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Itsukushima-jinja

I apologise but this post gets a wee bit poetic and flowery in the middle.

Momijidani is one of Japan’s two famous “viewing” seasons, the other being hanami in Spring. Momijidani means to go view the beautiful maple leaves that turn Japan’s forests into beautiful vistas of red and gold every autumn.

One of the most famous sights for Momijidani is Miyajima Island near Hiroshima. The island is covered in a wide variety of maples and even has a park dedicated to maple trees.

My girlfriend being wiser and more sensible than I rightly thought that it would be a great place to spend a long weekend. And she was right.

I don’t really have a lot to add about Miyajima since the last time I wrote about it. The floating torii is still a truly amazing sight. The view from the top of the mountain still offers a stunning panoramic vista of the surrounding area and the dramatic, moody mountains that burst from the sea like monsters rising from the depths. The climbed down is still pleasant and calm and takes you through beautiful primeval forest. There are still monkeys, deer and monkeys and deer together. The town of Miyajima is still charming and old fashioned and a delight to stroll through. It is, basically, still my favourite spot in Japan.

The main changes this time were to the climate and the amount of people in attendance.

Obviously it was autumn and as I said we had gone there to admire the autumn leaves. And they are definitely worthy of admiration. Autumn has always been my favourite season in Britain for the combination of the nicest temperatures of the year (September is warm but not so warm that you sweat from walking), the confluence of several festivals such as bonfire night and Halloween (which obviously isn’t a big thing in Britain but is to a horror movie buff like me) the beautiful crisp quality to the air and the glorious colours of the trees.

Japanese Autumn lacks the festivals and is still so wet that it jumps from hot to cold almost immediately but it more than makes up for it in the quality of its leaves.

I mean, wow! Words fail me.

The amount of forest in Japan helps this effect too. Japanese cities are largely devoid of trees (although Hiroshima is an exception) but just beyond every Japanese city is a dominating mountain range covered top to bottom in ancient forest. These forests are mostly a lustrous dark green but they are dotted here and there with bright apple reds, fiery oranges and sunflower yellows. In autumn every view in Japan gains a breathtaking multi-coloured backdrop.

Chief and most important of the autumn trees are the maples, the momiji which the season gets its name from. Not only do these trees effect the most dramatic change and most exciting of colours (just look at some of those reds and let your jaw hang loose in wonder) but the shape of the leaves further enhances their beauty. Symmetrical, angular, intricate, eye catching the classic maple leaf shape is the perfect canvas on which to display these autumnal compositions.

Autumn also grants the surrounding view a wonderful mist. From the top of the mountain the surrounding islands which rise so magnificently from the waters are draped in a mysterious fog. Thin enough that it doesn’t obscure the view but just thick enough to lend the islands an air of mystery and a vague ethereal quality.

Put basically Miyajima looks really pretty in autumn.

However, unfortunately, the Japanese people are well aware of this and they flock, in their thousands, to come see it.

This is a constant problem for the traveller in Japan. There are just a lot of Japanese people. And lots of these Japanese people want to do the same things as you. The Japanese are very good at enjoying their own country, much better than Brits are, and they love to travel and see the sights in Japan.

So you can be sure that at any major festival or any scenic spot that is particularly associated with a season there will be other people there in their thousands getting in your way and spoiling the view and the quiet.

Frankly I’m used to this by now and having to struggle through enormous crowds of people no longer bothers me quite so much as it did but it can still rankle sometimes, especially when we had to wait more than an hour for the cable car to the top of the mountain. Nor did I have the island entirely to myself last time either but whilst last time on my climb down the mountain last time I saw 3, maybe 4 people in total this time around I passed a group of 3 every 10 seconds.

The food is still awesome too. I introduced Fran to the delights of barbequed oysters. She didn’t like them and so I got to eat hers as well. She has no idea what she’s missing, they were tasty and juicy and perfect and meltingly delicious. I want some more just thinking about it.

And momiji-manju, basically tai-yaki but in the shape of momiji leaves, is still the finest invention in the entire history of Japan.

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Hiroshima Day 2

The plan for Day 2 was to get up early, head to Miyajima Island to climb Mt Misen and then spend the rest of the day on Miyajima getting some photos of the “floating torii.” Reportedly, one of the three most beautiful and most photographed views in all of Japan.

Of course the problem with this is that I lost my camera. So I had to hang around in Hiroshima until 10 o’clock when the shops opened, find an electronics shop, buy a camera, charge the battery and then head to Miyajima. I eventually arrived at about 1 o’clock, a good 3 hours after the planned time.

However, whilst I was not too pleased about having to fork out for a camera and being late any residual anger I had left me the minute I came into view of Miyajima.

It’s wonderful.

