Miyajima: Japan’s “Island of the Gods”
Your friends at lostinbeautifulplaces.com had such a great time in Japan this year that we wanted to share one of our favorite destinations that we discovered. The small island of Miyajima, known for its famous orange torii gate, is an easy day trip from the city of Hiroshima and is a must-see if traveling in the area. If planning a trip to Japan, we highly recommend scheduling an extra day or two in the beautiful city of Hiroshima in order to take a day trip to Miyajima Island or better yet, booking a night or two at one of the small inns on the island. We had such a great time on our day trip here that we wanted to pass it on to our readers.
Itsukushima is the proper name of the island popularly known as Miyajima, which in Japanese means “Shrine Island”. The small island is part of the city of Hatsukaichi in Hiroshima Prefecture and is famous for the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The shrine was established during the reign of Empress Suiko in the year 593 as a Shinto shrine, where no births or deaths were allowed. Because the island is considered sacred, commoners were not allowed to set foot on it throughout much of its history. To this day, no deaths or births are permitted on the island and pregnant women are ferried to the mainland as delivery nears, as are the terminally ill or the elderly whose passing has become imminent.
The island is sparsely settled, with a population of about 2000 people. There are no traffic signals. Because the island is considered sacred, the forests contain virgin old growth trees and deer roam freely. Deer are thought of as sacred in the Shinto religion and are considered messengers of the gods. To this day, they roam the streets of Itsukushima, mingling with the tourists. The waters around Itsukushima are within Setonaikai National Park. This area located in the Seto Inland Sea, is affected by strong tides and supports a strong oyster industry.
How to get to Miyajima Island from Hiroshima
Miyajima Island can be accessed from Hiroshima in one of two ways, a direct ferry or a combination of train and ferry. Direct ferries leave from two places in Hiroshima. One direct ferry, the Aqua Net, leaves from the riverfront area in downtown, near the A-Bomb Memorial at the Hiroshima Peace Park. It takes 45 minutes to reach the island and costs 3600 yen (around $36 US) per person, round trip or 2000 yen (around $20 US) per person, one way. A second direct ferry leaves from the Port of Hiroshima. The journey to Miyajima Island from the port takes 30 minutes and costs 1850 yen (around $18 US) per person, one way. The Japan Rail Pass is not recognized on either of the direct ferries.
To reach Miyajima Island by combination of train and ferry, visitors leave from Hiroshima Station, taking the JR Sanyo Line to Miyajimaguchi Station. The trip takes 25 minutes and costs 410 yen (around $4 US) per person, one way. This route is covered by the Japan Rail Pass. From Miyajimaguchi Station, it is a short walk to the ferry pier, where there are two competing ferry companies operating: JR and Matsudai. Both trips take 10 minutes and both cost 180 yen (around $2 US) per person, one way. The Japan Rail Pass is valid on JR ferries.
Things to do on Miyajima Island
Upon arriving at the ferry pier, the first thing most people want to see is the “Floating Gate” of the Itsukushima Shrine, which is the most iconic sight on Miyajima Island. The short, 10 minute walk to the shrine passes souvenir shops, eating establishments and small inns along the waterfront. Depending on what time of day it is, the gate offers different perspectives. The gate is completely exposed during low tide, allowing visitors to walk out and view it close-up. At high tide, the bottom of the gate is covered by water, making it appear to be floating, and forcing viewers to watch from ashore.
In addition to the gate, the rest of the shrine is well worth a visit. The shrine, like its torii gate, is built over water, making it seem like it is floating in the sea during high tide. The complex consists of multiple buildings including a prayer hall, a main hall and a theater stage which are connected by boardwalks. There is also a treasure hall which houses over 4,000 valuable items from the island such as fine arts, historical materials, weapons, masks and musical instruments. There is a large root at the entrance which is part of of the tree which was used for the main pillar of the floating Torii gate. Cost to enter is 300 yen (around $3 US) per person or 500 yen (around $5 US) per person for a combination ticket to the Itsukushima shrine and the treasure hall.
After viewing the Itsukushima Shrine and its gate, the next important site to see is Mount Misen, which has been considered a sacred site since ancient times. Mount Misen plays an important part in Buddhist history in Japan. The mountain was visited by the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi Kukai in the year 806. There are spiritual sites on Mount Misen that still exist from Kobo Daishi’s time on the mountain, including an eternal flame which lit by him over 1200 years ago and still burns to this day. A beautiful temple complex that fits perfectly in its environment sits near the peak of the mountain and houses the Eternal Flame and other Buddhist artifacts
As well as being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Mount Misen is still a very important spiritual destination for Japanese people today. There are many spiritual figurines, prayer temples and shrines on the trail to the top of Mount Misen. Different temples or prayer spots represent things to be prayed for, from finding love to wishing for good health for one’s family. On the day we went to Miyajima Island, we witnessed an elderly man carrying his handicapped wife to the top of the mountain, ON HIS BACK! We will never complain about the difficulty of any hike after seeing this man slowly and steadily climbing the steep trail in order to pray.
