Itsukushima: Escape by ferry on a day trip to sacred island
November 16, 2008
Even on a clear, bright day, the lush mountains and forests of Itsukushima rise from the sea in a ghostly haze.
The effect is fittingly ethereal for an island held sacred by the Japanese since ancient times.
Itsukushima, also known as Miyajima, was worshipped as a god by the Shinto religion and remained uninhabited for a thousand years to preserve the purity of its primeval forests and exquisite temples.
When the Japanese did move onto the island, they forbid tilling the land, giving birth and burying the dead. No maternity wards or cemeteries were ever built.
Today, the sacred isolation of the island has given way to tourism. Throngs of Japanese and Westerners flock to Itsukushima to shop along its quaint canvas-covered arcade and snap photos of famous shines and temples.
The torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine is an iconic Japanese landmark, and day-trippers come to see what’s billed as one of Japan’s three most scenic places.
Island deer, long used to being fed by visitors, lounge in restaurant doorways or beside park benches.
The island is about 45 minutes east of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on Route 2 toward Hiroshima. A roundtrip ferry ticket costs about 300 yen at the JR station.
Despite the incursion by tourism, Itsukushima still maintains much of the awe-inspiring atmosphere and scenic beauty that built its holy reputation — though travelers interested in seclusion and serenity might have to do a little walking to escape the crowds.
The United Nations named the island and the Itsukushima Shrine a World Heritage site in 1996, saying its interplay of human creativity and natural landscape creates an "art of incomparable physical beauty."
While Itsukushima Shrine is the main attraction, the primeval forest that covers most of the island might be its greatest resource.
The Daishoin Shrine trail is the best way to experience the beauty of the forest. The steep, two-hour walk to the peak of Mount Misen is not for everyone, but it is ideal for those who are looking for a vigorous workout and a unique day hike. The trail begins at the shrine, which is about a 20-minute walk from the ferry terminal. Most visitors keep to the waterfront, so the streets of Itsukushima quickly become sleepy and deserted as you move up the mountain.
Hikers will pass Daishoin Shrine, which sits in the rocky lap of Mount Misen. It is a less-visited but stunning specimen of religious architecture.
At the higher altitudes of the trail, the sounds of the streets die out and a calm quiet seems to fall. Occasionally, the calls of wild macaques — Japanese snow monkeys — and crows echo through the stands of virgin fir trees. The macaques move through the thickets in groups foraging for food.
It is at those moments, while alone on the forest trail, that the mythology and religion of Itsukushima comes alive and the island seems most godly.
Unfortunately, sections of the trail that follow a mountain streambed suffered storm damage and have been recently landscaped, leaving the scars of heavy equipment and bald earth. Still, bends in the trail afford many panoramic views of the inland Seto sea, Miyajima and the Chugoku region in the distance.
Rarely visited smaller shrines and temples sit along the trail. Okunoin Temple, near the Mount Misen peak, has a natural well and a torii gate that overlooks the sea and mountains.
Visitors who reach the top of the mountain can lunch on udon noodles, cold drinks and ice cream at the mountain observatory, which has the best view of the region from its top deck. A lunch will cost about 1,000 yen.
If the hike leaves your thighs burning, cable cars carry visitors back down the mountain for 1,000 yen, a trip that includes views of the World Heritage forest.
Visitors to Itsukushima will see some of the world’s most gorgeous religious settings. But lucky ones might just leave with a spiritual experience.