Dateline: November 22, 2008
First thing in the morning we grabbed breakfast to go at the Vent et Lune bakery in the train station. We had a 70 minute ride ahead of us so we just packed it aboard the train. Though we had to wait for a bit since the staff were still prepping it for departure, which includes things like flipping the seats around inside and a last minute cleanup.
Once in Hiroshima we transferred to a local line headed to Miyajimaguchi where we’d catch the ferry to Miyajima — actual name Itsukushima — famous for (among other things) its large floating torii, part of the Itsukushima Shrine.
Just outside the front entrance of the train station at the first intersection there were no crosswalks, even though it was quite a small intersection. Instead, on each of the four corners was a glass-enclosed entrance that took you underneath the street. This was the crosswalk system! It was actually quite a nice underground tunnel with a small display in the one corner and what looked like marble along the walls. I’m not sure why it was built this way because it wasn’t a very high-traffic area, but it was definitely interesting. The tunnel stretched beyond just that first intersection, too.
There are two companies that run ferries to the island. Naturally, we took the JR-run one because it was included in our rail passes. The name of our ferry was the Misen Maru and we got primo spots on the main deck so there was no glass to get in the way of the view or photography opportunities. As you approach the island, you notice that it’s completely covered with trees. You also see that during the day when the tide is out, you can walk right up to the massive torii, and many people were taking advantage of that opportunity.
On the The Island
After our ferry arrived at the island’s dock, we were almost immediately greeted by a swarm of small deer. They’re part of a herd of Sika deer that lives on the island and were all about the size of a North American fawn.
Even though there were signs posted as soon as you left the ferry terminal warning about how the deer will likely bite you and they can be aggressive, every single deer we saw was surprisingly calm. Though there were other signs that warned visitors to steer clear of any deer with antlers, and considering we were there during their rutting season, it seemed like sound advice. But the deer that were hanging around would stand while kids — who were usually a fair bit larger than the deer themselves — would run up and pet them. Though the gentle treatment of the deer on the island by people is probably due to the fact that deer are considered sacred in the Shinto religion as they are viewed as messengers of the gods. And the deer likely enjoy all the attention since they get fed, even if sometimes it’s just a tasty magazine left on the ground.
We walked along a waterfront that reminded me of Stanley Park’s sea wall but with storefronts along the one side for part of it. When circling around one of the buildings along the path, I came across an artist capturing the view the old-fashioned way painting at an easel. At the end of the waterfront walk the pathway meets an abrupt end (with a helpful sign telling you that the wall five feet in front of you is indeed a dead end) and diverts you inland. After passing through a large stone torii you come to the Omote-sandō shopping street, so named because the Japanese word sandō is used for a road that leads to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple, such as the ones here on the island.
I walked out along a sandbar as the tide was slowing rolling in to get a better shot of the torii sitting in the water while I still could. And from out there, you get a great view of the Itsukushima Shrine. The crowds were sure taking advantage of the slowly disappearing land and at about 1pm the spot I had taken a close-up picture of the torii from was under almost a foot of water.
We looped back up the hill slightly to check out the Senjyoukaku shrine. It was by far the most weathered-looking shrine of all the ones we’d seen on the trip (especially when compared to the ones in Kyoto). The large red pagoda standing nearby provided an interesting juxtaposition between old and new, at least in terms of outward appearance.
Heading back down to the shopping street we stopped at a small vendor stall and had some freshly-cooked yakitori (grilled chicken skewers). It was really, really good and it seemed the deer knew this as well since one kept trying to nibble on my skewer as I sat on a small stone wall. The deer just stood there quietly and intently in front of me waiting until I lowered the skewer from where I was hiding it up above my head in order to take a bite (remember, the deer weren’t that big so simply holding it up in the air, even in a seated position, put the skewer well out of its reach).
Next up on our wandering of the island was the fantastic Momijidani Park, well know throughout Japan for its veritable forest of maple trees. And since we were there in late November, they were all right in the middle of their fall colour display. The crowds were heavy here as well.
While it wasn’t part of our itinerary for this trip, one of the best ways to check out Miyajimaguchi is to stay on the island overnight. Once all the tourists leave at the end of the day, you’re left with just the locals and the island more or less to yourself. Inside Momijidani Park was a nice ryokan that was nestled in amongst the trees. The area behind the ryokan was a small valley and featured a faint trickling stream; it was quite picturesque. The stream was fed by the small pond further up the hill.
The Floating Itsukushima shrine
Torii are the gates to shrines, and the Itsukushima shrine is a big one. Due to the tide that rolls in and out, the whole structure is built upon wooden piles so it gives the effect of floating on the water during high tide. On the approach to the shrine from the one side you walk past strings of stone lanterns that would be lit up in a short while once it got a little darker (and in fact these small lanterns stretched most of the way back along the sea wall to the ferry building).
Visitors enter from the one side, meander their way through the winding structure and exit on the other side of the bay in which it stands. Most of the passageways are barren, but there was one length decorated with (empty) 18L canisters of Kikkoman soy sauce, among other things. The sun was getting low which made for some nice views when looking across the shrine. Nearing the far end of the shine was a separate pair of buildings that people couldn’t get to, and they didn’t have the same orange-red paint job as the rest of the shine. They appeared to be very old, similar in appearance to the weathered shrine back on the one hill. The walls partially enclosing the two buildings made it look like it was possibly an area used for ceremonies.
There are a few spots along the rear of the complex where the shrine is connected to the land (it’s not just on either end, however they were all blocked from access in order to keep an orderly flow of people through the shrine), and one of these connections was a very steep bridge arching over what would soon become a waterway. It appeared to be there more for decoration now than any practical purpose, since once you got up close to the bridge you realized just how steep it was. Without good grip on your shoes, it would’ve been difficult to cross the bridge without hauling yourself up and over using the handrails.
All around the shrine — and the nearby pagoda and shrine up the hill — were very tall lightning rods. Given that practically every structure around there were made of wood (not to mention all the large trees covering the island) they were a good preventative measure to have in place. While taking a walk around the back side of the shrine, I spotted the same guy for the third time in last two days; guess he had plans similar to ours.
Nestled between two buildings I came across a set of stairs that led far up the hillside. After climbing by a very old, gnarled tree with a hole clear through the trunk (that itself to have been six feet across at its widest), I arrived at a pagoda in the tahōtō-style. From the vantage point up on top of the hill, you could see the coast of Miyajimaguchi off in the distance with the floating torii right in the middle.
End of the Day
After coming down the hill from the small pagoda I met back up with my brother and we started heading towards the ferry terminal. We stopped partway back around the sea wall and waited for it to get dark. There are large floodlights mounted on opposite sides of the bay which illuminate the floating torii. It’s quite a sight. While waiting for the darkness we got to watch some bug-eating jumping fish having a feeding frenzy in the water right in front of us.
We took a different ferry on the way back — JR runs three ferries the island route — and unlike to the Misen Maru that we took to the island, this one had a plush finished cabin area on the main deck. Back at Miyajimaguchi Station we had to get across the tracks to the far platform in order to grab our train to Hakata. This station didn’t have an elevator, but what they did have was a really cool stair-climbing robot that my brother wheeled onto. We had seen smaller versions of this kind of robot back in Tokyo being used for shuttling cargo and supplies around the stations there, but not one this big nor one for moving people.
Our Rail Star arrived and we were on our way back to Hakata; the electronic scrolling sign at the front of the car said we were cruising along at 285km/h. It was time for a good night’s sleep as the following day we had another big excursion planned with Ryo.