One of my favourite spots in Japan has to be the beautiful island of Miyajima. With its dense forests, ancient shrines and great hiking options, it’s a popular day trip from Hiroshima and is famous for one of the most scenic views in the whole country. I decided that I just had to explore it and attempt to hike up Mt. Misen – the island’s highest peak.
My day started early as I hurried to the ferry terminal, only stopping to grab a milk ice tea from a vending machine. The first boat of the day departed for Miyajima at 6:25 and I didn’t leave myself enough time to buy any food and now faced doing my hike on an empty stomach!
All thoughts of food were soon forgotten as the ferry began its crossing. The island’s magnificent forested peaks loomed into view while the first rays of the sun painted the sky a hue of orange.
Miyajima and Itsukushima Shrine
About 10 minutes later, I stepped off the ferry and walked through the still-sleeping town, its pretty promenade lined by traditional stone lanterns and huge guardian statues. This was no time for a stroll though, as everyone headed straight for the island’s star attraction. It wasn’t long before I saw it and I had to stop in my tracks in awe. It was just as magical as it looked in photos – the iconic vermillion torii gate rising out of the bay, appearing to be floating on water.
The gate is part of the Itsukushima Shrine and is one of the most photographed places in Japan. Every high tide, the gate is surrounded by water, creating the mesmerising illusion. While the current torii dates back to 1875, gates have been constructed on this spot since the 12th century!
I continued on to the shrine itself around the corner and explored its covered walkways, arch bridges and boardwalks. The shrine complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates back to the 1500s in its current form. You can get another great view of the tori from the edge of the water. When the tide is out, it’s even possible to walk right up to the gate for a closer look! The distinctive colour of the complex and the gate is said to help keep away evil spirits.
Hiking the Momijidani Route to Mt. Misen
I continued through the empty town and made my way up some stone steps to the entrance to Momijidani Park, its beautiful maple trees tinted fiery red at this time of year. While there are three hiking routes to the top, I opted for the Momijidani Route as it’s supposedly the toughest of the three – I do like a challenge!
I made my way across a couple of ornate bridges and started my ascent up Mt. Misen. At 535 metres, the island’s tallest mountain is popular with visitors and affords spectacular views of Miyajima and the waters surrounding the island.
The route twisted and turned up the mountain alongside Momiji River and I spied a couple of small waterfalls on the way. The path was well signed but quite steep in places, with stone steps leading towards the top. I passed through dense forest and past huge boulders strewn around as if placed there by hands of giants.
The path was quite narrow in places as it squeezed between rocks and tree roots and I soon came across a small shrine inside a cave with loads of stones placed together next to an image of Buddha. Mt. Misen (and the island as a whole) is considered sacred as this is where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, carried out his religious training.
As I neared the top, I was treated to wonderful views of the Seto Inland Sea and its islands framed by the vegetation-covered slopes of Miyajima. A bit further on I spotted a couple of deer right next to the path – they were decidedly less interested in my possessions that the ones in Nara!
Misen Hondo and Reikado
I soon got some more insight into the island’s spiritual significance as I reached a courtyard between two impressive structures. Misen Hondo (Main Hall) is where Kobo Daishi is said to have finished his training. Outside, I spotted some miniature figures, some of which were adorned in sunglasses and even “bling”!
Right opposite the main hall was the Reikado (Hall of the Eternal Flame) which houses a flame said to be lit by Kobo Daishi himself. It is said to have been burning for the last 1200 years without ever being put out. It was even used to light the Flame of Peace in nearby Hiroshima. The courtyard was peaceful, the sun only just beginning to break through the trees as incense wafted out of the halls mixing with fresh mountain air. Bright blue benches offered weary hikers some welcome respite.
Heading to the summit
I climbed some more steps and followed the path to Fudo-iwa (Fudo Rock) which housed a small alcove with a statue of Fudo Myo-o, a guardian deity and one of the Five Wisdom Kings. Just past it, I had to duck to make my way through Kuguri-iwa (Tunnel Rock), a natural arch created by the rocks.
