Itsukushima (aka Miyajima, which translates to ‘the shrine island’), is a small, romantic island in Hiroshima Bay. It is known for its magnificent torii gate, an 800-year old monument standing in the middle of the bay, appearing to float on the waves.
Miyajima has a lovely small town which is perfect for exploring, a World Heritage-listed shrine with boardwalks over the bay, and several peaceful forest hikes that follow rivers up to the island’s mountaintops. And don’t forget Miyajima’s unique and colourful street food market, and resident deer (that might try and snatch your food!). Easily accessible by ferry, it’s a perfect day trip for anybody who is visiting Hiroshima.
A day trip from Hiroshima
Miyajima is reached easily with a train and a ferry from Hiroshima. From Hiroshima station, it’s a 26 minute ride to Miyajimaguchi. The ferry ride is 10 minutes, and free for JR Pass holders. Alternatively, you can take the tram 2 to the ferry terminal.
The torii gate in the bay
Just after disembarking, there’s a sense that this island is something special. The walking path along the island’s waterfront traced the low rock seawall towards the Itsukushima torii gate. There were Japanese maples swirling in the wind, and the smell of dried pine needles mixed with 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, this torii gate’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. Clearly, this was a daily occurrence. The deer are sacred animals in Shinto religion, so these friendly animals are allowed to roam wherever they please. 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.
Itsukushima shrine UNESCO Site
Turning a corner, Itsukushima shrine came into view. Just like the torii gate, a network of long wooden halls spread out into the bay on squat vermillion stilts. The inside is sparse and simple, with polished wooden floors, tatami mats, lanterns and places to pray. For a fee, visitors can wander up and down the galleried walkways, admiring the peace and tranquility of the bay.
Overlooking us was mighty Senjokaku Hall (AKA The Hall of One Thousand Tatami Mats), a drafty wooden temple with shining wooden floors and colossal tree-trunk pillars. There were no walls, and the hundred pillars were made of raw, unfinished wood.
Barefoot, we felt the earthiness of the winter cold suffused into the floorboards. It was a very peaceful place – in fact, the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi called for the construction of this temple in 1587 precisely for that reason. It was to be a peaceful place for monks to write sutras in nature.
But when the Shogun died, the decoration never took place. The pillars remained wooden, instead of vermillion. The walls were never built. But what we do have is an incredible painted mosaic that covers the ceiling, depicting nature and animals, Buddhist art and great battles.
Toyokuni Shrine Five-Storey Pagoda
Taller still was the neighbouring 5-storey pagoda, known as Gojunoto. The pagoda dates back to 1407, and was restored in 1533. The highest building on the island at 27.6 metres high, it is one of only 5 examples in the country of this type of pagoda.
A charming little town
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.
Hiking on Miyajima
The island was criss-crossed with charming hikes through fairy-tale forests, leading to lookout points and tea houses. We began part of the 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 stopped often for souvenir shopping, and getting some lunch at some of the local restaurants. But there are some great hiking viewpoints, for those who stay on the trail.
The Momiji Dani route links Momiji Dani park to the summit of Mount Misen. It’s a 2.5km hike, taking 1 1/2 to 2 hours to the summit. The route is named after momiji, or maple leaves, and there are plenty of beautiful colours to see as the river trickles through the forest. The reward for this longer hike is a stunning view of the entire Hiroshima Bay from the top.
The Daishoin route
Another route taking 1 1/2 to 2 hours, the Daishoin route has an easy paved walkway to follow, and takes you past some noteworthy stops; Takinomiya Shrine and Shirato Falls, a waterfall that rolls down a flat surface of rock.
Food on Miyajima
It did not take long to discover that Miyajima had an especially great street food scene. There were some stalls by the waterfront, but the majority ran through one long market street in the town centre.
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, chocolate, and many more. The classic flavour is anko, or red bean. 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. For those interested in more crispiness, you can also order agemomiji, the deep-fried momiji manju!
Hiroshima’s peak oyster season is generally around January and February. The bay is ideal for oyster farming, with gentle currents and large plankton populations as a food source. As a result, the area produces some truly enormous oysters. We ate a soba noodle dish with fried oysters bobbing in the soup, but there are plenty of other ways to eat them on Miyajima.
There’s the classic, of course, oysters are served raw and unseasoned. For more flavour, grilled oysters (yakigaki) are cooked in the shell on a flame grill. Panko-coated deep fried oysters (kaki fry) are also popular, a crunchy batter with a rich oyster taste. Oysters served on rice (kaki meshi) are flavoured with soy or sake, and a are a larger meal usually served at a sit-down restaurant. Oyster hot pot (kaki nabe) brings the flavours of the oysters together with miso soup, and vegetables, for a delicious, hearty winter meal!
For something different, try the rice burgers from the street market. A patty made of rice and red beans is flattened to make a makeshift bun. Two of these sandwich a variety of fillings, such as – you guessed it – oysters!
Nigiri-ten are fish cakes on a stick (it’s not market food unless there’s something on a stick). Theyre usually roasted on a grill, and are formed in a maple leaf shape. Extra flavours are also available, such as chicken, cheese, bacon, even octopus!
The hashimaki is a relative of the beloved okonomiyaki. Well, it’s essentially an okonomiyaki wrapped around a pair of chopsticks. If you’re not familiar with okonomiyaki, my comprehensive okonomiyaki guide will answer all your questions!
Last but not least, no street market in Japan is complete without Dango, a form of dumpling, similar to a mochi. Three balls of rice flour dumpling are arranged on a skewer, grilledx and covered with a sweet soy-based sauce. A delicious dessert, without being too sweet.
We left Miyajima feeling like there was still a lot more to explore, and we had too little time. In the end, a day trip was too short, and next time we would definitely stay overnight!