A Visit to Japan’s Most Sacred Island – One Day In Miyajima

I’ve been to Miyajima, Japan twice in the last few years and am sharing my experiences on how I spent one day in Miyajima.

On my one day in Miyajima I was able to catch the sunset behind the large torii gate

Last Updated on 07/04/24 by Rose Palmer

Miyajima, Japan is most famous for the photos of its floating torii gate. But this lovely little island offers up lots of gorgeous scenery, both man made and natural. I visited Miyajima twice on recent trips to Japan and this is how I spent my day on Miyajima exploring its photogenic treasures.

There are times when I visit a place and I just can’t stop taking photos-which is saying a lot, because I always take a lot of photos when I travel. It doesn’t matter if it is a popular tourist destination – and often times the most photogenic spots are just that. If I find it visually appealing and it stimulates my creative juices, I can’t help myself. I just keep snapping away, always looking for and easily finding another, more artistic perspective.

On my first visit to Miyajima this was just such a day. Of course, it helped that the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the trees were turning a fiery red in mid November. And the sunrise as I took the ferry across was pretty perfect too.

The sun rises as the JR ferry leaves the mainland and heads toward the island of Miyajima
The sun rises as the JR ferry leaves the mainland and heads toward the island of Miyajima

Miyajima is a small island in the Seto Inland Sea, about a 30 min train ride and a 15 minute ferry ride from the Hiroshima central train station. It is best known for the photos of the floating torii gate in the harbor, which is part of the Itsukushima Shrine, another one of Japan’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Miyajima's famous floating torii gate
Miyajima famous floating torii gate

Miyajima is described as “One of the Top Three Scenic Spots in Japan”, and it is in part this scenic location that makes it such an important spiritual site for the Japanese believer. In fact, the word Miyajima means “shrine island” in Japanese.

For a long time, the island itself was considered to be sacred, and commoners were not allowed to set foot on it. For that reason, the shrine was built to extend out over the water, looking like it floated and was separate from the land.

The large torii gate that has become such a tourist icon, was built as the entrance to the shrine and pilgrims were required to steer their boats underneath it as they approached the shrine.

How I spent one day in Miyajima

Itsukushima Shrine

The centerpiece of the island is the vermilion painted Itsukushima Shrine which is uniquely built to extend out over the water. When the tide is in, the shrine and torii gate are meant to look like they are floating in the sea. The view of the orange shrine against the green forested hills surrounded by blue water and sky is considered to be a classic Japanese scene of beauty.

Itsukushima shrine floating in the sea at high tide
Itsukushima shrine floating in the sea at high tide

The first shrine was built here in the sixth century, and has since been rebuilt many times after destruction by both man and nature. One interesting fact is that no metal nails have been used in the shrine’s floor construction. The shrine is dedicated to three deities who are believed to protect the country, the imperial family and seafarers.

Photos of Itsukushima shrine

Itsukushima shrine

Itsukushima shrine

Itsukushima shrine

The Itsukushima shrine is actually a complex that consists of the main shrine building and a number of subsidiary shrines, connected by covered walkways. Entrance into the shrine is usually as early as 6:30 AM which was a good time to go.

Early in the morning, I got photos without people in the way, and I also experienced the shrine in the peaceful and serene atmosphere appropriate for a religious site. I was also able to see the monks performing some of their morning rituals.

Looking into the main worship hall of the Itsukushima shrine
Looking into the main worship hall of the Itsukushima shrine

One of the interesting structures within the shrine was a bridge that lead to nowhere. The Sori-bashi bridge was used for imperial messengers only and temporary stairs would be built so they could cross the bridge. Today, the bridge is not used and serves for pretty photos instead.

Sori-bashi bridge
Soribashi bridge

But the object that consistently draws the eye is the large O-torii standing out in the water. This symbol of Miyajima is about 50 feet tall, with the current version built in 1875.

This torii gate is free standing, that is, none of the pillars are buried in the sand for support. The main pillar is made of camphor wood which is naturally insect repellent and rot resistant, and has a circumference of about 30 feet.

