The Deer of Miyajima and the Rabbits of Okunoshima
By Andrew Smith
On August 20, 2014
Traditionally, Obon is a time for family to gather together and honor the members who have passed, but many also take the opportunity to travel. This Obon did not start well this year due to a deadly typhoon that struck Japan. Unfortunately many people had their plans altered by the storm, myself included.
However my trip to the Hiroshima Prefecture turned out to be a great detour. My first stop at Miyajima was an obvious choice, but my second destination, Okunoshima, surprised me. Of course both of these places are islands, so I had to spend some time travelling by boat.
The Deer of Miyajima
After taking the ferry to the island, the protected deer of Miyajima happily welcome me to their home. These mild-mannered inhabitants calmly wander the area in search of food and will often approach travelers. They are very easy to pet due to their docile nature, but it is always good to be cautious when dealing with wild animals.
After WWII the population of these once-worshiped deer had been greatly reduced so the people of the island decided to invite wild deer into the city by offering them food. Over time the deer became accustomed to humans and are now a popular tourist attraction.
As amusing and adorable as the deer are, the Itsukushima Shrine that the island is most known for is considered to be one of the top three most beautiful places in Japan, and it does not disappoint. Depending on the time of day, the view and experience of the shrine completely changes. I had the opportunity to stay at a hotel on the island overnight, so I had the opportunity to experience the transitions.
During low tide, children enjoy splashing around in the puddles around the shrine, and it is easy to get a close-up view of the structures. Because the ground is often covered by water, it is a good idea to bring shoes that are able to get wet or muddy when tromping around the soggy land during low tide. Underneath the gate, people try to toss coins onto the bottom plank as an offering to the shrine, but it is harder than it seems. I was relieved when I was finally able to get mine to stay up there.
The view during high tide is probably what people are most familiar with. It is almost impossible to search through photos of Japan without running across an image of Ikusushima Shine resting gently on top of the water. Boats are available for anyone who is willing to wait in line and take a short trip through the striking, red gate during high tide. I took the tour at night, and the view of the bright red reflections of the shrine in the wavy, dark water was something out of a fantasy movie.
Naturally, the shrine is often damaged by the constant buffering of the salty, ocean water, especially during typhoon season. To preserve its iconic beauty, Ikutsushima Shrine is well maintained and goes through a number refurbishing and reconstructing. The process honestly took away a little from the experience for me, but I understand it is necessary in order Ikutsushima keep the title of being an awe-inspiring Japanese national treasure. Planning your trip during a time when the shrine is not being retouched is best, but otherwise the shrine is beautiful anytime of the year.
Okunoshima or Usagijima
One of the most famous tourist stops in Hiroshima is the Peace Memorial Museum which serves as a reminder of the horrible atomic bombings during WWII. Although the site is very moving and should be seen by everyone, for my trip I decided to visit a place with a much lighter atmosphere. So from Miyajima I made my way to Okunoshima or Rabbit Island. However, its cute pictures of bunnies on the website and the island’s fun nickname are somewhat misleading. I ended up receiving an interesting but terrifying history lesson anyway.
During WWII, the island actually had a secret poison gas factory built on it, and its ruins are still standing on Okunoshima today. In contrast to the adorable rabbits happily bounding around the park, there is an eerie museum which shows old equipment used by the scientists and gruesome photos of poison gas victims. The fuzzy creatures serve as a sort of memorial for the tragedies caused by the poison gas, because it is claimed that the bunnies living there now are descendants of the released test subjects after the closing of the facility.
Then after being given freedom, the rabbits did as rabbits do, and now the island is overrun. Although historians say that the current inhabitants have no relation to the unfortunate subjects of the old facility, I like to believe that some of the rabbits actually escaped and made happy lives for themselves.
Even though the island is most known for the rabbits there is still plenty to do on Okunoshima other than feeding the friendly wildlife. Pools are available for swimming during the unbelievable Japanese summer, and there is plenty of space ready for eager campers to place their tents.
The beautiful scenery, historical interest, outdoor activities, and open petting-zoo make Okunoshima a fun stop for anyone.