Hiking Mt Misen, Miyajima
The resplendent island of Miyajima is one of the most beautiful (and subsequently most popular) tourist destinations in Japan. People come from all over the nation, and the world, to take it in – However, most people spend their day wandering the beautiful Itsukushima Shrine, admiring its iconic Tori gate and maybe grabbing a bite to eat at one of the many tourist-friendly restaurants there. Often overlooked is Mt Misen – Taking up the bulk of the island and rising to a peak of 500 meters, it gives the Miyajima its striking profile and is dotted with shrines, waterfalls and beautiful views. My mission for that day was not to scale it, but somehow I ended up doing so anyway….
We woke up bright and early in Hiroshima and jumped on the JR Sanyo Line to Miyajimaguchi Station, took a short stroll to the ferry and jumped aboard. The ferry itself only takes about 15 mins and is very uneventful. It was early, and also during the rainy season, so there were very few people making the ferry trip over with us. Most of them seemed like people going to work.
The ferry deposits you right in the town. A charming little tourist hamlet stocked to the brim with trinkets, souvenirs, food and even a giant spoon. While clearly designed to fleece tourists for their money, it was still charming and altogether inoffensive. The island is also home to hundreds of wild deer. They are friendly and curious, particularly if it looks like you could be carrying food!
We grabbed a breakfast of cold soba noodles and I noticed that I had left a pile of cash I had intended to bring with me back in the hotel! Dang! Japan is a cash-based society and if you have a foreign credit or debit card, the only places that will allow you to withdraw cash are the ATMs inside 7-11 convenience stores. Do not ask why this is. Not even the Japanese know – It is simply how things are done.
Either way, I had enough in my wallet for breakfast and lunch, so no biggie right?…
We wandered out of the town and along the beach to the famous (and previously mentioned) Itsukushima Shrine. It’s most striking feature is the massive Tori gate that sits out on the water. At high tide it appears to be floating – However, this was early in the morning and the tide was very much out. This afforded us an interesting opportunity to actually walk out and see the thing up close!
The exposed shoreline was covered with thousands of tiny little waving crabs, with one really big claw that they beckon to you with. Cute. Anyhow, we walked back inland and took a look at the shrine/temple complex itself. Also built over the water, it is a complex maze of bright red hallways and bridges. Very beautiful.
If you continue beyond the shrine you will encounter a more residential area and some parks. I decided that I wanted to catch a peek at the shrine from above by following the myriad of pathways leading upward. The sun, miraculously for the rainy season, decided to show its face at this point. This meant it started to get even more hot and humid than usual for this time of year. Oh well…
The pathways were brutal. For sure there are no overweight people on this island. I pushed on, certain that one of these weird back alleyways would have to lead to a view – Somewhere!
Paydirt. I found this cute little outcropping where I could see almost all of the town. I was satisfied – However the path was exceedingly pleasant and shaded from the burning morning sun, so we followed it to see where it would take us.
It wasn’t too long before we found ourselves at the gates to the Daisho-in temple! We had managed to arrive there accidentally via some bizarre backstreet, but it was great because I had planned to visit here anyhow. Weirdly, there was not a single soul about the temple. Not even monks!
Daisho-in is one of the most important temples in the world for the Shingon Buhddist religion, and one of the most beautiful, if somewhat quirky, temples I’ve ever seen. Stunning pagodas filled with lamps sit astride natural rock rapids, twisting up the side of the mountain. A true joy to explore. The quirkiness comes from the thousands upon thousands of small Buddha statues that adorn every surface and every pathway. Many sporting fashionable beanies.
We were walking down from the top level of the temple in preparation to leave and get some lunch, we passed a few tourists (the first we had seen since we walked out of the town originally) and noticed that there was a split path, running alongside the natural rapids. Naturally, i wanted to walk along the other side of this beauty, so we turned and headed in this direction.
It was hot, damned hot. Humid too! I stopped to fill my only water bottle from the stream, which was refreshingly ice cold. We should head back, we agreed. But then, the path continued tantalisingly upward. What could hurt from just a peek?…
Up and up and up the steps went. Hundreds of them. We had realised the error of our ways very swiftly, but stubbornness prevented us from turning back. We reached a beautiful clearing and saw on a sign that we had accidentally stumbled upon the Daisho-in hiking trail, and were at the halfway point to the peak! We can’t turn back now, we said. No matter how hungry and hot we are. No matter how low the water bottle was running, we could just get lunch and a drink at the peak, right?
So we pushed on…
Steps. My life had become steps. Nothing existed but the heat and the steps. I will dream about these steps until my dying days. Over 2 thousand of them. Steep and unforgiving. The humidity was so high that I was soaked through with sweat as if I had jumped into a pool. But there could be no turning back…
We passed this old dam and managed to refill our water bottle and dip our faces into the cool mountain spring water. Buddha was merciful at last. We also passed the first people we had seen on the trail here. Some rowdy Americans heading down from the top. They had caught the cable car, and they found the 2 exhausted, panting and overheated people from Finland, on their hands and knees, sticking their faces into the flowing water, to be the height of comedy. I hope you tripped and fell down those 2 thousand steps…
Around this point, the ground evened out a bit, and the steps became more modern. We climbed the last flight of stairs to the peak, which is a rocky, treeless summit covered in large boulders and a small observation tower. I was so exhausted I could hardly stand, but the view was so worth it….
We relaxed up here for a while. A handful of other people were also up here, most of them having arrived by the cable car. We decided that we had had enough accidental hiking and would take the cable car back down in time for a (by this point) very late lunch.
We climbed slightly down from the peak to the Misen Hondo temple area and took a look around. The temple contains the eternal flame, said to have been lit by Kobo Daishi over a thousand years ago and was used to light the torch at the peace pack memorial, back in Hiroshima.
Upon arriving at the cable car entrance I had the shock realisation – The money. We didn’t have enough money for a ticket back down! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!
I was crestfallen. I considered begging someone for the money, but in the end, i used what I had left to buy a sports drink from the machine. We shared it and set off hoping for the sugar rush to last us the journey down. I took one last look at the view….
Then we began to jog. We took the Momijidani Course downwards – The shortest, steepest and least scenic. We jogged and or ran the entire way down. Another 2 thousand plus steps, through the thick forest on totally empty stomachs, desperate to get to the bottom before it got dark. I paused only to grab this shot of a beautiful waterfall.
We made it to the bottom in 45 mins – 1 hour and 15 faster than the “typical” time. On the way through the town, as we jogged our way back to catch the past ferry, we passed by an old grandma selling “melonpan”. A typical Japanese bun made from a special variety of cookie dough. It doesn’t actually taste like melon, it just looks like one. Anyhow, I had enough money left for exactly two of them.
They say that hunger is the best seasoning and I have to tell you, this melonpan may have been one of the best-tasting things I have ever eaten in my entire life…
We continued on and I noticed that the tide had come in, and managed to snap a picture of the Tori gate in its iconic “floating” form.
We made it to the ferry with minutes to spare and headed back, directly to Okonomi-mura – The Hiroshima “theme park” for Okonomiyaki Japanese omelettes. Glorious.
Despite the comedy of errors on my part, this was a fantastic experience and one of the most amazing hikes i’ve ever been on. If you ever find yourself in the southern end of Japan, and you are even remotley outdoorsy, make sure Mt Misen is on your to-do list!