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Monday, April 21, 2014

Japan Day 10: Miyajima, the Shrine Island

When we planned the trip to Japan, my  friend thought about just making a day trip to Miyajima from Hiroshima. That's because you can easily get to Hiroshima from Kagoshima as well as to Kyoto by Shinkansen. But upon seeing wonderful pictures of the torii gate online, there is no way I could pass up a great photo opportunity of this World Heritage Site. I insisted on staying there at least a night, because I really wanted to photograph its main attraction, the giant torii gate in the evening. 

After we experienced Hiroshima, a huge and rather busy city, we were glad to leave for the island, hoping for a more serene surrounding. So we walked early in the morning from the APA Hotel Hiroshima Ekimae to the train station and took a train to Miyajimaguchi Station. It was eight stations away and took us about 30 minutes. Unfortunately, it didn't have a display or announcements, so we had to count the stations and also look outside for signs. Finally at the Miyajimaguchi Train Station, it was just a short walk towards the ferry terminal. There are actually two ferry terminals just next to one another. But we had to take the right one, the JR ferry (Japan Railways), as it was included in our Rail Pass, just like the train ride.


The ferry ride to Itsukushima island just took about 10 minutes and from the terminal it was a 10-minute walk to our hotel for the night, the Miyajima Hotel Makoto. As expected, we couldn't check in yet, as hotels in Japan are quite strict with their check in time. Fortunately, we could store our luggage there.


Miyajima, the Shrine island as popularly known, is more of a village and so it was just a short walk from our hotel to the coast through a shopping street full of souvenir shops, that were just opening. We saw the first attraction of Miyajima, the free roaming deers that aren't really scared of the visitors. Deers are thought of as sacred in the native Shinto religion because they are considered as messengers of the gods. Anyway, we came to the island's biggest attraction, the World Heritage Site Itsukushima Shrine, or the "Floating Shrine". We paid the entrance fee and walked through the impressive site and of course adored the torii gate at sea as it was high tide.


When we exited the site at the western side, we came right to the beautiful Daiganji Temple. From there we walked to the entrance of the ropeway through the Momijidani Park. We had printed out a map of Miyajima and the trails already before going to Japan, but we didn't need it to find the way to the ropeway. There were signs leading to it from the Daiganji Temple. Along the way we came first to a cafe, where we could already buy tickets for the ropeway. A few meters away, we then came to a charming little restaurant with a very friendly older woman as host in the middle of the forest. I needed to stock up some drinks too. I decided to have a  breakfast there and that was one of the best udon soup I ever had!


After we crossed a charming bridge, we reached the ropeway. There weren't many people yet, so we didn't have to wait and soon were going up to the Mount Misen. I have a mild acrophobia and suddenly felt weak on my knees, so I was happy when we finally reached the stop. But from there we had to get down and walk up to another bigger gondola to reach the top of the mountain. It was quite exhilarating and frightening at the same time for me, but we were rewarded with a great view.


When we reached the final station of the ropeway (cable car), there were signs for the walk to the summit of Mount Misen (and also signs warning of snakes and big bees or something). But first we walked onto a great viewpoint, the Shishiiwa Observatory, which is just at the ropeway.


From the observatory it was about 1 km on a trail to the summit of Mount Misen. We did take a break at a temple site, where we took a look at the Misen Hondo (Misen Main Hall), Sankido Hall (Japan´s only temple that worships ogres) and the Reikado (Hall of the Spiritual Flame) - the eternal flame (Kiezu-no-hi) that is said to be burning for already 1.200 years.


From there we followed the trail on the right side further up and soon reached some rock formations like the "Kuguri-iwa" (Duck-under Rock). I'm not sure if it means you have to duck under the rock or the one under the rock looks like a duck.


Finally, we reached the top, where they have a viewing platform, toilets and of course a magnificent view!


We decided not to go back to the ropeways, but to hike down on the Daisho-in Hiking Trail. We exited the summit on the other side and walked downwards - then there were also signs for the Daisho-in Temple, from where it's just a short walk back into the town center. At the Niomon Gate (with huge figures inside) the trail leads to the right and the hike down took us about 2 hours, until we reached the Daisho-in Temple. My feet were hurting so bad, due to the blisters I had from the few days adventures and eventually became wounds, so I needed to take some breaks in between the hike. Along the way there was some kind of cleaning commando, who eagerly swept  the stairs and the trail in the middle of the mountain and the forest (I never saw that before anywhere else in the world, unfortunately!) and we already knew some Japanese, enough to greet everyone friendly, as we were greeted along the way. We must have said "Konnichiwa" (hello!) like 30 times. The Japanese' are not only polite, but also clean, even to the point of overly sanitized. Well, it must really be a cultural thing.


Finally, we reached the Daisho-in Temple, which is actually a huge complex. We came out on top of it and had to walk down along the complex. The entrance was unfortunately all the way down. We couldn't bring ourselves to go back up, so we didn't enter the temple. Instead, we sat down for a while and then continued to the small but nice Tahoto Pagoda and to the Miyajima Aquarium. We just took a look inside the aquarium and then decided to skip it. Afterall, we had already seen the aquarium in Kagoshima. We then continued to the Omoto Shrine where we found a lot of deers.


From there we walked back to the hotel along the coast with a short stop on a bay walk to see the Kiyomori Shrine and of course again the floating torii gate and the 5-storied Pagoda. Back in the shopping street we also bought Momiji Manju Cake, which seemed to be a local specialty with many different flavors to choose from.


Back at the Miyajima Hotel Makoto, we finally could check in and relax. Our luggage was already brought up to our room. We've booked a Washitu, a Japanese style room, which means, there wasn't a bed but mattresses on Tatami floor. It was something different and I was looking forward to it. Even better was, they have an Onsen where we later relaxed.


After some rest we first went out for dinner. It was already dark and most restaurants were closed and the many day guests had left the island. Still we found something relatively cheap at the waterfront and had a nice dinner. I had brought my tripod with me and so the nighttime photo session could begin. This time the floating torii gate was different. It was low tide by now and so we could even walk to the gate. The only nuisance was the sightseeing boats from the ocean, that couldn't come close to the gate. It had spotlights, shining right into our faces (and my camera! So annoying). When I was done photographing, we headed back to the hotel, finally went to the Onsen and soon went to sleep.


All said, Miyajima was a real highlight of the trip, not only because of the floating torii gate and the temples and pagodas, but also because of the friendly people, the nature, the deer and especially the Mount Misen. It was definitely the right decision to stay there at least for one night!

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