The ferry that takes you to the island crosses in front of the famous floating torii on its way there. Unfortunately for me the floating torii only floats during a high tide and as I approached it was low tide and the torii was surrounded by nothing more beautiful than sand and tourists. Even so it was still an impressive sight. Elegantly constructed and massive it dwarfed the people surrounding it and is immediately eye catching.

I was going to have to wait until high tide to see the torii but I had to climb the mountain straight away if I wanted to have a chance to visit anything else. Pausing only to feed my complaining stomach some yakitori (which was delicious and juicy and the best I have ever had) I headed off to Misen.

The first stage of the climb requires leaving the small town that surrounds Itsukushima-jinja and the torii and heading up the slope to the cable car. The town of Miyajima is phenomenally touristy but still really nice. Moving away from the main shopping arcade it’s quiet, decidedly old fashioned and full of winding narrow hilly streets, interesting little shops and handsome older Japanese style buildings. Oh and there are tame deer wandering through the streets too which adds a certain novel charm. Pretty as it was it was also bloody steep and I was knackered just reaching the cable car.

On the way up the mountain I saw what may be my 2nd favourite sign so far in Japan.

The second stage of the climb is to get on the cable car which, yes I realise, is a bit of a cheat. Time was a factor though and I resolved to take the scenic route down. The cable car ride was absolutely stunning. Miyajima sits at the entrance to the Seto Inland Sea, which isn’t inland at all but is between two of the main islands of Japan. The Seto Sea is full of tiny but tall mountains formed from volcanoes. They rise out of a perfect blue ocean like the teeth of some great monster. Small islands you could walk around in an hour but impossibly tall and pointy for their size. They’re absolutely gorgeous, some of the most captivating scenery I have ever seen.

Eventually we got to the top of the cable car where I was greeted by what is easily my favourite sign in Japan so far.

MONKEYS!

Yup monkeys. Deer too. At the top of the cable car there is a rock park with a small observatory that is full of macaques and deer. I love monkeys. These were far less terrifying than the ones in Yamasaki too as they weren’t circling us to try and steal our food. It was a bit freaky though when one nearly fell on me after leaping off a roof.

Also how cute is this sign.

As it was spring time there were lots of little baby monkeys running about too. I saw one incredibly sweet little thing climbing out of a hole. When his mother spotted me with my camera she immediately swept him up in her arms and turned her back to me.

This pair on the other hand had no shame.

And may I just go on record as saying that distended monkey nipples are some of the most disturbing things I have ever seen.

Shudder!

Although I could have stayed all day I had a mountain to climb. So I embarked on stage 3, up the path to the peak.

The path to the summit wanders through a primeval forest that is pretty dark and absolutely full of animals. May favourites were the frogs that made a noise like a video recorder rewinding. Not that that means much to many of you young whippersnappers but trust me they sounded exactly like a rewinding video.

After about 20 minutes I reached a temple dedicated to Kobo Daishi, the monk responsible for inventing kana. The main claim to fame for this temple is that Kobo Daishi once ate at this spot on his way up Mt Misen on a pilgrimage. The cooking fire he used is apparently still burning and the focal part of the temple is a shed containing a small fire and an enormous cast iron pot. Highly doubtful that a priest would have an enormous cast iron pot which he just left behind but interesting nonetheless.

I thought that this temple was at the summit but I spotted a staircase and guessed that I needed to keep going. Then I came to an open plain with some rocks and figured I’d reached the top but no, another staircase. This happened about 5 or 6 times before I eventually, mercifully came to the actual summit.

Whereupon the grey clouds that had been doggedly pursuing me all day parted and I stared down upon one of the most serenely beautiful things I have ever seen.

The view was amazing. As I mentioned last post no matter how high you climb in Japan you can always see mountains and I could here. But their character was totally different to those I had seen on my way here. The mountains on the land are soft, dark green and wave like. The whole landscape is little more than a bumpy plain of dark green hills. Here the trees were bright green and contrasted against the absolutely glorious blue of the sea. And they didn’t roll but jutted straight up in the air. I could see all the way to Shikoku!

I just sat and stared for ages. A good half hour easily, with my lower jaw hanging heavily down. I was dumbstruck.

Then I spotted that there was an observation tower and more stairs to climb. *sigh*. I climbed it but the view was not significantly improved by the extra 10 ft of height.

Underneath the observation tower was a house on a hillside with a little café attached. I went inside and got a beer and some crisps and ate staring at the sublime vista. The man who served me was one of the smiliest men I have ever seen. I assume he lives near the top of the mountain, or at least spends most of his day there and the smile is the result of the absolutely stunning scenery.

And then it was time to head down.

Just as I was about to set off I passed a couple just reaching the peak. The girl was wearing enormous high heels, real stilettos. God only knows what she’d done to her feet on the climb up.

There are a couple of different routes down the mountain but the one I wanted to take passed a shrine on the way down. The colourful shrine of Daishoo-in which promised a koi carp pond, a Zen garden and basically everything one could possibly want in a shrine.

