As soon as we decided we’d venture west to Hiroshima on our Japan trip, it was a foregone conclusion that we’d visit Miyajima Island. Even if that name doesn’t ring a bell, you might be familiar with Miyajima. On photo sharing sites, Pinterest travel bucket lists, or “beautiful places” type of lists, the floating torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine is a staple. We spent most of our first day in Hiroshima working so that we’d be able to get up early and “rope drop” Miyajima Island and stay until the very end of the night.
I had consulted a tide chart and discovered that we’d have two chances to experience low and high tide during our stay in Hiroshima, and with high tide occurring near sunset both days. In advance, Sarah knew that this was one of my absolute top photography priorities for the trip, and we were prepared to go back to Miyajima Island a second day if the high tide at sunset didn’t pan out our first day.
This might seem like an overemphasis on a relatively small thing given how much there is to do in Hiroshima, but Miyajima Island is far from a “small thing.” Well, the island is small, but as a destination it offers a ton to do. Despite years of seeing photos of the floating torii, I had no clue that Miyajima offered so much until we started doing our research and itinerary-building for this trip. At that point, I was beginning to wonder whether one day would suffice…
Our trek to Miyajima started really early, as the commute from our Airbnb to Miyajima was over an hour and included multiple trains and a ferry.
Fortunately, this entirely journey was covered by our Japan Rail Pass (including the ferry!). Duration aside, it was relatively painless, and we managed to get work done on those long-ish train rides.
The ferry ride was pretty awesome, with the slow approach to Miyajima drawing us ever-nearer to the floating torii, and other temple buildings became visible among the forest as we got closer to the island. The entire time, I was feverishly taking photos, as the sky was absolutely perfect and the fall colors popped against the pagoda and other temple buildings.
We arrived at the port, and walking through the terminal, noticed models of Itsukushima Shrine’s floating torii alongside Mont Saint Michel. Apparently, the two sites have formed a “Tourism and Friendship City Agreement” due to their common themes and cultural exchange. We would later see posters with both sites at high tide all over the place.
Given that the highlight of our trip to Europe last year (and one of my top 5 travel experiences, ever) was seeing high tide at Mont Saint Michel (please check that post out if you haven’t already), this got me even more amped than I already was. If the rising tide at Itsukushima Shrine was even a fraction of the experience as that of Mont Saint Michel, we were in for something special.
From the terminal, we started our walk to Itsukushima Shrine when we started encountering the docile deer of Miyajima. I got low to take an eye-level portrait of one–then, calamity struck. As I bent down, I heard a loud THUD. I quickly turned, knowing without looking exactly what had happened.
In my frenzy to take photos of Itsukushima Shrine from the ferry, I had changed lenses quickly and thrown my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 in the quick access panel of my camera bag. In my haste, I had forgotten to zip-up the panel, and forgot to do so before getting off the ferry.
The lens hit the ground hard, squarely where it mounts with the camera. I held out some hope that maybe it survived unscathed, but the mount was so badly damaged that it wouldn’t even attach to my camera. I have no idea what other internal damage happened, as the lens can only be serviced in the United States during to Nikon’s territorial serial numbering. I’ll take it into the Los Angeles service center once we get back to California.
For the rest of the trip, my largest lens was a useless brick. This not only stunk from a dead-weight perspective, but because it left me with no zoom beyond 105mm.
Being without one of my go-to lenses for the duration of the trip (and hundreds of dollars–if not $1,000 or more–worth of damage) could’ve put a damper on the day, but Miyajima Island was so beautiful that I wasn’t going to let the lens incident spoil things.
We immediately located Miyajima Coffee, the best spots for desserts and coffee per my research. It did not disappoint, with coffee and snacks that were exquisite.
That set the day back on the right track, and we followed it up with a stroll through Momijidani Park. This was an absolutely lovely area, bursting with fall colors.
I got a chuckle out of these “run a little” distance signs.
