There is something exceptional about the island of Miyajima. Not only is it stunningly beautiful, it’s also said to be a sacred island and is the location for Itsukushima, an ancient 7th century Shinto shrine built on stilts at the edge of the sea; its bright red torii gate, standing out in the water in front of it, is said to be one of the most photographs landmarks in Japan. The wild deer that roam freely around the island are seen as messengers of the gods. Approaching the island by ferry (JR pass accepted), we watched the mountainous island loom up out of the light mist framing the unmistakable red dot of the sacred gate before it. Miyajima is a World Cultural Heritage site, with good reason.
Having had a long shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Kyoto (tucking into our obento boxes again as we travelled), and enjoyed three days of intensive sight-seeing, the sea air was rejuvenating. We were met at the small ferry terminus by a lovely man from Iwaso, our ryokan, who drove us up to a stunning location up in the hillside to Momijidani – valley of the maple trees. Deer roamed freely about, a river burbled by, interrupted by little waterfalls, and the cherry blossom was mankai –in full bloom – here, too. Sure enough, fresh green spring maple leaves that gave the valley its name were bursting forth everywhere.
Leaving our luggage there we walked over an arched bridge to explore the hills behind the ryokan and happened upon signs for the cable car to the top of Mount Misen. This mountain, seen as a sacred dwelling for the gods, has been an object of worship since ancient times and rises 535 metres up from sea level.
We decided to jump on. The first leg of the cable car journey was jelly-knee inducing and breathtaking. In our own private car, we soared up into the sky towards the first peak, the thick forest far below us. Behind us lay the sea, shrouded in a fine light mist, the dark shapes of outlying islands visible on the horizon.
We both spotted it at the same time – a vast, brown bird of prey, circling around the empty cable car just ahead of us. Its wingspan must have stretched three or even four feet. We were thrilled, not quite managing to take photographs and stumbling about in the car, making it sway alarmingly.
At the top of the first peak – already high up in the clouds, we transferred to a larger cable car which we shared with other visitors, though as it was a Monday afternoon, there weren’t many.
At the cable car station at the top of the ropeway, signs warned us to leave our belongings in lockers free of charge so that we didn’t tempt the monkeys. Monkeys? Sure enough, when we stepped out into the open, clusters of monkeys ran about, some of them very little and cute, preening each other and chattering and huddling together to keep warm.
From this point we walked up and up, past odd, misshapen boulders with names like “Kujiraishi” (whale rock) or “Kugureiwa” (duck-under rock – you had to duck under it to carry on along the path). The atmosphere of the mountain felt heavy and awe-inspiring.
The more pragmatic Paul said it was just the mist, but I really felt struck by a sense of mystery up there. We were completely alone as we huffed and puffed up the steep paths, overhung with thick foliage and flanked by vast cedars and tall pines, elegant bamboo thickets and flowering bushes. We pushed onwards toward the summit, passing by shinto shrines and sacred places where we would stop to pay our respects and the occasional gap in the forest which revealed extraordinary views down to the sea.
Once at the top, there was complete silence. Just the wind quietly blew puffs of cloud past us. I opened my mouth to swallow the mist and said “Look, I’m eating the clouds on the mountains of the gods”. Normally Paul would have taken the mickey, but even he was struck by the atmosphere up there, and he smiled.
It was stunning.
Clambering back to the cable car stop in time for the last one back (being left behind would mean a three hour walk back down to the bottom), we landed at the bottom just in time to be shown to our beautiful tatami mat, Japanese-style room, to take a restful bath and be served our evening meal by the nice lady looking after us, Shigeoka san. Iwaso is an old ryokan but had recently been refurbished – its baths were sparking new and stylish, swapping over from male to female once a day so that Paul and I could again see where the other had bathed the night before.
Two sets of baths each – indoor and outdoor. Unlike the Hakone hot springs (which were natural rock pools, also lovely), the outdoor baths were modern, sleek, large squares of pale Japanese pine sunk into a granite floor, framed with miniature Japanese gardens and overlooking the river rushing by below. Again, a stunning location, dreamlike and breathtaking. I had a lovely conversation with a regal-looking 82 year old lady (she didn’t look it) who said she had spent much of her life travelling with her late husband, not just to Europe and America, but to places Japanese tourists rarely went in the 60s and 70s.
Dinner was superb, as usual – I’ll just show photos here rather than describe each dish, or this post will be the length of war and peace. It was exquisite – as was breakfast – though now I’m reserving the truly memorable meals for dedicated posts.
Having eaten our evening meal, we changed out of our yukata (cotton robes) and headed back to the harbour, where we boarded a little narrow boat, lit up with paper lanterns, that was to take us out to the torii in the sea. The man explained the history and origin of the massive gate, each pillar hewn out of massive camphor trees and the whole thing simply resting on the sea bed, its weight keeping it in place. However, as the pillars gradually shifted apart over the years, a stone was set into the wood in the archway to anchor it into place. At low tide, it is possible to walk under the gate, but that evening we went under by boat, the high tide an incredible ten metres higher than it was that morning when we saw people walking under it.
