This was a day I was looking forward to so as always I showed that by waking up extra early planning to take the first ferry of the day to Miyajima (6:25am). I arrived to Dobashi Station a bit before six but saw that the first tram going down to Hiroden Miyajima-guchi Station wasn’t until 6:40, so I had to wait around until then. A man had fallen asleep on the couch of the hostel’s common room so I had my breakfast (that I first thought to eat at the island) silently as I tried not to wake him up.
Even if there had been an earlier tram, I wouldn’t have arrived to the ferry in time: the ride took about an hour when I had imagined something closer to twenty minutes. The first tram was surprisingly popular though, I was only one of the twenty people who got off at the last stop and made their way straight to the ferry. The ticket counters were all closed but I didn’t need to stop since I had my pass with me, so I followed the rest and chose a seat on the top floor of the ferry.
Apparently I sat on the wrong side and had to stand up during the ride to see the gate as we reached the island.
Thinking that the place would be empty at that time, I was wrong. The ferry port was full, a line of people waiting to go through the gates while a guard was checking everyone’s tickets. I hurried to get out of there quickly and headed straight for the main attraction of the island, Itsukushima Shrine.
Itsukushima Shrine was full of priests running around getting the place ready for the day and a few workers of the island doing their daily visit before they had to open the stores.
The reason I was so eager to get here early was because high tide was at 6:30am, I wanted to see Itsukushima Shrine while it looked like it was floating. It’s actually thought to have been built on water as an attempt to imitate the Ryugu Palace under the sea, learning this detail made my visit more exciting because of my aforementioned love of Urashima Tarou, who was brought to the Palace Under the Sea as a thanks for saving the turtle. This, or the other opinion is that it’s a manifestation of the buddhist Pure Land (when people die their soul crosses by boat to the other side).
The shrine has many interesting architectural details unique to a structure being built on water, for example the floor of the corridors has spaces between different floorboards so at high tide, when the water level rises, the water can escape through these cracks and there’s less pressure against the floor from below. Commoners weren’t allowed to step on the sacred island in the past, they had to reach the shrine by boat after passing through the torii.
Just arriving I came to see the small Marodo Shrine Haraiden, a separated hall with beautiful latticework and a purification hall. Two lines of priests were sitting inside in silence, staring intently at the floor in front of them, while one of them kneeled in front of each one and gave them something. They seemed concentrated in what they were doing and I didn’t want to stand and observe them for too long in case it annoyed them, so I continued my way down the corridor.
The lanterns along the way are dedicated to Mori Terumoto and the stage one sees just before leaving the shrine is said to be the oldest Noh stage in Japan! I spotted a couple of white herons walking around in the water so I stayed to look at them, until a woman finally passed by and I asked for they typical photo of me with the torii behind. Itsukushima Shrine was nice and calm during the morning, I especially liked the roof and the wooden planks fitted together, the brilliant red colour of course made the shrine stand out between the trees and from far away.
In front of the shrine is the Treasure Hall, I looked at it from the outside but didn’t want to pay to go inside, so I made my way up to the five-storied pagoda (Gojunoto) that can be seen from just about any point of the town to have a look at it from up close.
The Senjokaku was one of my favourite spots of Miyajima, a group of loud Chinese tourists were leaving just as I arrived and I had the place mostly all to myself, the only other people being the women behind the counter and a young man mopping the floor up and down.
Senjokaku receives its name from its size, that of one thousand (sen) tatami mats able to fit in the hall. Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered this hall to be built in 1587 to console the souls of the war dead but it was renamed ‘Hokoku Shrine’ in 1872 and dedicated to the founder of the hall after his death. It now serves as an auxiliary shrine of Itsukushima Jinja.
The place smelled strongly of wood and I especially loved to look at the plenty of pictures on wood hanging from the roof portraying legends and yokai to historical figures. A pile of beautiful old rice scoops were hidden in a corner and the hall was nice and cool in contrast to the sun outside.