It took us longer than 7 minutes to get to the Miyajima Ropeway Station, but that had less to do with failing to “run a little” and more to do with “stopping too much” for photos of the beautiful foliage.
We opted to purchase one-way tickets for the ropeway, figuring we’d take some of the scenic Daisho-in Course walkway down, stopping at the viewpoints and other items of interest along the way, before arriving at Daisho-in Temple.
We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, though. First, we had to take the ropeway to its upper station. This ride was pleasant, and we were seated with a man and his elderly parents, who were seeing Mt. Misen for the first time. They chatted with us for a while, asking us about the places we had visited, and telling us some of their favorite things they’ve seen around the world.
After arriving at the upper station, we then hiked around another kilometer to the summit of Mt. Misen. This was a fairly steep hike at times, and I’d call it moderate in terms of intensity.
It was also beautiful, with glimpses of the ocean and smaller shrines along the way. Well worth the effort, and something I’d highly recommend doing even if you need to take several breaks along the way.
It took us about half an hour before we arrived at Shishi-iwa Observatory, a multi-story observation deck with sweeping views of the outlying area, including Hiroshima.
There was also a natural rock plateau that offered a bit of an area to explore at the top.
From there, it was a shockingly quick hike down. We took Daisho-in Course because we wanted to stop at Daisho-in Temple, but in hindsight, we probably could’ve prolonged the hike by doing Omoto Course and then just doubling back to Daisho-in Temple. In any case, it was a beautiful hike.
There wasn’t a ton in the way of fall colors until we arrived at Daisho-in Temple, but once we arrived there, the trees were pretty much ablaze with reds and yellows.
We both liked Daisho-in Temple quite a bit, but in retrospect I wonder whether our impression was colored by the beautiful foliage. It seemed to have variety, detailed halls, nice statues, and engaging landscape. Oh, and it was free. If you’re going to Miyajima, it’s unquestionably a must-do.
We didn’t spend a ton of time at Daisho-in Temple, as my tide chart indicated that low tide had just begun, and would not last very long. (The plan was to revisit Daisho-in, but we never made it back.)
Upon arriving back at Itsukushima Shrine, we raced out to the Great Torii to walk under it at low tide before the water started rising. Apparently I had misread the tide chart, as low tide lasted about 2 hours longer than I expected.
This threw off our itinerary a bit, as we wandered out on intertidal zone, under the not-so-floating torii, and set up my tripod to take some photos. It was a cool experience.
After realizing that the tide wasn’t going to start rising in the immediate future, we left to go do other things. First on our list: eating. We wanted to try Hiroshima’s style of fried oysters, and Kakiya was highly regarded for all things oyster.
This restaurant was slightly more expensive than we had been budgeting for each meal, but given that it was serving oysters it was a downright bargain.
We ordered a fried oysters plus a sampler with a variety of preparation styles; the latter included barbecued oysters that were shockingly good. Sarah’s not a fan of oysters (due to the texture) but even she agreed that these fried oysters were fantastic (“for what they were”).
If Sarah enjoyed oysters more, I totally would’ve ordered a second sampler once we were done with the first. These were so unique and flavorful–and cheap compared to what the same thing would cost elsewhere. Oh well.
Instead, we headed on to a small side-street shop to grab dessert. Pretty much everywhere in Miyajima was selling Momiji Manju, a maple leaf pastry made on the island.
The internet tells me that manjus are japanese pastries derived from mochi, consisting of flour dough, water, sugar and starch, and filled with flavored red bean paste. They are boiled but served cold, usually at teatime. They are also very delicious.
Our next stop was Hokoku Shrine home of Senjokaku Hall and the 5-story pagoda that towers over Miyajima Island.
Senjokaku Hall was pretty barren, which was a bit odd (relatively speaking) since it is one of the few temple areas on Miyajima to charge admission. Still, the fee was nominal, the hall offered nice views, and I really like the photo above, so I guess it was worth it.
As we wandered back towards the shrine, we spotted plenty of deer along the way, all of whom were looking for a handout. Interestingly, these deer were far more docile than the ones in Nara. Those will (literally) attack you for food. These deer were more like dogs: hungry, but just as much for attention.
