With our last night in Kyoto behind us, the rest of the trip will be more moving from city to city. First up is Miyajima, the island which is the home of the floating torii. We did a few things on the island, then went back by ferry to be foiled by a train crossing.
Getting to Miyajima
When we tried to get reservations for the two Shinkansen we would take first to Osaka then to Hiroshima, we made a guess as to when we'd be ready to go. As it ends up, we were quick with final packing and breakfast, so by the time we got to Kyoto Station, we still had plenty of time to catch an earlier train. We found which cars were non-reserved, found that few people were waiting in line, so we picked a line and waited the 20 or so minutes before it was time to board.
The train arrived, and there were quite a few empty seats, so we had no trouble finding two together.
The trip to Osaka was quick. We knew the connection to the Hiroshima Shinkansen would be tight, so we got prepared with which train line we wanted, even though we weren't sure which track number we needed. Off the train, we looked up and didn't see our train on the other track on the same platform, so down we went. Went towards the sign indicating the track we wanted, rushed up the stairs, and not only saw lots of people in line, but also the train pulling up.
Making quick glances at the signs to catch them when they showed English, we noted which cars non-reserved, picked one, and poured in with everyone else. Score! Two seats next to each other. We were able to settle in for the trip of not quite two hours.
Another connection in Hiroshima, but we weren't as worried about that one. It wasn't very far to walk, and there were plenty of seats on this leg of our trip. We arrived at Miyajimaguchi station, and stepped out into Hatsukaichi (the city where we're staying, but I'll refer to the whole area as Miyajima).
Whenever you arrive into a city, it's hard to get a scale of how far things are until you actually start to go places. On the map, it looked pretty small, and it felt pretty small in real life, too. The hardest part was noticing that there was no way to cross the street in front of us, but there were stairs down to an underpass. All the signage seems to be designed to get you from the train station to the ferry, and we had at first disregarded the sign saying you should use the underpass for the ferry. We descended and went back up to the street, having safely traversed the busy cross street.
It was only a couple blocks more before we reached our hostel, where we dropped off our bags and took a quick look around. That done, it was time for lunch.
We saw an okonomiyaki restaurant very close to the ferry terminal (which itself was less than a block from the hostel) so we gave that a try. These were different than the ones we had in Kyoto; soba noodles made up a good part of the pancake. We ordered one with grilled eel and one with oysters; it ended up being a lot of food, but we didn't have too much trouble finishing them up.
Our train pass also covers one of the two ferry systems going between Hatsukaichi and Miyajima, so we got into that line. The ferries are quite small and can carry a few cars. In order to save time, passengers were allowed to begin boarding before all the arriving passengers are off the boat. I also saw the boat start to leave the dock as the ramp was still folding up.
It's a quick ride of about ten minutes, but you get pretty good views with the JR ferry because of the route it takes. The star attraction is the Itsukushima-jinja Shrine torii in the water, but for the most of the trip, it was pretty far away.
Since we only planned on staying for most of the afternoon, we decided to just go through Itsukushima-jinja Shrine, then do more things on the island the next day. We made a beeline to the shrine and remembered to check the tides to see if we would be able to walk up to the torii. Ends up low tide was going to be at about sunset, by which time we planned on already having taken the ferry back. We decided to play it by ear and see.
We walked along the water, getting plenty of glimpses at the floating torii, bypassing the shopping arcade. When you see Itsukushima-jinja as you round the corner, the first thing that comes to mind is it's extremely orange. We've seen several temples and shrines which were mostly orange, but this one being on the water somehow makes it look like a floating set of orange-covered walkways.
As you stroll those walkways, you see that even the undersides of the covering are orange. When you get past the main shrine, there's a large deck that goes out towards the floating torii with Hitasaki, a bronze lantern just past the end of the deck. There was quite a line for people to have photos taken with the lantern and the torii in the background, and it was easy to see why.
