Miyajima, the shrine island

Under the shade of rustling Japanese pines, a walking path traced the low rock seawall towards the Itsukushima torii gate. The smell of dried pine needles swirled in to meet the salty ocean air. Looking out to the sparkling waters separating Miyajima Island from Hiroshima Bay mainland, we saw one of Japan’s ancient icons. Miyajima’s most famous sight was planted in the middle of the bay on six strong wooden legs, 17-metres high, supporting a dramatic, sweeping crossbar. While there are many perfectly sculpted and brightly painted torii gates in Japan, Itsukushima’s mighty 800 years was betrayed by faded vermillion paint and knotted imperfections in the swollen, misshapen wood. The magic of the shrine lies in part in its relationship to the water and resilience to the elements; when the tide gets low enough, visitors can walk right up to it on foot.

Nearby, a deer was annoying a stall vendor. It was waiting at the counter, eyeballing the food, but she shooed it away with her hands, unperturbed. The deer was one of many; the island was swarming with these enterprising creatures, politely bowing to tourists in return for treats. Food stalls selling mouthwatering takoyaki and smoking yakitori skewers were competing for business along the waterfront, their signs a riot of colours and characters.

Turning a corner, suddenly the old town came into view, dominated by Itsukushima shrine, a network of long wooden halls spreading out into the bay on squat vermillion stilts. Overlooking us was mighty Senjokaku Hall, a drafty wooden temple with polished wooden floors and colossal tree-trunk pillars. Barefoot, we explored its cavernous hall, feeling the earthiness of the winter cold suffused into the floorboards. Taller still was the neighbouring 5-storey pagoda. The town was as pretty as a postcard. Trickling canals were spanned by tiny arched bridges; rows of wooden houses crawled down stone alleyways, built of dark wood, slatted screens, tiled roofs and swinging lanterns; clouds of incense billowed through temple squares as multi-coloured flags fluttered in the wind.

The island was criss-crossed with charming hikes through fairy-tale forests, leading to lookout points and tea houses. We began the short Momiji walk, one of the many hiking trails leading up from the town to explore the forested hills above the island. It was a calming walk through tall trees, and thick, green undergrowth that spoke of a slight winter chill.

We needed a gift in Miyajima, for our Japanese hosts that we were meeting the following day in Beppu. Knowing that everyone loves desserts, we had our eye on momiji manju. These small, spongy maple leaf-shaped cakes came with sweet fillings such as red bean, custard, or chocolate. Miyajima’s long food-shopping street was the perfect place to find them. The street was covered overhead and crowded with shoppers, giving a lovely intimate market-town feel. A robot was producing the momiji in the window of one shop, with a large dispensing arm piping the batter into pairs of leaf-shaped molds. Next came a blob of filling paste, and the robot folded the cake to produce the finished product. We bought a box of ten, all with different flavours.

Between the restaurants and the stalls, Miyajima was a delicious and surprising food destination. There were burgers with rice for buns. We ate a soba noodle dish with fried oysters bobbing in the soup. Some treats we weren’t brave enough to try – one shop sold the biggest raw oysters i’d ever seen, monstrous things almost the size of my hand. We left Miyajima feeling like there was still a lot more to explore, and we had too little time. Next time, we will definitely stay overnight!

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