I walked around the smaller streets of the town for a while, up to Momijidani Park full of bugs and up a small hill, sitting down at the top to eat my second breakfast. As I joined the main street again I saw that there were now many more people than when I had arrived, so I decided to go to the Folklore Museum in case later it got crowded. I first stopped at Daiganji Temple near the exit of Itsukushima Shrine along the way, I hadn’t seen it before because it’s overshadowed by the floating shrine and the Treasure Hall, but it’s actually quite big.
A large class of foreign tourists (from England, judging by their accents) were shouting and taking blocking the entrance, I had to go through the only gap left between them. There main hall was full of people inside with one of the monks chanting at the front of the room and the temple had a vast selection of omamori. It was full and noisy so I left soon after without looking around much.
The Miyajima History and Folklore Museum was amazingly good (the bathrooms offer nice views of the Tahoto Pagoda too).
It starts with a cold dark storehouse with a stone floor, the room full of enormous pots that could fit people inside, jars, wooden buckets, cauldrons, old tools and saws. All piled together with the only space between being a path leading to the door out the opposite side of the room, I stood around and looked at them all one by one. Reluctantly I continued my way, I knew I couldn’t stand here all day (it turned out to be my favourite display, although there was some tough competition).
The mentioned door leads to a room focused on Miyajima’s festivals, little boats and models constructed next to the explanations and old photos of every event. The next is another storehouse with giant rice scoops covering the walls and smaller ones in display cases, some with writing, some with pictures or old with age. There were plenty tools shown to be used to make them, some strange looking things that I don’t even know how they would be used. Someone had gone to the effort of making ten half-scoops, stopping the process every step of the way so we could see how they are made.
Following the signs led me to the next building, a modern one with two floors, automatic doors and very strong air-con. The first floor mostly talked about Itsukushima Shrine and the gate, while I didn’t stop long to look at the photos I did sit down to watch the video playing on loop and learnt many interesting facts about the torii.
I definitely stayed the longest time on the second floor together with the golden folding screens, paintings, old maps and ancient documents. There were very good descriptions and plenty of pictures that helped understand the history of the island I knew absolutely nothing about.
It’s a bit hard to follow because there are so many names and ups and downs involved, but I’ll try to explain it so it’s understandable.
The story starts when Sue Harukata overthrew Ôuchi Yoshitaka, forcing him to commit seppuku; Ôuchi Yoshinaga became the next head of the Ôuchi clan but he was mostly just Sue’s puppet.
Mōri Motonari wanted to avenge the betrayed Yoshitaka and hence attacked and defeated Sue at the so-called Battle of Oshikibata. Mōri then built a fort (Miyao Castle) on Miyajima making it visible from the mainland and a tempting target. He knew that there were spies of Sue in his forces, suspecting who they were he made sure to spread the rumour that the fort wouldn’t last long if it were attacked.
Sue didn’t hesitate to head off to the island and take Miyao Castle (Mōri meanwhile seized Sakurao Castle, Sue’s castle on the mainland, taking advantage of his absence). Mōri had the help of local pirates who agreed to transport his troops to Miyajima; Mōri Motonari, along with his forces and two of his sons (Kikkawa Motoharu and Mōri Takamoto, it’s funny because these two are both the fathers of Kikkawa Hiroie, lord of Iwakuni Castle I’d be visiting tomorrow, and Mōri Terumoto, lord of Hiroshima Castle, respectively) arrived to the east of the island out of site of Miyao Castle, while a third son arrived from the front. As the third son attacked Miyao Castle from the front gate Mōri hit from behind, taking Sue completely by surprise.
While most of the Ôuchi forces were defeated, Sue himself escaped from Miyao Castle and wondered around the island for a few days. He killed himself when he saw that escape from the island was impossible.
