Friday, June 10, 2016

Friendly (Pillaging) Deer and other Tales of Miyajima, Japan

"There's a deer," I pointed out to Jaiman as we oriented ourselves after disembarking from the ferry.  

"Whoa," he responded, surprised even though he shouldn't have been.  We had watched a travel documentary that featured the beautiful island of Miyajima, and the deer were actually inside the ferry station on the show.  I had also told him about them.  Maybe he was overwhelmed, and it just snuck up on him.  I think he was overwhelmed by a lot in Japan, but he did a great job traveling with me, navigating the complex train systems and bustling cities, and eating food we couldn't positively identify.  We had been in Tokyo for seven days, and this morning we had taken a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima, and from there, made our way to the ferry that would take us to Miyajima.  

I had been to Miyajima 12 years ago, as part of my study abroad trip to Hiroshima.  Miyajima is probably best known for the magnificent Torii Gate, often pictured as an iconic symbol of all of Japan. During my study abroad, we had only stayed for a few hours, and I remember it being so remarkably beautiful and I had wished we could have stayed longer.  The deer just cracked me up, I could not get enough of them.  I remember sitting with a couple classmates, watching a Chinese tour group walk by in a neatly formed block, and the last row of men all had deer munching on the backs of their shirts.  These deer will eat anything, or try to, at least.  They will rifle through your open bag, chomping on any receipts, brochures or water bottles they can find, or grab a hold of your clothes when you're not looking, or even taking a bite of your yakitori, meat on a stick, while you are looking the other way.  Don't let their cuteness fool you; they are sneaking, thieving bastards.  But they are cute.  

The deer on Miyajima are considered something like messengers of the kami (gods), and are therefore treated with respect and not harmed by humans.  This means they have no reason to fear us, as most animals tend to.  They walk around like they own the place, and in a way, they kind of do.  I have heard of monkeys acting similarly, higher up on the mountain of Miyajima, Mount Misen, but I didn't see the monkeys on the short trip 12 years ago and the guys in the travel show also failed to encounter them on their hike.  They also failed to bring water, which is clearly a terrible idea.  

Anyways, when Jaiman and I had started planning this trip to Japan, I knew for sure that I wanted to return to Miyajima and actually spend some time on the island.  I had looked at several hotels with Western-style rooms, but somehow my heart was stuck on Miyajima Grand Arimoto, mainly because it had hot springs and the room I was eyeing, although it was a traditional Japanese-style room, had a private outdoor bath.  So fancy!  And, I love baths and hot springs, so a private outdoor hot spring is kind of the pinnacle of my indulgence.  A Japanese-style room is one with tatami mats on the floor, and you sleep on a futon
(pronounced with a long "o") which is basically like thin bedding on the floor.  I decided that it wouldn't kill us to try a traditional Japanese lifestyle for a few days, especially because (other than my stay at the capsule hotel) the rest of our rooms were Western-style, with a bed that, although harder than usual, is much more familiar to American travelers.  Many of the hotels in the area, including this one, had half-board, meaning they give you breakfast and dinner as part of your reservation.  I loved this idea!

So here we were in the late afternoon, with large suitcases, looking for the path to our hotel. I remembered a little bit of the layout of the city; I mean it wasn't a big place like Tokyo or even Hiroshima.  Towards the Torii Gate was the entrance to the Itsukushima Shrine; there were lots of shops and restaurants in the few winding streets before that, and the hike to the summit was somewhere behind the shrine.  Based on the maps I had studied and printed out, the hotel was nestled somewhere just behind where the shops ended leading up to the Shinto shrine.  It was a little bit of a pain to drag our suitcases on the dirt roads, but they held up okay.  We didn't make any wrong turns, but we did stop a couple times just to validate that we thought we were on the right path.  We found a grand little stair case leading up to the hotel, and got ourselves and our luggage into the entrance.  
From there, we were pretty much completely taken care of.  Hotel staff took our luggage for us and escorted us to the check-in counter.  I knew that most of the hotels were sold out in the area, and we noticed a group of young adults who had apparently booked for the wrong day, maybe not understanding the time travel that occurs when flying from America to Japan, and were desperately trying to figure out a way to change their reservation.  Meanwhile, the front desk guy brought us to a pair of sofas and went over some of the hotel policies and helped us with our dinner and breakfast reservations.  
Then he and another staff member took our luggage and escorted us to our room on the third floor.  I whispered to Jaiman on the way, "Oh yeah, I suppose we are kind of VIPs here since we booked the really super nice room!"  After opening our door, I saw that we were to take our shoes off, and then they gave us a tour of the apartment-sized accommodations, having us open each paper wall individually.  We ended our tour in the main room, and they sat us down again, this time on the chairs-with-no-legs like a traditional tea ceremony, and talked with us about a few more things.  It was a little overwhelming and once they left, Jaiman and I just stared at each other for a moment before cracking up. 

