Miyajima is a small island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, just about 12 miles (20 kilometers) southwest of Hiroshima. Its most famous attraction is the “floating” Itsukushima Jinja, a Shinto shrine built on a tidal flat. This giant red torii gate is notable for being one of the Nihon Sankei, Japan’s three most celebrated “scenic views.”
As a consequence of this designation – and the island’s easy proximity to the city of Hiroshima – Miyajima has become a highly popular destination, welcoming over 4 million visitors a year. One recommended itinerary is visiting Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum in the morning, and hopping on the ferry to Miyajima from Miyajimaguchi station in the afternoon. While most tourists spend only a half day on the island, there is the option to stay overnight at a ryokan, or traditional Japanese hotel, an experience inaccessible to day trippers.
The following is a sweeping list of the top things to do on Miyajima, representing some of the island’s best attractions, food, walks, and shopping.
Pet Some Wild Deer
When you disembark the ferry at Miyajima pier, make a hard right and follow the coastline in the direction of the giant torii. Like Japan’s Nara, Miyajima is a place where wild deer roam freely through the streets, to the chagrin of some and the delight of many. Be forewarned: these creatures are completely unafraid of humans, and able to sniff out any and all snack foods buried in backpacks and purses. They’re likely to follow you along your sightseeing route if they think you’re concealing something tasty.
Experience High Tide at Itsukushima Shrine
The huge vermillion torii gate at this historic Shinto shrine is one of the largest of its kind, rising out of the water at 53 feet (16 meters) tall. Constructed in 1875, the gate was built with the wide trunks of camphor trees. Visiting at low tide allows one to walk out onto the sand bed and see the gate up close, but Itsukushima is truly stunning at the peak of high tide, when the shrine appears to float on the surface of the bay. To ensure that you get the most photogenic views, check out the island’s quite helpful website, which provides the tide times and weather forecast.
Unfortunately, Itsukushima Shrine will be undergoing some repairs and reconstruction starting June 2019, with the end date as yet unannounced. While it’s closed, check out the shrine’s Homotsukan (Treasure House), where there are at least 246 historically important art objects and some Important Cultural Properties as classified by the Japanese government. Much of this collection are donations from warlords of the past, who felt the need to express their gratitude to the gods at Itsukushima Jinja after their victories in battle.
Eat Momiji Manju
Immensely popular as souvenirs, these are small satisfying cakes shaped like Japanese maple leaves, typically filled with red bean paste. There are other varieties too – cream, matcha, chestnut – but the red bean ones reign supreme in flavor and texture. While they invoke the island’s beauty in autumn, these cakes are popular year-round, and considered one of Miyajima’s meibutsu, or local specialties.
Experience the Colors of Autumn
Speaking of maple leaves, Miyajima boasts some of Japan’s most fabulous momiji – the term in Japanese for the glowing red maple leaves of November and early December. If your visit happens to coincide with momiji season, make sure to allow time for a leisurely leaf-peeping at Momijidani Koen, Red Maple Valley Park. Aside from the foliage, this area is also a good spot to hang out with the wild deer, if you haven’t yet tired of their insistent food-cadging.
Ascend Mount Misen
Also located in Momijidani Koen is the ropeway to the top of the Mount Misen, Miyajima’s tallest mountain. The quaint gondola takes you to an observatory about a 30-minute hike from the actual summit, where there are some nice views of the sea and Hiroshima. Also on the mountain are “seven wonders,” including an eternal flame that has been burning for more than 1,200 years, originally lit by the legendary Buddhist monk Kukai. In 1964 it was used to light to “Flame of Peace” in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.
Visit Daisho-in Temple
At the base of Mount Misen is Daisho-in, part of Japan’s Shingon sect of Buddhism. This temple has some unexpected features, including an intricate sand mandala laid out by Tibetan Buddhist monks. The gods and buddhas worshipped here come in generous quantities: there are 500 statues of rakan, disciples of the Buddha; 1,000 images of Fudo, an esoteric deity; and 33 statues of Kannon, the goddess of compassion. Daisho-in is way less well-known than Itsukushima Shrine, making it a convenient respite from the mobs of tourists that can affect the main attractions of the island during autumn and cherry blossom season.
See the Five-Storied Pagoda
The Gojunoto, or Five-Storied Pagoda, is another must-see. Located near the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine, it’s painted a bright, splendid crimson color, standing over 90 feet tall (27 meters). It was originally constructed in 1407, with some restorations done in the 1500s. While you can’t go into the pagoda, there is the opportunity to see the inside of Senjokaku (Toyokuni Shrine), or the Hall of One Thousand Tatami Mats. As its name suggests, this is the largest structure on Miyajima island. This structure has rice scoops fixed on the walls, symbols of the soldiers who died fighting for Japan’s expansionism in the 1930s and 40s.
Browse Local Goods at Omotesando Shopping Street
This is Miyajima’s main drag, and the best place to try and buy momiji manju, the aforementioned leaf cakes, as well as other souvenirs, like torii-shaped keychains and yuzu dressing. Omotesando street is also where you can find the world’s largest rice scoop. A delicacy not to be missed is nigiri ten, savory fish paste that is either grilled, steamed, or roasted and served skewer-style on a small wooden stick. Fish paste skewers are available all over Japan, but Miyajima’s nigiri ten are famous for their wide variety of flavors, including cheese, scallion, and bacon.
Slurp Down Some of Miyajima’s Famous Oysters
Miyajima oysters come straight from the surrounding Seto Inland Sea, where conditions are ripe for oyster farming. They’re supposedly larger and juicier than in other parts of Japan, and there’s even an Oyster Festival every February. Whether raw, grilled, or fried, they’re undeniably delicious. Two of the best restaurants to try Miyajima oysters are Yakigaki No Hayashi, where a set of four perfectly briney raw oysters run for about $12, and Kakiya, where the fried oyster is the shining star of the menu.
Stay Overnight in a Luxurious Ryokan
Most people make Miyajima into a day trip, but it would behoove travelers with some extra cash to take advantage of the island’s ryokan, especially the exclusive Iwaso, an inn that has been welcoming guests from all over the world since 1854. Each room has a slightly different design, some with views of the sea, a nearby creek, the Red Maple Valley Park, or the charming old-style buildings of the town arcade. There are also indoor and outdoor hot spring baths. But the best part? No Wi-Fi.