December 1, 2017

Overnighting on Miyajima

The sacred isle of Miyajima is a well established destination. That said, one great way to avoid the crowds is to spend the night on the island.

The iconic floating torii gate of Miyajima's Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture

The island of Miyajima is one of the most popular attractions in all of Japan. Located to the west of Hiroshima city, the island welcomes boatloads of tourists every day (and even its own own Starbucks as of 2017). The island was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and its iconic “floating” torii is one of the most picturesque views of Japan. In fact, Miyajima is so striking that it has been often ranked as one of the three best views in all of Japan. Hell, even those who haven’t even been to Japan are able to identify the sacred island from time to time!

While Miyajima is firmly located “on the beaten path,” few foreign tourists are aware of a little-known secret about the island. You see, Miyajima is actually home many traditional Japanese ryokan and these make for the perfect overnight experience. The area takes on a relaxed and almost otherworldly vibe after the sun goes down and the tour groups depart. Furthermore, Miyajima is home to so many awesome adventures and venues that it just isn’t possible to do it all without the early start that a stay allows.

Before we continue, you should know that Miyajima is actually the island’s nickname. The official name of the island is Itsukushima. The colloquial title came about due to the island being so closely related to its star attraction, Itsukushima Shrine. Over time, people just started calling it Miyajima which literally translates to “Shrine Island.” This might seem a little confusing at first but the two names are used interchangeably. For simplicity sake, I’ll be sticking with the vernacular nomenclature throughout this piece.

Oh and one last thing! Hold on for the ride; this is going to be another very long piece. I recommend that you grab a cup of joe and set aside some time before beginning. In this article I’ll be covering an entire two day itinerary in great detail. That said, those who read all the way through will know how to avoid the crowds and get the most out of their experience on Miyajima.

Getting to Hiroshima Prefecture & Miyajima

The ferry out to Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

Miyajima is located less than an hour outside of Hiroshima city. For the majority of tourists, this means that a visit will need to fit into an itinerary that takes this into consideration. Hiroshima is home to the infamous Peace Memorial Park and it would be a real shame to miss the memorial due to poor planning. Do your homework here and budget enough time. If you’re interested in the full Miyajima itinerary that I’ll be proposing today, know that you’re going to need a full one-and-a-half days to cover all the bases.

While it is possible to fly, the easiest option is always the bullet train. If you’re coming from Tokyo, you can make it all the way down to Hiroshima in just under four hours. Alternatively, those starting in either Kyoto or Osaka can cut this travel time in half. Like always, refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to figure out the best trains for you. I’d suggest that you add Hiroshima either before or after a visit to Kyoto and/or Osaka as this will allow you to halve the travel time.

Once you’re in Hiroshima, there are several options for getting to Miyajima. While there are direct boats from the city, the easiest way is to just hop on the JR Sanyo Line bound for Iwakuni. Once you arrive at Miyajimaguchi Station, simply get off and walk a few minutes to the harbor. Here you’ll find two competing companies offering ferries out to Miyajima. It doesn’t matter which you choose so just opt for whichever has the next departure. The ferries cost 180 yen and reach the island in just about 10 minutes.

Finding Accommodation on Miyajima

A traditional Japanese ryokan on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

I’ll be frank; there’s a hell of a lot of things to do on Miyajima. Unfortunately though, there’s equally as many tour groups congesting the island. Luckily though, after much personal experience, I’ve managed to come up with an itinerary that will help you avoid the worst of the madness. Since you’ll be overnighting on Miyajima, you’ll have the privilege of visiting many of the best locations well before the hordes arrive.

When it comes to accommodations, Miyajima has a wide variety of options to choose from. The island can cater to all budgets and has lodging ranging from hostels with bunk beds to luxury ryokan. Wikitravel has done a great job of sourcing most of the listings on the island so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll direct you instead to their page.

