Day 5 — 2 August 2010
Our fifth day in Japan saw us journey west from Hiroshima in order to catch a ferry to the fascinating island of Itsukushima (厳島) — more popularly known as Miyajima. This was to be our blow-out night at a really luxurious ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) and a place where there is nothing to do but stroll around, relax and try not to get your camera eaten by the roaming deer.
Crossing the threshold at the Iwaso ryokan felt like stepping into paradise. On a day where the temperature was touching forty degrees celsius and with the sun beating down furiously, the glass doors that led into the reception area were opaque with condensation. The stone floor was sprayed with water to keep it cool and a calming silence filled the corridors. I could have sat there all day.
Unfortunately we had arrived around two hours before we were able to check in, meaning that after we’d dropped our bags off we were turfed-out, back onto the dusty streets of Miyajima where we wandered up and down the one bustling street full of food vendors and souvenir shops.
Once we’d finally checked in to the ryokan we had a much better idea of how we’d spend the day. Relax for a while, go and explore the famous shrine and enjoy a fabulous umpteen course Kaiseki feast in our room. Before all of that nonsense however, I was rather excited about experiencing a proper Japanese Onsen bath. Much has been written by gaijin on the subject of Onsen — the scalding temperature of the water, the weirdness of a naked communal bath with strangers and the rigorous cleanliness demanded of all bathers — suffice to say that despite the ‘weirdness’, it was a unique, enjoyable and rather liberating experience, and I’d say that if you go to Japan and do not experience an Onsen bath then you’re missing out on one of the truly unique things the country has to offer.
One is prone to stumbling across torii gates at every turn in Japan. Used to mark the entrance to a Shinto shrine, passing through the gate represents the transition from the profane to the sacred. The torii at the shrine on Itsukushima is a spectacular construction and I did wonder whether placing the gate so that (more often than not) it is submerged in water was a deliberate ploy to make the transition as arduous as possible.
Like everyone else visiting Itsukushima, I took a ridiculous number of shots of the gate: when we arrived; in the afternoon after bathing; at sunset and at night (where, clad in my yukata, I joined a posse at the waterside balancing their cameras on stone lanterns and benches to try and get a steady long-exposure shot).
Just before sunset — when the water, mountains and just about everything other than the bright vermillion gate began to turn blue — I noticed a bold father and son making their way out to the gate. Looking as if they were walking on water they made their way to the gate, where they stood in silence for a while gazing up at the big red monster as it calmly stared back.
I won’t make up some nonsense about how I felt at peace, or how it was some kind of transcendental experience, but it was an pretty amazing sight to behold, as befits one of the celebrated Three Views of Japan (the Nihon Sankei / 日本三景, a rather short list compiled in 1643 by a Japanese scholar). It’s amazing to think that nearly 400 years after the list was compiled it’s still as impressive a sight as it was then, and in many ways it represented our own gateway to a few days of experiencing some parts of Japan that are not commonly on the western tourist’s radar.
More on that, tomorrow.