World Heritage Site: Itsukushima Shinto Shrine
The previous afternoon, I booked another rental car online at the Hiroshima Station Toyota Rent-a-Car. I set off first thing in order to arrive just as the shop was opening so that I could fit in as much sightseeing as possible before a 3:15 PM flight back to Haneda from Hiroshima Airport. I had noticed that as I made my way South from Tokyo into other parts of Japan that the roads seemed a bit larger, cars more dominant, and public transportation not quite as ubiquitous. Hiroshima is where all of these trends converged to create miserable LA-style traffic. I had driven in traffic in Tokyo before (on the motorway through the center of the city during afternoon rush hour), but the Hiroshima traffic was more frustrating and slower. The entire drive to the Miyajima ferry terminal was clogged with all manner of slow delivery vans, small cars, and other random traffic. I yearned for the more clear roads I’d driven elsewhere in Japan.
Because parking space is very limited on the island itself, I parked in one of the large parking lots at the ferry terminal and walked over to the next departure. I was surprised to see the blue JR West logo on one of the ferries, but I guess if they can operate trains, they can operate boats as well. The air was thick with humidity, smog, and heat. I had arrived in Japan in late February for my first extended business trip and I sorely missed the chilly Tokyo air from a few months ago. There were a few fish farms in the strait separating the mainland from Miyajima. The views were beautiful but would have been better without the haze. In the distance, I could make out a giant structure on the hill opposite the shrine.
As I stepped off the ferry and onto Miyajima, I immediately began to notice small deer wandering around. I hadn’t realized it before, but these tame deer are ubiquitous on the island. There is a small town at the ferry terminal, but it essentially only serves as a gateway to the shrine complex.
Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社)
The shrine is beautiful and is considered one of the Three Views of Japan (日本三景), or three key scenic sites which were recognized as far back as 1643 by Japanese scholars. The shrine itself traces its origins to the 6th century and some form of the famous torii (鳥居) has been there since 1168. While the shrine has been destroyed or significantly damaged multiple times over the centuries (as recently as 2004 during a typhoon), it remains iconic and well-preserved.
One enters the shrine from the northern end, which is where you pay for your ticket (make a donation to enter) and wash your hands and mouth. Then, a series of boardwalks carry visitors between buildings, around the central ceremonial areas, and out towards the floating torii. At the time that I visited, the tide was low and the base of the Torii was exposed, making it slightly less dramatic, but still beautiful. If I had more time, I would have stayed for several hours watching the tide come in.
During my visit, it seemed that many of the students who had probably visited Hiroshima the day before were visiting the shrine. I assume that school groups make a dual visit to the Peace Park in Hiroshima and to Itsukushima. There was also a shinto ceremony occurring during my visit. I tried to respectfully watch it, but the hordes of European tourists talking and pointing their cameras into the faces of the priests and the clusters of chatting Japanese middle schoolers made it a bit difficult to actually observe.
I bought a shuin (朱印), a book in which shrines and temples place stamps with dates and records of your visit and wandered out to the tidal pools. There were tons of tiny hermit crabs and other creatures in the pools and as I was leaving the area, the tide started to come in quickly. I returned to the Miyajima ferry building and returned across to my waiting car for the next part of my adventure.
Kintai Bridge (錦帯橋)
Leaving the Miyajima area, I assumed that the morning commuting rush would be over and that the roads would clear up more as I headed further South. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The traffic south from Miyajima was choked and the drive was painfully slow, like hitting every red light for 10 miles and being stuck behind people who hesitate whether to go straight or turn. After a while, the car’s GPS (a feature of every vehicle I’ve driven in Japan) informed me that we had entered Yamaguchi Prefecture. Eventually, I made it off of the choked roadway and to a small side street running to Kintai Bridge.
The bridge was originally built in 1673 and intended to be flood proof against the sometimes swollen Nishiki River. It has washed away a few times but has generally been much more reliable than the more simple bridges that it replaced. Although entirely different in material and scale, it reminded me of the Ponte Dei salti in Lavertezzo, Switzerland.
I briefly visited the bridge then had a quick lunch nearby before jumping back into my car for the somewhat long drive to Hiroshima airport (an hour NORTH of the city center, and I was now at least 30-45 minutes SOUTH of the city). I was exhausted during the drive but kept myself awake and safely headed down the road.
Hiroshima Airport (HIJ) reminded me of most domestic airports elsewhere in the world, but the layout of the airport is somewhat remarkable in that the runway is basically built onto the top of a long hill. The area around Hiroshima has so many hills that when building the airport they presumably just shaved off the biggest hill they could find to fit a runway. After a short wait, I was off on another ANA flight back to Tokyo (Haneda).
It was now Thursday and I had traveled from Tokyo to Hiroshima via Takaoka, Takayama, Nagoya, Osaka, and Himeji. I was exhausted and crashed almost as soon as I climbed into my seat. I had originally planned on taking the Shinkansen back to Tokyo from Hiroshima, but ticket cost and friends convinced me that flying was probably the better choice. I’m glad that I did fly back, it was nice to be off the ground once more. Returning to Tokyo, I only had 2 more days in Japan before I would need to head back to the US. But, it would give me a great chance to see a few things I had missed while working in Tokyo.