Fancy a day trip to Miyajima Island anyone?
Evening blog-heads! Today’s tale of adventure and discovery comes to you from the island of Miyajima, one of a chain of mountainous islands in the Japanese Inland Sea, just off the coast here in Hiroshima. Shane and I took the ferry across to Miyajima Island today to explore its holy sites and natural beauty. The island is home to the 1200-year old Daishi-no temple, perched high on Mt Misen (532m), and the more recently constructed 5-storey Miyajima pagoda, 16m high O-torii gate and the “floating” Itsukushima-jinja shrine (all built around 1168). The Itsukushima-jinja shrine is said to be “floating” as it is built on stilts, in a shallow ocean inlet; when the tide is in, the shrine appears to be floating on the water. The O-torri gate is similarly built out in the ocean, a sign that the entire island is a holy Shinto site.
Note: Shinto is the traditional Japanese nature-worship belief system, present before the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century. Shinto shrines (-jinja) provide a place to worship nature spirits, whilst the torii gates built nearby mark the gateway between the physical and spiritual world. In Japan, Shinto beliefs often co-exist happily alongside Buddhist idioms, shaping not only people’s religious beliefs, but attitudes and behaviour as well.
The O-torii gate and Itsukushima-jinja shrine are very popular with Japanese visitors as they have great religious significance. Luckily Shane and I got an early start and we were on Miyajima well before the crowds. The only other people on the island when we arrived were about 100 school kids, there on an excursion. These kids actually provided us with one of the funniest highlights of the day: at one point we were asked by a group of teenage girls if we could take their photo, which we happily did (teenage girls are so funny – so giggly and silly). We were then asked if we would pose WITH them, so they could have photos of US – like we were the tourist attraction, rather than just tourists! I guess they don’t see too many foreign visitors in their home town?? It was hilarious!
The other funny highlight of the day was provided by one of the island’s resident semi-wild deer. Herds of deer freely roam the whole island, and although visitors are discouraged from feeding them, they can get rather intimate with your personage if you have anything tasty in hand – as Shane found out when we stopped for a quick snack or momiji (translation = traditional little star-shaped cakes, often filled with custard or other sweet goodies).
There is a small village on Miyajima Island that has built up around the restaurants and shops that cater for the day trippers and religious visitors, but most of the island is national park. Miyajima is recognised as one of the most scenic spots in Japan, and a great place to see unspoiled Japanese forests. In fact, there are numerous hiking trails that can be used to trek up Mt Misen, if one is so inclined. We were not so inclined. Fortunately for us, there is also a cable car that can take you most of the way up the mountain in just 15 minutes. Now, I say most of the way, because it turns out that when you get to the top cable car station, you are still about 1 km from Daishi-no temple. Most of that 1 km involved very steep steps, hewn from stone cut from the mountain itself. A rather arduous journey, given it’s summer and rather hot and humid. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that, being summer, you are warned to watch out for mushi (translation = bugs) and mumushi (translation = pit vipers). The final part of Miyajima Island adventure therefore effectively turned into a game of snakes and ladders: climb the “ladder” (ie: 9000 almost-vertical steps), avoiding the PIT VIPERS (what the hell Japan??). Not quite what we signed up for, but absolutely worth it. The forest we trekked through was simply stunning, and the Daishi-no temple at the top of the mountain worth the hike.
The temple has been in continuous use as a Buddhist monastery for over 1000 years, up to this day. It was lovely being able to visit its grounds and Great Hall. The highlight of the day for me came as we were making our way back down from the temple towards the cable car, and the monks began their midday prayers. The sounds of their chanting echoed throughout the forest around us, making for a great ending to the day.