Quiet charms of Miyajima island

Tranquil shrines and temples nestle in virgin forest on the quaint island in an inland sea

Autumn has receded, making way for a nippy winter. Yet, the autumn colours are still vivid all around the Seto Inland Sea of Japan in December.

I am admiring the winter foliage - maple trees in red-palette shades of fiery red and crimson and burnt sienna - as we approach the island of Miyajima in a ferry.

Nestled by virgin forest in south-western Japan, the quaint island hosts red shrines and temples. It is surrounded by the inland sea, which is a spectrum of blues that day.

It is deeply tranquil as we step onto this "Shrine Island", which is best explored on foot as it is just 30.39 sq km in size.

Our journey starts at Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, about 20 minutes from the ferry terminal. On our walkway, nomadic deer greet us, trudging with tourists to the shrine like escorts.

The Itsukushima Shrine (free admission; visit-miyajima-japan. com/en), a Unesco World Heritage Site, is famous for its Shinden-style architecture, notably the iconic vermilion torii gate that stands in the sea.

At high tide, the gate seems to float in an azure sea. However, during low tide, the water drains out of the bay and one can walk to the foot of the gate.

  • GETTING THERE

    I fly on Singapore Airlines to Osaka, then ride the Shinkansen bullet train to the city of Hiroshima, my base for the trip.

    To get to the tiny island of Miyajima in the Seto Inland Sea, I board the JR Sanyo rail line from Hiroshima station to Miyajimaguchi station.

    It is a five-minute walk to the ferry pier, where I catch a ferry to Miyajima for a day trip. It is an ideal getaway from the bustling city life of Hiroshima.

    In Hiroshima, streetcars are an easy and efficient way to explore the city.

The shrine is composed of multiple buildings with halls and rooms for prayer, meetings and theatre. These spaces are connected by corridors lined with cast-iron lanterns that add to the mystical atmosphere of the temple complex.

The cool temperature complements the bright sun as we stride towards Senjokaku Shrine, 10 minutes away.

The shrine is a library of Buddhist sutras that was built by warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi for the repose of the war dead. But construction stopped after his death in 1598 and it remains incomplete today. I realise that while the library bustles with visitors admiring the interiors, there is an eerie silence, as if the shrine is narrating the story of the war dead.

All the while, our paths in Miyajima follow the coast and cut through lovely forests. We soak in the sweet smell of maple leaves and inhale the fresh air before reaching Daishoin Temple.

This is known as the most distinguished temple of Shingon Buddhism and is located at the base of Mount Misen.

Entrance is free and visitors use a series of staircases to reach prayer halls located at different levels of the temple. While climbing the first level, we touch the 600 volumes of sutras scrolled in metal and installed on the side of the staircase.

It is believed that touching the sutras brings enormous fortune. Likewise, spinning the wheel when climbing another level bestows blessings equivalent to reading one volume of the Heart Sutra.

We then head towards the Momijidani hiking trail leading to Mount Misen, which is 500m above sea level. We walk for an hour amid maple trees and the deep-green, evergreen forest of fir, pine and hemlock to reach Momijidani Park, which means "a valley of maple trees".

Another half hour of trekking takes us to the ropeway station, where our trolley reaches the summit in 20 minutes (a ticket costs 1,800 yen or S$22). Mount Misen is the highest peak in Miyajima and offers a spectacular view of the inland sea.

The mountain is considered sacred. A fire, lit on one side of the mountain by the Japanese monk Kobo Daishi, has been burning for 1,200 years.

We descend after an hour in the sparkling mountain air and take the ferry back to our base in Hiroshima. On the ferry, I already feel nostalgic about my visit to the island, which has a perfect blend of divinity, peacefulness and natural abundance - a combination or path that leads to "satori". This means a sudden awakening or enlightenment in Japanese.

In Hiroshima, which has evolved into a vibrant city in the years after the atomic bombing in 1945, we explore the Peace Memorial Park (free admission; www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/index_e2.html).

The park personifies Hiroshima and is a pilgrimage for visitors from around the world. It consists of the A-Dome, Cenotaph and Peace Memorial Museum.

The A-Dome is the former Industrial Promotional Hall, one of the few buildings within 2km of the explosion that remains. We pay homage at the Cenotaph, a concrete, saddle-shaped structure holding the names of the victims.

The Peace Memorial Museum displays belongings left by the victims and other materials that convey the horror of the event. Each displayed item seems to express the grief, anger and pain of its deceased owner and the experience is sombre for us.

On a lighter note, we stroll to the downtown area at Peace Boulevard for a beautiful Christmas illumination in the evening. On both sides of the road, the Dreamination display includes more than 400 exhibits lit up by approximately 1.4 million solar-powered light bulbs.

The illumination is on display each year from late November till early January. We admire the radiance in chilly weather.

On our list the next day is the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum. We see artefacts of famous Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, along with Japanese and Asian artworks.

Even more colourful and arty is Shukkeien Park, adjacent to the museum. It is an ideal spot for a breathtaking dose of winter foliage. The park was built in 1620 and destroyed in 1945 during the atomic bombing. It was restored in 1964.

The garden is the epitome of beauty, containing more than 10 islets skilfully landscaped into miniature mountains, valleys, bridges, cottages and arbours, all connected by a walkway. The cherry and plum trees have the last vestiges of autumn leaves, their colours looking diluted as if the trees are enduring the chill.

To get a glimpse of the Hiroshima lifestyle, we hit Hondori Street, a popular downtown shopping street. We spend an evening there delving into Japanese nightlife and culinary culture.

The street is bright and lively and bustling with youngsters. We indulge in okonomiyaki - grilled pancakes prepared with a flour and egg mixture and topped with fried soba noodles, eggs, cabbage, meat and seafood. And no Japanese meal is complete without a few shots of hot sake to beat the winter chill.

Seasons influence lives and present us with variety and colour and it has been mesmerising to experience Japan's melange of winter hues.

•Neena Mittal is a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Mesmerising Miyajima'. Print Edition | Subscribe