In a country littered with cultural treasures, Miyajima holds an ancient trump card: It is said to be the island where God dwells.
The first shrine here was founded in 593 A.D. – and for a thousand years after that, Miyajima remained uninhabited out of reverence. Its first intrepid mortal residents were forbidden to give birth or die on the island, and even today no hospitals or cemeteries are permitted.
Fortunately, hotels are allowed on this hallowed soil, which makes Miyajima the perfect place for a quick escape from the hurried mainland.
Judging from the crowd of camera-toting visitors on the ferry from near Hiroshima, it appears that the mystical allure persists: The photographic frenzy begins on approach. The vermillion of the iconic Itsukushima Shrine and its grand torii gate – set offshore in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan out of respect for the sanctified land – stand in dramatic contrast against the mountainous backdrop. It's low tide, so tourists amble on the sand beneath the shrine stilts. I can't get down there fast enough. As the water gently rises, the camphor wood structures seem to float on the surface, and it is easy to understand why the island is one of the famed Three Views of Japan.
For most, Miyajima Island is a day trip, so by night a languorous calm descends.
I check into Iwaso, the oldest ryokan, or Japanese inn, on the island. A simple tatami mat room serves as both the bedroom and dining room for a delectable kaiseki dinner: a series of seasonally inspired dishes including sliced duck with winter melon, soft tofu and huge juicy grilled local oysters – all accompanied by sake, naturally.
What was beautiful by day is haunting at night. The open corridors of the Itsukushima Shrine blaze with light, the glowing Five-Storied Pagoda rises into the dark sky and the calm water reflects the illuminated torii gate. With the sound of cicadas and the soft glow of stone lanterns along a promenade, there's a curious air of French Riviera – except for the small wild sika deer that roam freely, posing for photos, napping on the sand or munching the maps of unsuspecting visitors.
Early morning is the best time to tackle the other star attraction of Miyajima: Mount Misen, 535 metres above sea level. I set off over a picturesque red lacquered bridge to join the mountain trail by foot (a cable-car can also get you to the top). The hour-long walk is one of profound peacefulness: I am enveloped by rugged rocks and a virgin forest of pine, fir and Japanese hemlock, with no snap-happy tourists to disrupt my thoughts.
At the summit, I am rewarded with hazy panoramic views of the island-studded sea and a collection of enchanting temples filled with baby-faced stone Buddhas known as jizo. Another wonder is found in the wooden Reikado Hall near the peak: an eternal flame, reportedly lit in 806 by Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. This fire was used to light the Peace Flame in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which is to remain lit until the world's nuclear weapons are abolished.
On the descent – down a different side of the mountain with views of the torii gate – I encounter the first of the day-trip tourists; we pass each other with an enthusiastic, "Konnichiwa!" I spy several jizo peeking out from behind rocks and foliage, precursors to the Buddhas at the Daisho-in Temple complex (founded by Kobo Daishi himself), which trails up a valley just before the base of the mountain. There, 500 tiny rakan – stone statues representing Buddha's disciples – line the temple approach, each with a different facial expression. And the treasures keep coming: a hall with 1,000 carved wooden idols, a beguiling cave of hanging lanterns, dozens of jizo dressed in scarves, hats and glasses. As if on cue, a monk in golden robes begins to chant in the prayer hall and the spiritual atmosphere goes into overdrive.
Verging on delirious, I buy momiji manju – Miyajima's signature maple-leaf shaped cakes filled with sweet bean paste – to fortify me on trip back to the mainland. But the island's mystical aura lingers long after the sugar rush.
The Japan National Tourism Organization covered the writer's rail pass and stay at Iwaso. It did not review or approve this article.