A Safety Disclaimer for Miyajima’s Wildlife

One of the many wild deer that live on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

Before diving into the details of my proposed itinerary, I want to take a second for a quick warning. Honestly, this shouldn’t even need to be said but alas I’ve seen my fair share of moronic tourists over the years. Anyway, much like Nara, tame deer amble about Miyajima. While the deer are somewhat more restrained than their Nara counterparts, they’re still just as eager for treats. Expect to have these critters rummaging around in bags, purses or backpacks for food.

As you might imagine, visibly holding food is a sure fire way to make a friend for life. These deer are persistent and will stalk you until the end of time if given the opportunity. Also, don’t expect that woofing down your edibles will make them go away either! They are just as happy to chew on your shirttails or pamphlets protruding from your pockets. Heck, I even had one deer friend (get it?) gently chomp away on my finger for a few seconds!

Indeed, the deer on Miyajima are adorably cute (and sometimes adorably stupid) but they are WILD ANIMALS after all. While these buggers are familiar with humans, they are not domesticated like your neighbor’s dog. Be sure to keep this in mind and respect their space. Most of the male deer who wander around the populated areas of Miyajima have had their antlers removed. Nevertheless, there are still a few spirited deer sporting a full rack, especially around Mt. Misen (more on this next).

Day One on Miyajima: Mt. Misen

The summit of Mt. Misen on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

Since we’re going to be overnighting on Miyajima, I’ve curated the following two day itinerary that will allow you to skip the majority of the tour groups. While you won’t have some of the more popular spots ALL to yourself, they should be largely devoid of the hordes. As always, you’re free to skip at leisure but I’d suggest that you maintain the order proposed as I’ve created it with walking distances in mind.

Make a point to arrive on Miyajima no later than 12:30 or 1:00 PM. Getting there any later will leave you rushed and pressed for time. Like many destinations outside of major metropolitan areas, the shops and attractions start closing up around 5:30 PM. If you’re traveling from Tokyo you will need to hop on a 7:00 AM bullet train bound for Hakata in order to arrive early in the day. Spend the time to do your research here!

First-up, you’re going to want to make a beeline past all of Miyajima’s attractions and head straight for Mt. Misen. This mountain is the most sacred site on the island and is home to an amazing collection of ancient Buddhist sites. If the vague historical records are to be believed, Buddhism was first practiced here by the legendary engineer-monk Kukai in 806. Since then, it has been patronized by some of Japanese history’s most prominent figures.

Gluttons for punishment will rejoice to know that you can actually hike to the summit of Mt. Misen via any one of three routes to the top. In the interest of time however I recommend that you take the ropeway instead. Even with the help of modern transportation, there will still be a twenty to thirty minute climb waiting for you once you reach the top. Be wise and save your energy for that portion of the trail which the ropeway does not cover.

A bridge in the Momiji Valley on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

The fee for the ropeway is priced rather steeply at 1,000 yen each way. But, you can save a few hundred yen by buying round trip tickets. You’ll find the the base station for the ropeway located in the middle of Miyajima’s Momiji Valley Park (here’s a link to a Google Map). This area is home to thousands of Japanese maple trees and is a popular hangout for the island’s wild deer. As can be seen in the shot above though, the park truly comes alive in autumn when the trees change to vibrant hues of red and yellow.

Coming back to the ropeway though, know that the journey up is divided into two sections. You’ll start the ascent at the Momijidani Station and transfer halfway up at Kayatani Station. There isn’t really an opportunity to wander off at any point so this is all rather straightforward. Just kick back and enjoy the breathtaking scenery of Miyajima and the Seto Inland Sea. Especially during autumn, the spectacular view is to die for.

One of the ropeway stations on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

Not including wait times (which can get downright ugly on weekends), the journey up the mountainside takes a combined 15 minutes. The ropeway will leave you off at Shishi Iwa Station (picture above) which is 443 meters above sea level. Thereafter, you’ll need to resort to hoofing it for the remaining 150 meters to the summit. While the climb should be feasible for those of varying fitness levels, it is by no means easy. There are no vending machines at the top so be sure to grab a water at Shishi Iwa Station while you’re at it.

