Discover Miyajima, the godly island near Iwakuni

Discover Miyajima, the godly island near Iwakuni

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

If you are stationed on Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, or happen to be visiting there, you will definitely want to check out Kintaikyo Bridge and Iwakuni Castle. However, there’s a little piece of paradise that is also a must-see destination: Miyajima Island.

Known as one of Japan’s three most scenic attractions (Matsushima islands in Miyagi and the Ama-no-Hashidate sandbar in Kyoto are the others), this small island just off the coast of Hiroshima Prefecture attracts more than 4 million tourists a year, according to Hatsukaichi City.

Recently, I was one of those 4 million visitors. I drove 40 minutes along Route 2 from MCAS Iwakuni till I reached Miyajima-guchi Port. From there, I took a 10-minute ferry ride to Miyajima Island. 

It was an exciting experience as the ferry closed in on the island. In the distance my eyes focused on the famous vermilion colored Torii gate rising from the sea and Itsukushima Shrine sitting majestically on the wooden structure protruding from the water. I had seen them in pictures and on TV, but never in person. I knew immediately why so many people flock to this area.

Itsukushima Shrine and Grand Torii Gate

Strolling along the shore toward Itsukushima Shrine, I saw a lot of wild deer playing in the street. To say they looked comfortable around people is an understatement. According to a souvenir shop keeper I chatted with, they wander around the island just like tourists do during the daytime, and sleep along the shore at night.

Itsukushima Shrine was originally built and dedicated to the Shinto gods in 593. The structure has repeatedly been repaired and rebuilt. The current structure was built in the 16th century. Although most of the shrine is closed to the public, tourists can walk around its main deck, along the main altar and noh performance stage.

Erected in 1875, the O-Torii (Grand Torii Gate) is the most well-known structure of the Itsukushima Shrine. The main pillars are approximately 43 feet tall, 33 feet in circumference and the crossbeam is approximately 77 feet long. It is really amazing that such a gigantic gate stands firmly by its own weight with four supporting pillars.

A note to folks about something I did not know until my visit: The shrine and O-Torii do not always stand in the sea.

In fact, fortunately or unfortunately, when I reached the shrine, it was at low tide and the shrine and Torii gate were standing in mud. Although I was not able to enjoy the view of the vivid vermillion lacquered structure reflecting in the rippling water, I was able to simply walk along the sea floor right up to the gate for a close look.

As the sea bottom was really muddy, many tourists wore sandals or “geta” (wooden clogs) to keep from getting wet and muddy. 

Christina Phillips from Jackson, Miss., who is a student advisor at a local university, told me that she was really surprised to see the gate standing in the muck since she had only seen pictures of it surrounded by water.

“But I liked it,” Phillips said. “I could go and touch it.” Phillips also said that she enjoyed the traditional inn on the island and its oyster dishes.

“It is beautiful,” said Zoe Morning, from Wisconsin, an Instructor for the “People to People Student Ambassador Program” who took nearly 50 students to the island for their cultural exchange activities.

“I think the shrine is just lovely, and someday I’d like to come back and see it in high tide,” Morning said.

If you have a preference on whether you see the structures in the ocean or not, you should check the tide forecast before visiting.

But I think the biggest question all of us have is why the shrine and tori were built in the water in the first place.

According to shrine legend, because Miyajima Island had been worshiped as a god for centuries, the shrine could not be erected on the island. And to this day, there are no cemeteries on the island because no one is allowed to die there. Nor are folks allowed to be born there. When either time comes, it must be done on the mainland.

Daishoin Temple
After leaving the shrine, I walked for about 5 minutes until I saw an old traditional gate and stairway leading to Daishoin Temple. Founded by Kukai in 806, it is one of the most prestigious temples in the western part of Japan. Since the 12th century when Emperor Toba established his prayer hall within the temple, it has been closely connected with Japan’s imperial family.

Climbing up the stairs, I saw a lot of statues of Buddha in various structures or caves. Among them, the Henjokutsu Cave was really impressive. Although dimly lit, I saw 88 statues of Buddha in the cave. With recorded sutra recitations and the powerful aroma of incense, the cave interior was filled with a mysterious otherworldly atmosphere.

Despite long and steep slopes, this solemn temple is well worth visiting.

Momijidani and Omotesando Street

I then strolled through Momijidani Park while enjoying the quiet and well-maintained maple trees. The beautiful surrounding 700 maples were a refreshing green when I visited. But they will turn to breath-taking reds and yellows in November.

I tried to go up to the summit of Mount Misen using a ropeway from the station at Momijidani Park, but it was out of service due to a periodical maintenance. I was told it would take me at least 2 hours to climb the 1,740-feet summit, so I made my way down to Omotesando Street.

Omotesando Street is the busiest street on the Island. As the street is located on the way back to the pier, most visitors go through it. You can get various souvenirs such as wooden ladles and spoons, or sample local specialties like oysters, “anago” eel, or “momiji manju” sweets. It was fun checking everything out.

Location: Hatsukaichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture (40-minute drive from MCAS Iwakuni)
Area: 7,510-square acres
Population: 1,942
Attractions: Itsukushima Shrine, O-Torii, Daishoin Temple, Mount Misen, Momijidani and Omotesando Street
Tel: 0829-44-2011 (Miyajima Tourist Association)

Itsukushima Shrine
Hours: Daily, 6:30 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Address: Miyajimacho, Hatsukaichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture
Admission: Adults, 300 yen ($2.50); high school students, 200 yen; elementary and middle school students, 100 yen.
Tel: 0829-44-2020

Daishoin Temple
Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Address: 210 Miyajimacho, Hatsukaichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture
Admission: Free
Tel: 0829-44-0111

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