April 27, 2008

Miyajima - Itsukushima Shrine and Exploring The Town

It took about 35 minutes (a 25 minute train ride and a 10 minute Ferry ride) to get from Hiroshima Station to Miyajima. On our way onto the ferry, we were handed some stringy looking food, which turned out to be really tasty cured squid. (Think squid jerky - trust us, it was good. Unfortunately, we were never able to find the store that sold it.) As the ferry pulled up to the pier, we were able to view the O-Torii Gate of Itsukushima Shrine floating in the ocean as it was high tide. This gate is the main attraction of Miyajima and truly an unacknowledged wonder of the world. More on this later.

Upon our arrival, we dropped our bags at our place of lodging, a Ryokan named Yamaichi Bekkan, just a few steps from the pier. Deer (shika) roam freely on Miyajima. You notice them as soon as you get off the boat. These deer (while they will track you down if you have food) were a lot tamer than those we encountered in Nara. Miyajima has a seaside mountain village feel, and is loaded with souvenir shoppes, amazing street food, and several notable historical/cultural sites.

First, the food: The signature food of Miyajima is momiji manju, maple-leaf shaped cakes filled with bean paste. If you prefer, these tasty delights may also be filled with cream, chocolate, almond, etc., and some stands even sell them freshly fried (our personal favorite). As we wandered down Ometesando Shopping Arcade, the smells of tempura fishcakes, okonokmiyaki, fresh oysters roasted in the shell and tons of momiji manju wafted through the air. Each momiji manju store is equipped with its own momiji manju press, which cooks up and pumps out these little cakes like factories, from batter to box. We had every intention on having lunch, but ended up sampling all of the above foods and more.

Next, the souvenirs: Miyajima is famous for shakushi, decorative rice paddles in all sizes, including the O-Shakushi, the world's largest rice scoop. It took us a while to figure out what the deal was with all these paddles everywhere.

With our bellies full, we strolled beyond the shops, to the Itsukushima Shrine, where we could clearly view the O-Torii Gate at high tide. The really interesting thing about this gate, which sits 200 meters beyond the shrine, is it is surrounded by water during high-tide, but during low-tide you can actually walk up to it on dry land. Miyajima has long been revered as an "island of the gods." The Itsukushima Shrine and its O-Torii gate are a Shinto shrine first built in 593 (with the present design created in the 12th century). The contrast of the vermilion colored shrine and gate with the lush green mountain backdrop and blue ocean water was truly breathtaking.

Miyajima was a nice compact town to stroll around in. One block away from the crowded but enticing Ometosando, is Machiya Street, a quaint street lined with traditional Japanese stores, cafes, and houses. We walked up to the Five Storied Pagoda, a Buddhist shrine built in 1407. And set up in the mountain, glimmering in the sunlight was the Dai Shoin Temple, another Buddhist temple. After touring some of these picturesque religious sites, we rolled up our pant legs and spent some time at the beach playing in the sand, wading at the edge of the water, and collecting sea shells, with the floating O-Torii gate in the background.

As the hordes of day-trippers were heading back to the ferry to leave for the day, we headed back to our Ryokan and were shown our room by our extremely warm and friendly hostess. The room was a huge tatami two-room apartment with sliding paper doors. Our futons had already been set up for us. That evening we dined at the Ryokan, where our hostess prepared a delectable Kaiseki meal including sashimi, boiled octopus, tempura, scallops, grilled fish, fresh-water eel sushi, and fish-soup.

After dinner, we strolled back out to view the O-Torii Gate at low tide. We were able to walk on the sand right up the gate and touch it. There were even some barnacle-encrusted signs near the gate (written in Japanese) which had not been visible during high-tide. (Compare the below picture at low tide, with the similar family picture above, taken at high tide)

It was very quiet and peaceful at night. The storefront lanterns (wicker orbs covered with flowers with a bulb on the inside, which were hung from pieces of fabric) were lit, the sound of the waves was in the background, and the deer were finding their evening resting spots under the trees - it was a very serene setting. The character of Miyajima was totally different without the daytime tourist hustle and bustle. Later that night, Mike took a walk back out after the rest of the family went in. At that time of night, an occasional head-lamp equipped bike whizzed by and many Japanese were out strolling on the promenade, dressed in their Ryokan-provided yukatas, enjoying the night views of the Shrine and Gate, and the cool peaceful night air.


jmgesq said...

I'm curious about the Ryokan - was it very traditional? Peaceful? I hear tell that staying in one is quite expensive. How did you find this one?

The different tidal pictures were wonderful. The proportionate size of the gate really didn't show until the evening pictures. Really amazing.

And I'm impressed with how involved the kids are in the touring and trying new things. Quite wonderful. I totally envy them the experience.

An interesting side note on the deer...no lyme disease in Japan, I gather!

jmgesq said...

I also wanted to mention this article that it was in the NY Times the other day about travel in Kyoto. Perhaps you can compare notes!


Mike said...

It was very traditional. It was expensive, but worth the splurge (and it does include two meals). Its essentially a Japanese upscale B&B.

Miyajima was really an amazing place.