Miyajima's major attraction, Itsukushima Shrine, 1-1 Miyajima-cho (tel. 0829/44-2020), is less than a 10-minute walk from the ferry pier (turn right from the terminal), at the end of a long narrow pedestrian street called Omotesando Dori that is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. Founded in 593 to honor three female deities, the wooden shrine is built over the water so that, when the tide is in, it appears as though the shrine is floating. A brilliant vermilion, it contrasts starkly with the wooded hills in the background and the blue of the sky above, casting its reflection in the waters below. If you do happen to see Itsukushima Shrine when the tide is in and it's seemingly floating on water, you should consider yourself very lucky indeed -- most of the time the lovely shrine floats above a surface that's only a little more glamorous than mud. That's when imagination comes in handy (the Hiroshima tourist offices may have a tide calendar).
The majority of the shrine buildings are thought to date from the 16th century, preserving the original style of 12th-century architecture, but they have been repaired repeatedly through the centuries. Most of the shrine buildings are closed, but from sunrise to sunset daily (usually 6:30am-6pm in summer, to 5 or 5:30pm in winter), you can walk along the 230m (770-ft.) covered dock, which threads its way past the outer part of the main shrine and the oldest noh stage in Japan. From the shrine, you'll have a good view of the red torii standing in the water. Bugaku (festival dances) are staged here 10 times a year (expect those days to be crowded with tour groups). An ancient dance performed to the accompaniment of court music, Bugaku was introduced to Japan centuries ago from India through China and Korea. The performer's costume is orange, matching the shrine around him. Admission to the shrine is ¥300 for adults, ¥200 for high-school students, ¥100 for children.
Turn right upon exiting the shrine. After a few minutes, you'll come to the island's most interesting museum, the History and Folklore Museum (Rekishi Minzoku Shiryokan), 57 Miyajima-cho (tel. 0829/44-2019; Tues-Sun 8:30am-5pm). It has a colorful, English-language brochure to guide you through the 170-year-old house (which once belonged to a wealthy soy-sauce merchant and is built around a small Japanese garden), as well as through several other buildings. Packed with items donated by the people of Miyajima, the museum is a window into commoners' daily lives in ages past, with farm tools, water jars, cooking objects, carved-wood boxes, furniture, lacquerware, combs, and much more. Be sure to see the narrow, three-room dwelling in the back of the museum complex, typical of the island. Admission is ¥300 for adults, ¥170 for high-school students, and ¥150 for junior-high and elementary students. It will take about 30 minutes to see everything.
Another sight worth exploring is Daisho-in Temple, on the slope of Mount Misen, 210 Miyajima-cho (tel. 0829/44-0111; daily 8am-5pm). One of the most famous Shingon temples in western Japan, it has numerous worthwhile sights spread on its leafy grounds, including a mandala made of colored sand that was created by Tibetan priests, a main hall where worshipers pray for health and contentment, and a hall dedicated to Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect (his remains are interred on Mount Koya). In Henshokutsu Cave are Buddhist icons and sand gathered from all 88 pilgrimage temples on Shikoku; making a round here is considered as auspicious as visiting the temples themselves. Other halls contain deities thought to bring good health and to save humans from earthly sexual desires. Every year there are fire-walking festivals here, in which worshipers walk over hot coals. An excellent brochure at the entrance describes the various sights, free to the public.
Enjoying Miyajima's Natural World
The other popular thing to do on Miyajima is to visit its highest peak, 525m (1,750-ft.) Mount Misen. Signs direct you to Momijidani Park, a pleasant hillside park covered with maple trees (spectacular in autumn) and cherry trees (heavenly in spring) and marked by a picturesque stream. From here, you can take the Miyajima Ropeway (tel. 0829;44-0880; www.miyajima-ropeway.info) to Mount Misen; round-trip tickets cost ¥1,800 for adults and ¥900 for children. However, you might wish to enjoy some of the scenery by walking back down (it takes about an hour), in which case one-way tickets cost ¥1,000 and ¥500 respectively. In any case, the summit of Mount Misen, a 30-minute walk from the cable car station, offers splendid views of the Seto-Naikai (Inland Sea) National Park, and Mount Misen itself is home to much of the island's wild monkey population. But it is best known for Kobo Daishi's visit in 806, when he spent a 100-day retreat here and is said to have lit the Eternal Fire, which has reputedly been burning for more than 1,200 years and was used to light the Peace Flame in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park.
Miyajima is also known for its beaches. If you're looking to swim, there are two beaches west of the town and shrine: Suginoura and Tsutsumigaura Natural Park (you can also camp here). Ask at the tourist office for a schedule of shuttle buses that will bring you to the beaches.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.