Located less than an hour from the city of Hiroshima in the Hiroshima Bay is one of the crown jewels of Japan; officially named Itsukushima but popularly referred to as Miyajima (Shrine Island).
The island is famous for its Itsukushima Shrine, whose large, red-lacquered complex of halls and pathways are built on stilts over the water. The shrine was constructed in this manner to allow average people to visit without defiling the island with their footprints. The island has been considered a holy place for most of Japanese history. As a matter of fact, women were not allowed on the island in the past and old people were shipped elsewhere to die, so that the ritual purity of the site would not be spoiled.
Most people recognize the island by the giant torii gate in front of the shrine which seems to float on the water during high tide. There is a picturesque 5-story pagoda next door, and an abundance of cherry trees to admire if you happen to be visiting during sakura season. Miyajima’s momiji (Japanese maple trees) are renowned throughout Japan and drape the island in crimson during the fall season. Because the island is considered sacred, its trees may not be cut down for lumber. Wild shika (deer) and Nihon saru (monkeys) roam the island freely. In the native Shinto religion, deer are thought to be sacred because they are considered messengers of the gods.
The island is rural and mountainous. The peak of Mount Misen, is the highest point on the island. Visitors can take the Miyajima Ropeway to within a 30-minute hike to the top of the mountain. There are several sites associated with the famous Buddhist priest and founder of Shingon Buddhism near the top. The island is sparsely populated with only about 2,000 inhabitants residing in simple houses and working in privately owned shops. There are a number of souvenir shops which sell everything from rice scoops (Miyajima is famous for its rice scoops) to miniature floating toriis! Great care is taken to preserve the island’s classic Edo-era look.
On the north coast of the island you will find the Miyajima Natural Botanical Garden which is operated by Hiroshima University. The garden was established in 1964 for botanical research and education purposes and consists mainly of natural forest and maritime vegetation.
Also worth visiting is the Museum of History and Folklore which contains a small collection of crafts and pieces of Miyajima history, mostly donated by the island locals. The main building of the museum built 170 years ago was originally the residence of a soy sauce tycoon.
There are no bridges which connect Miyajima to the mainland. People often take the short ferry ride from Hiroshima to access the island. Some ferries will carry cars and motorcycles, but parking on the island is expensive and difficult to find. Miyajima is small enough to cover by foot, and there are English-language signs throughout the island. Taxis can be taken from the pier to the hotels and residential areas, but not to the tourist sights.
The serene beauty of the island along with its UNESCO listed world treasures makes this an essential destination in Japan. For the people of Japan, this is the island where the people and the gods dwell together!
Miyajimi Tourist Association: http://www.miyajima.or.jp/english/
Photo Credits: Rocky Andoh