Hello Deer-ie: Miyajima

Like many of Japan’s little islands, Miyajima has its charming quirks. In the internet age, though, these quirks can go viral in a matter of seconds – especially if you’re an island full of friendly deer and mystical temples. As it’s just over an hour away from Hiroshima city centre, it makes for an ideal day trip, especially if you like short and sweet boat rides.

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In the far left of the picture is the famous ‘floating’ torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine, which I’ll visit shortly.

To get here, you take a suburban train from Hiroshima main station all the way to Miyajimaguchi station – about 45/50 minutes. Alternatively, there’s a tram that gets you about 100 feet closer to the ferry port. Then, you hop on the boat, and it’s about a 15 minute ride to Miyajima’s main town. Think the Staten Island Ferry, only infinitely more beautiful.

Despite the howling gale and pouring rain, our ferry steamed ahead and arrived into Miyajima bang on time. Because this is Japan and they can handle a bit of wind and rain – unlike us soft Brits, who were already complaining the rain had soaked into our shoes. We’d planned to spend the whole day here, but because the weather refused to let up, we curtailed our time by a few hours.

Had the weather been better, of course, there’s plenty to do on Miyajima. As well as the deer and the Itsukushima Shrine, there are a load of other beautiful temples and shrines. There’s also a cable car which takes you to the top of the island’s Mount Misen, lots of gorgeous hikes to enjoy in all seasons, and some cool shops in the main town.

We stepped off the boat and strolled through the soggy town. The square was a bit muddy, but we made our way over to the Itsukushima torii gate via the town’s main street, which was lined with souvenir shops and street food vendors. I couldn’t eat most of it, but my eyes were drawn to a steamed bun seller who had warm, vegetarian buns on offer. ‘I’ll pick some of those up later’, I thought to myself, as Machi warned us the deer would probably try and get a look in on any food we had.

Now, the deer weren’t as skilled as the crisp-stealing monkeys I’d encountered in Malaysia or Gibraltar. Unlike the monkeys, they didn’t physically have opposable thumbs, but they tested our backpacks to the limit.

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“Got any grub, mate?”

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I was so happy she let me pet her… I’ve always seen deer from a distance in the UK, but they’re so afraid of humans you can’t get close to them. Here, all you have to do is wave a 7/11 carrier bag around, and they try to see what you’ve got.

They’re sika deer, which is a breed of deer native to Japan, but now is one of the most common throughout the world. They are beautiful, with their big brown eyes, long eyelashes, and all of the other things that made Bambi so heartbreaking. But they are a bit chunky from all that tourist food, so maybe don’t feed them. Once they’d worked out we weren’t going to give them anything, the deer lost interest and moved onto the next bunch of saps, leaving us to press on with our sightseeing.

First stop, the floating torii gate that was in all the holiday posters.

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We were lucky – we thought it was going to be covered in scaffolding due to ‘planned engineering works’, but either the Japanese are really efficient and finished them already, or they hadn’t started yet.

The first buildings on the Itsukushima shrine site were erected in the 6th century, but the shrine that stands today is a more recent construction – historians estimate it dates from the 12th century. Unlike other Shinto shrines I’d encountered so far, Itsukushima was very open – open to the winds, to the water, and (presumably) to the sun. It’s a series of covered walkways rather than one main temple building, and at high tide it appears to float on the water.

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Behind it, you can see the Senjokaku and its 5-storey pagoda poking up into the sky.

We purified ourselves in the Shinto way before we entered, and whilst we were doing that, stumbled across another Japanese wedding.

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I adore the mixture of beautiful kimonos and dull Western clothing. Never change, Japan.

The majority of Shinto shrines in Japan sell amulets at 500 yen (£3.75) a pop. There are loads of different styles, colours, and charms you can buy – I opted for the ‘safe driving’ one, so I could hang it on my car’s rear view mirror, and blame fate if anything happened to me. Not my poor driving, like the time I accidentally ran two red lights in a week (don’t come for me DVLA)!

Amulets bought, we stepped out onto the pier for a more central view of the torii.

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At low tide, you can walk out to the gate, and see how it’s built.

