I had heard a lot about the fall colors on Miyajima, and about what a beautiful and spiritual place it is. I never made it to the island because it is a fair distance from Osaka, where I usually do business, but I had a whole day free and a JR Pass, so decided it was time to go there myself. I am so glad I did, it really lived up to its reputation of being one of the most beautiful places in Japan. My only complaint was that there were too many other tourists like me, making it rather crowded for maximum enjoyment.
I thought it was funny that there are two ferry companies side by side, offering rides to the island that were about the same. I opted for the JR line because my pass was valid.
My first glimpse of the legendary Otorii gate was from the ferry, and it was just like the photos, a vermillion gate that seemed to float on the water. I was itching to get closer by the time we made it to the terminal, so Itsukushima Shrine was my first destination. Leaving the terminal building, I was greeted by an aggressive deer that seemed to want to eat my map, but I hurried by. There was a main street packed with little tourist shops which I decided to visit at my leisure on the return to the ferry. It was only about 15 minutes walking before I go to the shrine itself.
Itsukushima Shrine seemed all light and airy, corridors connecting small buildings perched above the water. The red columns reflected in the water, giving it all a shimmery, unworldly charm. It was hard to believe it was built in the 1500s and still is standing despite storms and damage from man. The metal lanterns, the elegant shrines, the stages where sacred dances were held…if I shut out all the tourists, I could imagine Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his retinue praying. It felt like a part of the past had come to life.
After walking through the shrine itself, I wandered around to the five-story pagoda I had seen from the long corridors. It was up a steep flight of steps, so I was disappointed that I could not go inside. But I was pleasantly surprised by the building next to it, called Senjokaku. Though I have been to a fair number of famous places in Japan, I have never seen anything like this. It was as if a temple had been built, but then the outer walls were left off. The wind blowing through was surprisingly strong, and there was an altar inside, looking out of place against the unpainted columns and wide wood floorboards that were polished with time.
It felt luxurious to stroll around this quiet place, which was blissfully free of other tourists. I looked at the interesting votive tablets adorning the columns, then sat for a while with the breeze ruffling my hair. I had a great vantage of the bright red Itsukushima Shrine against the changing colors of fall and was surprised that others did not flock here for the view.
Presently I continued on my way to Momijidani park, (紅葉谷公園 Momijidani-Kōen) and that is where I found everyone gathered. They were photographing the foliage with everything from cell phones to video cameras to massive cameras that looked like professional equipment. And with reason, it was breathtakingly gorgeous. The maples were bright red and orange against the dark cedars, and the little waterfalls and bridges looked placed just for the purpose of perfecting the scene.
After enjoying the picturesque forest, I moved on to the Miyajima Ropeway which goes up Mount Misen. Thankfully it ran every minute or so, because the line was extremely long but moved quickly. The views were breathtaking, of the islands of the Inland Sea and the fiery autumn mountainside below. From the observatory at the top, the view was just as magnificent.
I strolled around to the various temples and shrines, not being totally aware of what they all signified, but enjoying the architecture and scenery. I was much more taken by the amazing rock formations. There were crags and boulders perched at precarious angles that looked like the gods had been playing with blocks and suddenly left.
They captured my fancy and sense of the absurd, because they looked too big to be in the positions that they were.
At last, I went back down the ropeway to the little town at the base of Mt. Misen. It was time to search for lunch, and fortunately that was not at all difficult. My problem was trying to decide what looked best. I settled on some fish cakes grilled over a fire with a big mug of beer to wash them down. The oysters looked really good as well, cooked on the half-shell over a grill.
Then I went to several different stores for momiji manjou, a pastry that tastes a bit like a waffle with a filling. Each store had different fillings, so it was hard to decide and I ended up eating way more than I probably should have. But how can you resist strawberry, custard, and green tea? I actually liked the black sesame best, and bought a souvenir box for the guys back at the office.
It was surprisingly fun seeing all the little shops of handcrafts, and I ended up in conversation with an old man who made rice scoops calls shakushi, and felt compelled to buy one. It can go with my collection of other handmade items that I have picked up on business trips. I was also intrigued by a shop that sold handmade soy sauce and got a small bottle for my mother.
I took a parting look at Itsukushima Shrine on the way back, and was surprised to see that it no longer seemed to float like magic upon the water. Instead, the foundations showed, reeking of ocean and littered with trash. It was a sorry sight, and I was so thankful that my first view had been high tide. The Otorii was also exposed and tourists were walking up to and through it, and it seemed somehow wrong that way. I liked it isolated on the water, and decided not to go out to it. Actually, the other reason is that I had only brought one pair of shoes on this trip, and I needed to wear them with my suit at work tomorrow.
At last I made it back to the ferry for the short crossing to the main island. After that it seemed like I had left a magical world and was back in the real one, navigating the trains, buying tickets, finding the places to transfer.
My final view of the island was rather hurried, but memorable. Mt. Misen seemed covered with red trees, glowing in the evening light, protecting the shrine at its foot. Someday I will go back again.
Japanesesearch.com has a ‘Top 14’ most scenic spots for autumn color in Japan, Miyajima is #10 but I think it deserves a higher spot!
Special thanks to Robert for submitting his trip!