My alarm sounded at 6:45 a.m., but I quickly silenced it and rolled over in my futon. I enjoyed a fleeting moment of quietude before the thrumming of rubber soles on pavement and accompanying excited voices crescendoed, a brief multilingual hubbub that then faded away for a minute or two before rising up again. It was starting.
A stone’s throw from my hotel, the various ferries and fast boats had begun to disgorge waves of day-trippers to Miyajima Island, and these sightseers invariably made a beeline to Itsukushima Shrine and its world famous floating torii. This route took them down the crescent boulevard along the waterfront and directly beneath my rented room.
Heaving a tired sigh, I hoisted myself from the floor and looked out the window across the stretch of Hiroshima Prefecture’s Seto Inland Sea that separated me from the mainland. Each gaggle of visitors on the street below sounded larger than the one before, and I could see another ferry just coming in.
The shops and restaurants were mostly still shuttered as I made my way through town, and no one was posing for photos in front of the world’s biggest rice scoop yet. Having visited Itsukushima Shrine just before closing the previous evening, I continued to dodge the crowds by heading to neighboring Toyokuni Shrine. As I had hoped, I was among the very first visitors of the day to this 16th-century library of Buddhist sutras built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Never fully completed, the hall was converted to a Shinto shrine after Hideyoshi’s death. I took my time inspecting the dozens of peculiar paintings hanging from the rafters above, but it wasn’t too long before a mass of uniformed primary school students began to swarm the hall and I made my retreat.
I followed the signs to the ropeway up Mount Misen, which at 535 meters is Itsukushima’s tallest peak. After passing through Momijidani Park, I veered right onto a footpath that ran roughly parallel to one of the small sacred streams that empty into the Inland Sea at Itsukushima Shrine. The early morning air was bracing, but I was soon shedding layers as I wove my way through enormous boulders left behind by the landslide that wiped out the shrine below 70 years earlier.
I’d timed my departure from the hotel to beat the first cable car up the mountain but must have dithered too long at the sutra hall, for when I reached the crest of the trail nearly two hours later, I fell in behind a half-dozen or so people walking from the ropeway station. Together we climbed the last few hundred meters to small Reikado Hall, where a flame supposedly lit 1,200 years ago by Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, still burns underneath a massive black kettle. Aping a pilgrim who had entered before me, I ladled a cup of warm water into a teacup and sipped it reverentially.
From there, the trail to the summit twisted around and under great slabs of stone and between weather-stunted pines. The air was sharp and clear, the sky a winter blue, as I took in the view from Itsukushima’s rooftop. The sea shone brightly below. Webs of oyster farms were stretched out as though to dry. Here and there, ferries and fishing boats etched short-lived lines around mounded islands placed like dollops on the water’s seemingly solid surface.
When the throng of visitors around me began to swell, I made my descent along a different trail, which 90 minutes later deposited me behind Daisho-in Temple. Despite my hunger, I found myself unable to leave this sprawling Shingon sanctuary founded in the 12th century. Eventually I tore myself away and followed my nose to a small shop off of Taikonokoji Alley, the section of town where the priests’ quarters were once located. From my seat at the window I ate succulent kara-age (deep-fried chicken) and watched wide-eyed tourists and bored-looking deer amble by.
Miyajima has a surprisingly vibrant cafe culture, and so in the afternoon I gave my still trembling legs a long rest at Sarasvati, a cozy spot that roasts its own beans on site. The rich but minimalist decor was just as warm and comforting as my coffee after a cold morning’s slog. Here I had some time to reflect upon my visit to Itsukushima, where hordes of tourists flock to see one of Japan’s “three most scenic places” but rarely take the time to view the great floating gate in different lights and tides. So, too, do they often fail to explore some of the island’s less-visited corners, fill up on oysters and conger eel, or unwind over a cup of coffee or pint of local Miyajima Beer. Itsukushima is charming in its own right and, despite its visitors’ haste, still runs on island time.
Not content with my short hike up Mount Misen, the next day I boarded a near-empty public bus at the Hiroshima Bus Center. The bus juddered along the highway heading northwest, gradually gaining altitude as it plunged through kilometers-long tunnels to reemerge each time under a sky going ever grayer. I disembarked at the last stop and walked to the aging but sturdy Sandankyo Hotel, a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) at the mouth of Sandankyo gorge.
Once I’d checked into my room, I watched night fall over the river and precipitous hills before taking a bath and having dinner. The radium-rich onsen (spa) and a serving of warm sake helped to fend off the chill that seeped continually through the wooden walls and floorboards, but still my teeth chattered on the way back to my room. There I crawled into my futon to the sound of heavy rain that continued throughout the night.
Luckily the deluge had begun to abate by the time I woke. Stepping out into the cold, I watched thick mist drift across the gorge, a slow and stony exhalation.
The trail up Sandankyo follows the Shibaki River, its water so clear but changing from dark green to black where the pools are deep enough to swallow the light. My body warmed as I walked through the vivid landscape, the fading autumnal hues amplified by the recent rainfall. Along the way I passed several waterfalls, some thin and trickling, others torrents. Further on I peered up at towering granite outcroppings that stood like sentries posted at intervals on either bank. Spindly pines sprouted here and there from cracks in their faces.
The trail traces out a “Y,” and having started from the bottom I eventually reached the fork and turned left. Three young boatmen in full rain gear greeted me at the westerly terminus. They stood under a tarpaulin at the end of the trail, beyond which a small dock jutted out into a river flat. Beyond that, the river ran deep and silent through a narrow canyon.
I paid the boatmen ¥500 and boarded a rowboat deprived of its oars, which one of the boatmen then pulled along the glassy surface between the canyon walls. The sound of crashing water grew louder and louder until we emerged before the picturesque Nidandaki Falls. I’d shared the boat with a young couple, and we were all briefly let out to take pictures of the cascade before returning the way we’d come.
Backtracking to the easterly fork of the “Y,” I arrived an hour later at Sandandaki Falls. From a vantage point midway up a steep slope, I took in the trio of waterfalls emptying into successive and evenly spaced round pools. Viewed together they resembled a stairway for giants. A few other hikers happened by, but only a few. High behind the tiered cataract, the mottled forest rose up and ended abruptly below a sharp ridgeline where ribbons of fog roiled in an unseen wind.
I tried to etch the sight into my memory but eventually the cold stole in, and I left in time to catch my bus back to Hiroshima and from there, a train still far from home.
Hiroshima is four hours and 20 minutes by the Nozomi shinkansen from Tokyo Station and just under two hours from Osaka or Kyoto. Miyajima is served by regular JR ferries from Miyajima-guchi Station and fast boats from the Peace Park and Hiroshima Port. Sandankyo can be reached via a 75-minute bus ride from Hiroshima Bus Center. There are five buses daily. Allow four hours for a round trip to hike Mount Misen and six hours for the full Sandankyo gorge trail.