This particular torii is an 1870s creation, but there have been many more gates where it stands in the centuries before that. I *think* the reason it’s floating is so that people could sail into the temple and be purified by passing under the gate at the same time, but don’t quote me on that.

Satisfied we’d had a proper look at Itsukushima, we walked up some steps just opposite its main entrance to the ‘Hall of a Thousand Tatami Mats’ (or Senjokaku for short). Its construction was begun by warlord ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th century, but then he died and it wasn’t completed. Naturally, the Tokugawa shogunate didn’t want to complete the work of their predecessor. But, come the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate a few centuries later (1868, to be precise), things loosened up a little. In 1872, Hideyoshi’s work was completed, and the building became a Shinto shrine dedicated to him. It’s the largest structure on the island. Well, there’s nowhere else that can hold that many tatami mats.

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You can really tell who was behind the construction of this building. Inside, the beams of the hall are decorated with elaborate paintings, but they all have one thing in common – they’re very militaristic.

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Not surprising really, because Hideyoshi was a bit of a bastard, especially if you were Korean or a Christian.

When you reach the far end of the hall, you get to the five-tiered pagoda, one of the most beautiful landmarks on Miyajima’s skyline of temples and mountains.

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As it was built in 1407, that makes it older than the Senjokaku. Not to mention more colourful and less warlike – an all round better vibe.

In the sunlight, it’s even more dazzling, as its bright red hues are brought to life. You can’t go in it, so we sheltered from the rain and simply looked at it from the Senjokaku. Apparently, it’s dedicated to the Japanese buddha of medicine. But I’d argue the trouble with not opening these buildings to the public is that that information means very little. Having not seen what’s on the inside, you could tell me it was dedicated to cat videos on the internet, and I’d say “seems legit”. Maybe I’m just naturally curious, but if you’ve braved the stormy Inland Sea and the hungry deer to get here, it would be nice to have that reward.

Luckily for me, Miyajima has more temples, and one of them even has a pagoda you can go up. Unheard of! We met up with Machi and made our way up to the Daisho-in temple complex, at the foot of Mount Misen. As the rain kept coming down, harder and harder, I snaffled a Mars bar to keep me going. I seem to make a habit of quickly eating Mars bars in all kinds of precipitation, as I had done in Neushwannstein a couple of months prior. Well, why not? They’re calorific and delicious, and miraculously survived a trip from the UK to Japan, and had then been bashed around on various bullet trains before making their way to my mouth. Respect to the robust little chocolate bars there.

Daisho-in is the standout Buddhist temple on Miyajima. You make your way up a fair few steps, where deer wait around to see if you have any food. Once you get to the temple complex, there are a number of buildings to explore – there’s a couple of halls, a tea room, and of course the actual pagoda you can go up.

First, we stopped in a prayer hall to see what it looked like on the inside.

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Very colour, much Buddha, so bling. Wow.

The golden buddha and colourful rope definitely weren’t the most interesting thing about this particular hall, though. Machi beckoned us back outside, and took us down a narrow, dark staircase into what looked like a cellar. We passed through some curtains into a pitch black corridor, and were instructed to simply feel our way through.

My eyes adjusted to the dark quite quickly, but I was still blind as a bat. As we touched and prodded our way through, she explained the cave was supposed to be a sensory experience, designed to replicate being inside a womb. Then, once you come out of the cave, you’re ‘reborn’. Made sense – it was certainly warm, dark, and damp down there. But as the corridor twisted and turned this way and that, I squinted and saw dimly lit, gold-coloured tiles on the wall. There are 88 of them in total, and each was an icon of the Buddha, making his way to Shikoku – an island just across the Inland Sea from Hiroshima.

We came out of the cellar cave and headed back up the steps to the temple. I blinked my eyes a couple of times, and shook my body to free myself of a bizarre spiritual feeling I’d developed. But my ears soon became aware of a dull drumming somewhere close by. Machi told us a ritual was going on in an adjacent hall, and we were welcome to watch if we so wished. As I deftly ascended the staircase, the drumming became louder, faster, more powerful. It seemed to vibrate up through my feet and into my very soul, even though the priest was chanting in Chinese (possibly Tibetan), and none of us had any idea what he was saying. The Buddhist followers in attendance almost seemed stunned into silence, too. It was quite an entrancing experience, and I did feel connected to the universe, in some small way.

