7 August Miyajima
We took the early morning tram for the 20-minute ride to the ferry terminal at Miyajima-guchi. There we took a JR ferry (using our JR rail passes) for the 20-minute ferry ride to Miyajima. Disembarking, we turned westward and walked along the road that apparently circumscribes the island. As we had had no breakfast, and it was now a quarter to ten, we stopped at a small restaurant, with a rattan awning that sheltered us from the heat of the morning. We ordered toast, coffee and orange juice. I was taken aback by the toast. It was about one inch (2.5cm) thick. I was later to learn that this is the standard thickness for toast in Japan. Another cultural difference!
We walked on, past shops selling red bean paste sweetmeats and souvenirs (rice paddles a speciality), clearly designed to part the tourist from his yen. There are wild deer on the island, wandering unconcernedly along the roads, and into the hillside. They are not so much aggressive in their search for goodies from the hands of tourists as persistent. They come up and nudge you. This isnt so bad with the young ones and the roes, but the bucks have substantial antlers and it pays to keep a respectful distance from them if possible.
The shopkeepers, though not equipped with antlers, also need a wide berth!
Rounding a corner, we came upon a high gate, presumably the boundary of the shrine we had come to visit. There were about fifteen or twenty students standing at the gate. They implored us to allow them to take us by chariot towards the temple. We agreed, and were parked on a row of chairs. A couple of students explained that they were a society dedicated to providing chariot rides. They spent their summer vacations on a tour round Japan, stopping for a couple of weeks here and there, and meeting not only other students of like disposition, but other Japanese people and - best of all - foreign tourists. This gave them an opportunity to practice their English language skills.
Eventually, the time came for Val and me to mount the chariots, which are easiest described as a high-wheeled variety of rickshaw. Amid great cheering and shouts from the rest of the students, our steeds pulled in the shafts of the chariots and ran us on for about 100 metres, where we dismounted. Our arrival was greeted with even louder shouts and cheering than our departure from the students waiting for us to arrive. We dismounted, and the steeds returned to the start. There Stephen mounted his chariot, and the whole event was repeated. The students refused absolutely to accept any financial contribution, but insisted we sign their visitors book. They were deeply impressed that Stephen wrote in Japanese.
A short walk brought us round a bend to see the world-famous floating torii.
All Shinto shrines are guarded by these torii, mostly painted in the orange-red or vermilion colour dear to the Shinto religion. This one is set in the sea, and when the tide is in, the gate seems to float. The torii guards the Itsukushima Shrine, founded in AD 593 and dedicated to Ichikishima-Hime-no-Mikoto, one of the three daughters of the Shinto god of the moon and oceans, Susano-o-no-Mikoto. The island derives its old name, Itsukushima, from Ichikishima-Hime-no-Mikoto. Apparently. There is a five-storeyed pagoda and a hall complex, built over the sea (the island being too sacred to profane with buildings, at least in 1148 AD), with the waters ebbing and flowing underneath the walkways. The island is so sacred, that births and deaths are prohibited on the island. If you are terminally ill, they move you to the mainland even today. Even if you stop breathing on the island, they move you and officially you pass away on the mainland.
Shinto reserves a special place for Sake, the Japanese rice wine. Barrels of it were stored by the Shrine entrance.
We paid our entrance fee and entered the complex.
We caught a rare sight of a Shrine maiden whizzing through the complex.
There is a theatre here, and this is one of the last remaining places where performances of Bugaku, the ancient court dance, are held on special occasions. You have to pay to get into the building complex, but it is a very beautiful sight. It is counted as among the three most beautiful scenic attractions in Japan. In one section of the shrine complex, there is a wall covered in prayers inscribed on little wooden plaques. They are mainly in Japanese, but this one in English caught my eye.
Having taken the appropriate number of photographs (its very difficult to get a shot without Japanese people strolling into shot; they rarely seem to see you and keep back for a few seconds), we walked up the hillside for a view over the sea. We found a thatched shelter, which gave us a good, cool(ish) rest. After a while, we went down towards the village and inspected the spectacular vermilion pagoda, over 90 feet high. Feeling hot and in need of refreshment, we found a restaurant. I had a shaved ice dish, flavoured with bright green melon syrup. It was cold and refreshing. I did have a couple of fizzy drinks as well.
We walked some distance uphill until we came to a disused café that served as a bus stop. We hoped to catch a bus going further up the hillside, but eventually elected to walk. We arrived at our objective, the base station on the cable car that would take us close to the summit of Mt. Misen, some 530 metres high. We duly arrived, and walked along the path to the secondary summit, a few metres short of the primary summit. There we sat in a thatched, bandstand-like structure, hoping to see the famous wild monkeys of the island. Sadly, we saw none, and a chalked notice told us that the monkeys had moved deeper into the primeval forest in search of food.
