I spent some relaxing time at Julie and Hiroki’s house in Kobe, including a visit to the incredibly named AGGRO Garden onsen, where Julie and I sat in a hot pool, naked of course, with a group of equally naked Japanese ladies and watched a TV show that showed funny youtube clips. Julie translated all of the women’s commentary for me.
Although I loved hanging out with Julie and Hiroki, I decided to head south for a week on my own and do some sightseeing. After much hand wringing on where to go, some late night research brought to light an amazing cycling route called the Shimanami Kaido, from the coast of Honshu (the largest island) to Shikoku (the smallest “main” island). I decided to bookend the Shimanani Kaido with a trip on the shinkansen to Hiroshima and to end in Himeji.
In Hiroshima I visited the A-Dome and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which was quite interesting having visited Pearl Harbour back in May. Hiroshima was a lovely city and I spent some time walking along the river at night with a friendly Australian girl I met in the hostel. Gabby writes a very funny blog called G Notes and I liked her immediately. We decided to visit Miyajima Island the next day, a short train and ferry ride away from Hiroshima.
Upon our ferry’s arrival to the island, we were greeted by Miyajima’s ubiquitous deer, as cute as their Nara counterparts. The town itself was charming but full of omiyage shops, and the main attraction stood just beyond: the famous “floating” torii, a large red Shinto gate that sits a short distance from the shore and thus appears to float in the water when the tide is in. When the tide is out it just sits in a mud flat, not nearly as romantic. Facing the torii is a lovely shrine set on stilts, with a pagoda on the hill behind it. Back in the day the island was considered sacred and the shrine was built on stilts so people wouldn’t walk on its profane soil. Also, women weren’t allowed on the island at all, so it seems times have changed.
The water shrine was quite pretty. It was early afternoon and the tide was in so we were surrounded by water, refracted light reflecting on the ceilings of the covered walkways and off the enormous camera lenses carried by gawking tourists.
We opted to hike up the well marked, manicured trails to the top of Mount Misen, rather than pay for the cable car ,and we saw only a few people and said konnichi wa to every one of them. Apparently it is a “primeval forest” but it was nothing compared to the giant trees at Koyasan. There was a lovely shrine near the top designated for LOVERS. We cried a little because we were all alone.
We made it to the top of Misen in about 45-50 minutes, a lark compared to the hour and a half the signs had threatened. The view was amazing. When I imagined Japan in my mind, I never pictured it so tropical: all around was lush coastline and islands, covered in green mountains whose ridges and valleys looked uncannily like those in Hawaii. The sun was shining and we had ice cream covered in a cardboard-like waffle and all was right with the world. We made a few attempts at photos but my camera remote was seemingly firing at random, so must of them came out with us looking rather befuddled.
After a knee-popping descent down concrete stairs from Misen’s summit, we strolled through some of the touristy streets in the little town, stopping for grilled oysters and momiji, soft waffle-like cookies in the shape of a maple leaf, filled with delicious things such as red bean, custard, chocolate and cream cheese (all of which we tried). I picked up a box as omiyage for Julie and Hiroki. Also present in the town was the world’s largest rice paddle, truly something to cross off every traveler’s dream list.
In a glimpse at every day life on Miyajima, at the ferry terminal, a deer tried to stroll into the building and a lady, clucking her tongue, used a cardboard sign to shoo the deer away, walking it down the sidewalk and gently tapping its butt with the sign. Other deer stood like statues at the entrances of stores, gazing longingly at neatly wrapped boxes of cookies, their hooves resting just against the invisible threshold of inside.
As we sailed away, the island was cast in the glow of the fading day. I couldn’t help but gaze back wistfully, watching it shrink behind the ferry, the red torii standing tall, a monument that both welcomed and said farewell to the Miyajima’s visitors. Miyajima did have a strong tourist presence, but the island still felt magical, tucked in amongst its exquisite surroundings and marked by the sacred gate, floating in the sea.