But, there’s only so much untranslatable chanting you can listen to before you get bored standing about in the rain. Machi led us to a side hall, which contained a very narrow staircase. We climbed up, and found ourselves at the top of a pagoda – a brand new experience for all of us. You could even open the sliding paper windows and climb out onto the balcony.

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I did say ‘Open sesame’, but probably because I was famished at this point, and really wanted some food.

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This was the view from the pagoda. It’s a shame it doesn’t blow this picture up any bigger, because you can’t see the waterfalls, streams, or mountains rising up behind you.

We sat down to rest our legs and dry off a little before braving the unrelenting rain once more. You’d be surprised how comfortable tatami mats are – they’ve got a bit of spring, and once we’d parked ourselves, we couldn’t move again for another 45 minutes or so. Well, when you’re warm, drying, and have a view like that, who would want to leave?

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Unfortunately, me. I did. I was hangry – don’t let the smile fool you.

I meandered back down the steps, making sure to give myself as many blessings as possible by spinning all of the blessing-mechanism-thingies on the way out. Spinning the sutras, as they’re technically called, gives you the same benefit as reading them – great if you don’t speak Japanese, or are in a hurry to get food.

I stopped in a few souvenir shops in town, because they had some cool stuff on offer. But I only really had eyes for the vegetarian steamed buns I’d seen earlier. But on every street corner I looked, I couldn’t see the same stand. I thought I must have lost it somehow, or they’d packed up and gone home for the day, but towards the end of the street… there they were.

Naturally, they were sold out of vegetarian steamed buns. I could have plenty of chicken or pork ones, though. And they say vegetarian food wouldn’t be popular in Japan! Never mind – I always carry a little cake with me for hanger-related emergencies, so I ate my cake and headed to the final stop of the day.

When we got off the boat that morning, the first thing that greeted us was a weird khaki coloured building, with cute dog and cat pictures adorning its frontage. One of the guys on the tour with me explained it was a “mini Shiba Inu cafe” – kind of like a cat cafe, but for miniature Shiba Inu dogs. Or, as they’re better known to the internet, ‘doge’…

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Did I have food on the brain when I chose this meme? Yes, yes I did.

Having done cat cafes, it was high time I tried a dog cafe. And it was out of the rain, so a few of us went in for a hot cup of something and a dog cuddle.

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On the second floor there was an owl cafe, and the third was home to Bengal cats. I imagine if the three creatures accidentally ran into each other, there’d be hell to pay.

 I must say, though, it was a bit disappointing. The cafe space was very small – too small for the 12 or so dogs that lived in it. While the ladies in there clearly cared about the dogs a lot, animal rights in Japan are severely lacking, and it makes you wonder whether they got any time outside for walks. Or if they had a quiet space they could go to get away from annoying humans. The dogs looked fine and healthy… but not very happy.

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This was the establishment that made me question whether I should be frequenting any sort of animal cafe at all. But I believe in the UK, they are generally of a high standard. This was also true of the cat cafes in Singapore, and even in Japan itself there are much better cafes, like the one I’d visited in Tokyo. I think if this is something you really want to do, you should conduct some research before choosing a cafe, to make sure you’re going to a place where the animals’ needs come far above the need for profit.

And the tea was rubbish, too.

Although I was only in Miyajima for half a day, the place has left a lasting impression on me. I learned what deer fur feels like to touch – a bit coarse, but softer than a horse or a goat. I got to get within sniffing distance of a sika deer’s beautiful face, and they got within sniffing distance of my emergency food stash. The shrines and temples on Miyajima had enthralled me, both intellectually and spiritually. But most of all, I liked how the place seemed largely unaffected by the ever-growing Hiroshima commuter belt. You can really visualise what it would have been like all those years ago, when silent pilgrims made their way up Mount Misen to prove their devotion to their faith – be it Shinto or Buddhist.

Next time, I’ll be dashing around the town of Himeji in an attempt to see its iconic castle in a 2-hour stopover, and arriving in Osaka to enjoy all the gaudy city has to offer. See you then!


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