Before finishing the history part, it’s worth mentioning that the pirates whom helped out Mōri Motonari were the Murakami clan. They had control over the Seto Inland Sea during many years and built fortifications all over Innoshima Island, hence establishing control over two vital routes of the sea, the Onomichi Channel and the Strait of Mekari, forcing passing ships to pay sail taxes. The sea was their territory. If anyone is planning to do the Shimanami Kaido from Onomichi make sure to stop at Innoshima Suigun Castle on Innoshima Island!
Back to present-day Miyajima. The descriptions of the museum had ended as I left the big building but the path continued through an old traditional house. Hiroshima Castle had told me that in the past towns-people paid a certain amount of tax depending on the size of the front gate, so houses started to have smaller entrances but were very narrow and long from front to back. This one was an example of what that looked like, the rooms only a tatami and a half wide but very long indeed.
A corridor connected this small home to the Egami Family’s Main House. The building complex that holds the museum was built 160 years ago and was originally the residence of this wealthy merchant family in the soy sauce business (as well as the storehouses).
I was allowed to take my shoes off and walk around inside the home, and I sat down at the table in the drawing room to look out at the garden in their backyard. There are a few items they used to own which show just how wealthy they must’ve been.
Leaving the museum I wondered where to go to next.
The few small shops that were open close to the museum seemed a bit expensive and too touristy, I walked around the streets slowly seeing what I could find until I spotted a little shrine at the other side of the river (the small Kiyomori Shrine was built in 1954 to commemorate and console the spirit of Taira no Kiyomori) and changed my route to walk close to the water in the area filled with pines. Almost 1pm, from there I could see that it was already low tide so I went down the steps close to Kiyomori Shrine and walked to the torii, meeting the people coming from the other side once there. I’d made the right choice wearing my sandals so it was fine if they got wet, I had to be careful not to step on any of the many crabs and little creatures wondering around.
While many people complement and appreciate the floating appearance of the shrine and gate, low tide has it’s positive side too. Near Itsukushima Shrine, when the water is out, three round ponds can be seen. It’s said they appeared around the time the shrine was built meaning that the gods approved of the shrine. The beautiful view of the moonlight reflected in these ponds is the subject of many tanka and haiku.
The museum I had just been to had told me a lot about the gate and from up close I could see some of the things mentioned. Painted on the east and west side at the top of the torii is a sun and moon. The northeast is supposedly the direction of the demon’s gate in Feng Shui but the sun blocks the evil gate. It’s made out of three different types of wood and the main pillars look a bit irregular because the natural shape of the wood was used. The pillars aren’t buried deep underground, but at the base of each one there is a stone slab helping to keep the torii from falling as well as the box-shaped upper part of gate being filled with 7 tons of stones, each with a sutra written on them. The view of the torii is one of the Three Scenic Views of Japan along with Amanoshidate and Matsushima, it’s interesting how all three on the list seem to focus on the relationship between land and water.
Many photos later I went back up the stairs I had come from and down next to the river to sit with my feet in the water as I rested. The sun was already burning and there were no people to be seen away from the center of town. I then went back to strolling around, this time further away for my list of must-sees had ‘Omoto Shrine’ close to the top located at the edge of town.
It wasn’t hard to find, a lady was there sitting in between a group of deer she was eagerly taking photos of. Omoto Shrine was like a miniature version of Senjokaku, open on all sides and also made out of wood, with wooden plaques hanging from the ceiling. I don’t really know what the statue of a horse was doing in the hall but it gave the little shrine a lot of character. Apparently there’s a wooden pole in the shrine that has the date 1443 in ink letters, so it’s said to have existed from that time.
The woman had started the walk up the Omoto Course of Mt.Misen (good luck to her!) and the park was now only crowded with deer. I would say it was quiet but the cicadas were so loud, it almost seemed as if an enormous flock of them would come flying out from behind the trees and cover the sky and sun; the deers would run into hiding and the island would be plunged into darkness. Of course nothing of such sort happened and when I spotted a sign pointing up a hundred stairs promising the path would lead to Daisho-in, I decided to leave the park behind and start climbing. My map claims it was the Asebihodo Nature Walk, a while after the stairs was a small hut with some bathrooms. It’s actually surprising the amount of bathrooms there were on Miyajima (sixteen that I know of).