Around this time, we realized we were running short on time. We needed to get to the Treasure Hall before it closed, since we had purchased a joint ticket for it when entering Itsukushima Shrine. In retrospect, I could’ve done without visiting the Treasure Hall.
At this point, the sky was starting to look really good, so even though we were over an hour from sunset, we headed back to Itsukushima Shrine. In retrospect, I should’ve made another quick pass-through Daisho-in Temple to get better photos.
Instead, we played a waiting game at the edge of the rising tide in front of the (once again) floating torii. Conditions were now perfect for it, so we started with a “selfie” taken from the tripod:
Shoutout to the person on social media who “caught” us Photoshopping ourselves into this scene. Actually, we weren’t really here at all. Every photo in this post is an elaborate forgery, meticulously crafted on a soundstage in the Valley–the same one where the moon landing was shot.
We’ve never even been to Japan. There is no we–Sarah is an illusion based on a composite of stock photos I got from old Sears catalogs. I’m not married, and have never even left my parents’ basement in Michigan.
The internet being what it is, I probably should stress that all of the above is sarcasm. In actuality, all of these photos (yes, that includes the one of us) are “real” and were actually shot by me in Miyajima, Japan. (I love the internet, but damn…I hate the internet.)
Only about 10 minutes after the selfie, the above photo was taken. This was still well before sunset, and is (I think) the best photo I got of the floating torii.
I’m not satisfied with this shot. While the sky looks nice, I didn’t get the motion in the rising tide I wanted, and this was in part because I never expected to ever actually use this photo. I was just taking test photos every so often as I sat there to check settings, waiting for the actual sunset.
While I was waiting, I shot this video with my phone; it’s a calming video that gives a sense of being there:
The perfect cloud cover that would’ve produced an epic sunset disappeared while we were sitting there waiting, leaving nothing. I guess it’s a good thing I shot those test photos rather than just waiting for the peak light–thankfully, I don’t shoot film.
I did get a few good photos from this sunset, and I think I’m pleased with some of the other things I shot that I’ve yet to edit. I guess this ultimately comes down to expectation versus result. Once I saw the light and those clouds, I envisioned an end result that was much better than what I captured.
I also questioned why I went to the disappointing Treasure Hall rather than waiting under the floating torii to capture a photo of that as the tide starting to envelope it. The upside, I suppose, is that now I have several new ideas to try the next time we head to Miyajima Island.
I spent more time taking photos after dusk, and we wandered around the side streets, but by this point it was clear that most of the island’s businesses were shutting down. Day trippers had gone home, leaving the island almost entirely deserted. (It was actually stunning how quickly Miyajima went from swarming with people to desolate.)
We spent about an hour walking around the near-empty island, and it was a phenomenal experience. Hungry and tired, we figured we should probably do the same, though. I wish we would’ve stayed longer, and I think next time, we’d consider doing a stay at one of the island’s ryokan.
I’m not sure how long it’ll take us to get back since it is a bit of a trek out to Hiroshima, but Miyajima Island ranks very highly in our list of destinations in Japan. It was a beautiful place, and one that offered so much beyond the floating torii that draws so many tourists to the island.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Miyajima is its holistic nature. There’s the sense that Miyajima was meticulously masterplanned, and it feels almost like a themed space in the way the environments flow and transition from one another, but while still feeling real rather than artificial or staged. Even Kyoto doesn’t accomplish this. Miyajima is also small enough to be walkable, but large enough to have plenty of space to explore. This may not make much sense–suffice to say, Miyajima is stunning and features a diverse slate of things to do, making for a really fun and “complete” experience. We most definitely will be back–hopefully soon.
Check out All Installments of Our Japan Trip Report for more on what we’ve done. If you’re planning a visit, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help plan.
Have you ever visited Miyajima Island? What do you think of it? Is the floating torii on your travel bucket list? Any questions or other comments? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!