street, and occasionally into shops, and pretty much do as they please. Various signs around town stress that these are wild deer and so visitors should not approach them and certainly not feed them, but I have to say, these were some of the tamest wild animals I have ever seen. They are obviously well accustomed to human company, and while they seemed largely disinterested in most visitors, any food or even unattended maps are clearly seen as fair game. They also provided us with endless enjoyment as we observed the contradictory fascination and utter terror the Japanese people exhibit with regards to wild animals. Many times we would see them wander up to the deer cautiously as though to pet them, only to startle and run off should the deer lazily look toward them.
I mean honestly, signs proclaiming them wild or not, these deer obviously have a sweet set-up and they know it. They aren’t going to be attacking anyone (unlike the vicious deer at Niagara Falls, Canada who aren’t above a well-placed nip!) because they know who butters their bread; we saw a little girl give a deer her chocolate ice cream, probably the only time we witnessed unabashed rule breaking in Japan! No one can resist the powers of the deer! Plus, can you really be afraid of something that SQUEAKS to express displeasure? (As an aside, did you know that deer squeak? Because they do! Or at least Japanese ones do! It is precisely as adorable as you would imagine.)
Following our impromptu and illicit cuddle session with the ferocious wild deer of Miyajima, we strolled toward the pier where Miyajima’s most famous sight is located: the floating torii. This bright orange gate stands proudly in the harbor and marks the threshold to Itsukushima shrine; if the tide is high enough, the gate actually appears to float on the water. Back in the day, pilgrims to the island would arrive by boats that had to pass through this torii to mark their approach to Itsukushima shrine. It’s a towering gate, but these days, the ferries to the island are just far too large to allow for such an auspicious entrance.
Because we wanted the chance to observe the floating torii and Itsukushima when the water levels were at their peak, we decided to make the ascent up to the peak of Mount Misen following a brief detour to marvel at the island’s 5-story pagoda. Now, given my stance on hiking AND the fact that, quite frankly, it was as hot and humid as balls, we decided we would avail ourselves of the ropeway to get ourselves up the mountain. So as not to be completely soft, we compromised and decided we would hike back down.
Now some might argue that 1000Y for a one-way cablecar ride is rather steep, but believe you me, so is Mount Misen! As we were effortlessly whisked high above the trees up the mountain, huge grins broke out across our faces because the view was spectacular up there! We were so high up (much to Tony’s chagrin) and had unobstructed views of the island and the sea, and given that the ropeway was doing all the work, we got to sit back and simply enjoy ourselves. I’m sure there is something to be said for making the hike to the top using your own two feet, but with the humidity the way it was (I doubt we would have been any more moist had we plunged headfirst into the sea!), the ropeway was not only fun, but it was one of the best investments we could have made.
Like so many of the best things in life, the ropeway only gets you part of the way up the mountain. If you decide that you actually want to stand on the utmost peak of Mount Misen, then you must hike the remaining 150 vertical meters on foot. In order to be fully prepared for our final ascent (and ultimate descent), Tony and I decided we would first light a flame of love (housed within the final cable car station, obviously) and learn how to make one of the treats for which Miyajima is famous.
Momiji Manju are little dessert cakes that are made in the shape of maple leaves. The outer casing has the consistency and flavor of a Belgian waffle, and the inside houses a variety of fillings, the most common of which is a read bean paste. In our case, this was referred to as “bean jam”, and our momiji manju had an adorable heart motif on one side. Entering the momiji manju kitchen, we were given face masks to put on, and then shown to our station. Our batter was already prepared, so much of our time in the kitchen simply involved ladling a small amount into the press (essentially a waffle iron), then adding in the bean jam, adding in the second bit of batter, and then fastidiously timing the press as it rested over an open flame, flipping the mold once every 30 seconds for a total cooking time of 2 minutes. Our instructor only spoke minimal English, so at first we though we had to cook the momiji manju for 2 minutes per side, but it soon became obvious that that would result in charred and inedible desserts. Throwing caution to the wind, we decided to freewheel it, and wound up with some of the most beautiful momiji manjus in the class (much to our instructor’s delight and surprise)! It was a fun little activity, and at 500Y for 2 people (awash in the aura of the flame of love, we received a 100Y discount) and 8 momiji manju, it was actually very good value as well (generally you pay about 80 – 100Y apiece if buying momiji manju a la carte). It wasn’t the cooking class I had envisioned I would have in Japan, but it was fun and we were now stocked with snacks for the rest of our trek.
