Itsukushima Island, a place where deer wander freely, where small maple leaf shaped cakes (momiji manju) are sold on virtually every street corner, and a sacred coastal shrine shimmers in fiery, scarlet-tinged sunsets. It’s hard to imagine that such a place exists but as one quickly discovers upon visiting Japan, places like Itsukushima, or more simply, Miyajima, are all too common in a land of stark contradictions. For me, the far removed, almost otherworldly quality of Miyajima, despite its relative proximity to the larger metropolis of Hiroshima, offered an unparalleled gateway towards mental clarity. Of course, roaming among wild deer, listening to the sound of monks chanting is bound to have this effect.

The story of Miyajima though is really one of gradual ascension, not just cognitively but from a topographical perspective as well. Each bend and rise in elevation gives way to some new insight, culminating with the summit of Mount Misen, the highest point on the island at 535 meters. There is a gondola system that leads straight to panoramic views via Shishiiwa Observatory while numerous hiking trails encourage a more measured approach. The trek to the lower ropeway station alone is marked by koi ponds, an arched bridge, and even the occasional clang of a far-off gong. This is a holy place, as any duration of time on the island makes quickly apparent. The Japanese translation for Itsukushima literally means “Island of the Gods” after all.

The Great Torii Gate of Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and one of Japan’s three most respected treasures.

But the story of Miyajima begins by the sea, specifically at Itsukushima Shrine. According to legend, the Shrine’s great torii gate, which appears to float during high tide, serves as a boundary between the human and spirit worlds. Indeed, like something out of a Murakami novel, it is almost impossible to decipher which side is which, standing at the base of the towering structure when the tide is low. It was once believed that the souls of the dead crossed over into the afterlife by first passing through this gate. Visitors approaching the island were likewise required to sail through the entrance as mean of purifying themselves before touching shore, and only in recent times were the descendants of non-nobility allowed full access to the area.

From there the story continues onto Omotesando Street, a prominent shopping arcade featuring Miyajima Coffee and a drip style house blend that would please even the Shinto gods for which the larger island belongs to. In what could easily be a sister company (the two are often interchangeably geotagged on Instagram), Miyajima Itsuki Coffee boasts the same minimalist design and out of this world espresso. But where it differs is in offering a simple beverage of crushed ice and local citrus fruit, the latter being most likely Hassaku or Ocho oranges, two variants that are prevalent in the region thanks to the Mediterranean climate. Sipping on this summertime concoction and studying a sunset across the Seto Inland Sea is a surefire way to inspire a real appreciation for the kind of experiences that can only be had on Miyajima. Just writing about it makes me want to go back.

The storefront to Miyajima Itsuki Coffee, one of four locations on Itsukushima Island.

At one point, after descending the mountain, I was joined by a lone deer who had casually drifted over to my direction, evidently having decided to keep me company. I will never forget how surreal it felt to wander alongside those majestic creatures. In ancient times, they were considered messengers of the gods, and, admittedly, their presence still adds to the mystery of the island. Be advised though that some of the more mischievous deer are known to chomp on whatever they can get ahold of. It should also go without saying that as a visitor it is important to respect both the wildlife and their habitat. The unique aura of Miyajima exists not only from an absence of convenience stores and other ubiquitous chains but as a result of fellow travelers exercising common sense during their stay.

A sika deer meandering through the streets of Miyajima. The specific variety home to Japan is known as Nihonjika.

When all was said and done, after I had moved through the purification hall of the main shrine, and begun the hike back to the ferry, passing tourists donning yukata or zipping along in rickshaws, Miyajima had bestowed upon me a renewed sense of awakening. Then again much of Japan has this effect. For most, including myself, the story of Itsukushima comes to a close in sailing beyond the ethereal torii and back into a world that is sure to be forever changed. Having spent time in a place where gods and men dwell together, this is the only logical conclusion. Still, looking back, there are so many sights left unseen, a dozen shrines and pathways left unexplored, secrets waiting to be discovered and rediscovered. I find myself longing to return.

How to Get There

The best way to get to Miyajima is to take the JR Ferry near Miyajimaguchi Station. Boats depart every 15 minutes and arrive on the island in roughly 10 minutes. Alternatively, high speed boats (not operated by Japan Railways) regularly depart Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. From Hiroshima Station, it takes about 30 minutes to reach Miyajimaguchi Station using the JR Sanyo line or 70 minutes using the Tramway. Access to Hiroshima from Tokyo or Osaka can be accomplished via bullet train/shinkansen.

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