I eventually reached the summit and got to enjoy stunning views of the island and the sea beyond. There is an observatory building at the top with panoramic views, loads of boulders to jump around and plenty of space to enjoy a picnic. Which is what I REALLY wanted at that point as I still haven’t eaten a thing since the night before!
I retraced my steps to the courtyard with the two halls and decided to take a different trail back down to the town. I passed the imposing Niou Gate with huge guardian statues and came to a fork. I chose the Daisho-in Route (3km). This route is mostly paved and I didn’t have to watch my footing as much. Until I started seeing warnings for poisonous viper snakes every few 50 metres, that is!
It was still quite early so it was pretty quiet, despite this being the most popular trail to Mt. Misen. It was very well maintained and allowed for some great views of the island. I passed a dam before descending further and seeing the impressive colours and stripes of Curtain Rock. I eventually came out to a clearing and got a beautiful view of the sea and the torii gate far below.
Eventually I glimpsed the Daisho-in temple complex and made my way around to its imposing front gate. I climbed the steps to the top and wandered around the temple’s peaceful grounds. I peered into its many halls, marvelled at the lanterns lining the ceiling at Henjyokutsu Cave and watched the trees awash with striking autumn colours gently sway in the breeze.
I took a narrow path away from the central area and took the steps down through an area lined with over 500 miniature statues of Rakan – Buddha’s disciples. Each one has been carved individually with no statues having the same facial expression. Statues in different sections also have matching colourful headwear.
I wish I could have more time to explore Daisho-in but I had to get back to the mainland and start making my way to Osaka for my flight home later that day. I descended the final section and found myself back near the Itsukushima Shrine, now full of tourists. The whole town was heaving with people and food traders. I didn’t have time to stop though as I wanted to make the ferry that was waiting at the dock.
Once aboard, I looked up at the peaks of Miyajima and thought back to the hike, Mt. Misen and the halls around the courtyard. I imagined standing in the grounds of Daisho-in and strolling around Itsukushima Shrine. It may have been a short trip but it was a special one and it ended just like it began – with my eyes settling on the magical vermillion gate floating on the water.
Hiking the Travel Lexx way
There are 3 hiking trails to the top of Mt. Misen. Momijidani (about 2.5km, 1-2 hours) is the shortest but probably the most challenging. It’s well signposted but does get pretty steep towards the end. As you are hiking through the forest, there is plenty of shade on the way. Daisho-in (3km, 1.5-2 hrs) is well-paved and is the most popular route to the summit with some great views, taking visitors past the beautiful Daisho-in temple. Omoto route (3.2km, 1.5-2.5 hours) starts at Omoto Park and continues through a forest and past striking rock formations.
I tackled the Momijidani Route and got to the summit in about 50 minutes.
#1 Bring plenty of water and snacks, especially if setting off early as you might struggle to find anything open
#2 Staying on the island can mean having it to yourself before and after the tour groups arrive. There are a number of hotels and guesthouses on the island – see here for more details.
#3 Time your visit to ensure you can see the torii gate at sunrise and/or sunset for best views.
#4 If you don’t want to hike to the top of Mt. Misen, the Miyajima Ropeway (09:00 – 16:30, ¥1000 one way) gets you near the summit. Bear in mind, you will still need to walk a few hundred metres to the Halls and then the summit from the station.
#5 Build in some time to explore the Daisho-in temple complex – there is plenty to see and I wish I had a little more time to take in its atmosphere.
What: Miyajima is an island just off the coast of mainland Japan. It’s considered sacred by Buddhists and is famous for its “floating” torii gate, multiple temples and shrines and rich natural beauty. Its official name is actually Itsukushima but it’s commonly referred to as Miyajima.
Where: Miyajima is about an hour away from Hiroshima and is a popular daytrip destination.
Getting There: The easiest way to reach Miyajima is by taking a train from Hiroshima to Miyajimaguchi (26 mins) and catching a ferry over to the island (10 mins). If you have a JR Pass, both legs of the journey are free. Check this website for more information.
Accommodation: I stayed at the Hostel & Café Bar Backpackers Miyajima which is only a few metres away from the ferry terminal. It has affordable dorms, great food and drink and plenty of events for guests as well as a roof terrace.