Exploring Japan’s Miyajima Island: 7 Things That Make It a Traveler Favorite
Travelers on our Highlights of Japan trip can't stop raving about Miyajima Island. Floating shrines, underground temple passageways, scenic hikes, and the freshest grilled oysters you've ever had—we tapped our go-to Japanese Tour Director, Masayuki, for his recommendations for making the most of your day here.
by Brendon Keefe
As an EF Ultimate Break Trip Consultant, I’m on the phone with our travelers every day helping them find the perfect trip to match their style and budget. So I tend to notice when a certain destination starts seeing an uptick in interest among our millennial and GenZ travelers. One such country that’s having a renewed moment in the spotlight? Japan. Travelers have long been drawn to Japan’s insane blend of future, past, and present—from its ancient temples to its cutting-edge fashion and design. And the food scene... don’t even get us started. While places like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are rightfully the big draws, there’s one lesser-known spot that EF Ultimate Break travelers can’t stop raving about. Miyajima Island, a short boat ride from Hiroshima, is a huge hit for those that have visited as part of our Japan tours. While not an overnight stop on our tours, Miyajima is one of our travelers’ favorite day trips.
To help showcase why Miyajima is so appealing, we asked friend-of-the-program and EF Ultimate Break Tour Director Masayuki—who leads our Highlights of Japan and Tokyo and Beyond trips—for his favorite things to do on the island. With Masa’s help, we’ve put together the perfect Miyajima itinerary, even if you only have a few hours there.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the most obvious must-see attraction on Miyajima—and for good reason. Dating back to the 13th century, the shrine was built on pillars over the Inland Sea. The striking juxtaposition of the manmade shrine “floating” on the sea against the island’s mountainous backdrop speaks to the architectural style of Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, which places an emphasis on the natural world as an embodiment of sacred divinity. The way in which the shrine and its natural surroundings complement each other is truly magnificent and is a main reason why Miyajima has maintained its popularity over hundreds of years. Itsukushima isn’t just something to look at, either. As our Tour Director Masa says, “the shrine complex consists of multiple buildings connected by boardwalks, including a prayer hall and a performance theater with a stage.” So visitors can soak up plenty of Japanese culture and history along with the iconic photo ops.
Pro Tip: If you sense that love is in the air during your visit to Miyajima Island, it’s not just your newfound love of the Itsukushima Shrine that you’re feeling (although that’s probably part of it). The shrine is an incredibly popular spot for weddings! If you’re thinking about tying the knot here yourself, just keep in mind reservations generally need to be placed at least a year ahead of time! (Though there’s nothing stopping you from proposing in front of the shrine—wink wink to our EF Ultimate Break couples traveling together.)
The Great Torii
You may not recognize the name, but you’ve definitely seen Itsukushima’s Torii Gate. The 54.5-foot structure is the most recognizable part of the Itsukshima Shrine and has likely made an appearance (or two) in your Instagram feed. The gate, while being a literal gate, is also considered to be a symbolic gateway from the secular to the sacred. While it’s mostly known for its design which gives the illusion that it’s floating, this is only true during high tide. During low tide, one can walk from the island out to the gate. In fact, the Torii serves as a popular spot for locals to gather shellfish!
Top: © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock | Bottom: © Vic Dobry/Unsplash
According to our Tour Director Masa, the Daisho-in Temple, while less of a draw as the Itsukushima Shrine, is perhaps the most sacred of all the Miyajima temples. It was founded in the year 806 by the monk Kobo Daishi, who founded Shingdon Buddhism. Visitors are first exposed to the temple’s wealth of Buddhist treasures while walking up the steps to the entrance, where, should you look closely, you’ll notice several wheels with Japanese inscriptions. These inscriptions contain a Buddhist sutra, or scripture. One who spins the wheels is said to receive the same blessing as one who recites the sutra, so feel free to give them a whirl (because who couldn’t use an extra blessing?). Other highlights of the temple include three main halls, a sand mandala that was made by visiting monks from Tibet, and 500 statues dedicated to the 500 rakan (the first disciples of Buddah).
Pro Tip: When you’re passing by the statues of the 500 rakan, be sure to check out each one closely. You’ll notice every single one has it’s own unique facial expression! They’ll also be adorning nifty knitted hats, which are provided as offerings every year.
Bonus Tip: Tour Director Masa offers this secret nugget to all his tour groups: “At the Kannon-do building, there is a hall called Kaidan Meguri (loosely translating to ‘pitch dark passageway’), an underground tunnel where you see nothing except for dimly lit pictures on the wall. You cannot see anything else because it is very, very dark. It is said that the Kannon bodhisattva can grant our wish, whatever it may be, so we make our wish here while circling the hall.”
Featured Trip: Highlights of Japan
14 days. 6 cities.