We did, however, come across a curious species of animal. This was Megaphonus Americanii, or the loud-mouthed Yank. This particular one had been there, done that, bought the T-shirt just about everywhere, or so he claimed. He was trying to impress the woman who was clearly his unwilling host. She, it seemed, had lived in Japan for some years, while loudmouth was on his first visit. He had many suggestions as to how the Japanese could improve things. More McDonalds and KFCs would be a good start, he suggested, and a greater availability of Hershey Bars. And not one Japanese restaurant served grits. Many of them did not even cook their fish. And they could do more to adopt the American language. And everything was so expensive. Whinge, moan, drivel ... All of this was conducted at high volume, to everyones discomfiture but his own.
Fortunately, his hostess took pity on us, and herself, and suggested they go back down to look at the pagoda. They retreated to the coast, and blessed peace descended on us. A Japanese couple exchanged meaningful glances with us, proving that a common antagonist does much to unite people.
Eventually, it was time for us to depart. We took the cable car back down the hillside, enjoying the splendid views as we descended. We waited for ten minutes for the bus, which duly arrived, driving us down to the back of the village. We walked down the road, then detoured and found ourselves near the shrines dormitory. There we passed the time of day with several deer, who seemed totally unafraid of our presence. We walked back, running the gauntlet of the tourist trap shops. We did succumb and bought some sweet red bean paste cookies, and a few bottles of ice-cold mineral water. We consumed these while waiting for the ferry to arrive, and very good they were too.
We retraced our journey back to our minshuku, where, having perspired heavily all day, we took a bath. Stephen and I went successively into the small bath for men, so while Stephen was in, Val and I took three loads of shirts etc. to the laundrette just down the road. All laundrettes in Japan wash clothes using cold water with cold-water detergent. It certainly does the trick. I understand this is the same for domestic washing machines, too.
Taking the advice of the minshuku manager (who speaks some English), we took a taxi down to the Okonomiyaki village for our evening meal. Okonomiyaki is a speciality of the Hiroshima region. Apparently there is an Osaka version incorporating yams, but this is looked down on in Hiroshima. I bet the Osaka chefs look down on the Hiroshima version.
Okonomi means, as you like, and yaki means cook, so what we have is a basic dish into which you can put anything you like. The ones we ate are somewhere between a pancake and an omelette. We entered the building and took a lift to the highest floor, then walked down, inspecting the many okonimiyaki establishments. One whose walls were festooned with photos of the chef-proprietor entertaining many Japanese businessmen, talents, sportsmen, singers, actors and politicians caught our eye. They meant nothing to us, and I suppose they could have been his wifes brothers nieces children, the local Yakuza chief, and the sanitary inspector and all his relatives, for all we could tell. Whatever. We sat down.
The chef makes a pancakey mixture, placing an 8 inch (20cm) circle of it on a griddle right in front of the customer. Separately, he is heating up soba noodles, shredded cabbage, meat, fish, spring onions etc. and is cooking an omelette. He adds the shredded ingredients to the cooking pancake, pours more batter on the top, sticks the omelette on top, flips the whole kaboosh over and cooks for another few minutes. It is then placed on a plate, and thick spicy brown sauce (rather like HP sauce) is poured over it. With a cool beer, it is very good, very filling and fairly cheap. I think we paid about 800 Yen for ours.
After the meal we left the okinomiyaki village and walked around the streets for a bit, dazzled by the bright neon signs of the entertainment district. Eventually, we found an Italianate coffee bar, where we had a coffee and cake, the while watching the world passing by. We saw a huge stretch-limo Mercedes with black windows (how did the chauffeur see out?) pull to a halt across the street from us. A sixty-year-old Japanese man emerged, wearing a white suit, white overcoat worn cape-style, white fedora and dark glasses. He was accompanied by what can only have been bodyguards, so burly were they, and wearing sunglasses. They could not keep their arms straight by their sides, such was the overdevelopment of their chest muscles. This was clearly the capo di tutti capi of the local Yakuza. He looked across to us, and nodded, before entering a small doorway. The chauffeur, as bulky as the bodyguards and similarly wearing sunglasses, stood sternly by the car. We took this as a sign that we were safe, at least so long as Yakuza-san was in the area. Actually, we hardly ever felt less than safe wherever we went in Japan. It is quite a reassuring country to visit.
Stephens cappuccino came with the cocoa powder sprinkled on the top through a stencil, so that it looked like a big smiley face. He managed to preserve the face until he had drunk the underlying coffee, then attacked the face with his spoon.
A taxi took us home to our minshuku, where we very quickly fell asleep.
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