A guide to things to do on the magical Miyajima island, Japan

Things to do in Miyajima island, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

Here’s some of the best things to do on Miyajima island, Japan. Miyajima is one of the most popular places for first-time Japan visitors to head to. The island looks like a floating mountain range and has drawn in travellers with its unusual beauty and serenity for centuries. It’s famous for its picturesque orange shrine gate (Great Torii), which is out in the sea and 100% one of the most Instagrammable spots in Japan! The island is also well loved for its cutest residents: the tame Miyajima deer.

Visiting Miyajima is like arriving in another dimension, where time has slowed down. There are no cities, only small towns with simple houses and rows of tiny shops set against the backdrop of mountains. What’s brilliant about it is that you get the features of rural Japan in a 12-square-mile microcosm: shrines, deer, food, scenery and traditions. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, it’s likely Miyajima is already on your list as a day trip from Hiroshima. You could also treat yourself to staying overnight. But either way, you don’t need masses of time on the island to enjoy it. It’s just important to make the most of a short time there and get the most out of it. As a self-confessed Japan geek, I want you to fall in love with it too.

I hope this list of my personal recommendations of the best things to do on Miyajima will help you plan your time…

Things to do on Miyajima island, Japan

1. Photograph the Great Torii (the famous shrine gate in the sea)

As Rihanna would say, this is what you came for.

The Great Torii is a free-standing shrine gate out in the sea, and is part of the Itsukushima Shrine, which is on the main body of the island (more on that later). The torii is what Miyajima is most famous for, and the main reason tourists flock here all year round. I was a little bit sceptical about how impressive it would be in real life but I stand corrected. It’s every bit as good IRL as it looks in photographs. The torii is striking to view from all angles and it’s lit up when night falls, which makes the experience even more magical. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and regarded as a national treasure of Japan.

There’s something magical about the fact it’s surrounded by water and appears to be floating. Unless you go at low tide, that is – but I wouldn’t recommend that. Definitely check the tide times when you’re planning your trip.

The torii is also said to be the boundary between the spirit and human worlds, and is centuries old. The first version was built in 1168 but it’s been restored and maintained through the centuries… Speaking of which, PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: The torii is currently having restoration work done and is covered up! Repairs began in June 2019 and are expected to last two to three years. So unless you really love taking photos of scaffolding, you’re going to be a bit disappointed. You can still go to Miyajima and the shrine is open otherwise, but if the torii is calling you then keep checking online to see when repairs are likely to be finished so you can plan your trip.

2. Befriend the cute Miyajima deer

A bit like in Nara, there are overly friendly deer all over Miyajima island. They’re tame and will happily mug you for food.

The deer are meant to be sacred messengers of the gods, according to Shintoism, so have to be treated with respect. I’m not sure whether I agree with them being allowed to get so tame that they have no fear of humans, but luckily no one seemed to be harassing them here (unlike in Nara, where stupid tourists were feeding the deer crisps and chasing them round). The breed is the same as in Nara and other areas of Japan: the Sika deer. They’re a bit like Fallow deer that you see everywhere in the UK, but a bit smaller and way more confident.

Of course, being so used to attention, all the deer have perfected the art of the selfie. This one wanted me to tag him on Insta because his horns were looking on fleek.

A day of deer and Buddha in Nara, Japan | PACK THE SUITCASES

3. Guess how many tatami mats you could fit into the Senjokaku Hall

Hint: the answer is 1,000. That’s a lot of floorspace.

Senjokaku Hall (or the ‘pavilion of 1,000 mats’) was originally built to be a sort of arena for chanting in, where Buddhist sutras could be blasted out once a month. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the three unifiers of Japan (you’ll read about them in countless museums, trust me), started the construction of the hall but managed to die in 1598 before it was finished and then others came into power and never finished the job. 

If you’ve been into any ancient Japanese castles like Himeji, Matsumoto or Okayama, you’ll know that most old Japanese buildings are minimalist inside to say the least. By minimal, I mean they’re all entirely empty. Apparently Senjokaku is strikingly sparse due to being unfinished, but other than a lack of proper walls I couldn’t really tell any difference. It has plenty of paintings of pastoral life (deer!) inside, which is more than other places I’ve been to all over Japan.

Although the building itself is incomplete, Senjokaku is the largest structure on Miyajima Island and is definitely worth seeing. It has stunning views over the Itsukushima Shrine, the pagoda, and of course the sea and surrounding mountains. You have to pay a token 100 yen to get in.

4. See the rest of the Itsukushima Shrine

The Itsukushima Shrine is the reason behind Miyajima’s name, which translates as ‘shrine island’. Shinto worshippers cracked open the first shrine here in the year 593 and it’s been shrine-tastic ever since, currently home to six famous shrines. But the Itsukushima is the main deal and the best. Although its gate is out in the sea, it’s not quite on dry land itself either as the bulk of it is constructed on stilts in the water.

Itsukushima is a popular shrine for weddings, so if you’re very lucky you might see one happening. 

It’s 300 yen to get inside, but if you’ve been into other shrines during your trip then there’s no great need to go in. I preferred looking at it from the outside. 