Photos of the freestanding torii gate

freestanding torii gate
First view of Miyajima’s torii gate at sunrise
Itsikushima Shrine in Miyajima Japan
Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima Japan

Once the tide went out, the land around the shrine became a mudflat that I could walked on. When the tide was at its lowest point, I walked right up to the O-torii and got the true sense for just how large it really was.

Besides this main shrine, Itsukushima also had 7 smaller shrines associated with it that were located around the shores of the island. Many of these cannot be reached by a road, and can only be approached by a boat.

A sacred dance at Itsukushima shrine

Itsukushima shrine has many scheduled events and festivals throughout the year. On the day I was there, a very large group filled the shrine and the promontory next to it. All the dancers were dressed in blue and white, except for group leaders, which were dressed in brightly colored outfits. One special group seemed to have the privilege of performing within the shrine, while a group of leaders performed with flags on the inside stage of the Itsukushima shrine.

The performance didn’t last long, maybe 10 to 15 minutes at the most. The movements seemed to be Tai-chi like. I asked one of the shrine’s monks about the performance, but his English seemed limited and all he could tell me was that it was a sacred dance. Whatever the purpose of the dance, this was another one of those serendipitous experiences that makes travel interesting.

Other sacred sites on Miyajima

Itsukushima shrine is clearly the main attraction on Miyajima that draws the majority of the visitor’s attention. But within a short walk were a few other scenic religions sites also worthy of a visit.

Five Story Pagoda

On the hill above Itsukushima shrine was a beautiful five story pagoda also covered in bright vermilion lacquer. The building originates from 1407 and enshrines the Buddha of Medicine.

Toyokuni Shrine

Next to the Five Story Pagoda was the Toyokuni Shrine. Unlike the other buildings, this shrine had not been painted and was still showing the bare wood of its unfinished state. After the brightly colored environment of Itsukushima, the unpainted surfaces here resulted in a quieter and more calming experience.

This shrine was built in the 16th century and is dedicated to the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It was intended to be a Buddhist library, but when Toyotomi died, the construction on the shrine ceased. The shrine is also called Senjokaku-or Hall of One Thousand Tatami Mats because of its large size. The inside of the shrine was decorated with many “ema” or picture tablets that used to decorate the Itsukushima shrine.

Just outside the balcony of this shrine was a tree that had reached its fall peak color and glowed like spun gold.  The color was beautifully reflected in the wooden floorboards – boards that had been polished to a soft glow by stocking feet over the course of hundreds of years.

"Hall of 1000 tatami mats" reflecting a golden tree at its peak fall color
“Hall of 1000 tatami mats” reflecting a golden tree at its peak fall color
Daiganji Temple

Just to the west of the Istukushima shrine was the Daiganji Temple. It is believed this temple is from the 12th century. The temple is dedicated to Benzaiten, the Goddess of eloquence, music, wisdom and wealth. Dropping off a prayer request here would certainly cover a lot of bases.

Daiganji Temple
Entrance to Daiganji temple

As with other religious sites in Japan, the 2000+ deer that live on the island are considered to be sacred and are protected. They wander around the shrines and the town at will. They were very tame, and at times could also be a nuisance. I kept a tight hold on my food when they wee near.

deer on Miyajima island
Is the deer trying to decide what to order?

Other things to do in Miyajima

The small town that has grown up around the religious sites seemed to cater to the visitors and tourists. There were many accommodation options, though it was necessary to book early if going during peak times, like fall foliage when I went, or spring cherry blossom season.

From the entrance to Itsukushima shrine, the traffic led directly down into Omotesando street, the spot for souvenir shopping and restaurants serving local favorites like oysters and eels.

One of the oddest things I saw on this street was the biggest wooden spoon in the world – carved over the course of almost three years as Miyajima’s symbol. Of course, I could take home miniature copies of both the wooden spoon and the torii gate.

The path from Itsukushima shrine leads right into the shopping district
The path from Itsukushima shrine leads right into the shopping district
Miyajima's biggest wooden spoon in the world
Miyajima’s biggest wooden spoon in the world

I made sure to also take the time to explore some of the other streets in town with their traditional Japanese architecture. I took the road uphill toward the ropeway and explored Momijidani Park which was especially pretty with the maple trees turning bright red.