It was an easy walk, not even the stairs were tiring, and I was looking at the nature around me until I saw movement in front. Luckily I looked forwards just before I stepped on the long white snake blocking my path, I leapt backwards a few steps and stared at it as it slid away into the trees. I made sure to look at the ground carefully as I continued my way, but soon I forgot about the snake when I came across the Tahoto Pagoda.
I already expressed my love for pagodas with a round central structure when I wrote about Mitaki-dera, but I repeat it again: beautiful! I wish I had a miniature of one so I could look at it closely every morning. The pagoda (built in 1523) first worshipped the Buddha of Medicine, but that was moved to Daiganji Temple following the Meiji Restoration. It then worshipped the deified warlord Kato Kiyomasa but his spirit was moved to Toyokuni Shrine where it still is to this day, so I don’t really know who this pagoda worships now.
Daisho-in Temple appeared a minute later, instead of entering the temple through the main entrance the path ended next to the Onarimon Gate at the top of the first set of stairs. As I arrived I could hear the sound of furin resonating around the temple grounds, a man was selling second-hand yukata and many of the people at the temple were sitting in the shade hiding from the sun of the hot summer day.
I didn’t really know where to start so I went up the next few steps to the Chokugan-do Hall and came face to face with the first set of statues. Daisho-in has an impressive amount of statues; buddhas standing serious in hidden corners of the temple, golden rows of figures inside the halls, thirty-three incarnations of Kannon, deities with their own little halls and structures, dozens of rakan statues scattered around the stairs and little Jizos that pop out between the trees… I’ve counted 2660 thanks to the little pamphlet I picked up while there, but there are plenty that aren’t mentioned so I’m sure the number reaches almost 3000 in total!
The most memorable ones were Shaka Nyorai with the blue hair, surrounded by his sixteen disciples as he reached Nirvana and the small Ichigan Daishi —if a worshipper prays for only one wish, it will be realised thanks to the mercy of Kobo Daishi—, plus a few others that I will soon mention.
The stairs leading to the Maniden are accompanied by a row of green wheels with golden kanji. Spinning these wheels as one goes up the stairs is believed to give the same blessing as someone who has read a volume of the Heart Sutra. They were pretty noisy as I spun them all, two other foreigners who had no idea what I was doing looked at me strangely. I heard the loud sound of a drum in the hall as I made it to the top of the stairs, a nice surprise to find out that the temple offers prayers every day accompanied by a taiko. I stayed and listened for a while while staring mostly at the lovely woodwork of the ceiling.
A dead Japanese hornet wasp (ôsuzumebachi) almost as long as my finger was laying on the tatami near the entrance.
Continuing my little tour of the temple I found a little structure in the middle of a pond full of coins, the so-called Hakkaku Manpuku Hall with the Seven Lucky Gods enshrined, ema boards and statues of them all inside. I’ve already mentioned these gods in another post when I did the Hiroshima Temple Walk, I’ve become fond of them so it was a nice thing to come across.
Next to the pond was the entrance to a dimly lit cave, a roof covered in lanterns the only light illuminating the icons of the 88 temples along the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Worshippers believe that here they can receive the same blessings as those who have made the pilgrimage to all the temples of the route.
I didn’t know what the protocol was when being faced with such an intense and spiritual feeling and I was slightly intimidated, so I waited outside for a couple of Japanese girls to enter before me and followed their lead. They seemed to pick up a pinch of ash from a bowl of incense and spread it over the back of their hands, then circled the room touching all the little beads in front of the statues before leaving through another entrance. I repeated their actions and looked closely at the faces of the statues as I slowly made my way around the cave, listening to the echo of prayers sounding through some speakers. Some statues had a mysterious smile, others looked downright bored or angry, but all looked powerful and like they were sharing a mind altogether.
