13km (8 miles) SW of Hiroshima

Easily reached in about 30 minutes from Hiroshima, Miyajima is a treasure of an island only 2km (1 1/4 miles) off the mainland in the Seto Inland Sea. No doubt you've seen pictures of its most famous landmark: a huge red torii, or shrine gate, rising out of the water. Erected in 1875 and made of camphor wood, it's one of the largest torii in Japan, measuring more than 16m (53 ft.) tall. It guards Miyajima's main attraction, Itsukushima Shrine, designated a World Heritage Site in 1996.

With the Japanese penchant for categorizing the "three best" of virtually everything in their country -- the three best gardens, the three best waterfalls, and so on -- it's no surprise that Miyajima is ranked as one of the three most scenic spots in Japan (the other two are Matsushima in Tohoku; and Amanohashidate, a remote sand spit, on the Japan Sea coast). Only 31 sq. km (12 sq. miles) in area and consisting mostly of steep, wooded hills, it's an exceptionally beautiful island, part of the Seto-Naikai (Inland Sea) National Park that is mostly water, islands, and islets. Of course, this distinction means it can be quite crowded with visitors, particularly in summer.

Miyajima has been held sacred since ancient times. In the olden days, no one was allowed to do anything so human as to give birth or die on the island, so both the pregnant and the ill were quickly ferried across to the mainland. Even today there's no cemetery on Miyajima. Covered with cherry trees that illuminate the island with snowy petals in spring, and with maple trees that emblazon it in reds and golds in autumn, Miyajima is home to tame deer that roam freely through the village, and to monkeys that swing through the woods. It's a delightful island for strolls and hikes -- but avoid coming on a weekend.