45. Island

from “The Age of Plastic”, The Buggles, 1979.

No Islands in the Stream here (sorry Dolly and Kenny) but rather the island of Itsukushima (厳島) located in the northwest of Hiroshima Bay, and which is more commonly known as Miyajima (宮島, meaning “Shrine Island”). Come on, you know it’s the one with the big red torii gate in the sea!

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Miyajima – yes that torii gate in the sea. Nice photo Robert. Thanks Philip.

Like our day out in Arashiyama in Kyoto (see blog entry 34. Wonderful Land), Miyajima was another full day trip, this time while we were in Hiroshima. And like Arashiyama it was another glorious day too so it was ideal for a day outdoors.

We could have taken a ferry all the way from Hiroshima to Miyajima but Robert is not the best salty sea-dog on the ocean blue, so it was both quicker and less open to seasickness to get the train to Miyajimaguchi on the mainland and then the ferry from the town to the island. In just 30 minutes we were stepping off the train at Miyajimaguchi station and debating whether our Pasmo cards (think Oyster cards) would work on the ferry or not as we hustled down to the dock; they didn’t. Oh well, primitive paper tickets it is then. So much  for 21st century Japan and contact-less card travel.

Right then, all aboard the Skylark!

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Miyajima ferry – yes we are the last getting on board and the ramp will close if we don’t get this picture taken pronto!

OK it wasn’t called the Skylark (sorry Noah and Nelly) but the Miyajima ferry does run every 15 minutes and with a 10 minute crossing time we had no trouble getting to the island without undue delay. You even get your first glimpse of the famous Miyajima torii gate on the journey.

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Miyajima – arrr, there she be me hearties! (It’s mandatory to speak like a pirate while on boats/ships we think).
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Miyajima – hang on the torii gate isn’t in the sea. Either the tide is out or we’re in the wrong place.

Miyajima is packed with things to see and do – some of them essential, others not so much depending on your preferences – so we decided beforehand on a number of things we definitely wanted to do and would play the rest by ear, though nearly getting stranded atop Mount Misen wasn’t one of them!

We disembarked the ferry only to find a familiar figure at the dockside.

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Miyajima deer – like Nara deer only on an island instead. Wonder if they got the ferry across?

Miyajima has deer much like Nara (see blog entry 40. (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear) only nowhere near as many, so fortunately much less deer doodoo to avoid in the both physical and olfactory sense.

Our first stop was to be the Senjokaku Shrine Hall (千畳閣, meaning “Pavilion of 1,000 Mats”) but before we got there we passed the famous torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine as we walked along the waterside. It was low tide and there were already a few tourists out on the sands for a closer look. Nice as it is with the tide out, we were going to have to wait a while to get the more classic photograph of the shrine in the water (as you’ve seen above we did).

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Torii gate – at low tide you can go for a closer, wetter, look.

The Senjokaku Shrine Hall gets its name from the size of the building, as it is the size of 1,000 tatami mats. Tatami (畳) mats are traditional Japanese floor mats with a length to width ratio of 2:1. Their edge colours sometimes denote the status of those who use them, particularly in temples and palaces.

The shrine was commissioned for the purpose of chanting Buddhist sutras for fallen soldiers, but due to changes in political power and the death of its founder the shrine was never fully completed. In 1872, the incomplete building was dedicated to the soul of its founder, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Shoes off, ¥100 each paid, and we were allowed in. The Senjokaku Shrine Hall was wonderfully serene, with just a few visitors who were sitting around and enjoying the atmosphere; the wooden smell of the building was rich and lovely and we spent a very pleasant time there just soaking in the experience.

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Senjokaku Hall – well it looks a bit like a compass but no, we’re not really sure what it is.

A little further on we took a brief wander along the Ometesando shopping street and found a familiar object: a rice paddle. However, this one was somewhat larger than the ones we’ve been using so far to serve rice in some of the Japanese restaurants at which we’ve dined.

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Giant rice paddle – we’re going to need a bigger bowl.

This whopper rice paddle is 7.7m long, 2.7m wide, and weighs 2.5 tonnes. It took three years to make and went on display in 1996 to commemorate the designation of the Itsukushima Shrine as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We didn’t see any sign of an matching rice bowl though.

The Itsukushima Shrine is built over the water with the famous red torii gate set further out in the sea. At high tide the sea is beneath the shrine and at low tide the water recedes back passed the torii gate and you can walk out to it. When we arrived it was low tide so we paid to enter the shrine and explore it, though we opted not to walk out to the torii across the wet sands/seabed.

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The shrine itself is sort of a series of piers and walkways over the sea with various chambers and buildings between them and adorned at several points with other items of religious significance.

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With the tide out, but already coming back in, we decided that we could get the archetypal red-torii-in-the-sea picture on our way back to the ferry in the evening after we had tackled our next challenge: Mount Misen (弥山).