The sunlight seemed stronger once I left the cave and I saw another foreigner in front staring intently at some steps. She pointed as she saw me looking at her and I followed her finger to see a yellow and red giant crab with a little smiley face on its shell. I had suddenly decided that I wanted to see the statue at the top of the stairs but, unlike the snake, this creature didn’t look like it was going to move. I wouldn’t have had much of a problem stepping over it if it were any other crab but red and yellow are the colours of danger, I didn’t want to find out how much it would hurt if it snapped at my ankle. So I made my way up to the Maniden again and took a little path I had seen before that led to the same place.
Having looked at all the buildings further up I started to make my way to the bottom again. Near where I had arrived was the Kannon-do Hall that I had missed, but I don’t really remember much about it. The last flight of stairs of the temple —or the first, if you’re starting from the entrance— also has a row of sutra wheels to turn, these represent the Dai-hannyakyo Scripture and touching them is said to bring great fortune.
I knew I was missing something before leaving, I had read about some statues in little hats crowded around some stairs, and I was determined to find them before I left. It didn’t prove to be too difficult though, I spotted them as I was walking down the steps and followed a trail before the Niomon. The 500 rakan statues all have very noticeably different expressions, I liked to imagine a character behind them as I started up the stairs once again. After the rakan statues come a few little Jizos hiding between the bushes and pulling faces.
Daisho-in is slowly stealing the protagonism of Itsukushima Jinja. While all guide books still mention the red floating shrine as the star, everyone who I spoke to about Miyajima Island told me to visit this temple. I don’t think Daisho-in can be given the titles of ‘off the beaten path’ or ‘secret place’ anymore, it was definitely popular with the tourists. However, most people weren’t talking and the temple still held the calm atmosphere. The other day I read the phrase ‘spiritual flow’, I think that’s a good way to describe the temple.
It was way too hot to be climbing any mountains so unfortunately I didn’t make it to the top of Mt.Misen and the eternal flame. Maybe I shall have to return one day when I visit Yamaguchi Prefecture and some sites in Hiroshima-ken that I didn’t see this time around.
I went for a very late lunch at a little place next to Senjokaku and ordered a nice bowl of ramen, the fan blowing in front of me as I took a break from the heat outside.
Walking around the shopping streets of the island I soon bought a box of momiji manju, Miyajima’s food speciality, like a maple leaf-shaped little cake. Mine had red bean paste filling inside, but I’m sure there are other fillings available. I didn’t eat any yet because they wrapped it up nicely in a box and I didn’t want to ruin it, instead I ate them a few days down the line and desperately wished I’d bought more. Absolutely delicious, my family didn’t get to try them because I finished them all myself! I bought them some natto to make up for it 😉
The shopping street is a series of shops all selling basically the same trinkets and food, so make sure to compare prices before buying anything. I bought my rice scoop for 360 yen but I saw others of the same size for double the price. The world’s largest rice scoop can also be found along the shopping street (I don’t think there was much competition for this record though).
Most of the people had already left or were patting the last deer as they made their way to the ferry, I made my way to the Crafts Center instead. I had expected it to be a museum but it was more of a little room with a few displays of local arts and crafts for sale.
My map marked the location of where Miyao Castle used to be, very close to the dock at the top of some steep stairs. There isn’t much to see, if anything at all, but it’s the history behind it that is important.
I had initially planned to stay until sunset because I’d been told that the torii after dark was very beautiful, but it was very hot and I’d had enough of walking around, so I went back to the mainland on the next ferry.
I found out later that fireflies can be seen on summer nights around the river next to Daisho-in, right at the start of the Daishoin Walking Course up the mountain. I wish I had known this when I was there and I definitely would’ve stayed until night to see them!
Miyajima is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan but it stayed surprisingly empty the whole day. I crossed families, couples and tour groups on the shopping street but nothing even close to the crowded photos I’ve seen, while places further from the center were totally empty. Many people have limited time on the island, if that’s the case I’d say my high points were Senjokaku and the Folklore Museum, the torii at low tide can also wedge its way up there.