Miyajima: Temple of the Inland Sea
From the Hiroshima JR station we took the local train at Miyajimaguchi and walked to the adjacent ferry landing for Miyajima. By then it was dark. The Inland Sea was obsidian-black. Golden and silver reflections from lights on the mainland and the island vibrated on the face of the water. Alex bought a beer from the beer vending machine and drank it. Again we marveled at the very existence of beer vending machines. We passed the time openly wondering how we could possibly be where we were. Our paths joint and several to the Miyajimaguchi ferry landing were not without complications.
Of all ferry types, my favorite is the thinly traveled night ferry—the inwardness of the passengers, now that day is over—an oval of light smelling of cold iron and machine oil, rocking gently in an aura of murky green water as the diesels propel it through the invisible dark—reflections from houses and highways as dim and distant as the lights from stars, turned to jewels on the waves. The shore behind no longer matters. The approaching shore is more important, an object of speculation, of curiosity, ultimately of unexpected fact. Passengers become people again during the backing and filling at the dock, the making fast, the getting ashore. A double handful of Miyajima-bound travelers scattered in the dim light of pale street lamps, leaving us to wander back and forth across the couple of hundred yards of waterfront until we found our hotel, or pensione, a family affair.
There is something astonishing about being recognized at a glance by people who never saw you before, greeted by name, assured that since you will want this and that, such matters have been provided for and are waiting for you. I am more susceptible to homesickness than anyone else I have ever met. Even on overnight trips I miss my wife and cats and a towel I can wholeheartedly call my own, and by the second night on any trip I normally feel as if the universe itself has abandoned me in a ditch and moved on. Japan didn’t affect me like that, and Miyajima least of all. For two nights our pensione was home, and it was a good thing, because after a week of travel and no laundry service beyond washing our own clothes in the sink, we and our baggage had become a domestic emergency. But everything got fixed. We had finally found the accommodations seen in Japanese realist cinema—finally here was the tiny cramped room where everything was miniature, where you took off your shoes four steps from the far wall, where it was single file or nothing. It was great. We felt we had earned it. We cleaned up. We went back downstairs for dinner.
I could go on and on about the cuisine of Miyajima. Anyone could. The next day at a neighborhood grocery we bought peaches with flavor so intense they belonged in the feast of Prospero. A street vendor sold grilled octopi cut into shapes like maple leaves, and probably some other street vendor had mastered the art of cutting maple leaves into shapes like octopi. On a back street we found a tea shop in a house that was once a daimyo’s mansion, and had little sweet jellies with green tea, the only other customers a quartet of Russians. But I digress. Of course digression may be the point here.
Most people come to Miyajima for the temples and especially for the Itsukushima Shrine and Miyajima Torii. The Miyajima Torii is one of the most photographed objects on the planet for obvious reasons. I bought my daughter a “safe delivery” charm at the Itsukushima Shrine, which got me charmingly recognized as a grandfather by the girl selling them. With the birth of my handsome grandson several months later, I have every reason to believe this charm worked very well.
Though the August heat and the near-continuous rain made Miyajima a rather steamy place, there were plenty of people and there was lots of shopping. We loaded up on souvenirs and took note that westerners were scarce and other Americans none. For so much tourist literature, the yield seemed thin. And yet we did see the same Italians we saw in Nikko, north of Tokyo and halfway back up Honshu. It seemed almost peculiar. Japan is not a small country, whatever they tell you, though it has a unique and rather imbricated geography. Most of the western visitors, we concluded, go to the exact same spots and the few who don’t can easily still wind up going in sparse numbers to “the other spots.”