On this trip, there were a number of sites I did not get a chance to visit: the ropeway to the top of Mount Misen; the Miyajima History and Folklore Museum; the Miyajima Aquarium;  Daisho-in temple or many of the other smaller shrines and temples around the town – next time.

map of Miyajima
Map of Miyajima

But the star of the island will always be the large floating torii gate in the harbor. As the light changed throughout the day, so did the mood of the shrine. When dusk fell, bright lights flooded the buildings, giving the shrines a completely different look than they had during the day.

The floating Torii gate in Miyajima Japan-a must do on a Japan itinerary
The floating Torii gate in Miyajima Japan at sunset
At the "magic" hour just after sun set
At the “magic” hour just after sun set
The lights of a boat passing under the torii gate at high tide leave a light streak during the long exposure
The lights of a boat passing under the torii gate at high tide leave a light streak during the long exposure
Itsukushima Shrine lit up at night
Itsukushima Shrine lit up at night

A day trip to Miyajima Island

More recently I had the opportunity to go back to Miyajima Island for a half day. On my Heritage Expeditions cruise around Japan, we did excursions to both Hiroshima and Miyajima.

We started the day with a morning visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. This was followed by an afternoon exploring the sights on Miyajima Island. I was very glad to be back at this beautiful location, even if it was for just a few hours.

It was a warm Saturday afternoon in May and the town and sights were busy with tourists. The tide was out and crowds were gathered around the large torii gate taking photos.

Torii gate on Miyajima Island
Torii gate on Miyajima Island
Torii gate on Miyajima Island
Torii gate on Miyajima Island

As I walked through the Itsukushima Shrine a traditional wedding was taking place. It was interesting to watch the ceremony and then the photo shoot afterward. I guess if you have your event in such a popular spot, it’s hard to make it a private affair.

On an Japan itinerary with limited time, Miyajima can easily be visited as a quick day trip from Hiroshima. However, I think that to truly experience the sights and the town, especially without crowds, it’s best to spend a night or two.

I had a full day in Miyajima and spent the night, but could easily have enjoyed another day, taking the time to take the Miyajima Ropeway to the top of Mt. Misen and then hiking down, or exploring some of the more out of the way sights. The island is especially pleasant early in the morning or later in the day after the majority of the tour groups have left.

Oyster farming around Miyajima Island
Oyster farming around Miyajima Island
Eating fried oysters on Miyajima Island
Eating the local delicacy, fried oysters on Miyajima,

Tips for visiting Miyajima

  • Miyajima is an island and can only be reached by boat. The ferry terminal on the mainland is a short train ride from Hiroshima’s main train station. For information on how to get to Miyajima please visit https://www.miyajima.or.jp/english/access/access.html
  • It’s an easy 15 minute walk from Miyajima’s ferry terminal to the Itsukushima Shrine and the main shopping street
  • For up to date information on visiting Miyajima please visit  https://www.miyajima.or.jp/english/
  • For up to date information about Itsukushima Shrine please visit https://www.itsukushimajinja.jp/en/
  • This is a popular destination for both Japanese and international tourists and can get very crowded during peak seasons. It’s less crowded early in the morning and later in the day after the tour groups leave.
  • Spend at least one night to enjoy all that the island has to offer and to have a chance to see the shrine and torii gate at both low and high tides.
  • Accommodations on the island are limited so make reservations early.
Miyajima at night is peaceful and even more beautiful
Miyajima at night is peaceful and even more beautiful


Other stories about Japan:

My Heritage Expeditions cruise review: A Heritage Expeditions Review – Cruising in Style on the Heritage Adventurer

All my favorite Japanese experiences: My Favorite Unique Japanese Experiences

Best way to see Nikko: A Nikko Day Trip From Tokyo – Taking a Tour Versus Independent Travel

A daytrip from Tokyo on Mount Mitake: Hiking Mt. Mitake – Where Nature and Religion Meet


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