The upper areas of Mt. Misen are also home to seven wonders. Many of these are en route to the summit and are worth keeping an eye out for. These intriguing spots are as follows:

  • The Eternal Flame
    This spiritual flame has been kept burning for more than 1200 years since Kukai originally lit it as part of his training. Today, you’ll find the flame located in Reika Hall which you’ll encounter about five minutes before reaching the summit. What’s more, this flame was actually used to light the “Flame of Peace” in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.
  • Plum of the Crosier
    As the legend holds, the crosier that Kukai rested upon is said to have taken root and blossomed into a plum tree. Folklore tells the tree never blossoms when there are ominous happenings in the world.
  • The-Ebb-and-Flow Rock
    This boulder has a tiny hole which fills with water when the tides flows in. Given it’s located 500 meters up on Mt. Misen, this is rather peculiar indeed.
  • Mandara-iwa
    While no longer open to the public, this spot has the handwriting of Kukai engraved into the bedrock. Seeing as Kukai basically invented the modern Japanese system of writing, this is a majorly historical spot!
  • Wooden Clappers
    Local folklore asserts that the occasional audible sounds of wooden clappers at night originates from a tengu. It is said that the long-nosed goblin prowls the mountain at night doling out curses to all.
  • Moist Sakura Tree
    OK, this one baffles my mind. This cherry blossom tree remains seemingly wet to the touch all year round, even when there hasn’t been rain for weeks…
A cute Jizo statue on Mt. Misen  Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

From the list above it’s obvious that there’s some supernatural phenomenon happening on Mt. Misen. Take your time exploring. In addition to the above list, there are also a number of smaller structures like the Misen Hondo that warrant a quick peek. Most of these officially belong to Daisho-in Temple which you’ll visit on day two. Be sure to keep an eye out for the adobe Jizo-san statues that adorn the landscape. Many of them are hilariously cute like the one pictured above.

Once you’ve had your fill of Mt. Misen’s spiritual happenings and attractions, continue on to the summit. Here, you’ll find a small modern pavilion with a 360 degree view of Miyajima and the Seto Inland Sea. It is said that on a clear day you can see as far as Shikoku, another one of Japan’s four major islands. I don’t want to spoil the breathtaking scenery by inserting an iPhone photo so you’ll just need to trust me here.

After taking in the magnificent view, prepare to head back down the mountain. While I’d encourage you to take your time at the observatory, you should know that the final ropeway leaves Shishiiwa Station at 5:00 PM. Given the fact that it can take up to an hour in line during busy seasons, you’ll want to allow for plenty of time. After all, I don’t imagine you want to hike all the way back down to the base of Mt. Misen. Well… on second thought, this might actually be a faster option when the mountain and ropeway are crowded!

Day One on Miyajima: The Isle at Night

The iconic floating torii gate of Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture at night

After descending Mt. Misen, it will likely be time to check into your hotel or ryokan. Typically, check-ins are not allowed until after 2:00 or 3:00 PM. However, many lodgings will allow you to store your bags beforehand. After a quick stop over in your room, you’ll want to get ready to head back out. Many of the tourists will start departing the island around this time meaning you’ll be able to enjoy the island’s iconic torii in peace without the crowds.

Be sure to also check the tides too. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to walk out to the torii just as the sun is beginning to set. It’s a surreal experience that I highly encourage you to try if the timing works out. Once the sun falls below the horizon, a series of powerful lights will turn on and illuminate both the torii gate and the nearby Itsukushima Shrine. While the above photo certainly isn’t my best work, the illuminations are really a spectacular sight to behold.

For those staying overnight on Miyajima, a common nighttime tradition is to don a yukata and stroll around the island. Itsukushima Shrine is unfortunately not open at night but just seeing it lit up is enough of a treat. These amazing illuminations are a major attraction but just be mindful of possible encounters with the local wildlife. The deer are out in numbers at night hunting for any leftover scraps of food.