5. Wander down Omotesando Street and meet the world’s biggest wooden rice spoon

This is the main shopping street on Miyajima, and is worth a walk down to buy any souvenirs you want from the gift shops. There are also plenty of little street food cafés serving local oysters, anko (red bean) sweets and okonomiyaki (my favourite Japanese dish ever – noodley pancake heaven). 

Omotesando Street is also where you can see O-shakushi, the world’s biggest wooden rice spoon. Yes, really. Only in Japan could such a bizarre and specific accolade exist, and I bet they’ve got a list somewhere of the second and third biggest too.

This bad boy is just under eight metres long, which is frankly ridiculous but quite a thing to see. Like an idiot, I forgot to photograph it, so you’ll just have to imagine the scenes.

6. Get a look at the five-story pagoda

The bright red five-story pagoda is a sight to behold, at about 30 metres tall and surrounded by trees. It would be gorgeous in spring for the cherry blossom or autumn for golden leaves.

You can’t go inside it and it’s best viewed from afar rather than close up, when it’s not as impressive.

7. Walk through Momijidani Park

Speaking of autumn leaves, Momijidani (‘maple valley’) is home to – you guessed it – a lot of beautiful maple trees, apparently around 200 of them. Imagine that when they’re all orange and golden!

You have to walk through the park en route to Mount Misen (whether you walk up or get the ropeway) and although I didn’t visit when it’s at its peak in autumn, it’s still very pretty with classic red bridges and little streams.

8. Go up Mount Misen on a clear day for some cracking views

Mount Misen is Miyajima’s highest peak and therefore has the best views. The scenery in this area is stunning and as long as you have a clear day, you’ll be able to get some great photographs across to Hiroshima and the inland sea.

You can either walk up to the top or get the cable car (known as a ‘ropeway’ in Japan) to the observation point.

The ropeway is 1,840 yen for a round trip and takes about 20 minutes each way, with a bit of a walk at the end too. If you’re only on Miyajima for a day, this is probably the most practical so that you don’t spend too much time walking – as nice as it is, there will be better places in Japan for walks, and the main thing is getting to the view.

If you’re staying on Miyajima for more than a day so have more time to spend, it might be nice to walk up Mt Misen at some point. There are three walking paths you can choose from, all of which take about 90 minutes to two hours:

  • Momijidani Course – shortest but steepest route, all through forest
  • Daisho-in Course – nicest views, less steep but still lots of steps
  • Omoto Course – a middle ground.

Have a look at the Miyajima Tourism website for more info on each of them.

9. Have a drink and ice cream in Itskuki café

When we visited Miyajima, it was January and absolutely freezing. Itsuki was a much-needed pit stop to thaw out. Despite the cold, I was sucked in by their amazing looking ice creams. Why is ice cream in Japan so superior to anywhere else?! They do a soft serve so well.

This café also does little toasted sandwiches, cakes and snacks – and it has a rare thing in Japan: an English menu!

If you’re just doing Miyajima as a day trip then going into nearby Hiroshima for your evening meal, I’d recommend having a small lunch and saving your appetite for eating your own bodyweight in incredible okonomiyaki later. Top tip there.

10. See all the hat-wearing little Buddhas at the Daishoin Temple

Obviously most people are here for the shrine, and yes seeing that is the best thing to do in Miyajima. But I thought Daishoin Template would have been worth the ferry journey to Miyajima in itself, too.

The Daishoin (or Daisho-in, depending on the translation) is tucked away within the trees at the base of Mt Misen, yet is one of the most important temples in Shingon Buddhism.

Like lots of Japanese temples, it’s all sort of strung out and spread round lots of little buildings and features among the trees and streams, so you can wander around taking it all in. There are plenty of stairs to tackle up to the top of the temple complex, but you can take your time and it’s nowhere near as busy as other sights on the island. I thought it was really serene and beautiful, with lots of little details to spot.

Oh and you can also do a Buddhist ritual when walking up the steps (anything to take your mind off the climb). You’ll spot some metal wheels with sutra (Buddhist scriptures) on them. If you turn the inscriptions as you ascend the stairs, this is meant to have the same effect as reading them. So, without any knowledge of language and no idea what on earth you’re doing, you’ll apparently be blessed. Enjoy.

The most memorable thing for me at the Daishoin Temple was the hordes of little Buddha statues wearing KNITTED HATS, lining the paths to the top. They’re all made by locals and come in a variety of colours. Really cute.

11. Try the local speciality: Momiji Manju

Momiji Manju is the local treat on Miyajima. Like all Japanese cakes, it’s delicate and not too sweet. I’m slightly obsessed with things like this so it was right up my street.

If you don’t want to eat it there or if you want to take some home as souvenirs, you can buy them pre-packaged to take away and they last quite a while apparently. Well done if you manage not to eat them right away though…

Momiji Manju is basically a little steamed cake made from a castella-like dough and formed into the shape of a Japanese maple leaf, and you can get lots of different fillings inside. The traditional filling is smooth red bean paste, which won’t come as a surprise if you’ve tried any Japanese cakes before! I absolutely love a bit of red bean action, but if you want a filling less traditional you can get things like cream cheese, chocolate, green tea, chestnut, dainagon (a large-grained red bean jam), or custard.

