Trivia #1: Miyajima literally means “Shrine Island”
Trivia #2: Did you know that the Itsukushima Shrine (Floating Tori Gate) has more than 1400 years of history?
Trivia #3: Wild deers roam freely in Miyajima and they are considered as divine messengers in Shinto
For my backpacking trip to Japan this year, my first port of call was Miyajima, the island where the famed Itsukushima Shrine (Floating Tori Gate) is located. In fact, I thought capturing beautiful cinematic shots of the world famous Japanese icon would be the highlight of my visit to Miyajima, but it was so much more than a photography field trip.
Originally built in AD 593, the shrine has seen many rebuilds due to fire, natural calamity and has since attracted many sovereign figures (including emperors and warlords) throughout history.
My eyes lit when I saw the giant tori gate – it is a beautiful sight to behold, especially when it stands prominently during the low tide, as if it is beckoning you to come and touch it. I did.
From my research, I read that the Itsukushima Shrine was built as a physical representation of the Buddhist belief that when people passed on from this world, they will have to cross the river to the pure land, or paradise, and this shrine embodies that belief.
The shrine is truly a magnificent engineering feat that combines both nature and human’s ingenuity. Try staying for the sunset, and you’ll know what I mean.
Deers can be found roaming the island town everywhere – you’ll quickly make friends with these fluffy denizens if you feed them with goodies. But try not to, because confectionery and pastry aren’t their natural diet – such food will only make them obese and susceptible to more illnesses in the long run.
Actually, you don’t have to visit Nara for the adorable deers. Miyajima has lots of them roaming in the forests and also making a living chasing down tourists for bits of food (be warned – they’ll approach you rather quickly if you walk around with brightly coloured plastic bags). Other than that, they’re rather docile and very cute – another great photo opportunity here!
After a quick walk around, I stopped by one of the grilled oyster places and enjoyed a quick brunch – now I’m filled and ready to explore the rest of the island!
Miyajima’s Hidden Secret: Grilled Oysters
If you’re a true blue gourmet, you may want to check out the island’s number 1 and 2 restaurants for oysters, Kakiya and Yakigaki no Hayashi, respectively. But be warned, you will definitely need to make reservations in advance otherwise you will spend a lot of time waiting in line.
Desserts in Miyajima
Miyajima has an abundance of restaurants, dessert places and cafes to satisfy your cravings.
As for desserts, you can check out the Hattendo soft cream bun – its fluffy and super light cream melts in your mouth with each bite. There are matcha, custard, fresh cream, azuki red bean and chocolate flavours. You should sink your teeth into the Hattendo soft cream bun for breakfast, tea and supper. I’m serious.
Anagomeshi, congo eel rice that is famed in Miyajima – you HAVE to try it even if you’re not a seafood lover like myself! With its sweet and spicy teriyaki sauce, the grilled conger eels are a huge hit with both locals and tourists alike.
I actually did my foodie research, but as I forgot to make a reservation at the island’s best restaurant for this specialty, I decided to settle for an average restaurant – trust me, it is very good! I went to Inachu restaurant for this.
The Stacked Stones Story
Know the sad story behind these stones that were stacked up? They’re not a symbol of zen or anything, but rather, from the parents whose children passed on before them – Jizo is the guardian of children and childbirth.
It is said that children who die before their parents can’t cross the mythical Sanzu River into the afterlife because they haven’t accumulated enough good deeds. They are doomed to forever stack small rocks on the shore of the river (perhaps in a futile attempt to try to cross the Sanzu River). Jizo helps children to cross the river by hiding them in his robe.
Known as the temple with over 500 statues dedicated to it, Daisho-in was founded in the 9th century by the Buddhist monk, Kukia, who was also the founder of Shingon Buddhism.
For the adventurous, the temple can be reached via a 2.5km trek through the forest using the Mt. Misen Climbing Path Daisho-in Course (80 mins walk, more or less).
In the temple complex, there are a massive number of small Jizo statues, creating a somewhat surreal environment within the religious compound. Jizo statues are donated by parents who have lost children in the hopes that the deity himself will carry their children through the mythical Sanzu River into the afterlife.
Jizo statues are also given bibs and hats to keep them warm, and one may come across stacked stones near Jizo statues in the hopes their children are safe in the afterlife. Talk about great parental love, even beyond this world…
With a heavy heart, I closed my eyes and stilled myself and quietly prayed for the little children who left this world before their time…and the grief parents has to experience when they have to bury their young ones before they themselves depart from this world…
Wooden prayer tags hung by temple visitors in hopes of good health, career and academic success, romantic pursuits etc.
Senjokaku (Hall of One Thousand Tatami Mats)
Senjokaku was built in 1587 by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was one of the most remarkable men in Japanese history as he was born a peasant and yet rose in power to unify the whole of Japan during the Sengoku Period.
The construction of the hall was discontinued when Hideyoshi passed away, and it still remains unfinished today. It just amazes me that over 400 years later, I stand before an ancient hall with everything intact. Time had definitely stood still for this structure.
Goju-no-to (Five Storied Pagoda)
Originally constructed in 1407, Goju-no-to was used to enshrine a Buddhist statue. It is said that, due to Japan’s ancient wooden engineering techniques, the Five Storied Pagoda is only one of the few examples in the whole of Japan that can withstand tremors caused by earthquakes and to some extend, typhoons. Wow.
How to get to Miyajima:
1. The fastest way would be to take the Shinkansen (covered by JR Pass) from Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima.
2. From Hiroshima station, transfer to a local train (covered by JR Pass) to Miyajimaguchi station.
3. Lastly, take the Miyajima ferry(covered by JR Pass) located just outside Miyajimaguchi station.
It is best to spend a full day in Miyajima to experience a more well paced-out exploration.
Do note that the majority of restaurants and shops in Miyajima close by 5PM, so there is practically nothing for you to do in the island as it gets dark (ghost town by night!). For this reason, if you intend to go to Hiroshima on the same day, then it is advisable to visit Miyajima in the early morning (lesser crowd and it leaves you with more time for Hiroshima in the evening).
After spending 2 days on the island of Miyajima known for its natural simplicity and spirituality, I begun to understand a little more about Japan, especially on the spiritual and cultural side of it. You see, Shinto (the way of the gods) is as old as Japan itself, and it is deeply rooted in the Japanese people. Over time, it became a way of life. Thus, Japanese traditions.
Looking out at the horizon and being with the sun as it changes the evening sky with its afterglow, it was a breathtaking moment. Shooting Itsukushima Shrine with a painted sky is awesome, but what truly struck a chord in my heart was the many Jizo statues I’ve seen throughout the island.
They represent parents’ deep and profound love for their children who never got to accumulate enough good deeds in their physical lives, and so their parents are still taking care of them, even in the afterlife. Being as sombre as it is, it is also beautiful – a beautiful act of everlasting love.
Perhaps, to better understand the Japanese way of life, Miyajima might be a good place to start for cultural explorers.
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