View from Mount Misen

On my 2nd full day in Hiroshima, a Friday, I decided to visit Itsukushima, an island a short distance to the south-west of Hiroshima, which is popularly known as Miyajima (Shrine Island).

Getting there was not so difficult, there is a ferry port called Miyajimaguchi and regular trains there from Hiroshima Station. The ferry trip only takes about 10 minutes.

One of the best-known attractions of Miyajima is the famous “floating Torii” – a giant red gate constructed on the tidal zone that, when the tide is in, appears to float on the sea. It is very prominent from the ferry. Unfortunately it has been under renovation for quite some time and was covered in scaffolding and semi-translucent tarpaulins when I visited. It is part of the Itsukushima Shrine, a very old wooden red-painted shrine constructed on stilts across the bay.

It was a scorching hot day when I arrived, and I already had some mild sunburn from touring Hiroshima the previous day, so I sought to stay in the shade and utilised my umbrella as an emergency sunshade when necessary. There wasn’t a lot of shade outside the ferry port, so I quickly hurried inside an air-conditioned cafe, where I was the only customer. I ordered cinnamon toast and lemonade, and I have to say it was delicious!

I skirted along the coastline in the direction of the shrine and soon found a shaded area with a small grove of trees and trellises on what seemed to be a main shopping street, bustling and full of tourists and deer. Deer? Yes, there is a thriving population of small deer on Miyajima (think Bambi) and they are absolutely NOT afraid of tourists, if anything it’s the other way round!

They were partially attracted, like me, by the shade of the trees, but also seemed very interested in the tourists’ food. You thought deer were vegetarians? Well they apparently will eat anything that smells nice and is left unattended. And by unattended, I mean you’re holding it in your hand but looking the other way. They also seemed quite interested in the ice creams and shaved ice – I guess deer need to cool down sometimes too. And if the tourists wouldn’t share their actual food with the deer, then they were happy to just eat anything made of paper. I saw tourists wrestling with deer to get their maps back several times!

The cheekiest deer I saw came across some food apparently left sitting on a wall, still wrapped up in paper. It was probably a local seafood and rice combination in a bread wrap, I’m not sure. But the deer just picked it up in its mouth and started chewing. Moments later a young Japanese teenager came back – I presume the owner of the food – and saw the deer wolfing down his dinner, and the expression on his face was priceless, I can see where the phrase “his jaw dropped” came from! He skittishly dodged round the unfazed deer and picked up the other food packets. I suppose it is possible it wasn’t his food and he was just concerned about the deer eating something dangerous, but he did seem very surprised.

There were lots of signs around the island saying “Do not feed the deer, they are wild animals” but for some reason the deer were just deliberately ignoring them. Some of the deer (the boys, I guess) had antlers, I couldn’t resist finding out what sort of hardness and texture deer antlers have. They felt a bit like liquorice sticks.

The deer were dotted all along the coastal area, mingling with the tourists or just resting in the shade. There were many shops selling the products with which Miyajima is strongly associated. Lots of oyster shops. Some confectioneries selling maple-leaf cakes – Miyajima is proud of its maple trees. Lots of deer-shaped toys. And rice spoons. I bought a rice spoon – I really wanted a regular wooden spoon as mine had snapped a week earlier (after years of dedicated cooking) but this was the best alternative I had seen to date.

I stood on a beach for what seems the first time in a long time (I suppose the Rinkai Park beach counts, from a year ago, but Tokyo beaches are just volcanic mud). Then I climbed a mountain. Well, when I say climbed, I took a free minibus, then two cable cars to near the top of Mount Misen. The actual summit was another 30 minute uphill walk (well, 10 minutes down, 20 minutes up). I got through the downhill part and 3 minutes of walking uphill decided this might be a challenge too far. I had to get back for the last cable car within 45 minutes otherwise I would be walking down.

Even though I didn’t reach the very top, the views from near the top were quite spectacular. You could see the whole of central Hiroshima laid out in its cauldron of hills, and just imagine what you would have seen if you had been standing here on August 6th 1945. In the other direction there was island after island, disappearing towards the horizon, filling the Seto Inland Sea.

On my return to ground level, I made my way further along the coast, past the Itsukushima Shrine towards the Aquarium. They have whales, apparently, but by the time I got there, the aquarium was closed.

I took one more walk back towards the ferry port, past the five-story pagoda (I had done enough climbing for one day), and through the main shopping area. I bought a drink of lemon squash, which had some jelly in it, which was weird but not unpleasant.

Finally I headed back to the ferry port and bought my ticket back to Hiroshima. Miyajima is a beautiful island, the deer are friendly, the views are spectacular, and there is lots to see and do here. It was very busy even in the midst of a pandemic, I can imagine in normal times, with tourists from across Japan and internationally, it might get very crowded. Perhaps I was lucky to come at just the right time?

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