12. Stay until dusk for some beautiful photography opportunities

The best tip I can possibly give you for visiting Miyajima is to not get the ferry back over to Hiroshima too early, if at all possible. Obviously check the timetable for the time of year you’ll be travelling because you won’t want to be stranded on the island! But seeing Miyajima at dusk was a special experience.

The Great Torii is illuminated at night, giving it a completely different and atmospheric aura. You’ll probably have to queue to get a shot of it because everyone flocks to the shoreline, mesmerised. But if you walk slightly away from it, you can see it from further up the coast at a different angle with fewer people around. I thought the main shrine looked even better at night too, with the glow from all the lanterns reflected in the water. 

What was less beautiful was losing track of time and having to do an ungainly run to ensure we didn’t miss the last ferry back after nightfall. Good times.

Things to do in Miyajima – useful information for your trip

How to get there

Japan’s public transport is, of course, unbeatable. You can get to Miyajima from Hiroshima in a few ways:

  • By train and ferry – This is the best option for price and speed. From Hiroshima station, take the JR Sanyo Line to Miyajimaguchi Station (25 mins, 420 yen each way, covered by the Japan Rail Pass). From Miyajimaguchi Station, it’s a short and obvious walk to the ferry pier, where they leave for the island regularly (check times on the ferry website). There are two ferry companies (JR and Matsudai) but they both take 10 minutes, are covered by the JR Pass and cost 180 yen each way, so it doesn’t matter which you get.
  • By tram and ferry – I wouldn’t recommend this unless you’re on a serious budget as it takes FOREVER but costs only 270 yen one way (not covered by the Japan Rail Pass). It’s meant to take an hour and we somehow ended up doing it thinking it was only a bit slower than the train and we might get to see some nice views… but we got it at a busy time and it took almost 2 hours and was packed the whole way so we couldn’t even sit down or see out of the window. Joyous. If you must, get tram line number 2 from central Hiroshima bound for Miyajimaguchi. Once you’re at Miyajimaguchi Station, follow the same instructions as above.
  • By boat all the way – This is the extravagant option if your yen is burning a hole in your pocket. The AquaNet ferry will take you from Hiroshima’s Peace Park directly to Miyajima (45 minutes, 3,600 yen round trip, Japan Rail Pass not valid).

When to go

This isn’t unique to Miyajima but here are my general thoughts on when to visit Japan as a whole:

  • Spring in Japan is very popular because the cherry blossom is a big deal and the weather is mostly beautiful. But everyone else knows this too, so it can be very busy and more expensive due to this, coupled with the fact it’s Golden Week in Japan (when everyone gets time off work). So do weigh up how much cherry blossom and flawless Instagram shots matter to you.
  • My favourite time to go to Japan in general is January. Don’t be afraid of the winter months. The weather is bright and crisp but there are far fewer tourists than other months.
  • Our friends who live in Tokyo say autumn is also lovely but we’ve not done that ourselves… yet.
  • Basically, avoid summer if you can, because HUMIDITY.

Where to stay

I can totally see you may want to stay on Miyajima rather than just doing it as a day trip. I’d have loved to see the Great Torii late at night or first thing in the morning with no one else around. Although I only did it as a day trip, I’ve researched staying over on the island since specifically to include on this blogpost, because I’m kind like that.

First off, let me preface this by saying that accommodation in Japan is a different beast to other countries. Western-style hotels are often either not great or really expensive. Obviously I’m writing from a UK perspective on what’s expensive:  we’re lucky here to be able to book Premier Inns and the like for <£80 a night for a clean, decent room in most UK cities (not including stupid London). This kind of budget-but-nice hotel isn’t really a thing in Japan, so you have to approach accommodation differently if you’re like me and normally go for that kind of price range. Read more about the ins and outs of Japanese accommodation here

Here are a few options to stay on Miyajima:

  • Sukuraya – This is a ryokan (traditional inn) with Japanese-style rooms: tatami mats and futons are the name of the game. It’s around £75 a night, so within my usual hotel budget in other countries. The reviews are great and it’s only a stone’s throw from all the main attractions on the island.
  • Oyado Tsukiusagi – A slightly more spendy £122 a night will get you a Japanese-style room with futons in this ryokan, which is really well located on the island. A nice middle ground option.
  • Miyajima Hanare no Yado IBUKU – If you’re on honeymoon or just wanting to seriously splash out, this CRAZY EXPENSIVE place looks amazing. It’s just over £400 a night (ouch). For that, you get incredible mountain views and sheer luxury: breakfast and very fancy evening meal included. Although it’s a ryokan, they do have Western-style beds and carpet in this one, so it’s a bit of a hybrid.

Further reading on Japan in general

I’ve got an absolutely bloody HUGE post called:

You’ll probably need an entire pot of green tea if you’re going to read that one. Or something stronger. And you may also like my other Japan blog posts:

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