A lantern from a shop on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

In addition to the shrine, there’s another spot that I recommend you check out. While not well known to visitors, there are some amazing lanterns on the island all meant for marveling. You’ll find these on the Machiya street that runs parallel to the main Omotesando shopping street. If this seems confusing, just follow this Google Map. It will lead you to a ryokan called Ryoso Kawaguchi that has called the Machiya street home for over 100 years.

Things to do at night aside, let’s talk dinner and drinks. Many ryokan will provide dining options for patrons but you’ll also have the option of eating out on the island. Keep in mind that most island venues tend to close on the early side. In fact, only a few Izakaya are open until 11:00PM. Should you be on the lookout for more then you’re only alternative is a single bar that is open until 1:00 AM. You’ll find this establishment located about halfway down the main shopping street.

Fresh oysters are the local speciality of Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

You should also know that Miyajima and the Seto Inland Sea are famous for their oysters. It’s one of the island’s meibutsu and you’d do well to sample a few. You’ll find shops and restaurants featuring raw, grilled, and fried oysters all over the island. Just pick your favorite; you can’t go wrong! I’ve had my fair share of shellfish over the year and I must say that nothing compares to the freshness of Miyajima’s oysters.

Other than the above, there is not a lot to do at night on Miyajima per say. While this “chill time” can be charming in and of itself, I also suggest you consider getting to bed early. If you’re keen on avoiding the crowd, you’re going to need to get up rather early. I’d recommend that you have an early dinner and then investigate the shared bath or onsen at your ryokan (if available). Next, hit the hay by 11:00 PM and prepare for another long day.

Day Two on Miyajima: Itsukushima Shrine

A koma-inu in front of Itsukushima Shrine on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

The sheer number of tour groups passing through Itsukushima Shrine can be downright oppressive. During the early hours of the morning though, chances are quite high that you’ll have the shrine all to yourself. Miyajima’s iconic shrine is open from 6:00 AM and the earlier you can get there, the less people you’ll need to worry about. I would suggest you get there no later than 8:00 AM as that’s about the time the first tour groups start arriving on the island.

There’s plenty of information available online about Itsukushima Shrine. In the spirit of keeping things as brief as possible, allow me to quickly present the “Cliffs Notes” version. The present structures date back to the 16th century and models an earlier 12th century design. Though the shrine’s origins date back even further, Itsukushima Shrine, as we know it, was created in 1168 by the warlord Taira-no-Kiyomori.

The most iconic and defining feature of Itsukushima Shrine is the fact that it is built out on the water. The shrine was constructed on pier-like structures over the bay so that it would stand separately from the island itself. Miyajima and its major shrine are dedicated to the three daughters of Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the god of seas and storms. Historically because of this connection, only the devote were allowed to set foot on Miyajima to maintain its purity.

Itsukushima Shrine and its easily recognizable torii gate were built such that they appear to float on the surface of the water. In bygone days, commoners would need to steer their boats through the colossal archway before approaching the shrine. Over the years, there has been an immense importance placed upon maintaining the purity of the shrine. Since 1878, no births or deaths have been permitted near the shrine. Even today, burials on the island are forbidden.

The noh hall of Itsukushima Shrine on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

When exploring Itsukushima Shrine, one thing you should keep an eye out for is the Noh theater pictured above. This was added in 1590 as a means of entertaining the gods enshrined on Miyajima. Much like the rest of the shrine, it too has been fashioned to appear to float upon water when the tides come in. You’ll find the theater just before exiting the shrine. I can only imagine how magical it must have been to see a live performance here in days of yore.

Lastly, before moving on, know that Itsukushima Shrine also has a sizable treasure hall. This is located here on the left hand side of the shrine’s exit and it will run you an additional few hundred yen to enter. The treasure hall has some interesting artifacts on display making it worth the price of entry. But if you’re off to a late start, it’s not what I’d consider a “must see.”

