If you made me pick, right here and now, my favorite place in Japan, chances are that I’d say Miyajima (宮島), a small island off of the coast of Hiroshima. The Japanese consider the view of Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima as one of the three most beautiful views in all of Japan, and I’m certainly not going to argue with them. (Incidentally, I’m bound and determined to see the other two, which are the sandbar of Amanohashidate and the pine-filled islands of Matsushima, before I leave Japan.)
My visit to Miyajima was part of the two and a half weeks I spent in Japan as part of a study abroad Sociology course with Washington & Jefferson College. Getting to Miyajima from Hiroshima is a relative breeze; the easiest way is to head to the Miyajima-guchi train station (less than half an hour and five hundred yen from Hiroshima Station) and take a ferry from the terminal. There are frequent ferries to and from the island, and at 170円, the trip won’t break the bank. However, since Miyajima is a hotspot for vacationers – Japanese and foreign alike – accommodation on the island is generally a bit expensive. A lot of people just make a daytrip from Hiroshima, but if you’ve got the cash to spare, staying overnight at a traditional ryokan is definitely worth every yen.
Miyajima’s beauty is a combination of natural and architectural. The red torii that rises out of the ocean is probably the most famous of its kind in Japan. As you cross on the ferry, no matter what time of day, its brilliant shade of vermillion-tinged orange stands out starkly against the blue water and green foliage of the island.
It’s known as a “floating gate,” and while that description certainly holds true at high tide, once all of the mud around it is uncovered at low tide, that becomes a bit of a misnomer. At low tide, it’s possible to walk out onto the beach under the gate. A lot of people – yours truly included – affix coins to the barnacle-encrusted wood, though I’m not sure if it’s for good luck or just a random tradition.
And Itsukushima itself is grandiose in both size and presence. To put it simply, it’s damn gorgeous, whether or not you can fully appreciate its religious aspect. (And like most any impressive landmark, you’ll have to wind yourself climbing a hefty amount of stairs to reach many of the temples and shrines on the island.)
Even though we went in January, when temperatures were relatively cool, the island’s beauty certainly didn’t suffer any. In fact, if anything, the winter weather worked in our favor, as the island was much less crowded than it would have been at the peak of the travel seasons. That lack of congestion is helped by the fact that Miyajima is small enough that you can get around on foot to most of the main sites.
Even setting aside the Itsukushima Shrine and the torii, Miyajima has a lot to offer. On the culinary front, the seafood is mouthwatering, as you might expect when the water is literally meters away. Miyajima is also famous for its momiji manju, which is a sweet cake shaped like a maple leaf and filled with any variety of fillings. Anko (red bean paste) is most traditional, but you can get momiji manju filled with 抹茶 (maccha, green tea), custard crème, apples, or blueberry custard, just to name a few choices.
When I was in Miyajima, I stocked up pretty heavily on momiji manju to share with my friends back home. We were pretty stalwart about making them last as long as possible…which meant that when we tried to snack on a few several weeks after I returned home, we only had crumbly cakes filled with dry, gummy filling to show for our troubles. Lesson learned: just eat the omiyage when you’re hungry. If you try saving momiji manju for a rainy day, it’ll just get a whole lot rainier once you realize that they’re inedible.
Once you’ve eaten your fill of momiji manju, burning all those extra calories off by hiking up Mount Misen is definitely recommended. Miyajima itself is gorgeous, but the view you get from the top of Misen of the surrounding sea is a whole other kind of breathtaking. If you’re feeling lazy (or short on time, as was the case for my friends and I), you can take a cable car to an observatory near the top. It’ll run you 1000円 for one way and 1800円 for a return trip. I’m a pretty avid hiker, but we decided to take the ropeway up and then hike back down to make sure we made it back to our hotel in time for sunset and dinner.
Though they’re nowhere near as prevalent as in Nara, Miyajima has its fare share of small deer. Though they’re technically wild, they’re definitely used to people. You used to be able to buy crackers to feed them, but now there’s a ban on that.
In addition to the deer, there’s also a pack of monkeys that live on Mount Misen. And one of my absolute favorite signs in all of Japan instructs you just how to stay safe around them. We didn’t see any of them, but their cartoon counterparts were definitely enough to satisfy my laughter quota for the day.
So Miyajima. It’s the land of floating torii, gorgeous views of the sea, insanely fresh seafood, and omiyage that’ll satisfy even the sweetest of teeth. And true, those things are pretty common in the land of the rising sun, but the combination of all of them into one place makes Miyajima pretty special in my eyes.