During our travels around Japan we’ve continually encountered mountains. The views from the Shinkansen train rides we’ve made as we travelled west show it is quite a mountainous country. We looked up the definition of a mountain but there isn’t really a consistent way to categorise one. We think that many of the mountains we’ve seen look more like hills to us 🙂 Perhaps they should have snow on the top all year round to be one? 😛 In fact Japan has Mount Tempozan in Osaka, which is just 4.53m high. Now they’re just being silly!

Anyhoo, the highest point on Miyajima is Mount Misen at 535m tall, and while you can hike all the way up (and down again) via a number of trails, we decided to make the majority of the ascent (and descent again) using the Miyajima Ropeway. There was still a small hike through the forest at the foot of the mountains (hills!) to reach the Momijidani Station at the base of the ropeway.

Along the way we crossed various streams and bridges, and a cute little waterfall, all the while watching out for mosquitos even though we’d put some insect repellent on beforehand. There do seem to be quite a few mozzies around in Japan this time of year.

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We also encountered a black snake that slithered across our path into the undergrowth, but too quick to photo. From a look online afterwards we think it was a Japanese pit viper – and yes they’re poisonous. There were a few signs about warning of poisonous snakes and stinging insects.

Reaching the ropeway base station we bought our return tickets – what still no Pasmo? 🙂 – and jumped into the next cable-car, and with some clanking and lurching (the cable-car, not us) we were off. The first leg of the ropeway is a continuous cable-car with small gondolas that seat four (six if you’re really friendly). We manged to get one to ourselves.

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Miyajima Ropeway – goodbye to the Momijidani base station as we head up.

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Miyajima Ropeway – getting high now, but still no snow on the mountains!

There is a change to another link in the ropeway about 3/4 of the way up at Kayadani Station, where the ropeway changes direction as it angles more towards the island’s high point. On this section there are only two cable-cars, somewhat larger than those on the continuous first section, and they cross every few minutes depending on tourist traffic.

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Miyajima Ropeway – at Kayadani Station looking towards Shishi-iwa Station.
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Miyajima Ropeway – the view out from between Kayadani and Shishi-iwa stations.

We reached the final stop at Shishi-iwa Station where – after a clamber up a rocky promontory – you reach the Shishi-iwa Observation Point and get some really wonderful views of Miyajima and beyond.

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Mount Misen – the Shishi-iwa Station and looking back towards the mainland.

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But we weren’t at the top yet (and in fact we never made it to the top) but then we had not necessarily planned to; it depended on time. The final stretch to the summit 100m above was still about 1km away through the forest, it was hot and humid, and we’re not getting any younger! 😛 But we did have another goal in mind, which was to visit the Reikado, one of several sites located near the peak of Mount Misen.

The time was now 4:30pm and the helpful announcement at Shishi-iwa Station warned that the final cable-car down the mountain would depart at 5:30pm. It also said that if you missed the final departure you would need to walk down the mountain via the hiking trails. Oh dear!

Obviously it didn’t take long for us both to agree than hiking back down was not an option and so, deciding that if we hadn’t made it to the Reikado by 4:55pm at the absolute latest, we would turn around and come back to the ropeway. With the clock ticking, we headed off along the mountain trail.

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Mount Misen – the trail up is going down. Umm…
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Mount Misen – Philip: “Robert, this is not really the time for photos.”
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Mount Misen – Robert: “Yes I know but until you catch me up I’ve got time!”

The trail headed up and down, sometimes on rock, sometimes on dirt, sometimes on concrete, wending by turns through trees and more open rocky areas. It was both exciting and somewhat scary wondering if we were going to make it in time, especially as we encountered various people headed back to the ropeway, all smiling and saying “konnichiwa/hello/etc.”

It was with some relief that 18 minutes later we made it to the Reikado.

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Reikado – Hall of the Spiritual Flame. Is that Philip doing the Time Warp again?

Why the Reikado? Well it hosts a flame, which the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism is said to have lit when he began worshipping on the mountain 1,200 years ago. It has been burning ever since, and interestingly was also used to light the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, which we had seen the previous week.

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The spiritual flame itself is actually burning underneath the urn in the firepit but you cannot enter the hall itself for a closer look.

We took a short while to enjoy the Reikado and other various Buddhist items of interest at this point before deciding that it really was time to be heading back to the ropeway. And so we did, passing several others along the way still making their way upwards! We hope they had heard the announcement about the last cable-car departure.

We made it back with a good 10 minutes to spare and squeezed into the gondola with quite a few others catching the penultimate cable-car down to Kayadani Station, and from their transferred to the smaller continuous cable-car down to the base at Momoijidani Station.

Hot, tired, but fulfilled we made the walk down to the waterside to find the tide in sufficiently that we could get a few more pictures of the Itsukushima Shrine’s famous torii gate before walking back to the ferry and heading across to catch the train back to Hiroshima.

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Itsukushima Shrine – at last, the picture of the torii gate in the sea.

We spent a wonderful day in Miyajima and this was definitely another of the real highlights of our time travelling in Japan, and we now have pictures and memories that we’ll treasure for quite a while to come.

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