There are four ways to reach to the top of Mount Misen; three hikes and an aerial ropeway system. The Miyajima Ropeway, which was built in 1959, offers one way or round trip tickets. Operating hours vary by season, but normally runs from 9am to 5pm each day. Adult fare is 1000 yen (around $10 US) per person, one way, or 1800 yen (around $18 US) per person, round trip. From Momijidani station at the base of the mountain, ropeway cars take passengers to the Kayatani station where they switch cars for the final portion to Shishiiwa station near the peak. A free shuttle bus runs from various places on the island to the Momijidani station.
Hiking to the top of Mount Misen is a strenuous, but rewarding climb. There are three trails to the peak, the Momijidani Course, the Daishoin Course, and the Omoto Course. The Momijidani Course, which is the shortest and most popular trail to the top, starts in Momijidani Park and follows the Momijidani River up the valley. The trail is 2.5 km long, which should take the average hiker about an hour and half or two hours to reach the peak. The Daishoin Course is the most strenuous of the three, with over 2,000 stone steps leading to the top. This mostly paved 3 km trail starts near the entrance to Daishoin Temple. The Omoto Course is the longest trail, at 3.2 km in length, and starts at the Omoto Shrine. Many hikers ascend the Momijidani Course and descend the Daishoin Course. Another option is to hike to the summit and take the ropeway down, or vice versa.
Omotesando Shopping Street
Omotesando shopping street is the main area in Miyajima for shops and restaurants. The covered market was formed from land reclaimed at the end of the Edo period. Both sides of the street are full of souvenir shops and restaurants. Miyajima specialties such as momiji manju, oysters and okonomiyaki are found at many restaurants and food stalls along the shopping arcade. Omotesando Street is the busiest area on the island and is illuminated beautifully at night.
The most popular treat on Omotesando Street is Momiji manju, which are buckwheat rice cakes shaped like maple leaves, and typically filled with red bean paste. These cakes are common throughout the Hiroshima region, but are especially popular on the island. They can be purchased in prepackaged boxes or be enjoyed fresh out of the fryer. Visitors are able to watch the cakes be made through glass windows. There are a few shops that even allow customers to try their hand at making their own momiji manju.
Oysters are another food item that Miyajima Island is know for. The waters off of the island provide a rich environment for the cultivation of oysters, resulting in a large industry that thrives to this day. Grilled oysters can be found all over the island, with the highest concentration found along Omotesando shopping street. Many establishments prepare them in front of the shops, where they can be purchased directly off of the grill. The oysters are large and delicious and prices are extremely reasonable.
The area around Hiroshima and Miyajima Island are especially known for the oyster topped okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is common throughout Japan, with each region having developed its own version of the dish. If you are not familiar with the dish, it is often called a Japanese Pancake or Japanese Soul Food, even though it has very little in common with what westerners call a pancake. Okonomiyaki is cooked in front of the customer on a grill, and starts with a very thin layer of batter (this is where the “pancake” reference comes from) and topped with cabbage, sprouts and thinly sliced pork. Next, fried noodles are added and a egg is cracked over the top. Lastly, the dish is topped with the sauce that each region is known for and in the case of Miyajima Island okonomiyaki, fried oysters.
We have tried the dish in many places throughout Japan and our favorite so far has been the oyster okonomiyaki on Miyajima Island. We highly recommend sitting at a grill and ordering a dish of okonomiyaki and some saki or beer. The ambiance of the island adds to the whole dining experience, making it a very tasty and memorable meal.
Lodging on Miyajima Island
Miyajima Island offers accommodations for all budgets and styles of travel, from Ryokans, Hotels and Guesthouses to Hostels, Cabins and Campgrounds. Lodging can be a little more expensive than staying on the mainland. We didn’t stay on the island, so we can’t recommend any accommodations, but the Miyajima Island official website has an extensive list of available options. When in Asia, we prefer to use agoda.com, booking.com or expedia.com to find the best deals on rooms.
If spending any time in Hiroshima, be sure to visit Miyajima Island. It is an experience that is well worth the time and money. You will not regret it!!!
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