One of the best parts about purchasing a Japan Rail Pass for our trip to Japan was that Julia and I could take day trips from our base in Kyoto on shinkansen bullet trains without the usual times associated with cross-country transportation. Riding the shinkansen is an experience all to itself, and something I would recommend that all visitors to Japan try. Having traveled all across Europe on trains, I’ve developed a fawning admiration for transport by rail. The Japanese trains and shinkansen have taken my love to an entirely new level. So much so, that I plan on devoting an entire post to traveling by train in Japan.
For day two of our trip to Japan, Julia and I decided to visit Miyajima Island for a day trip from Kyoto. To get to Miyajima, we took an early morning shinkansen to Hiroshima (1:30), then a local train to Miyajimaguchi (0:30), before hopping on the JR ferry to Miyajima Island (0:15). The total travel time was about 2 hours 45 minutes. After day of rain and drizzle for our first day in Japan, it was really nice to see clear blue skies for our visit to Miyajima.
As I mentioned above, Miyajima is a small island located just off the shores of Hiroshima. Miyajima is best known for it’s large torii gate which appears to float on the water during high tide. During low tide, visitors can walk out under the gate. For those unfamiliar, torii gates mark the entrance or approach to a shrine in Japan. The torii gate on Miyajima island leads to the famous Itsukushima shrine that was built in 1168. Like the torii gate on the island, the shrine is built on the water as well.
Miyajima is also know for the wild sacred deer that roam the island. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I first read about the sacred deer of Miyajima, but got a much better sense for things as soon as we stepped off of the ferry. The deer are everywhere, and have grown accustomed to living off of the generosity of tourists.
The ferry dock is about one half mile away from Itsukushima Shrine and the main torii gate. The walkway from the dock to Itsukushima is lined with deer, street food vendors, and samurai actors. The walkway also offers beautiful views along the beach. If you get off of the main walkway and see the streets more inland, you’ll find all of the real shops and restaurants. It was at this moment I had the feeling of wanting to stay the night on Miyajima Island instead of the planned daytrip. There are ryokan on the island that would have made for a pretty spectacular overnight trip.
Walking up towards Itsukushima Shrine, we could see the beautiful torii gate coming into view. It’s bright orange beams jutting out of the blue waters of the sea. This is one of those views that no photo can do justice. It’s a good things too, because just as you turn the corner towards Itsukushima Shrine, the line begins. Given the views, it’s not a bad place to wait.
After leaving Itsukushima Shrine and the torii gate behind, our first stop was at Senjokaku Hall. The Hall is located up on a small hill just behind Itsukushima Shrine, and offers incredible views. Senjokaku means pavillion of 1000 mats, describing the size of the hall. The hall dates back to 1587, and is sparse, as it was never completely finished.
After leaving Senjokaku, we made our way to the other side of the inlet to climb the stairs towards Daisho-In Temple. This temple is one of the most important in Shingon Buddhism, as it’s located at the base of Mount Misen. Kobo Daish, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, first began the practice of Buddism on the island of Miyajima.
There are a series of spinning metal wheels on the stairs leading up to Daisho-In. You can spin the wheels on your way up, which gives the same spiritual effect as reading them. This way, you can feel and be blessed if you’re not capable of reading Japanese. There are three hiking trails that lead to the summit of Mt. Misen, and one starts right at Daisho-In. Unfortunately, we were a little short on time, so opted to turn back and take the rope way towards the summit to cut down on our hiking time.
Having visiting the temples and shrine of Miyajima, Julia and I also wanted to get a hike in to the summit of Mt. Misen. Due to our time constraints, we weren’t able to hike one of the three full trails to the summit, so we opted for the ropeway. There are numerous signs and trails that lead to the ropeway, and a lot of really nice shops and restaurants that dot the road along the way. As you walk uphill from the main roads of Miyajima, trees start to fill in around the road, open spaces appear, and you really start to get a feel for the beauty on the island. The journey towards the top of Mt. Misen is actually two ropeways. The first one does the most of the climbing, before hoping on a second car that finishes the job.
The second ropeway drops visitors off at the Shishi-iwa Observatory. From here, there is still a one mile hike with 100 meters of elevation gain to the summit of Mt. Misen. The skies were clear and blue, and we could see Hiroshima and the Seto Inland Sea. The hike to the summit wasn’t just a mountain adventure though, there were also a number of Buddhist structures along the way. These structures are part of the Daisho-In Temple network that we visited earlier in the day.
Hiking is always a peaceful and spiritual experience for me, but to be walking to the place where Kobo Daishi first practiced Buddhism was pretty special. At about the halfway point of our hike we came across the Reikado, where a flame burns that Kobo Daishi first lit when he began practicing on Mt. Misen.
The rest of the hike up was pretty spectacular. The climb to the summit of Mt. Misen includes rock overhangs and splendid views in every direction. A structure is built at the very top and gives 360 degree views of Miyajima Island and Japan. Even though we hadn’t put in the effort of the full hike it was still pretty special to be standing at the summit of Mt. Misen.
After descending Mt. Misen and taking the ropeway back towards the inlet of Miyajima, we hopped back on the ferry to begin our journey home to Kyoto. Day 2 in Japan turned out to be just as incredible as day 1. For day 3, we’d be heading to the holy land of Koyasan, and I was already jittery with excitement.