From Hiroshima we took a local train down the coast, and used our rail pass to hop on a JR ferry to Miyajima island. It’s a small island close to the mainland, and sits in a bay dotted picturesquely with other small islands, most of which aren’t inhabited. The ferry only takes 5 minutes or so, and passes between the oyster beds that surround Miyajima, before making an arc past the ‘floating’ torii that the island’s famous for. (Spoiler: it’s not actually floating.)
A torii is a gate that marks the entrance to a Shinto shrine, in this case Itsukushima shrine, which sprawls round the bay behind the gate. The idea is that the torii is the boundary ‘between the sacred and the profane’, as it’s rather grandiosely put on wikipedia.
To get to our campsite at Tsutumigaura recreation park, we then had to take a bus or walk for an hour along the road. Mercifully we were just in time for the last bus of the day, at 4.20 pm. The bus whisked us away from the throngs of Sunday sightseers at the ferry dock, and along the near empty road that winds round the island, passing the odd hamlet, and plenty of wild deer. Deer are everywhere on Miyajima.
Deer are considered sacred messengers in Shinto, so they roam unmolested because the whole island is held sacred — it’s been home to a Shinto shrine since the 6th Century. This sacred status also means trees on Miyajima can’t be felled for their wood, so the island is free from the denuded strips of land that slice through forests elsewhere in Japan.
Once we’d secured our campspot with a rather bemused man at the park office (for £1.70 each!), we pitched up near the other two tents occupying the vast beach-side site. Our fellow campers were both Japanese — a hiker and a touring cyclist with a fold up bike and a trailer. We were outnumbered considerably by deer, who watched us with interest as we cooked our noodles in the concrete kitchen shelter.
The next morning we had breakfast on the pier near the campsite, waved both of our campsite friends goodbye as they set off, then packed up to hike up the mountains in the centre of the island, with all of our stuff on our backs.
On reflection, this was silly. We could have left the things we didn’t need in a station locker on the mainland, and made things much easier for ourselves. We paid for it for the next week or so with very sore legs and a complete inability to negotiate stairs, but it didn’t spoil our fun on the day.
Miyajima is a brilliant place to hike — little winding paths through forest, and views of distant islands dotting glistening sea at every turn. Autumn was one of the best times to be there I think, when the maple leaves are beautiful shades of red, yellow and orange. Autumn maple leaves are a bit of a Japanese obsession, and Miyajima is firmly on the momiji (maple) watching circuit. Parts of the island were pretty tourist packed, but by hiking we managed to escape the crowds a bit, and see the sites without forking out an arm and a leg for the cable car that runs up to the island’s peak.
Our hike took us through quiet forest, along steep ridges, past huge hilltop rock formations, and to bustling temples perched amidst it all. Mostly it was very quiet. On the way up we only met three other hikers: a Japanese family who were very keen to know how we’d found the path (by using the map and regular signs that were posted along the way). They seemed surprised to see us. When our route took us past the mid-station of the cable car, the crowd of mostly-middle aged Japanese tourists waiting there were very pleased to see us, all waving merrily, if equally bemused by our presence.
The cable car brought plenty of crowds to the top, but it was quite nice being amongst them — somehow the busyness was fun, and didn’t make the temples feel too touristy. Also, we could get an iced coffee from the vending machine in the cable car station.
Perhaps the atmosphere was so nice because people were mostly being quiet and polite to one another, enjoying the peace, and in many cases worshipping at the shrines.
I’m using temple (Buddhist) and shrine (Shinto) somewhat interchangeably here — Miyajima has plenty of both, sometimes sharing a site, and the two religions have an intertwined history in Japan. Inexpertly speaking, Shinto is broadly to do with nature worship, through shrines dedicated to various nature related gods. It was the state religion in Japan before Buddhism was introduced in the 6th Century, and since then the two have become closely related and sometimes combined.
Itsukushima shrine marked the end of our walk. We didn’t go in because we were tired and hungry, so instead we walked through the town in search of lunch. It was incredibly touristy, but kind of fun.
The main street near between the shrine and the port is totally packed with all manner of Japanese tat. We couldn’t work out why there were so many shops selling spanking paddles, then we found this…
For lunch we had rice and egg, sake, and noodles with oysters. I decided a while back to start eating mussels and oysters, since there’s an argument that they can’t think or feel, so are more or less vegetables. (I realise this argument has problems if taken to extremes, but don’t most?) Also, farming them is good for the sea.
My first oysters were ok, but I’m not sure what all the fuss is about really. They’re basically like particularly fleshy seaweed. I was a bit underwhelmed, but it was nice to eat something that had come straight out of the sea 50 metres or so away.
Dessert was a couple of maple leaf shaped cakes that we bought on our way to the ferry, since every second shop was selling them. They were all making them on complicated conveyor belt systems with various machines to do each stage, which you could see from the street. Fun to watch, but the end result was a bit meh taste wise.
There was time for one last deer to try and eat us, and we were back on the boat for the mainland. Next stop, Fukuoka!