The Miyajima day is one of these.
I think for me, the greatest impression I got of the day was one of colour. Nature’s palette really outdid itself in Miyajima that day. Gorgeous splashes of blue, yellow and red. The blue of the sky and the Inland Sea and the various hues of red – the maples, the five-storey pagoda, the Itsukushima shrine, the O-torii and the canary-gold of the gingko.
We started out with great weather. Most of the clothes had dried out overnight despite the lemon dryer we encountered. We packed enough for an overnight stay and left the other day backpacks in a large locker in Hiroshima station. Note that if lockers in the station were all full, you could try the lockers in the 2nd floor of the department store adjoining Hiroshima station.
It was easy hopping on a commuter train for the half hour ride to Miyajimaguchi. Once out the train station, the ferry terminal is less than 5minutes away. The JR pass let us ride for free.
Beautiful sunny hazy day with the hills of Miyajima drawing closer and of the greatest sights in Japan – the Itsukushima shrine and the huge O-torii floating in the glittering sea drawing nearer. Once out of the ferry terminal, we were greeted by the ever-present deer. We were warned by the guidebooks that these deer eat anything, even maps and tickets, so we were careful not to let anything remotely edible tempt them. The kids were thrilled to stroke them and coo over them though the mother in me worried about bites and fleas. They were everywhere – in the streets, lying on the sidewalk, as common as street cats are in our neighbourhood, and probably tamer. It was an interesting experience to see deer right in an urban environment.
Back up on the promenade, the smell of oysters on the grill set our mouths watering. We stopped at the open window of a restaurant which was selling the oysters. Juicy fresh oysters shucked but left to grill in their open shells. You know you’ve got something good when the kids’ faces light up and they start clamouring for “More!” especially since oysters were never really on the top 10 list of the kids’ favourites before.
En route to Auberge Watanabe, we had to pass a shallow valley with a rushing stream. The maples overhead, the gurgle of the water and the deer on the banks of the stream all contribute to a really pretty picture. Auberge Watanabe is located at the end of the street just before Daisho-in.
It is a small family-run inn with only three rooms and run more like a cosy B&B than a formal ryokan. There is a small restaurant on the ground floor. This place is a gem. We were very very lucky to find it, particularly since I had booked right at the last minute.
Initially, I had booked an entire house at the other end of Miyajima to accomodate all of us. But then as things happened, it did not make much sense to book such a big place when our group was shrinking. Also, I really wanted to get a good ryokan/inn experience on Miyajima. But by the time I cancelled my house reservation and looked for something else, practically all rooms on Miyajima were taken. It was the peak autumn leaf season after all. By chance, I stumbled on Auberge Watanabe and was able to get a room. I had not heard much about this place before booking it, but as my experience went, I was so glad I did.
From the tiny lane outside the inn, there was a trail leading into the wooded area of Momijidani-koen. It was not difficult to walk and unlike the main streets of Miyajima, not crowded at all. The maples of Momijidani lived up to their name and provided a fiery canopy above us. The path occasionally opened up to gorgeous views that stretched all the way to the shimmering sea in the distance. We could pick out the landmarks of Sengokaku hall, and the crimson spire of the pagoda next to it, below us the grey-tiled rooftops of Miyajima.
From Momijidani, we took the cable-car up Mt Misen. The ride was broken into two legs – one in a tiny cabin that held just our family, similar to what you see on the Sentosa cableway, and the other a larger cabin that would have offered fabulous views across the Inland Sea had we not been squashed in one corner cheek by jowl with about a hundred other people. It felt like rush hour on the Tokyo lines all over again.
Up on Mt Misen, we oohed and ahhed over the view of the many islets scattered like green pebbles in the misty blue horizon of the Inland Sea. This is a slice of the Seto Naikai national park. It was hazy and hot so much that you couldn’t really tell where the sea ended and the sky began. One day though, I would like to explore those islets in that hazy distance. On a sidenote, KH said he had sailed through the Seto Naikai Park once many years ago and certain passages were so tight and close to shore that people on board could look right into islanders’ living rooms.
