It’s 9 a.m. on Miyajima, the sacred island just a five-minute ferry ride from Hiroshima. Along the Omotesando shopping street, the restaurants and souvenir stores are opening for another day. The covered street resounds with the clatter of metal blinds being rolled up.
The gods still dwell on Miyajima, some folks say. It’s one of Japan’s “Top Three Beautiful Views” and home to the “floating” shrine of Itsukushima, a World Heritage Site. Yet for the people of Hiroshima, it’s the food that keeps them coming back.
“Miyajima has four attractions,” says student Maiko Takemura. “The great torii, the shrine, the view from Mount Misen and the food!” And Omotesando, with its endless eateries, is the best place to try Miyajima’s delights.
The first thing you notice there is the ubiquitous smoky smell of oysters, available at virtually every restaurant. Hiroshima accounts for 70 percent of Japan’s total production, and you sail past scores of oyster beds on the ferry ride over.
They call oysters “sea milk” here because of their high nutritional content. The mollusks turn up in rice and noodle dishes and stews, and are grilled right there in front of the shops, hence the sea-scented tang in the air.
If oysters aren’t your thing, try nibbling a nigirinbō — hollow tubes of fish paste brimming with bacon, cheese, asparagus and other scrumptious fillings. Many stores sell them to take out.
For something more substantial, how about Miyajima’s other speciality, anago (conger eel)? Anago meshi (on a bed of rice) is Miyajima’s classic dish, but Tachibana Shokudo, a restaurant near the start of Omotesando, also serves anago udon: a steaming bowl of noodles topped with generous chunks of tender eel, slices of pink and white chikuwa fish paste, wakame seaweed and a raw egg swirling around in yellow threads. It’s a hearty dish that sets you up nicely for a day’s sightseeing.
Another fun option is Oshokujidokoro Yosakoi, a second-floor restaurant along the seafront path parallel to Omotesando. Sit by the window overlooking the bay and treat yourself to anago okonomiyaki, a fusion of two local specialties: Miyajima conger eel and okonomiyaki — Hiroshima’s signature pancake dish, topped with a mountain of cabbage, squid, bean sprouts, pork and egg.
For something sweet, you can’t leave without trying the island’s most emblematic treat: momiji manjū — maple leaf-shaped buns stuffed with a choice of fillings. A few years ago, the only filling available was adzuki bean paste. Nowadays there’s cream, chocolate, chestnut puree and many more. Recently, agemomiji (deep-fried momiji manjū) have become enormously popular: “Crispy on the outside and soft inside!” Takemura enthuses.
You’ll find momiji manjū in every souvenir shop, displayed in beautiful gift boxes. In the Daikon-ya store, you can watch them being made on an automated conveyor belt. And at the rear of Daikon-ya, you’ll find a tiny Japanese garden, complete with bonsai, koi pond and waterfall. Munch your manjū and contemplate owner Kenzo Arimoto’s prize-winning koi (“worth around ¥1 million each,” he says with pride).
According to Arimoto, momiji manjū originated in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when Ito Hirobumi (four-time prime minister of Japan) was drinking tea in a Miyajima teahouse. On seeing the delicate hands of the waitress he is said to have exclaimed: “What a beautiful hand! It’s just like a maple leaf!” The remark inspired the teahouse owner to start making maple leaf-shaped manjū, and they’ve been a symbol of Miyajima ever since. (The Japan National Tourism Organization website offers a more prosaic version of events.)
Fancy something more hands-on? Then head for the manjū shop Yamadaya. They’ll take you upstairs to the kitchen and teach you to make your very own manjū. It’s much easier than you’d think, and there’s even a machine that wraps them for you.
By lunchtime the street begins to fill out — a perfect time to go off and do your sightseeing. Visit the Itsukushima Shrine or ride the ropeway to the top of Mount Misen and gaze across the labyrinth of misty islands.
However, no matter how busy Omotesando gets by day, by 6 p.m. stores begin to close, the street quickly empties, and by 6:30 it’s deserted. Mametanuki, however, remains open until 11 p.m., thereby offering you a final chance to sample anago meshi before leaving the island. The eel is served in a delightful wooden box, with side dishes of pickles, miso soup (with local asari clams) and hijiki seaweed salad. Mametanuki lies at the rear of one of Miyajima’s oldest ryokan inns, Kinsuikan, founded in 1912, which also has a traditional-style onsen spa.
Catch the ferry home as the sun sets to see the great torii at its best. As you cast a last look back at the sacred gates, allow yourself a moment of deep contentment. For on Miyajima you have walked with the gods and dined like royalty.
Getting there: Ferries to Miyajima leave every 15 minutes from Miyajima-guchi. You can get to Miyajima-guchi by train or street car from Hiroshima Station.