Miyajima: Japan's Shrine on the Sea
To many outside Japan, Hiroshima is known for only one reason. The city's darkest moment serves as a permanent reminder of the horrors of nuclear weapons and the futility of warfare.
However, Hiroshima these days has so much more going for it than simply a memorial to past war attrocities. One area where Hiroshima consistently enjoys international attention is in its emergence as one of the top tourist destinations in southern Japan. This is thanks in no small part to the enduring appeal of its most beautiful attraction. Miyajima.
Located in Hatsukaichi City, just outside of Hiroshima City itself, Miyajima is an officially designated UNESCO World Heritage site. As the name suggests, it is its own self-contained island, accessible only by a 10 minute ferry ride from the mainland.
Photo : Joe deSousa on Flickr
Believe it or not Miyajima is not actually the official name of the island. You will sometimes hear locals call it by its official name Itsukushima. Translated literally from Japanese Miyajima means Shrine Island. As time has gone on this local nickname has become common vernacular, to the point where even official tourist guides now refer to it as simply Miyajima.
Photo : Joe deSousa on Flickr
Miyajima actually has many different shrines across the island's main area. The first of these is almost 1500 years old, dating back to the time of Empress Suiko, Japan's first female ruler in the 5th century.
Most of the Shrines modern features came about after the Battle of Miyajima in 1555. Noted Japanese military conqueror Hideyoshi Toyotomi oversaw construction of the famous Senjo-Kaku building, on the hillside overlooking the shrines, shortly thereafter.
Photo : Jim Bogar on Flickr
Miyajima's most famous feature however is undoubtedly its Torii gate: The world renowned “Shrine on the Sea”.
Photo : Martin Abegglen on Flickr
Depending on the time of day, visitors can walk across the muddy beach right up to the gate. When the tide is in, the base of the shrine is submerged under about 2 metres of water. This makes for spectacular photos from the coastline.
Photo : Sebastien Bertrand on Flickr
Of course, there’s more to Miyajima than just Shrines and tourist shops though. The island itself actually has a local population of some 2000 residents and it even has its own schools, post office and other local amenities. The local populace also take great pride in Miyajima's other famous feature, its nature.
Miyajima is a mountainous island and its highest point reaches more than 500 metres above sea level. This peak is accessed by a motorized ropeway, followed by a 30 minute hike to the top. Much of the island's other unpopulated regions are covered in forests. These forests bring with them a thriving deer and monkey population. In particular, the deer seem to enjoy an almost symbiotic relationship with the local population. Deer can be seen freely roaming the streets and have no fear of humans. As my mother learned during her last visit, don't leave your sandwiches unnattended when there’s a hungry deer standing nearby!
Getting to Miyajima is very straightforward.
If you're coming from elsewhere in Japan, take the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. From JR Hiroshima Station, take the Sanyo line headed towards Iwakuni. After about 25 minutes or so you will arrive at Miyajimaguchi Station. The ferry port is just a 3 minute walk from the station. If you have time I also recommend sampling the excellent Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at the restaurant right next to the harbour.
Hiroshima okonomiyaki is famous in that it has a taste and texture very distinctive from that of its more popular Osaka variant.
This will make me unpopular with my Osaka friends, but I have so say the okonomiyaki I had at Miyajima beats anything I've since tasted in Osaka.
So whether you're looking for some memorable photos, seeking good fortune from a shrine, or you just want to relax and soak up some nature and gorgeous wildlife; Miyajima has something for everyone.
Website (in English): http://visit-miyajima-japan.com/en/