One of the most iconic destinations near Hiroshima is Miyajima, a holy island best known for its “floating torii’ that stands just inside the intertidal zone. Subject of a thousand travel guide photos, the torii marks the entrance to Ikutsukushima Shrine, where you can be extruded through a shrine hallway and injected with the 11 secret herbs and spices of Japanese cultural understanding take a tour of the important and ancient shrine. Despite the lovely views, however, Ikutsukushima Shrine isn’t the only interesting or beautiful part of the island.
We stepped off the ferry between the mainland and Miyajima into the bitterly cold wind and were instantly greeted by the deer of the island. With thousands of tourists coming off the boats each day to pet them and feed them, the deer have no fear at all and treat you as though you’re as much a part of the scenery as a tree, and just as boring. They were content to munch on the sheets of newspaper that seemed scattered everywhere. We were a bit nervous to touch them, but everyone else did and the deer seemed to take neither pain nor pleasure in it, so we eventually gave in. Their fur was coarse like a boar’s hair brush, but that didn’t take anything from the magic of touching a live and supposedly wild animal.
After photos and pets and squeeing, we continued on toward the shrine only to be greeted with a massive sign about 1000 feet from the pier warning us to not pet the deer! They’re wild! the sign exhorted. Petting and feeding makes them dependent on humans! Stop making the deer dependent on humans. Whoops. Maybe if that sign was a little closer to the pier, where you could see it when you step off the boat… Apparently they also like to eat paper despite that it’s bad for them, and will literally dig it out of your bag if they smell it. Well great. I thought about the paper scattered on the ground for the deer to munch on, and the lack of trashcans. Great. We continued toward the shrine.
The sun had burned off most of the early morning clouds, so it was bright and beautiful. Unfortunately, some kind of alchemy between the sea and the land and sky combined to create obscenely cold air and bitter wind. I tried to wrap myself up as best I could, but I was already layered to the teeth and the wind cut right through. Over a week later in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, I would remember this little southern island as the coldest place I’d been in the whole country. We bought hot drinks from the vending machines that seemed to hardly dent the cold that ran through us.
We took a tour of the shrine and then, having received our Japanese culture infusion, we headed to Momijidani Park, where we’d heard there was excellent momiji. Far from the splotchy coloring we’d seen elsewhere in the country, the maples were aflame, more vibrant and concentrated than I’ve ever seen. Although some of the other deciduous trees still held to summer with green leaves, they only served to highlight the maples that fiercely announced the fall. I love the autumn colors, but these trees took it to another level, each leaf the vivid crimson of smoldering coals. I forgot the cold standing under them, and suddenly understood why people began having momiji viewing parties in the Heian Period; at the moment, nothing sounded more lovely than sitting down with hot tea and snacks to enjoy the leaves.
We wove through the park over bridges and near streams, the trees captivating our attention and awe. I’m not sure how far we’d walked when we came upon the ropeway up the mountain. I’d read about it when researching Miyajima, but hadn’t planned to take it; it was a little expensive and all it did was take you part of the way up Mt. Misen, the mountain that comprises the island. A partial ascent didn’t seem like reason enough to pay the fare when I was sitting in my living room preparing a budget, but standing here among the gorgeous leaves with the cool mountain air in my lungs, it seemed like an obvious choice. We paid our way onto the ropeway and began to ascend.
The momiji sank below us, giving way to scraggly pines that lurched up the mountain. We had a good view of Hiroshima almost immediately. We gained meters by the minute, and I began to wonder what the atomic blast must have looked like from this distance. Miyajima has several shrines and temples dotting it, and the very existence of Ikutsukushima Shrine speaks to the relative weakness of this first bomb—although hardly 5 miles away, it wasn’t incinerated, and as far as I was aware no one living on the island had experienced ill effects. Even so, I was gripped by how terrifying it would have been to be so close to that blinding light and crushing sound, the mushroom cloud filling your vision, its smoke unfurling to the sky.