While we were walking through the shrine, it was hard to miss the big plumes of smoke rising to the east accompanied by loud chanting. As we left the shrine, we saw a large group of people, but couldn't really see much. There were several men stoking a big fire, but it was hard to figure out who was chanting, let alone where the drumming was coming from.
Looking at the time, we figured we would be able to take a look at Daisho-in Temple. It took us about as long to weave through the crowds around the chanters as it did to actually get to the temple.
Daisho-in Temple is built on a hill and has many different shrines. It's probably one of the most diverse temples or shrines we've seen so far, and the whole temple had a lot of character. Many staircases had wheels you could spin. One temple had 1,000 images (statues) of Fudo myo-o (Immovable King), commemorating the succession of the current head priest. The Henjyokutsu Cave is just that, lit by lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Several statues had knit caps on them.
We walked to Maniden Hall, hoping to get a view. As we neared, we heard a man praying by chanting and beating a drum. Sitting in the room to listen for a while, it occurred to us that he was an excellent drummer, with great rhythm and having the ability to easily change the speed when necessary. When he rung a large bell, he also did that with great timing. Since the prayers can last a long time, we proceeded out and around the room, climbed the narrow, steep stairs, and were rewarded with a view of the temple and of the city and water beyond.
As we left the temple, we walked past a food stand in Momijidani Park which let people eat Japanese-style in the park, with a raised platform where you can sit with a small table in front of you.
Continuing back to the ferry, we walked through the arcade we had previously bypassed. Lots of shops selling momiji manju cakes (an or other filling in a cake, similar in concept to the taiyaki I had in Tokyo) and oysters (we passed some oyster farming rafts on the ferry), plus rice paddles. At one store there was a horde of people packed around the entrance, their phones and cameras out. We were wondering what was going on, then we saw a camera crew start to back out, and two tall men walked out. We weren't sure who they were (could have been sports stars, maybe ones who played in Japan) but everyone else seemed really excited.
After all of that died down, we worked our way past the rest of the stores and hopped onto a ferry back to…well, not the mainland, since Japan is a group of islands…the mainisland? It was late enough that we could check in at the hostel, which we did. The people at the front desk were very cheery and bubbly. They had us watch a video showing the features and rules of the hostel, and it was also cherry and bubbly.
We weren't able to book a place that had a private room, so it was going to be a dorm area for us for a couple nights. They do have lockers, and we were able to get beds near each other without anyone on the bunks above us, so it worked out well.
There's a view on the roof of the hostel, so we went up and were indeed able to see the floating torii, but it was pretty far. The hostel has a pair of binoculars you can borrow.
It was time to find a grocery store. Looking at the map, we saw a couple convenience stores and a supermarket. Figuring the latter would have better selection, we started out. At one point we needed to cross the train tracks, but once we were about to step onto the first rail, the signal sounded, so we quickly drew back as the gates came down (the gates go completely across the roadway). There was a train pulling into the station, so we waited until it unloaded and loaded passengers, then started up and went past us before we could cross.
We made it to the supermarket, which was larger than the store we went to in Hakone, but quite a bit smaller than the stores in Tokyo or Kyoto. All a matter of relative scale. We found some things for dinner and breakfast, then started back to the hostel to eat.
As we headed out of the store, we heard the train crossing signal and saw the train go by. The gates were going up as we were approaching them, and almost immediately went back down. Another train pulling into the station, so once again, we waited until passengers were done boarding, then the train went by and we could cross again.
Since we had such a large lunch, the items we chose for dinner were pretty small. We didn't pick up dessert, but on the hostel map, there was a place saying you could get galettes, so we went out again to check the place out. It was near the train tracks, but not across them; good thing, since the gates went down as we neared that intersection.
Into the café we went, and we realized that all the galettes were savory. They did, however, have crêpes, so we ordered a couple. They were made of buckwheat, and one had maple syrup and wafer pieces on it, the other caramel and almonds. Each had a small scoop of ice cream. Really good.
As we exited the café, we once again heard the crossing signal, as we would a few times that night.