Miyajima was one of my highlights from our trip to Japan. This might have something to do with it being the first time Ben and I had seen deer up close. I worried about them being so unfazed around humans, but can’t deny that I enjoyed seeing them at every turn!
We also got to admire a wedding ceremony from the sidelines at the beautiful Itsukushima shrine and got lost in row upon row of Buddha statues, often sporting a variety of knitted hats or bibs. Here’s a rundown of my favourite parts of the island…
There’s something about seeing deer at close quarters that feels like a scene from a fairy story. I half expected squirrels, birds and other woodland creatures would descend at any moment and we would all wander the island together!
I felt twangs of concern for them of course. After all, they are wild animals that have unnaturally begun to seek out human contact. Signs repeatedly tell the public not to feed them but they do. Even those people who don’t voluntarily offer food find themselves prey to the shameless deer. Fair warning: if food is revealed the deer will take this as permission to start exploring your bag. Or begin to nudge you to make their wishes known.
Miyajima or Itsukushima?
The island’s official name is Itsukushima, but Miyajima (meaning “shrine island”) is more commonly used.
Where to see the deer
You don’t need to worry about seeking deer out. There are plenty along the seafront walk from the ferry terminal to the Itsukushima Shrine. I guess because this is the busiest thoroughfare, and the people wandering along often have food!
After getting over the initial excitement of seeing such lovely wild animals up close, we thought visiting Momijidani Park might be a nice way to see them in a more natural environment. There were a few deer up there but on the whole the place looked rather lifeless and there wasn’t much to see. It was winter when we visited, though. The park might be a better spot in spring or autumn, for the blossom and autumnal colours respectively.
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine and its Great Torii
This floating shrine and its torii gate are UNESCO listed and the main attraction on the island. The structure is all wooden, tottering above the tide on stilts, much of it painted an eye-catching persimmon.
When to visit
In my view the torii is at its best when the tide is high, so if that’s your main reason for visiting it may be worth checking tide times. At low tide the whole thing looks a bit out of place, although if you want to approach the gate on foot then obviously low tide is the time to do so.
There’s a small cost for entry to the Itsukushima Shrine, but there are good views of the gate and it’s unique just for being out on the water. Besides this though, it doesn’t offer a tremendous amount. We were fortunate to be able to glimpse parts of a wedding ceremony, which lent a lot of added interest for me.
Daisho-in Shingon Temple
Ultimately, we preferred the Daisho-in temple to the Itsukushima shrine. It was free, there were fewer people around and there was so much more to see!
I’ve already mentioned the woollen-clad Buddhas, which came in so many different shapes and sizes. We also found free green tea, several impressive pagodas and an elaborately decorated underground room (with lanterns lining the ceiling, see above!).
It’s in a lovely, rather pastoral setting and, given that the temple is so elevated, many parts afford decent views (well deserved after climbing quite a few steps). There was also a really informative leaflet on hand detailing some of the history of Buddhism and the Shingon sect in particular, giving context to the places we were seeing.
On our way back into town we also made sure to stop off at the Five Story Pagoda. This is worth a look but In general I think pagodas look better from afar, nestled in the landscape.
What we missed
The island held more attractions than we had time for. We were unable to climb Mount Misen (or take the ropeway) to take in the panoramic views. We also missed the several other temples/shrines on the island and didn’t see the Old District or history museum. Though we did attempt to track down a non-bean version of a Momiji Manjyu cake (to cater to my allergies), such a thing seemed not to exist! So we didn’t get to try the maple leaf-shaped Miyajima speciality…
If I was going back I would love to stay overnight to enjoy the island after the tourists leave, but even on such a flying visit Miyajima was absolutely worth the trip.
There are a couple of ways to reach Miyajima from Hiroshima. We took the JR Sanyo line train to Miyajimaguchi and then headed to the ferry terminal (a very short walk from the station via an underpass). We then took a JR ferry to the island, free with the Japan Rail pass (hoorah!). I was delighted it was so straightforward.
Over to you
Have you visited Miyajima / Itsukushima before? Would you add it to your itinerary?