Miyajima’s floating torii gate is one of the most photographed structures in the world. Vying for position on the shoreline among the throngs of tourists can be a challenge at the best of times. But even if you discover the perfect angle, chances are you’re photographing it backwards. It’s easy to forget the gate is the entrance to the shrine – meaning it faces out to sea.
Since its creation in 593CE, Itsukushima Shrine and its iconic gate have been a point of pilgrimage. In the past, the gate welcomed worshipers from the sea, passing through the gate and mooring their small boats to the shrine’s pier. Seafarers, fishermen and traders who relied on the Seto Inland Sea for their livelihoods often paid their respects at Itsukushima Shrine, seeking spiritual protection from the elements.
Today, visitors approach the shrine on foot. But few realize there’s still a way to experience the great torii gate like in days gone by. A way to view it from an angle that most visitors to Miyajima will never see. A way to come away from Miyajima with a memory to cherish forever. I’m talking about SUP – the Stand-Up Paddle Board.
Run by two experienced SUP and sea kayak instructors Shin and Yone, ”SUP Miyajima” offer lessons and excursions that range in length to suit any itinerary. For the busy traveller there’s even a short course where you paddle through the great torii, setting off from a quiet wooded shoreline next to Itsukushima Shrine.
All you need is a towel, SUP Miyajima can provide the rest. The great thing about SUP? It has a fast learning curve. Even if you’re a beginner like me, a short coaching session from Shin or Yone will be enough to have you moving effortlessly on the water. For those who prefer sitting to standing, SUP Miyajima also offer sea kayaking tours.
Once we were up and moving on the SUP, it was only a short paddle out to the great torii. The beauty of SUP is you feel like you’re standing on water – a completely different perspective to kayaking or anything else. As I glided quietly towards the gate, the real scale of the torii took my breath away. It was all the more impressive when I remembered this huge wooden gate is merely sitting on top of the seabed, held in position by its own weight.
Paddling through the torii, it’s easy to forget about the lines of visitors hugging the shore and aiming their cameras in our direction. It’s best not to hang around the torii too long, although I’m sure some visitors would enjoy the added accent of a SUP or sea kayak in their photos of the gate.
Back on dry land, we were in two minds, take advantage of the discount ticket to a nearby onsen to soothe our body, or yield to the pangs of hunger that follow watersports. Food won out, and lucky for us, only a short stroll away is Miyajima’s famous shopping street Omotesando which sells countless delicacies and snacks.
We stopped in front of one of Miyajima’s many ‘Momiji-Manju’ shops. Momiji-Manju are bite-sized cakes in the shape of a Japanese maple leaf with different fillings to suit your taste. They first appeared in Miyajima over a hundred years ago and are now famous throughout Hiroshima and Japan.
Recently, a new take on this popular cake is proving a hit – the deep-fried Momiji Manju. We decided to give it a go. After choosing the filling (either cream, cheese or sweet red bean) the cakes were dipped in a light tempura batter and fried. They tasted heavenly. Slightly high in calories, but just the thing after a bout of SUP and kayaking.
Of course, in a region famous for its oysters, we didn’t have to go far until we hit the heady aroma of grilled oysters. We found a shop where we could take them out to the beach to enjoy with the view.
It was a great day and a fresh way to take in the sights of Miyajima. I’ll definitely be doing it again. But one word of warning – be careful walking around with food in Miyajima. The deer are peckish and always on the lookout for a quick bite.
Photographs & Text by Tom Miyagawa Coulton