Miyajima, the Shrine Island

I’d been recommended to visit this island by many people but I’d never really known why. Even when I was on the ferry to the island I was thinking, ‘Why is this place so special?’ Just because someone built a red torii gate on a sandy beach doesn’t mean it should be on the ‘Must See’ list of Japan.

At first, it appeared to be another Nara, heaving with tourists and tame deer only this time they sold fish-cakes on a stick. In other places of the world, when a place becomes so popular and overcrowded it loses its popularity and another place becomes the ‘must-see’ of the moment. However here in Japan it seems people flock to the same historic tourist sights, all at the specific times of year and the crowds do little to deter visitors. Miyajima, as one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan is definitely in the ‘over-visited’ category.

Yet when I discovered the significance of the island for Japanese people, I understood why it was so popular. The main reason is because the island is thought to be sacred because of Itsukushima Shrine. There have been shrines on the island since the 6th century where Noh performances have been used to pay honour to the gods and act out the myths of Shinto beliefs. The toori is a feature of the Itsukushima shrine and there has been a torri gate there since 1168. The 2000 people who live on the island must still follow the rules of the sacred shrine so that no deaths or births happen on the island. So pregnant women about to deliver or very elderly people who may imminently die to have to retreat to the mainland.

Despite it’s religious significance it was still too crowded for me to visit the shrine, so I decided to get away from the crowds by climbing the 530m high mountain on the island. Still dressed for a city, minus the heels, I started the climb the steep, paved path. The path was empty apart from tourists coming down who were wishing me ”Good luck!”. I had a moment of uncertainty about my climbing abilities, but then I thought ”Come on, I’d climbed Mount Fuji, this is going to be a walk in the park!”

Walking alone up this tropical mountain, with the threat of hungry monkeys and other animals lurking in the forest, made me think of another mountain I’d climbed, Mount Emei in Sichuan province, China. For two days my fellow traveller and I walked, step after step, to the top of the mountain in hope of seeing the sunrise at the top. Looking back, I don’t know how we endured it. The endless monotonous of the steps makes it more a mental than a physical challenge! But thankfully, this climb was over in just an hour and I’d thoroughly recommend it. The path can be managed by most people if they took it at their own pace and had a sturdy pair of shoes. If you do climb it, or cheat and take the cable car, there are beautiful panoramic views across the Inland Sea and of Hiroshima city.

One of my family’s traditions is to call someone at the top of anywhere high, so using Skype on my magical iPhone I was successfully able to wake my parents up and share with them the good news, ‘I’ve just climbed a mountain’ (not revealing it was only 500m high). They did well to cover their morning voices and act excited that I’d called. Then my friend Julia, a UK JET living on Shikoku, arrived at the top of the mountain. We’d arranged to meet here so it wasn’t just a lucky coincidence! It was great to see Julia and we walked down together sharing stories of our first five months in Japan.

It was dusk when we reached the town and the sea had receded from the torii. Another charm of Miyajima was walking under the gate and putting a coin in the cracks if the wooden legs to receive good luck. It was still too damp under foot to do that but we took photos and enjoyed the view. I admit the place did feel special at this time of night and with fewer tourists I can imagine how this scene became so celebrated in the first place.

If you really wanted to experience the best of this island, I’d suggest you stay overnight here. The only hostel on the island looks great and they hire kayaks that you can use to paddle through the torii gate, without the crowds.

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