From Mt. Fuji to cherry blossoms, bonsai to origami, sushi to samurai, Godzilla to Hello Kitty, there's a veritable litany of Japanese symbols. Including a torii. Back in my younger years reading 'komiks', illustrators often depict travel to Japan by drawing a torii in the background. But what's a torii? A torii is a traditional Japanese gate that leads to Shinto shrines including Japanese Buddhist temples. While I saw several in Tokyo and Hiroshima, nothing really beats ogling at this one in Miyajima island.
During high tide, the towering torii looks as if it's floating on the water along with the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine. It's indeed a pretty sight and culturally important too, having been declared in 1996 as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Based on a 1643 book written by a Confucian scholar traveling all over Japan, the floating torii leading to the shrine is even regarded as one of Japan's "three most scenic spots".
|The shrine and torii during low tide|
How the shrine and the torii ended up being built over water was due to Miyajima island's sacred status since ancient times. The whole island was even worshiped like a god. No pilgrims were allowed to set foot there. But things changed a bit. A shrine was eventually built sitting on stilts to allow the faithful masses to visit while at the same time, maintain the island's "purity". Till now however, no human births or deaths have occurred - pregnant women have to vacate the island before their due dates and those terminally ill have to spend their last days in the mainland.
From Hiroshima, it's less than half an hour by local JR train to Miyajimaguchi Station, a trip covered by Japan Rail Pass. I walked the short distance to the JR ferry, showed my rail pass, and was seated for the 10-minute sailing to Miyajima island. Here's a tip: anyone with limited time during summer can visit Miyajima island as an afternoon trip combined with a morning excursion to Mazda's factory. This works better since most day-trippers visit the island in the morning when it gets crowded.
As soon as I arrived, I went searching for lunch. There's a lot of choices but I was hankering for Okonomiyaki Hiroshima-style and thankfully I found the right restaurant. The chef went into action on this large griddle and I was visibly entertained by the spectacle of flying spatulas and sizzling cabbage. Hiroshima-style is done by layering ingredients like cabbage, pork, noodles, fried eggs and sauce as opposed to mixing them all up which is typical of Osaka-style. Once this was served, the aroma was already gratifying. I ate all of it.
After lunch, I just avoided the typical tourist shops lined-up here. Plenty of deers walked around in another area, seemingly unmindful of people. It was another hot afternoon and I wasn't ready to see the torii up close yet. There's 543-meter high Mt. Misen that my mind wanted to hike but my body wouldn't agree. In the end, I reached a compromise to myself: I'll take the Miyajima Ropeway or cable car ride up the summit for 1,000 yen one way and walk down the little mountain (and save 800 yen). The cable car ride took two stages, requiring a transfer from a smaller cable car to a much bigger car halfway. Travel time from the base at Momijidani Station all the way up to Shishiwa Station is 15 minutes.
At Shishiwa Station, there's a great viewpoint overlooking Seto Inland Sea and a few scattered islands. The summit of Mt. Misen however is still about a kilometer hike away. I took my time at the Station, surveyed the surroundings and bought more cold green tea from a nearby vending machine. Free lockers are available to store unwanted bags but I decided to carry my daypack with me all the way up. It's a simple hike through the forest anyway, on well-established paths with concrete stairs at some points. Midway up, I passed through the halls of Kiezu-no-Reikado, Misenhondo and Sankido where the faithful yet again offer their prayers and offerings.
|At the summit|
The summit of Mt. Misen is surprisingly crowned with an 'observatory'. It's multi-level with great panoramic views all around. At the ground floor is a shop selling beverages that are of course more expensive. As for me, I merely sat on a bench, wiping beads of sweat while fanning myself furiously - it's hot and humid that I thank the heavens for giving us cold green tea when we need it. With sightseeing at the summit out of the way, my goal is now to get back down. I was almost tempted to just buy another cable car ticket and make it easy for me but when I saw the arrow pointing to the hiking trail - my eyes lit up!
Although technically it wasn't demanding, I was the only one hiking down. I was told I will reach Momijidani Park in 1 hour and 30 minutes.With Mt. Misen's primeval forest already covering much of the afternoon daylight, I hiked down fast hoping I don't end up walking in the dark. Too bad, there were bugs buzzing around my face so I even walked faster while at the same time mindful of where I was stepping since no one might know right away if ever I get into trouble. I walked with the noise of my own heavy breathing while birds of unknown specie were serenading me everywhere. Finally, there was some clearing and less trees and more signs of 'landscaping'. I reached Momijidani Park in just 45 minutes!
|Itsukushima Shinto Shrine|
It was almost 5 PM, time to head straight for the island's main tourist attraction. To get inside Itsukushima Shrine, I paid 300 yen. The original shrine was built sometime in the 6th century while the current structure dates back from 1168. It's a great example of Shinden style of architecture: a complex of orange-colored buildings and halls inter-connected by boardwalks where visitors can walk freely end to end and admire the view of the sea and of course, that of the famous torii just in front.
The low tide that greeted my arrival earlier had made it possible for visitors to walk straight to the base of the 16-meter high torii. Much later in the afternoon, just as I decided to walk down and get closer to it, high tide went coming back but that didn't deter me or others for a quick venture into ankle-high waters. This thing has been standing there since 1875 so I reckon a few minutes getting wet is a great way to feel the impact of this towering gate from my own traveler's perspective - it was like a "welcome to Japan" moment for me.