Day Two on Miyajima: Daigan-ji

The Daigan-ji temple complex on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

After exiting Itsukushima Shrine you’ll find the aforementioned treasure hall on the left side and a small Buddhist temple on your right. This facility is called Daigan-ji and dates back to 1201. History indicates that the temple was actually once responsible for the maintenance of Itsukushima Shrine prior to Meiji government’s imperial decree that separated Buddhism and Shinto. Daigan-ji is home to four Buddha statues which have all been designated as National Important Cultural properties. One of these, the Medicine Buddha, is actually said to have been made by Kukai himself.

The entire Daigan-ji Temple complex is under the watch of Benzaiten, the goddess of eloquence, music, wisdom, and wealth. The temple is considered one of the most important monuments to Benzaiten in Japan. Along with Enoshima in Kanagawa Prefecture, and Chikubushima in Shiga Prefecture, Miyajima is often hailed as one of the three great islands dedicated to the goddess. All three of these areas claim that Benzaiten descended from the heavens there first, leading to a bit of contention of which is “correct.”

Day Two on Miyajima: Daisho-in

The main hall of the Daisho-in temple complex on Miyajima

After visiting Itsukushima Shrine and Daigan-ji Temple, it will be time to make your way to Miyajima’s most prominent temple. Known as Daisho-in, this complex is more of a loose connection of many structures versus a single attraction. The temple was originally founded in the 12th century by Emperor Toba and has long maintained ties to the imperial line. As alluded to before, the buildings found on top of Mt. Misen officially belong to Daisho-in too. You’ll find the establishment at the end of a long street that starts to the left of the treasure hall.

Though not as well known as Itsukushima Shrine, Daisho-in is, at least in my eyes, far more interesting. The temple grounds are nestled among the trees of Mt. Misen and are less crowded than those of Miyajima’s premiere shrine. Furthermore, while the seaside Itsukushima Shrine is indeed visually stunning there’s actually a lot more to DO here at Daisho-in. Because of this, I find that the latter is far more entertaining.

Rakan statue outside of the Daisho-in temple complex on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

So what’s Daisho-in got to offer? Well, immediately after passing the first point of entry, the Niomon gate, you’ll find yourself at the foot of a flight of stairs. Turn left and you’ll be greeted with a side path that is lined with 500 statues as can be seen above. Known as Rakan in Japanese, each of these represents a disciple of the Buddha and are uniquely hand carved. You’ll find the whole range of human emotions expressed across the collection. Keep your eyes out for some Jizo statues that sport animals from the Chinese zodiac.

At the end of the rakan path you’ll encounter Daisho-in’s belfry. Long ago the belfry rung out in the morning, afternoon, and evening as a means of keeping time. Today, it is used to signify the hour of worship. Unlike many temples, you are actually free to give it a ring so don’t pass on this rare opportunity! Next to the belfry you’ll also find a little game you can partake in. For 300 yen, you can purchase three balls. If you can throw any one of the balls successfully into a target receptacle then your wish is said to come true.

After taking in the belfry, you’ll come upon the main temple area. Here you will discover many Buddhist statues and iconography inside the various buildings. You’ll even find a sand mandala created by visiting monks from Tibet. To be honest, this section of Daisho-in can actually be a bit overwhelming so do take your time here. As you meander about be sure to refer to the temple’s pamphlet as it comes with a good map that explains everything in detail. While I’m typically not a fan of these handouts, the one for Daisho-in is very well done and provides some much needed context about Buddhist mythos.

A statue of a tengu at Daisho-in during autumn on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

Once you’ve thoroughly explored the central area, head deeper into the complex. Soon you’ll happen upon the Tengu statue pictured above. While I couldn’t happen upon a concrete answer, chances are high that this is symbolic of the Tengu with the wood clappers mentioned in the Mt. Misen section. Anyway, here the path forks and you’re going to want to take the right path up the flight of stairs. At the top, you’ll happen upon Maniden Hall which houses one-thousand images of the Buddha of Infinite Light.