As the shrine the gate faces is especially sacred, seen as the world of the gods not to be accessed by humans (you can walk through designated corridor-bridges in the shrine during the daytime), we were asked to practice oihai together – all fifteen of us passengers – as we went under the gate.
Oihai – paying respects – in Shinto practice involves bowing deeply first, hands clasped together as if in prayer, then clapping the hands together twice (to alert the gods to your presence – in some shrines, there are ropes attached to bells you can ring as well), then bowing again with hands together. In Buddhism, you eliminate the clapping, otherwise the bowing and hand clasping is the same.
So we all did this in silence as we went under the floodlit gate, which towered impressively over us, and indeed, you did feel as if you were encroaching on the territory of the gods. Speaking of gods, if you have never seen Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film “Spirited Away” – (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), I would recommend this as a good introduction to the mystery of Shinto gods and goddesses.
At the end of our boat journey, guided by a kind local man who gave an excellent talk as we sailed around the gate, we were given a shamoji each – a rice spatula, a local craft specialty. It is so famed a product that in the village there is a huge 270 year old “o-shakushi” o display, the world’s biggest rice scoop weighing in at two and a half tons and 7.7 metres long.
We walked along the shoreside, where stone lanterns were lit with candles, casting a warm glow and lending the place a peaceful atmosphere as the water lapped against the shore. It seems the local people were keen to preserve the gentleness and historic authenticity of the place, so there were few artificial lights, lending the place an ancient air. We could see the torii looming up out of the water ahead – this was subtly floodlit, to good effect. There were few people around, just Paul and me and a few Japanese tourists gazing out at the gate. Before long though, we all shifted our amazed gaze from the sacred gate to a large group of German tourists who had suddenly arrived, all wearing their ryokan yukata out there in the cold, complete with socks and shoes….
Once up in the morning, having bathed in the wonderful hot springs again (my skin and hair was baby-soft afterwards) and eaten our (once again) fabulous Japanese breakfast, we left our things at the ryokan and set out to explore. We visited Senjokaku, known as the “thousand tatami temple” – the vast open main hall of Hokoku temple with views out to the sea and surrounded by blossom. We watched a deer nibbling at the drifts of cherry blossom petals on the ground. They’re certainly tasty enough to feature as a popular springtime ingredient in Japanese cuisine, so it wasn’t surprising that it was appealling to the deer too.
We walked down to the shoreside area, a long street of artisanal and local food shops, selling the specialities of Miyajima, mainy Momijidango (maple-leaf dumplings), a sweet red bean paste filed soft sponge dumpling in the shape of a maple leaf. We watched a few shops making these – some using fully automated Heath Robinson-like machines, others by hand. Paul and I sat and shared a few to eat while sipping hot green tea – one containing cherry blossom flavoured bean paste, which was fragrant, slightly savoury, warm and delicious.
Feeling duty-bound to savour the main specialities of the island, we also had a grilled oyster each. Oysters are one of the island’s speciaities – we had come past oyster beds when we arrived by ferry – and these, charcoal roasted so that they were warm, but still raw and dressed with a yuzu soya sauce dressing, these were absolutely scrumptious.
We wandered past more of the food shops – a good indication of what the local food specialitie were – then headed to a shop recommended by the ryokan manager to eat the other famous speciality of Miyajima – anago meshi. Anago is conger eel, anago meshi is eel on rice, with a savoury-sweet soya based sauce. Fujitaya, tucked away on its own down a traditional side street behind Itsukushima shrine has been serving anago to its customers for over 100 years; a sign tells customers there is a fifteen minute wait between ordering and eating – this is because each bowl of anago meshi is made to order from swimming and fresh….
While waiting, I ordered us some anago no kimo, a delicacy – eel liver. This arrived in a little bowl, warm and dressed with parsley. They had been simmered in broth and each tiny morsel was delicious. Paul hesitated only for a second before tucking in. Eventually, our anago meshi arrived – together with a bowl of miso soup with whelks. This was really tasty stuff, soft and tender, sweet and savoury, just gorgeous and melting. Clearly, Fujitaya had had plenty of practice to get this right and the recommendation had been an excellent one.
Stuffed (once again), we reluctantly headed back to the ryokan to pick up our luggage and get a lift down to the ferry terminus. Heading back on the ferry, I gazed back at this extraordinary island and hoped that it wouldn’t be too long before I’d see it again. Again, autumn would be a good time to visit, when all the maple trees in Momijidani turn red, russet and gold.
We were now off again, next, to Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu. It would be a world away from Kyoto and Miyajima, both on the island of Honshu. We were going to experience another of the myriad faces of Japan.