22 Apr Miyajima
Miyajima, also known as Itsukushima, is a small island in the Seto Inland Sea, just a few miles from Hiroshima. It is most famous for its iconic Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Japan’s most photographed landmarks. The shrine is built over the water and is known for its beautiful torii gate, which appears to float on the sea during high tide.
The torii gate as seen from Starr. Don, Brooke, Sharry, and Kat.
Kirk told us there’s a float for visiting boats, but we might be too big. Not wanting to be told “no,” we chose to show up and hope for the best. If there wasn’t space, we’d anchor. Upon arrival, we found the float empty. We checked in at the nearby hotel that manages the float and paid the modest fee–about 5300 yen per night, less than $40USD, including water and 50amp power. A deal.
One of the immediately surprising things were the small, friendly deer, which roam freely and often approach visitors in search of food. They’re everywhere. Remarkably, there isn’t deer poop everywhere. We’re not sure why…perhaps people clean up after them?
After a few days of rainy weather on the way here, we were ready to walk. We wandered towards Senjokaku Hall, also known as the Hall of a Thousand Tatami Mats. It is a large wooden building located on the hillside above Itsukushima Shrine. It was built in the 16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi as a Buddhist hall, but was never completed.
The name “senjokaku” means “thousand-tatami mat pavilion,” and refers to the large size of the hall. The building measures 125 feet by 112 feet and is supported by 32 pillars. The interior is completely open. The pillars are massive timbers; the floors are wide planks, polished smooth from millions of footsteps. Traditional artwork and scrolls hang above. It’s a strikingly beautiful building despite never being finished.
Just outside Senjokaku is Gojunoto, a five-story pagoda. It was originally built in 1407, during the Muromachi period. The pagoda was destroyed by fire multiple times over the centuries. The current structure dates back to 1533. The five stories of the pagoda represent the five elements of Buddhist cosmology: earth, water, fire, wind, and space.
The torii gate at Miyajima is probably the best-known attraction. What is a torii gate, exactly? A distinctive feature of Japanese architecture, characterized by its shape, which consists of two upright posts with a horizontal crossbar on top.
They are most commonly found at the entrance to Shinto shrines. They are usually made of wood or stone and are often painted bright red. In Shinto religion, the torii gate marks the transition from the profane to the sacred, and passing through it symbolizes a person’s entry into a holy space. Torii gates are found throughout Japan, but the example in Miyajima is particularly large. Due to its location, it appears to “float” on the water at high tide. At low tide, you can walk through the gate.
Miyajima’s topography is rugged and there’s excellent hiking. Brooke and I hiked to the top of Mount Misen, the highest point on the island (elev. 1755 feet). The trail was well-built, free of other hikers, and a great workout. My phone said it was 200 flights of stairs in about two miles. Better than coffee!
Small Shinto displays were common along the trail:
The views towards the top are magnificent. Most of Miyajima is mountainous, forested, and undeveloped.
Towards the top, the trail passes through this gate. The effort to build this must have been staggering.
Finally, the top! There’s a modern observatory to take in the view. We were up there fairly early, before the ropeway begun depositing non-hikers near the top, and only had to share it with a few others.
Between the summit and the ropeway is Reikado, a small temple that houses the Eternal Flame. The flame is said to have been burning continuously for over 1,200 years and is considered a sacred site for both Buddhism and Shintoism.
We were enjoying Miyajima so much that we decided to stay for two more days. Unfortunately, the hotel said the dock wasn’t available. A group of seven boats was coming for a day trip. We’d have to leave. After a bit of discussion, we realized that we could anchor off the dock for the few hours the group was using it and return after they left. A perfect opportunity for photos with the torii gate.
Almost all the tourists at Miyajima are day visitors–thousands of day visitors. Note the many people standing around the torii gate in the photos above, and all the people walking through town below:
They arrive on ferrys beginning in the mid-morning and depart by 5:00 p.m. This means that early in the morning and later in the evening the town is blissfully empty.
Itsukushima Shrine opens at 6:30 a.m. At midday, the line to enter usually had a couple hundred people. At 6:30 a.m., I had the place nearly to myself.
The shrine is thought to have been established in the 6th century. The current structures date back to the 16th century. It is dedicated to the three daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto. Among other things, these deities protect seafarers, so it’s an important stop while cruising around Japan!
The shrine complex consists of several buildings, including the Honden (Main Hall), Haiden (Worship Hall), Heiden (Offering Hall), and Shamusho (Office), all of which are connected by covered walkways. The buildings feature elegant architectural details, intricate carvings, painted ceilings, and lacquered woodwork. All of it is built on pilings above tidal flats.
Originally we planned to take Starr to Hiroshima, but the marina in Hiroshima is adjacent to a mall and far from everything we wanted to see. Instead, we “reverse commuted” from Miyajima to Hiroshima. A 45-minute water taxi ride took us directly to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
Half the trip was in a wide open bay. The other half took us up the Honkawa River. Industry lined its banks, including these docks where fishing boats bring their oyster catch for offloading on conveyer belts.
They wouldn’t let us stand on the raised outside deck while going up the river. Headroom inside the purpose-built boat wasn’t-quite-standing. As we motored up the river, it made sense. These bridges are so low we might hit our heads if we stood outside.
Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park is hauntingly beautiful. The Atomic Bomb Dome stood 600 meters directly below where “Little Boy” exploded. The force of the blast blew the roof apart and killed everyone inside, but many of the brick walls and steel reinforcements remained.
We visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and toured its exhibits. The images, artifacts, and stories were tragic reminders of the brutality of war and the utter devastation that nuclear weapons unleash. The museum has an understandably anti-nuclear-weapons perspective.
It didn’t fully address what might have happened were Fat Man and Little Boy not used. Would Japan have surrendered due to fire-bombing, itself a brutal and indiscriminate method of war? Would there have been a full-scale Allied invasion? How costly would the other options have been in human suffering? None of us can know what course the war would have taken, but it’s hard not to wonder.
Outside of the Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima appeared to be thriving. Modern buildings line the streets. Luxury brands from around the world have storefronts. Restaurants are numerous and were doing a brisk business. Well-dressed Japanese people hurried about. Bearing witness to the transformation of the city from the ruins depicted in the museum to a prosperous, modern metropolis was an uplifting way to conclude our time in Hiroshima.