A Buddhist statue at Daisho-in on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

Just past the Maniden call you’ll find a collection of more Buddhist statues and iconography. My favorite was the adorable collection of animal-sporting Jizo statues as seen above. Like with the Rakan path, there’s one for each of the Chinese zodiac but I found these to be much more intricately carved. Before visiting Daisho-in, look up your sign and be sure to find your animal. Here you’ll also find a monument dedicated to old kitchen knives that are no longer usable. Refer to the pamphlet for more information.

Moving on, at the very end of the precinct, you’ll find an underground cave. Unfortunately, my camera doesn’t perform well in low lighting settings but it’s absolutely stunning inside the cave. Furthermore, this dimly lit grotto is home to eighty-eight Buddha statues. These are said to represent the prestigious pilgrimage in Shikoku. Worshipers of Daisho-in believe that they can receive the same benefits of the arduous eighty-eight temple journey just by completing the short circuit in the cave. Talk about a life hack!

Dharma wheels at Daisho-in on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

Before moving on, here’s an interesting little vignette. Throughout the Daisho-in complex you’ll see prayer wheels like the ones above. These actually have the sutras inscribed upon them and it is said that spinning one is equivalent to having chanted it. The practice emerged as a way for the illiterate to still be able to bask in the Buddha’s glory even though they couldn’t read the scriptures themselves.

Day Two on Miyajima: Senjokaku

The five-storied pagoda on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

At this point you’re likely feeling famished so head back towards the main shopping areas. Just know that most restaurants will be overflowing with both international and domestic tourists at this time so be prepared to wait. If you’re not blessed with an abundance of patience, I suggest making a detour and heading back through the Momiji Valley Park. Here you’ll find a few mom and pop shops selling old fashioned homemade food. If you’re feeling short on time, you’ll also find plenty of street vendors about the island. These will allow you to save time by eating on the go.

Our next and final stop will be Senjokaku (also called Toyokuni Shrine) and its neighboring five-story pagoda. After refueling, you’ll want to search the skyline for the towering structure and make your way over. For some reason if you can’t find it, refer to this Google Map. That said, you should have no trouble locating the pagoda. Situated high on a hill and standing 27.6 meters tall, the pagoda makes its presence known.

The massive Senjokaku on Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

Senjokaku (pictured above) literally translates to “1,000 Tatami Mat Pavilion.” This is an apt description of the gargantuan wooden hall as it is easy to imagine so many mats fitting inside. The structure was originally built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587 and was intended to be a library housing Buddhist books and scriptures. Though the pavilion was never fully completed, it’s mammoth skeleton still adorns the island of Miyajima to this day. Entering will run you 100 yen.

Next to Senjokaku is a five-story pagoda that was first completed in 1407. In years gone by, the pagoda enshrined the Buddha of Medicine who was accompanied by the Buddhist saints Fugen and Monju. Today, these have been move to Daigan-ji following the separation of Buddhism and Shinto in the early Meiji Period (1868–1912). One of the unique structural features is the pagoda’s central pillar which extends from the peak of the roof only to the second story — instead of to the foundation. This structure is said to be one of only five examples in Japan.

Day Two on Miyajima: Getting Home

The ferry home from Hiroshima Prefecture’s island of Miyajima

After checking out Senjokaku and the pagoda, it will be time to wind down your visit. If you haven’t already, be sure to hit up the Omotesando shopping street for some goodies to bring home with you. In addition to oysters, Momiji Manju cakes are also another one of Miyajima’s meibutsu. These come filled with a variety of things ranging from cream to red bean paste. You can even get them fried on a stick but expect to wait in a very long line; these things are as good as they are popular.

Once you’re finished with Miyajima, all that is left to do is head back toward the ferry terminal. Those heading back to Tokyo will need to get off the island no later than around 5:00 PM to catch the last bullet trains from Hiroshima. Should you have other arrangements and opt to eat dinner on Miyajima, just be mindful of the time. The final ferries are pretty early by Japan’s standards so don’t get stuck out on the island. Here are the schedules for reference.