On the peak of Misen, monkeys and deer co-habit peacefully. As on the streets of Miyajima, the deer were everywhere. Paths and trails led down to other important temples and shrines that dotted the flanks of the mountain, leading all the way back down to town. I would have wanted to walk this route, passing the little temple where a fire has burned for more than a thousand years, courtesy of Kobo Daishi. There’s that name again. Fresh from Koyasan, I was curious to see this but bowed to heat and cranky kids and took the easier way down – cable-car and bus.
It was already late afternoon by the time we arrived at the heart of town. The light was lovely then and gave the raw, unfinished wooden textures of Sengokaku Hall, a burnished glow. This long building was built to hold Buddhist sutras in 1587, but it was never completed. The beams and pillars were left unvarnished, unpainted and the wooden floors have been worn smooth by time and countless visitors. I liked the simplicity and the pared down sparseness of the hall.
In contrast, the five-storey pagoda on the grounds adjacent to Sengokaku was showy in bold fire engine red. You could see it for miles!
By this time, most of the day-trippers had left and the seafront promenade we walked on earlier in the day was largely quiet and empty. This was the secret Miyajima that people wrote about when they urged visitors not to just visit the island in a day, but to stay on for the night. Once the day-trippers leave, its really just you and the deer and the kami in the shrines.
Unlike the early part of the day, the Itsukushima shrine was nearly empty. We purified ourselves as usual, and went in. I tried an omikuji but for once, got a really bad one which is really rare for me in Japan so I sent the bad luck on its way and tied the scrap of paper to the lines. By evening, the tide had also come in so we were treated to the sight of Itsukushima as it was intended – floating on dark green water and beds of seaweed.
It was almost dark by the time we returned to Auberge Watanabe, not far from the shrine. Trin had fallen asleep and was a dead weight shared by Gillian, KH and I as we trudged back to the inn.
For some reason, just as we were seated at the table for our check-in formalities, Trin woke up and immediately went into a full-scale tantrum. Chalk it down to fatigue and possibly hunger, but she screamed blue murder. She was loud and it was embarrassing. I excused myself from the inn and tried to pacify her outside the inn but she wasn’t having any of it and continued wailing and screaming. The inn’s owner, Yuki, was concerned enough to come outside with us, wondering if she could do anything. But from experience, I knew there was nothing anyone could really do – just let her finish what she started. It was hard though, to hear the shrill fire-alarm screams and I was torn between feeling helpless and murderous.
Thankfully, in what seemed like an eternity but was probably 20min or so, she stopped screaming and we were able to go back to the inn to complete checking in. We were given the largest of the three rooms – Shiraito, a 16-mat room. The room was lovely. As you walk into the room, the cypress bath is on left of the glass-enclosed wooden corridor. Sliding shoji screens open up to a long room with tatami mats. On the other side of the room, sliding shoji screens open up to another long glass-enclosed veranda with casual seating.
Dinner was in a private dining space on tatami mat with a low table. Okay, if we raved over Kokuya’s food, let me just say that Auberge Watanabe’s food really threw the game right out of the ballpark. Course after course of prettily presented morsels. The younger kids had bowls of niku udon but the rest of us enjoyed the full course. Deep-fried juicy oysters, hamachi sashimi, steak on a bed of straw mushrooms with a lemon butter sauce and more. Can I just say, wish you were there to try this?
After dinner, we took a quiet but chilly walk down to Itsukushima shrine again, hoping to see the shrine lit by lanterns. Sadly, all was dark that night. Only the O-torii was lit by floodlights in the distance. Even Yuki was puzzled as to why the shrine was not lit that night. That was our only disappointment in what was a fantastic day. Even Trin’s major meltdown was not a real dent in the day.
The night was cold, but in our yukatas, snuggled deep under thick covers in our futons, we slept well. Outside the creek running below and the tiny fountain gurgled and burbled away.