The drizzly island of sacred deer and hidden grottoes, Miyajima, Japan

A short train and a ferry journey whisks you from Hiroshima to a sacred island of deer, temples, and cherry blossoms.

There are many places that claim to have the ‘Biggest xxxxxxx’ thing in the world. Mankind is obsessed with the fallacious concept of ‘bigger is better’. Try telling that to the overburdened hearts of half a billion flabby North Americans and Europeans. Or to the Venezuelans currently battling against an inflation rate of 28%. Or, more on topic, to the people who have to trek aimlessley around the pretty much unoccupied world’s biggest shopping mall in China. Miyajima, the popular name of the island called Itsukushima, claims two of these titles. A visit to this beautiful little island will reveal the world’s largest spatula, and the world’s largest tori gate. In case you don’t know what a tori gate is, this is the one in question:
The Miyajima tori gate as you approach by ferry, at high tide
And in case you don’t know what a spatula is here’s a picture of the world’s largest:
The world's biggest spatula, Miyajima, or Itsukushima if you prefer
Right, glad we’ve got those two cleared up nice and early. Miyajima is south of Hiroshima and easily accessible as a day trip by rail and ferry. Before you decide to visit Miyajima you should consider what you want from the visit. If you want to see the tori gate in all its glory then you definitely need to time your arrival carefully so that you see the gate at high tide. If you see it at low tide then you will see the unattractive grey concrete base to each pillar and the illusion will be ruined. Check the tide tables in Hirosima here, this is the tool I used and as you can see it worked perfectly.

Catch a JR Sanyo Line train from Hiroshima station to Miyajimaguchi. This journey takes about half an hour and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass. Walk east from the station to the ferry terminal in about 5 minutes. If you have a JR Pass then that will cover your ferry ticket on the JR ferries so make sure which one you’re looking at boarding. Otherwise buy your ticket from the counter. Both ferries take about 10 minutes to cross over to the island and you get lovely views of the temples and tori gate on the way.

Once you have disembarked you leave the terminal and find deer scattered all over the place. They are as sacred here as they are in many parts of Japan and are largely left to their own devices. They rest under trees or attempt to steal poorly guarded morsels from under the noses of kiosk owners. The sharp tone of admonishment mixed with a splash of resignation and futility. I get the impression that they often couldn’t give two hoots about the supposed sanctity of these creatures.
One of the sacred deer of Miyajima, resting under a cherry blossom
We followed the umbrellas up the main shopping street and had a look at the large spatula. Yes, I can confirm that it is large. And completely pointless. Whilst trapped in complete awe of this earth-shatteringly magnificent spatula I found myself being corralled by a TV news crew and interviewed about the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“Why have you chosen to travel to Japan?” – “Isn’t Fukushima several hundreds of miles north? There’s little danger here.”
“But what about the nuclear radiation if a reactor explodes?” – “It won’t meltdown by now, and if it did explode I’d head directly south, well away from the prevailing winds”

The interviewer clearly didn’t like the line I was taking here. He wanted me to say how afraid I was. How I didn’t want to have to see Godzilla tearing down the towers of Tokyo. How the vegetables I’d eaten had an unusual green glow this morning. But wasn’t giving in. I doubt that interview made the grade.

At the end of this street follow the waterfront around the headland and you get another stunning view of the gate and Mount Misen. We visited on a very rainy day so the rolling backdrop to the temples had a romantically veiled look about it. The trees on the ridges standing in only very slightly coloured silhouette.
The tori gate at Itsukushima seen from the waterfront
We arrived early enough in the day that there weren’t too many large tour groups clogging up the joint so we took the opportunity to get out of the rain and into Itsukushima temple. The vermilion paint puts this sprawling complex into sharp contrast with the surroundings. It couldn’t stand out more if it tried. But I do wonder whether Japan in autumn is the correct time to visit places like this? Would the colours fit more naturally with the hills that were verdant in the spring rain, but possibly doomed to turn and fall into ochres and reds as the year progressed?
Rooftops in Miyajima
Itsukushima is not my favourite temple. It’s ok, but it feels very much like it’s purely geared towards photo opportunities of the tori gate. There’s a wooden decked area capable of holding a great many happy-snapping Japanese folk, peace sign poses and perfect hairdos lovingly crafted and ready to be recorded for posterity. There are some pretty statues of the lion guardians though, pretty enough that I actually turned their roaring faces into a very simple t-shirt that can be viewed, and maybe bought from RedBubble. You are funneled through the roofed areas of Itsukushima relatively quickly but we did manage to glimpse a wedding ceremony being carried out in one of the small chambers off of the tourist route. The bride looked transcendent, even though I could only see her dress.
Rain pouring off the roof of Itsukushima temple, Japan
Itsukushima Guardian, Japan
Once we’d finished with Itsukushima the rain relented. We mooched about the rear of the temple and pondered which direction to explore. A quick look at the Wikitravel PDF I’d stored on my phone told me that there were several points of interest if we headed away from the pagoda on the left and instead went up a nondescript street. Righto Wikitravel, if you say so! Up we climbed and it didn’t take long for us to find the entrance to Daisho-in temple. The steep and treacherously slippery steps rose to the first courtyard area where we paid a small entry donation and had a look about. There were three urns of steaming hot tea provided free to visitors so I took a few cups and savoured the atmosphere. There wasn’t an atmosphere, I mean, it was completely calm. The rain had receded to a few drops and it seemed that tourists didn’t come this far from the waterfront temples. At our leisure we explored the temple as it steps up the hillside. And that’s when we found the grotto.

The entrance isn’t promising but inside the Henjokutsu cave the ceiling is covered with ornate lanterns that throw a slight orange glow over detailed wall paintings and carved stones. There is a large polished stone incense pit and plenty of opportunity to take some really nice low-light photographs. We spent a good 15 minutes in this glorious little room.
The lanterns of Daisho-in Temple, Miyajima, Japan
Outside the rain was starting to come back so we nipped onto a hillside path that ran from Daisho-in to Tahoto pagoda. We were traveling around Japan in cherry blossom season and this little pagoda was resting in a grove of trees in full bloom, perfect to frame the view of the Itsukushima tori gate below us.
Tahoto pagoda in spring, Miyajima, Japan, with two idiots in front
The Itsukushima tori gate from Tahoto pagoda
As the weather increasingly threatened to wash us from the hillside we gave up on the Mount Misen shrine and headed to the much more touristed 5-story pagoda and the Senjokaku Hall. Neither of these particularly caught my imagination, the hall was a big wooden hall, the pagoda was a slippery wet pagoda. With 5 levels. We had been spoiled by the Daisho-in temple and the Tahoto pagoda and I’m sure there are other little treasures dotted over the island that we couldn’t reach that day.

On our way back to the ferry terminal I took the opportunity to buy a couple of steamed eel rolls. My they were amazing. Kristina sneered at me through the steam belching from her steamed chicken roll, and I gurned back in ecstasy. I will never understand her hatred of fish.

The rain seemed to be restricted to Miyajima alone because once we were on the ferry it was left behind. A few minutes’ wait at Miyajimaguchi and again we whizzed along Japan’s stunning railway network back to Hiroshima. We were back in the hostel within the hour, drying our sodden feet in an effort to avoid introducing trenchfoot aromas to Japan’s cocktail of airborne pollutants. But Miyajima was well worth it.

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