Many places in this world have made a claim to be Heaven on Earth but there is a small island off the coast of Japan that offers the closest to a heavenly experience that is possible.
I wanted to find somewhere different for my birthday – a bit traditional but easy and luxurious. This place off the coast of Hiroshima was Miyajima.
We flew into Osaka from Australia so we stayed one day to see Osaka Castle and the Dōtonbori—Osaka’s famous boulevard. So many people, restaurants, neon signs and bars in one place at one time. It was easier to just let ourselves be swept in the flow of the crowd.
Kyoto and Hiroshima
Our next stop on the way to Miyajima was Kyoto, the ancient capital.
After a few days in Kyoto, we left our suitcases at the hotel (The Hotel Granvia is right on top of Kyoto Railway Station) and took a small backpack for an overnight trip. We boarded the morning bullet train to Hiroshima and arrived late morning.
Just outside Hiroshima Station, there is an electric tram (streetcar loop) to the ferry terminal that makes a stop at Peace Memorial Park along the way. (A visit to Hiroshima should include Peace Memorial Park.) The tram departs every 9 minutes (¥150) and took 15 minutes.
We walked through a vast green expanse toward the Peace Memorial Museum. I have to admit, I was a bit hesitant to go to the museum in case it was too confronting but it turned out to be a truly an amazing experience—especially the exhibits about life in Hiroshima before and after the atomic bomb blast.
Afterwards we felt a bit reflective and so we sat on a bench, absorbing the serenity and watching the other visitors (families, school groups and lunching office workers). The park is in the centre of Hiroshima. It is beautifully designed, with water features, memorial sculptures and the most amazing odd shaped vibrant green trees.
We made our way back to the tram stop— past the atomic bomb dome—it was left standing after the atomic explosion in WW2—then we caught the next tram to Miyajimaguchi ferry terminal.
It was lunchtime so we had lunch at the terminal with everyone else. We ordered Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki (a delicious Japanese pancake/omelette).
The ferry to the island took 10 minutes.
Miyajima is a tiny island called the Island of Gods. Considered sacred and for much of its history, commoners were never allowed to visit.
On arrival, we were met by a Kimono clad greeter who walked us from the ferry port up the narrow main street to our ryokan. He didn’t speak English so I still don’t know who he was.
For a unique birthday experience, I researched and found a ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house) that provided mineral spa baths, gourmet Japanese meals and a view of the sea.
After settling in, we got back into our outside shoes and went for a walk down the main street to the boardwalk promenade. The promenade walk is known as the “Gourmet Route”. All along the waterfront, speciality food vendors sell street food to visitors in front of their restaurants and shops.
One of the delicacies on offer is char-grilled oysters. In the open air, local fresh oysters are grilled in their shells over charcoal fires. They are served hot off the coals in their own shell plate.
But the most enticing aroma wafting over the sea air is fresh baked Momiji Manjyu (sweet filled pastries). They are also sold in gift boxes as souvenirs of Miyajima.
As we strolled along the foreshore, we were surprised to see numbers of small deer roaming freely. These tame Japanese deer are symbols of Miyajima and are seen as sacred messengers of the Gods in the Shinto religion.
Numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples have been built all over the island. These ancient structures are open to the public and are frequented by worshipers. I was most fascinated by a very small shrine that was filled with little dolls.
As a Unesco World Heritage Site, many of Miyajima’s numerous temples and shrines are considered by the Japanese Government as Sacred Treasures.
Itsukushima is the proper name of Miyajima, which in Japanese means the Shrine Island.
By 6pm, the sun had dropped and most of the day trippers had gone. Dusk is the time of the “Illumination” – the lighting of the lanterns around the foreshore. This is a quiet time when lucky island guests come out for a stroll through the soft glow of the lanterns. We wandered along the boardwalk toward the Itsukushima (Shinto) Shrine which dates from the 6th century.
Just in front of the shrine, stands The Great Torii Gate—a red camphor wood structure built over the water. After sundown, the high tide comes in, hiding the pier-like structures beneath the Torii gate and giving it the appearance of floating on the water.
As we made our way back to our ryokan, everything was quiet—no sounds of loud voices or music—just our footsteps and the breeze.
We had booked a session in the onsen (Japanese mineral spa bath) and decided it was best before dinner. We were shown to a private onsen room with an enormous round timber tub filled to the brim with hot spring water.
We sat at long as we could (it was very, very hot), soaking up the minerals and cooling off before taking another plunge . Luckily, we had decided to do this before dinner so we weren’t trying to digest food.
The room was timber lined all around with a glass wall overlooking a misty garden. This created a peaceful atmosphere and something nice to look at. It was winter, so a view of the freezing outside while in the cosy onsen tub inside was an amazing contrast.
After a cool shower, we put on the fluffy robes and slippers provided and went back to our room to dress for dinner.
The ryokan provided half-board accommodation that included a ‘kaiseki” (traditional multi-course dinner). We dressed in traditional Japanese clothing that was provided in our room and took the elevator down to the dining floor where we were escorted to a very large private dining room.
The candle-lit room was almost empty except for tatami mats, a low wooden table and cushion seating. As per our request, there was a full view of the Grand Tori Gate, fully illuminated and “floating” on the inland sea.
- Japanese appetizers with sake, wine and beer
- Suimono (soup)
- Sashimi (raw fish)
- Nimono (hotpot meat and vegetables)
- Yakimono (grilled beef and fish)
- Hassun (food from the mountains and the sea)
- Sunomono (pickled shrimp and vegetables)
- Agemono (tempura vegetables and fish)
- Mushimono (steamed savoury custard)
- Dessert (fruit, sorbet)
Kaiseiki is a meal at one with nature. The ingredients are natural, of high quality and chosen according to the season. Most important of all, the ingredients are all freshly served. The food represents forests, mountains, islands, flowers and leaves. The tableware is made to compliment the colour, texture, flavor and shapes found in nature.
Each course was served or cooked at our table by our server with timing and precision—allowing enough time to enjoy the meal at a leisurely pace.
A birthday somewhere beautiful, peaceful and cultural is what I wanted. It was winter, I needed to de-stress and we don’t ski. The answer was obvious – Miyajima, Japan.
Birthday experience to remember
It is the most memorable birthday meal I have had. It is an experience that I recommend to anyone looking for a special memory.
For me, it is a reward for a year of hard work, family obligations and surviving all the life has thrown at you.
For a unique birthday experience, our ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house) provided an onsen and a gourmet “kaiseki” birthday dinner with a view of the “floating” Torii Gate.
The next morning, we were served breakfast in our private dining room. We had pre-ordered a Western breakfast. (Japanese breakfast is an acquired taste.) It was a true gourmet experience: fruit, juice, eggs, ham, fresh toast, European style pastries, freshly brewed coffee and preserves.
After breakfast, we went out for a walk in the bracing morning air. Behind our ryokan, a winding path led to the foot of Mount Misen. We stopped to drink at the mineral spring water tap that is free to visitors.
Not feeling very energetic, we didn’t hike up to the primeval forest on Mount Misen like many others; instead, we wandered around the back streets in the old town to see the Japanese character houses built with traditional methods. Winding our way back, we passed little artisan cottages and tiny gift shops.
We just wandered without any idea of direction but the size of the island makes it virtually impossible to get lost.
At midday, we reluctantly departed by ferry to make the train back to Kyoto.
Miyajima – A place where people and Gods live together.