Unfortunately that route was shut so I instead headed off back through the forest.

It was shockingly quiet. Japan is so full of background noise that I can never get used to the moments in its countryside that suddenly goes quiet. It’s like stepping outside of the real world and into some fantasy setting. I half expected a kappa to leap from the water at any second.

The path followed a stream down to the base of the mountain. Periodically at points along the stream there was half a dam across it made of stones. I discovered at the bottom that these are actually erosion defences. In the 1930’s buildings at the bottom of the stream and much of the scenery of the forest was destroyed by a freak monsoon that caused the stream to burst its banks and flood. The town of Miyajima embarked upon a plan to stop this happening by installing some flood defences. However they faced the problem that all of the flood defence ideas would involve building some kind of dam that would detract from the beauty of the area. Then they hit upon the idea of disguising the dam to look like a traditional Japanese garden. And it works! The garden at the base of the mountain is lovely and completely hides all the flood defences at the bottom and the dams going up the mountain are shaped to fit into the surrounding area. It’s a rare example of local government actually improving on something and getting it right.

According to the “lonely planet” guidebook the descent takes “a good hour.” I managed it in nearly half of that and I wasn’t exactly running.

At the bottom I made my way quickly to “Itsukushima-jinja” before it closed. Itsukushima-jinja is the shrine for which the island is properly named (Itsukushima) and is the shrine that the floating torii marks the entrance too. It is a very unusual shrine in that it is mostly not on the island at all but rather is constructed like a pier jutting off the beach. The reason for this is that the god the shrine venerates is the entire island itself, which is considered to be holy. Because the island is so holy common people weren’t allowed to set foot on it. They had to cross over from the mainland, pass through the floating torii and worship on the shrine.

Although it looks quite nice from a distance and is quite unusual the actual shrine itself is pretty dull and doesn’t boast any interesting relics or statues. The one feature that I did enjoy was this bridge that joins the island to the shrine. In older days messengers from the Empress Suiko would cross this bridge to give messages to the shrine. The bridge is actually so steep that it can’t be crossed normally and special ladders are needed. I love that, a bridge that you can’t cross. How fantastically pointless.

The other thing the shrine offers is a good view of the famous floating torii. By this point it still wasn’t quite floating so I decided to have a wander up to it to see it up close.

It is, I can report, very big. Although it isn’t the biggest torii I have ever seen. On the arms about halfway up the torii are piles and piles of rocks that tourists have thrown up there. I have no idea what the point of this is but I decided to have a go too. I overshot the arm completely and splashed in the water opposite, startling an American gentleman who was lost in admiration for the torii.

As time was getting late I set out to find two things. Food, and a giant rice ladle.

Now the giant rice ladle was a bit of a whim. On my way up the mountain I had glanced at a map that marked out a “big ladle” as a site of interest. It wasn’t marked on my map though and now that I was searching for it I couldn’t find it or the map I had seen. After a brief search I gave up and went off in search of oysters.

Hiroshima as a whole is famous for sea food and Miyajima specifically for barbequed oysters. Whenever I have eaten oysters in the past it has always been raw and they have always been disappointing little blobs with the exact texture and flavour of an enormous bogey. I had never had them barbequed before and OH! MY! GOD! Why on earth don’t we cook oysters in England?! These were juicy, delicious and sweet. Like giant mussels but oh so very tasty. I am sorry to say that I gorged and went back for seconds.

No sooner did I seat myself for seconds than I glanced up and spotted that all this time I had been engrossed in my oysters I had failed to spot the giant ladle.

Well actually it’s more of a spatula, but I’m sure we can all agree it’s a very big spatula.

Full on oysters I sought out ice cream to wander along the beach with. As most of the day trippers had gone home by this point a lot of the shops were closing up but I found one woman with a wide selection of ice creams.

Including wasabi.

That would be horseradish ice-cream. How could I refuse?

The wasabi ice cream was unusual but not unpleasant tasting. It had a sweet and creamy taste but a fiery hot after taste. The effect was to make you want to eat more ice cream because every bite demanded some cream to cool your mouth down. Despite this I couldn’t finish the ice cream and so I fed the remains to a deer. Deer will eat anything; they’re like giant pretty rats.

To rid my mouth of the taste of wasabi I sought out another thing Miyajima is famous for. Dorayaki in the shape of a maple leaf. Only I had it taiyaki style. That means deep-fried maple cake filled with anko. Scrumptious. The outside was warm and crunchy then a layer of gooey warm cake and finally a layer of warm oozing sweet anko paste.

I think if offered it, I would eat taiyaki every day. It would make me very fat but very, very happy.

In fact I liked it so much I had two.

And now finally the tide was in so I set off to get some shots of the now floating “floating torii” and then headed back to the hotel.

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