I recently had the opportunity to venture outside of my “travel bubble” and visit a city that has captivated my curiosity since childhood. Modern-day Hiroshima can be described as the portrait of a thriving cosmopolitan city that possesses an ambiance unlike other top city destinations in Japan, in part to its spiritual and, ultimately, historical significance. Accessible from Haneda Airport on a domestic JAL flight—approximately one hour and 25 minutes—I found myself anticipating what adventures awaited day-trippers and travelers alike in the vibrant present of this modern metropolis coupled with the luring past of its beautifully preserved shrines and natural scenery on Miyajima Island.
Although I was traversing on a relatively tight schedule—T-minus 29 hours until my next destination—my first point of interest upon arriving in Hiroshima was the iconic vermillion shrine gate (the O-Torii, 大鳥居) that serves as the entranceway to Itsukushima Shrine, one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites with over 1,400 years of history. Selected as one of the three most scenic spots in Japan (collectively known as “Nihon Sankei,” 日本三景) by the 17th-century scholar Shunsai Hayashi, visitors have been flocking to the shrine of the “floating” torii gate that is believed to be the boundary between not only land and sea, but also Heaven and Earth as well as gods (kami) and human beings.
Sublimely suspended over the sea by wooden pillars reaching deep into silt and sand soil, the well-preserved shrine is accessible by a 25-minute train ride from JR Hiroshima Station to the ferry port located at Miyajima-guchi Station, where sightseers can savor a short but scenic boat ride from sunrise to sunset. After setting foot on the sacred island, I headed towards Itsukushima Shrine through Miyajima’s bustling Omotesando Shopping Street (表参道商店街)—a straight street lined with countless souvenir shops and food stalls cooking up local specialties. Two notable showstoppers were the succulent grilled oysters drizzled with ponzu (a tangy, citrusy soy sauce) and “anago-meshi” (simmered salt-water eel served over a bed of steaming rice).
I was also continuously stopped in my tracks by the cheeky, free-roaming deer that have grown accustomed to camera-wielding tourists bearing gifts of rice crackers or other delectable treats purchased along the way to another striking stone shrine gate. Comparable to earnest devotees who embark on pilgrimages to Miyajima, the island also serves as a haven for these wild deer that have long been venerated as sacred animals—worshipped as messengers of the gods—in Japanese mythology.
After solemnly strolling through the “floating shrine” at high tide, I ascended the slopes of Mount Misen. Away from the crowds of the waterfront and Itsukushima Shrine, I discovered not only a superb springtime view over Miyajima, but also a serene Buddhist temple housing an eclectic collection of traditional bronze Buddha figurines and deities to adorable Jizo statues adorned with small red bibs and caps. While Daisho-in Temple is less known, less touristy, and nestled in the foothills of Mount Misen, the various spiritual sites on the temple grounds—in particular, the dimly lit Henjokutsu Cave sheltering 88 Buddhist statues paying homage to the Shikoku Pilgrimage—was well worth a visit.
Waiting for the sun to set and the water levels to wane, I gently grazed a row of prayer wheels lining a stone staircase that serendipitously led to a charming cafe situated in an old renovated “machiya.” Within the warm, rustic confines of Zuiraku (瑞楽), I savored traditionally prepared matcha served alongside a delicately molded maple leaf “yokan” (a jellied red bean dessert). By the time I polished off my plate, the sky was swiftly growing darker and the tide was visibly low—low enough to finally approach the giant vermillion pillars by foot.
It was a surreal experience to set foot on this sacred site and pass through the O-Torii gates during the Golden Hour—the time just before sunset, when the sun is lower in the sky and near the horizon. This magical moment experienced on Miyajima Island continued to linger with my visit to Hiroshima’s lively city center, where a sea of cherry trees with perfect pink blooms tinted the cityscape a pale pink.
The following day, I took a leisurely walk to the Hiroshima Castle, an elegant five-tiered reconstruction of the original castle first built in 1589 that was lost in the atomic bombing of 1945. While the castle currently serves as a historical museum showcasing a variety of artifacts and recreated rooms, it also offers a panoramic, bird’s-eye view of the surrounding city from the top floor.
And of course, my visit to this multifaceted city could not have been complete without tasting a signature “soul food” dish, Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki! This savory pancake differs slightly from its Osaka counterpart in terms of ingredients (a generous helping of sliced cabbage topped with yakisoba) and cooking style (rather than mixing the ingredients, the batter and ingredients are cooked in layers on a piping hot griddle). Conveniently situated on my way back to Hiroshima Station, I stopped by Okonomimura (“The Village of Okonomiyaki,” お好み村), comprised of 25 restaurants devoted to all-things-“to-your-liking”.
All in all, Hiroshima is truly an enticing city with two distinct sides—from the ancient to the present-day, the divine to the quest for world peace, and the mythology to the real-life mysticism that stretches from land to sea. It is a city that will grab a hold of your heart and form a long-lasting impression when you open your eyes and take in its deep history, rich culture, and eclectic attractions encapsulated in this “Tale of Two Sides of a City.”
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