After spending four days in Japan visiting Osaka and surrounding areas, I set off for Hiroshima and Miyajima from Osaka on Day 5. After a simple breakfast at the hostel, I made my way towards Shin-Osaka station with my travel companions. This was the day when our JR Pass got activated based on the information we provided at the JR counter inside Kansai airport complex on Day 1 when we exchanged our vouchers.
Read how to get JR pass voucher and where to exchange it here.
We showed our passes to the uniformed ticket checker at the ticket gate inside the train station, and he opened a side door for us to bypass the automated ticket gates. We were in! There were overhead digital signboards announcing train departures and arrivals with platform numbers displayed against the train names. Quickly we located the Shinkansen that was going to take us to Himeji and headed towards the designated platform.
The shiny blue Shinkansen standing at the platform looked quite state-of-the-art. We boarded an unreserved compartment and settled into the plush seats. You can also reserve seats with JR Pass easily by paying the reservation fee at any of the manned ticket counters at the station. Online reservation is possible too, but only with a Japanese credit card.
What would have made us 4000 yen poorer (one way Shinkansen ride), costed us nothing, thanks to JR pass! Our 7-day JR pass (From India: 24000 yen with taxes) covered unlimited bullet train rides that we made use of extensively during our stay. The train reached Himeji station in less than half an hour. After exiting the station, we walked on the lovely boulevard lined up with modern sculptures.
When we reached the end of the boulevard, the white, imposing structure of Himeji castle appeared right in front of us, glistening in the morning sun. We crossed over to the other side of the street and discovered some local tourists, dressed in traditional attire, taking a boat ride on the moat surrounding the castle.
Himeji-jo has remained intact since the time of its construction which began in the 1300s. We were amazed to learn that it took 200 years to complete the work. The castle, as it stands today, made up of over 80 buildings spread across walled enclosures connected by a series of gates and pathways, is a national treasure as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Luckily we found a cherry tree in full blossom in the courtyard in front of the main entrance.
We bought tickets at the counter and entered the lower level of the castle and began to climb up using a steep, narrow staircase. The rooms in each level were bare. As every level we climbed became progressively narrower, we gave up soon, and instead, focused on the view outside from a terrace. The densely populated city below looked tiny, spread across a gently undulating valley.
Being a warm day, we indulged in some matcha (green tea) ice cream, a popular flavour in Japan, from a stall overlooking the castle. As we started walking back to the station to catch another train to our next point of interest – Hiroshima Peace Memorial – a flea market, just being set up, caught our attention. What was meant to be just a peek, turned out to be a full on shopping expedition! The market was a treasure trove of Japanese antiques and World War II relics. I ended up buying an ornamental oriental soup set, a miniature model of an ancient merchant vessel, some stone-studded silver and ivory jewelry (antique), and (hold your breath!) a pair of fully functional binoculars used by wartime soldiers during WWII – all at bargain prices ranging from 200-2000 yen (USD 2-20)! Obviously we couldn’t just lug that heavy luggage for the whole day, so we decided to keep them in a locker in Hiroshima station and pick them up on the return leg.
Soon we were on our way to Hiroshima. On reaching the station, we headed towards the locker room, following the ‘coin locker’ sign. We chose a single medium locker, put all our purchases in it, and closed the door. After inserting four 100 yen coins in the slot, we turned the key to the left and pulled it out. The key was kept away safely for future use.
Read more about coin lockers in Japan here.
We took a bus from outside the station to go to the Peace Memorial. I couldn’t help noticing how perfectly the Japanese had rebuilt the entire city, and marvelled at the resilience of its residents who were trying to put the horrors of the nuclear holocaust behind them. We passed a posh mall with an interesting clock hanging on the outside wall. It was hard to tell, though, whether the giant-sized clock was just a fancy display to keep time or had some deeper meaning attached to it.
We reached the Peace Memorial Park in a short while and the bus dropped us at the entrance after crossing the Aioi Bridge built over the Motoyasu river. We began to explore the park and its exhibits.
You can read about our experiences at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park here.
After the tour of the park and the peace memorial museum, we headed towards the waterfront and spent some time watching the ferries chugging on the river. Another short bus ride took us back to Hiroshima station where we boarded a local bound for Miyajimaguchi.
On reaching Miyajimaguchi, we walked to the JR West Miyajima ferry terminal and boarded the ferry headed for the picturesque Miyajima island – also known as Itsukushima – to watch the sunset from the iconic ‘floating’ Torii Gate. During high tide, the gate remains submerged in water – as though floating – along with the shrine complex beyond, hence the nickname. As the ferry drew closer to the island, my heart skipped a beat looking at the giant orange torii gate that seemed to be giving us a grand welcome in the backdrop of lush green hilly slopes. This was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits after the emotional meltdown at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial earlier. It was quite a sight to behold!
Soon after the ferry docked, we began walking briskly towards the centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine complex to take a look inside before it closed for the day at 6 pm. The complex, located in a small inlet on the bay, comprise multiple buildings – including a prayer hall, a main hall and a Noh theatre (an old form of theater involving music, dance and drama) – connected to each other by boardwalks. All the buildings were raised above the sea level by supporting pillars that remained submerged during high tide. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the island, the water had already receded from the shrine complex, so we couldn’t enjoy the floating effect. The visit was still worth it though, as we had the entire place to ourselves 🙂 Tourists were setting up their cameras to shoot the iconic sunset from the torii gate that had also emerged from the water due to low tide.
After a quick tour of the shrine, we started for Senjokaku (literally meaning pavilion of 1000 mats), a shinto shrine located on a small hill close to Itsukushima Shrine. Although the shrine remains unfinished to this day – as General Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who also built Osaka Castle), who commissioned it to pray for the souls of his fallen soldiers, died before its completion – it is still worth a visit. We loved the climb to the top of the hill as a stag decided to follow us all the way up, begging for attention, and, of course, some food. The view of the neat rooftops of the Itsukushima shrine complex looked wonderful from the top of the hillock!
As dusk was approaching, we hurried down the path and dashed off to the torii gate to watch the sunset. The effect was beyond imagination. Every photo you come across of this famous sunset point cannot do justice to this wonderful experience. Despite the large gathering, everyone stood in awed silence, cameras capturing the brilliant orange hue illuminating the gate one last time before the electric lights took its place.
We savoured the scene for a little while longer until the chill air of the evening roused us from our reverie. We went for a stroll to cover the rest of the island, especially the quaint souvenir shops. The window dressing in every shop looked quite unique and attractive. It was closing time though, and the crowd was already thinning out.
We joined the other tourists to reach the ferry pier, and hopped into the returning ferry that started no sooner than we climbed aboard. In just 10 minutes we were on the other side. We took the local back to Hiroshima station and retrieved our shopping bags from the locker before taking a Shinkansen back to Shin-Osaka.
After an eventful day exploring Hiroshima and Miyajima, we were ready to bid adieu to Osaka and move on to Tokyo on Day 6 of our Japan tour.