I couldn’t think about it any longer. I looked out over the sea.
We arrived at the top and were instantly met with an expansive view of the inland sea stretching away beyond the horizon, the other islands large and close. Ahead a sign told us that we could climb to the top of Mt. Misen—approximately a 1 hour round trip. Of course, the timetable showed us that we only had an hour before the last ropeway went back down the mountain. Although it’s possible to ascend and descend the mountain without using the ropeway, I didn’t relish the thought of spending a freezing night bumbling through the dark on an unfamiliar path back home. Jason wasn’t sure he wanted to climb the mountain at all. Shannon and I discussed it and agreed we couldn’t walk up and make it back in an hour.
We decided we’d run instead.
We loped along the trail with greater speed than I’d expect from myself, probably encouraged by the craziness of our idea—the momiji-induced endorphins made any crazy idea that involved beautiful scenery sound like a good one. The trail dropped deceptively down for the first hundred feet or so, adding to our speed before it hooked sharply up again. We passed several hikers on their way down from the summit, and a few intrepid hikers on their way up who would almost certainly take the trail back down the mountain in the dark. We careened around the switchbacks, hugged the corners, jumped over rocks and scrabbled up using our hands in places where the trail became so steep it was nothing more than a set of uneven stone steps.
By the time we were a quarter of the way up, I was breathing hard and hardly moving faster than a quick walk. Even Shannon, athletic and energetic, was winded. We forced ourselves onward, using the rocks to pull us along wherever we could. At what I sensed should be halfway, we burst upon a clearing where a small Buddhist temple stood huddled on the rocks. Candles were set up everywhere but the temple itself was dark, the deep heart of it empty. There were no worshippers to be seen. We flashed past it, using its level terrain to get another lung-searing burst of speed before we launched up the side of the mountain again.
To my credit, I had only slowed to a jog by this time. I felt there was no turning back, that I’d gotten myself in too deep. Why run halfway up the side of a mountain if you’re not at least going to get to the place you’re going? Still, I had no watch or phone with me, and the looming spectre of that pitch dark walk down the mountain was growing more motivational than any promise of a lovely view.
Just past the temple Jason suddenly ran up behind us. Apparently despite our saying goodbye he hadn’t realized that we were going to run up the mountain, and definitely hadn’t realized that we were going to leave him behind while we did it. Shannon was galvanized by his presence—finally, someone to run with!—and I staggered behind them.
After 15 minutes, I saw signs that I neared the top: fewer trees and more light. I still couldn’t see out over the inland sea, but the orange light of sunset painted the rocks above me.
The insides of my lungs felt like they’d been incinerated.
And then I came around a turn in the trail and there was the sea, slightly hazy through the orange air, islands floating on the surface of the deep, sun nuzzled into a blanket of clouds piled on the horizon. The chilly air and whips of unfettered wind felt both refreshing and too cold on my sweating body. I was alone up there, Jason and Shannon having disappeared behind rocks somewhere, and I stared to the horizon.
Get there: The town is a bit labyrinthine, but you can easily find Momijidani Park and the ropeway by following the signs. They’re especially common near Itsukushima Shrine, as the park is just a few hundred meters behind it.
Price: The park is free, and the ropeway is 1000 yen (~$10 USD) one way or 1800 yen (~$18 USD) for a round trip ticket. Once you’re up there, the trail to Mt. Misen is free.
- Don’t skip Itsukushima Shrine. I was a little flippant in my post because it’s received so much coverage in guide books and on other blogs, but it’s actually a Japanese National Treasure, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the Three Views of Japan. You should definitely go.
- Check out the observatory. The recently built Mt. Misen and Shishiiwa Observatories were under construction during my visit, and actually blocked part of the view. If you go now, it should be much easier to get panoramic shots from the north side of the peak, and possibly 360-degree views.
Based on my diary entries from November 19, 2013.