Having exhausted all activities to delay the inevitable, we finally began our climb to the top of Mount Misen. I wish I could say that this was an improvement over Kamakura, but in truth, it was fairly horrible. Not because the hike itself was innately terrible or exceedingly difficult, but because it was so very hot out. I have realized that while I may never take great joy in hiking to the top of things, I need to at least give myself a fighting chance and not undertake these endeavors when I am so ill-disposed to the weather. Given how stifling and close the weather was on Miyajima that day, merely walking about on flat ground was sufficiently unpleasant so while I allow that making one’s way to Mount Misen’s peak would not always be tortuous, doing so in the summer was a bad enough idea to cancel out the good idea we had had in taking the ropeway most of the way up.
As you can imagine, I was pretty disgruntled when we finally reached the peak after about 30 minutes of walking. At the time, I prodded Tony to record a video of me post-climb so that I could warn future-Steph against similar endeavors should I get it into my head to tackle another mountain.
Despite my rage-fueled ravings, the view from the top was very nice, and while I was too uncomfortable and crabby to see it at the time, I suppose I did feel a certain sense of accomplishment in having pushed myself to make it there, but I doubt I will ever be one of those people with a burning desire to hike more serious mountains (especially if an infinitely more enjoyable ropeway is at hand!).
As the saying goes, what goes up, must come down, and seeing as we had only bought one-way tickets on the ropeway, it was all too soon time to make our way back to sea level. We chose to take the slightly longer path (I know! Why do we do this to ourselves?) so that we could come out near Daisho-in, a lesser known, but arguably one of Miyima’s most beautiful temples. Once again the Japanese distance markers proved to be dastardly liars, since while the path was purportedly only 1.9 km, it took us close to 3 hours to make it to our goal. And this is on a path that really isn’t all that difficult (though there were a lot of steps and our knees ached for days afterwards)! Unfortunately, our time on the path meant that by the time we caught a glimpse of Daisho-in peeking through the trees, it was too late for us to enter the grounds and we had to content ourselves with gazing at it from the trail. Although it would have been nice to enter the complex, it was hard to feel too disappointed as Daisho-in is the very definition of arresting, stopping us dead in our tracks. Nestled at the base of Mount Misen, it exudes tranquility and quiet beauty, and as we gazed upon it, we finally felt as though we truly were in Asia and were on the fringes of a legitimately holy place. It is worth mentioning that you do not have to hike down Mount Misen in order to visit Daisho-in, though perhaps our reverse pilgrimage made the sight of it all the more lovely. Whatever the reason, after having seen a good deal of temples in Japan, we were still really impressed by all that we managed to see of Daisho-in from outside, and we believe that any trip to Miyajima would be incomplete without seeing it.
As the sun was readying itself for its own descent, we finally made it to Itsukushima Shrine. We only had 30 minutes to enjoy it when we arrived, but our late arrival meant that we got to appreciate it in relative solitude as most visitors had either returned to the ferry or their lodgings. Although we had managed to miss high tide, the shrine was still exceedingly serene, and we appreciated the way the bright orange of the pillars popped against the softness of the late afternoon sky.
We had hoped to enjoy another local specialty, anago (sea eel), while on Miyajima, but as we walked back toward the ferry, most shops had already closed up for the day. While most islands are tied to the ebb and flow of the waves, Miyajima is instead focused on the tides of visitors, so when the bulk of them leave, that marks the day’s end. All was not lost however, as after taking the ferry back to the mainland, we managed to pick up a dinner at Hiroshima train station that was a wonderful reward for the day’s exertions. Relying heavily on the plastic food models out front, Tony set himself up with with a bibimbap, while I ordered a tempura somen combo that was truly out of this world. The tempura was light as air, and nothing had a hint of greasiness to it. Particularly delicious was the fried shiso leaf and the bowl of rice that was liberally garnished with crispy little fish. It may have taken us nearly 2 weeks to finally figure out the ropes when it comes to eating in Japan, but we’ve finally nailed it. We may have missed out on anago, but the quality of this meal was phenomenal and deeply satisfying, and at only 1560Y total (~$19USD) it was far thriftier than anything we would have found on Miyajima.
Gobbling up every last grain of rice and strand of somen, we finished our meals, grabbed our bags, and dashed up to the tracks to catch our final bullet train, this one whisking us off to Kyoto and a whole new set off adventures.