Experience Japan's greatest hits and expect the unexpected. Meditate with Buddhist monks, walk across the world’s busiest crosswalk at Shibuya, live it up in Tokyo's trendy neighborhoods, explore Miyajima for a day, and learn about the history of Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was dropped—all while overusing the phrase “sake to me” as you enjoy fresh-made sake at every turn.
Top: © Joan Tran/Unsplash | Bottom: © RnDmS/Shutterstock
Mount Misen is another popular attraction on Miyajima Island which offers both incredible sights and further exposure to the island’s Buddhist history. You can make your way up to the top of the mountain either by a cable car or on foot, but for the best views, Tour Director Masa recommends taking the Daisho-in Trail. The trek typically takes 1.5-2 hours, and culminates at the mountain’s peak, where visitors are treated to the unique opportunity to see the Torii Gate, the Itsukushima Shrine, and even Hiroshima City from 1,640-foot above sea level. The mountain is said to have been a favorite spot of Kobo Daishi’s, and as such is home to several fascinating Buddhist sculptures and artifacts. There is even a flame that is said to have been lit by Kobo Daishi himself, known as the Eternal Flame, which has been burning continuously for over 1,200 years!
Pro Tip: If you’re lucky enough to visit Mount Misen with a significant other, be sure to stop by the Fire of Oath. Here, couples can light a flame that metaphorically represents them igniting their love.
Take a lunch break
You’re likely to build up an appetite with all the adventuring you’ll be doing on Miyajima, and luckily there are plenty of delicious spots to satisfy your hunger. Unsurprisingly, the most common dishes on the island feature locally caught seafood. Tour Director Masa has some suggestions on which restaurants to try.
Kakiya: “Specializes in oysters procured in Miyajima. You can watch the chef grill oysters over a charcoal flame. The recommended dish is the Special Set Meal that includes several different oyster types, such as deep-fried oysters.”
Takeda Furin-tei: “This is a casual restaurant that serves Miyajima specialties, such as anago (or conger eel) rice.”
Daruma no Hassho: “This restaurant serves okonomiyaki (or Japanese style pancake) and teppanyaki cuisine made with oysters from Miyajima.”
© Jan K/Shutterstock
The sacred deer of Miyajima
Upon arriving at Miyajima Island, you’ll almost instantly be struck by the unfamiliar sight of people sharing the streets with deer. These are Sika deer and are the island’s only native deer species. They have long been considered sacred by the people of Miyajima, and as such have an interesting story that explains why they’re so unfazed by their human neighbors. In ancient times, these deer were considered messengers of the gods, and had temples built in their honor where offerings of food were made. The Sika deer and the people of Miyajima maintained this mutually beneficial relationship for years, but after WWII, the deer population began to dwindle. Seeing their sacred deer struggling, people began to forgo offerings at the temples and fed the deer directly. Over time, as the deer population started rising again, they became reliant on people as their exclusive source of nourishment and flocked into town to be fed. This eventually became unsustainable, as the constant presence of the increased deer population took a toll on the town’s infrastructure. In 2008, the island banned feeding the deer in hopes that they would gradually shed their dependence on humans for food. If you do get the chance to visit Miyajima Island, feel free to say hi to the deer, but it’s important you resist the urge to feed them so they can relearn how to feed themselves!
© Topcools Tee/Unsplash
If getting up close and personal with the island’s deer population doesn’t quite satisfy your inner animal lover, be sure to check out the Miyajima Aquarium. This popular attraction gives visitors the opportunity to interact with over 1,300 creatures representing 350 saltwater and freshwater species, many of which are local to the area. Highlights of the aquarium include live sea otter performances and a community of happy penguins. Out of every EF Ultimate Break destination, we’re pretty sure this is the only one where you can perform an ancient Buddhist sutra and then hang out with fluffy penguins in the same afternoon, so do with that information what you will.
© Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock
We'll take you there
Who would have thought one island could contain so much culture, history, beauty, and adventure? It’s no wonder our phones have been ringing off the hook with travelers wanting to check Japan off their bucket lists. If Tour Director Masa’s reccommendations have you ready to start planning your own Japanese adventure, check out our tours to Japan. If you’re not quite sure where you want to travel next, EF Ultimate Break has trips across the globe, all specifically designed for travelers aged 18-29. We take care of your flights, accommodations, a perfectly-crafted itinerary—and provide an expert Tour Director (like our good friend Masa!) so you spend less time on logistics and figuring out what to do—and more time on, well, having the time of your life.
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by Brendon Keefe
Brendon is a Trip Consultant with EF Ultimate Break. Born and raised on Cape Cod, Brendon’s passions include cheering for Boston sports teams, obsessing over Star Wars, and maintaining his perfect attendance at happy hour events. His favorite country to visit is Tanzania.