The result of our discussions last night was that we would visit Miyajima, “Shrine Island”, more correctly called Itsukushima, today. The low cloud and drizzle that greeted us this morning is not ideal for this trip, but this would be our only opportunity to make it so we set out in hope. Miyajima is a short train and ferry ride from Hiroshima. Both the train and the ferry are operated by JR so we were able to use our very useful passes once again.
On the way to the station, we passed a German restaurant called “Sausage Man” so of course we had to stop and take a picture! Technically I don’t think this is on the way to the station as we were a bit lost and had to double back several times to locate the station. Apart from being a bit lost at the start, the journey was very easy, less than half an hour on the train, a 5 minute walk to the ferry and a 10 minute crossing to the island.
As the name “Shrine Island” suggests, Itsukushima is an island that is home to many shrines and temples. It is also home to a lot of souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants since the majority of its economy is based on tourist visits. There are also a lot of aggressive deer, far more disruptive than the much more famous deer of Nara which we encountered later in the trip.
As we sailed across to the island, it was clear that the weather was not going to be cooperative in terms of views today, the clouds sat low on the hills of the island, obscuring much of it from view. The famous floating torii gate comes into view as you approach the ferry terminal on the island and, much like on the train to Fuji, everyone moves over to the same side to get a picture.
Despite the weather, large numbers of visitors arrived on the ferry today and as we left the terminal, large crowds of people squeezed themselves into the narrow streets of the island. We followed the crowds along the shoreline and got to see the floating gate from the other side. After that the path got narrower and the crowds more compressed as we approached the main shrine on the island. As well as being very crowded, this is the only part of the island you have to pay to get into so we took a detour into the side streets instead.
These streets are crammed with tourist shops selling all sorts of things from the usual cheap tourist knick-knacks to expensive hand crafted traditional items. Many shops sell maple leaf shaped cakes called Momiji manjū which have a variety of fillings ranging from cheese to chocolate. They are manufactured by amazing mechanical waffle iron type contraptions proudly displayed to potential customers as they walk past. After only a few minutes walk through these shops, the tourist numbers dwindled until it was just us walking past houses and small shrines towards mount Misen in the middle of the island.
Enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of the interior after the crush of the coast, we decided to follow the hiking trails up the mountain. The cloud was still low and obscured visibility sometimes down to only a few metres but the day was not cold. Not far up the mountain there is a cable car station (referred to as a ropeway) which will carry you part way up and you can then either walk the rest or take another ropeway closer to the top. At the entrance to the ropeway there is a sign warning of 100 steps to reach the ticket office but there are actually only about 25! The ropeway is reasonably expensive and the supposedly spectacular views were obscured by clouds so we decided to get some exercise and walk up.
The walk up the mountain is on steep winding paths with many steps (and no sign to warn you about them at all) but is not particularly difficult. The path that we chose follows a stream that runs down the side of the mountain over various man made dams in little waterfalls and there are some pretty red bridges crossing over it at points. At the start of the trail there are dire warnings that there are no toilets until the top and I think that this is partly due to the sound of running water that is with you the whole way up.
The path wound up through the clouds and although it was no longer raining, it was still quite wet. We saw few other people on the path and kept passing and then being passed by a pair of nice Japanese ladies. After quickly exhausting our Japanese and their English we restricted ourselves to encouraging gestures and smiles as we passed.
As we got closer to the top we began to encounter other groups which was a bit of a shock after a couple of hours of virtual solitude and I began to worry about what we would find when we reached the summit. I needn’t have worried however as, apart from one group of obnoxious Americans who came barrelling down the narrow paths forcing everyone else out of their way, we encountered no one when we arrived at the summit. There is a wooden viewing structure on the highest point which, on clear days must offer a fine view in all directions. Today however it was difficult just to see to the path we had ascended a few metres away. This meant that we could sit alone on top of this tower and eat our lunch in peace. Several other people came up while we were eating but never stayed long.
The viewing tower had wide wooden benches to sit on at the top and this was the first time in the trip that I had been asked to remove my shoes, presumably in order to keep the benches free of mud. This was a beautiful spot to have lunch but I’m not sure how nice it would have been on a sunny day packed with other people. We spent a while relaxing and resting our feet and legs before deciding how to get back down.
We decided to take a different path down the mountain which turned out to be much less pretty than the way up. It was also a more difficult walk mainly because we were tired and my knees had started to hurt a lot after the climb up. We eventually made it down to the main streets again and went for a coffee and a cake before heading back up a bit to the Daisho-in Temple which we had passed on our way down.
Daisho-in Temple is a large sprawling area full of thousands of interesting statues as well as the famous prayer wheels, beautiful buildings and gardens. It closes earlier than we expected and we had only about half an hour to look around so we were a bit hectic trying to see everything and not managing. I’d recommend spending at least 1-2 hours in this place to see everything and soak up some of the calm atmosphere of the temple. One advantage of being so close to closing time though was that there weren’t many other people there. It is a rare treat in Japan to be able to view and photograph sights without having to wait for other people to get out of the way first. We stayed as long as we dared before heading down the steps and out and still found people trying to get in and being politely but firmly turned away by the monks.
We went shopping in the tourist shops that line the streets by the coast and found a nice chopstick shop but the staff were so intent on closing at 5:30 that they didn’t want to serve us! It seems that all the shops close between 5pm and 5:30 and so we didn’t get to buy any souvenirs. We did manage to find a shop to buy Momiji manjū from but found them disappointingly rubbery and bland, maybe they are better when they are fresh out of the machine.
We weren’t ready to leave this lovely island and decided to find somewhere to have dinner before taking the ferry back. Unfortunately, like the shops all the restaurants seem intent on closing early at this time of the year too, despite the fact that ferries to and from the mainland run until after 10pm. So after a while of looking around in the gathering dark and accidentally visiting a 5 storey pagoda while trying to avoid a dangerously narrow looking tunnel, we decided to head back to Hiroshima anyway. I think if we ever come back this way, I’ll want to stay at one of the hotels or ryokans on the island so I can spend more time exploring.
On the way home we had dinner in a ramen restaurant and managed to thoroughly confuse the waitress with what we thought was a very simple order. Fortunately another waitress spoke much better English than our Japanese and so we were able to get some tasty if rather salty food in the end.
Tomorrow we leave Hiroshima and continue our journey on the shinkansen to Kyoto.