We had a little bit of time before our dinner reservations, so we relaxed, took stock of our room and I made a little tour video.  Our host guy hadn't really shown us the onsen, but it didn't take me long to find it and admire it.  We also located the futons in a closet, and in another, the traditional Japanese shoes, kimonos and Japanese pj's they provided.  I couldn't resist, we tried on the kimonos and shoes, and they actually fit!  The hotel staff member had mentioned that if they weren't the right sizes, we could call down to get different ones, but somehow they had found ones that fit us really well.  

When it was time, we went down to dinner on the second floor, and they greeted us and escorted us into this tiny private room with my name on it.  They brought us beer and tons and tons of fish - mostly raw.  The courses just kept coming, endlessly, it seemed.  There was a button behind me that I knew I could push to get our waitress, and sure enough she'd come rushing in as only the Japanese do, seemingly apologetically, to take care of us.  I drank a lot of beer that night - virtually one giant swig for every tiny morsel of fish I choked down.  But I proudly tried everything.  One of my Life List objectives was to
eat a fugu, the blowfish delicacy that can kill people if prepared wrong.  Jaiman googled it after our meal and determined that we had, indeed, eaten fugu that night. I'll go ahead and check that off the list!  

Our waitress was the sweetest thing, and she even talked with me a bit in Japanese about having studied in Hiroshima.  She explained in basic English a lot of what we were eating; not that I remember most of it, but it was at least reassuring to understand some of it.  I don't think she ever used
words like intestine or heart, so that's also a plus. 

After our meal was over, our waitress arranged for the following evening's dinner with us, and asked if we had any requests.  Jaiman really wanted some good unagi, eel, but the eel served in this region is actually called anago.  So we requested anago and beef, and couldn't really think of any other requests so we left
it at that.  

After dinner, we were quite surprised to find that the futons had been set up for us, the tea table pushed into the corner.  It was a little eerie knowing someone had been in our room while we were out; I guess room service does this too, but we just hadn't been expecting it.  It was nice, though, since I wasn't sure if I'd remember how to set up a futon, not that they're all that complicated, but at least this way we know they were done right.  Thankfully, the pillows were slightly larger than the ones I had been given in my dorm during my study abroad program.  They were also not as hard and uncomfortable as I worried they'd be.  In fact, they were a lot like what I slept on inside the capsule, which makes a lot of sense in hindsight.  
The private onsen (hot springs bath) was exquisite.  The water was very hot, and the tub was plenty big.  I obsessed with it the next few days, especially when I woke up early in the morning, around 4 or 5, I would slip into the bath outside and just enjoy the steaming hot bath against the early morning chill.  I drained it to let it fill back up again so Jaiman could try it out; he's not as much of a bath person but he also enjoyed it.  Several times it occurred to me that it was "wasteful" to "keep the water running" all the time; it was so counter-intuitive to always have a fresh bath of hot water ready to go, all for me!  It may have been a very expensive hotel stay, but I think I got my money's worth.  

The next morning we ventured down for our traditional Japanese breakfast.  It was a lot of fish, a small salad, rice and soup with oysters in it.  Not the most appetizing meal for me, and I think I wasn't mentally prepared for that kind of food so early in the morning.  I opted for a lot of plain-ass bread; at least I got some calories in me.  We were a little surprised that our futons were still sprawled out on the floor when we returned from breakfast.  They got put away later in the day.  

We visited the elaborate Itsukushima Shrine;
washing our hands, following the prayer ritual, buying omikuji - fortunes, and generally observing.  The tide was high, so the Torii Gate appeared to be floating, but we knew better.  We had come over on the ferry the night before when the tide was low, and we saw people walking up to it.  It looks like it is buried deep in the seabed, but actually, we were told, it remains standing of its own weight.  

Then we headed up the mountain via two ropeways, one was a smaller 5 -6 seater, and one was a larger vehicle with most of us standing.  We saw, of all
things, a submarine out in the sea!  The ropeways bring you high up the mountain, but not to the summit.  The summit was another kilometer or so of fairly steep hiking.  There wasn't a ton to see along the way, save for the breathtaking view of the sea and smaller neighboring islands, but there was one stop near the top that housed a "lover's sanctuary".  We poked our heads in the little sanctuary but were choked by the smoke; someone had done something wrong in there.  We sat for a few minutes to regain our (read: my) strength before heading to the very peak.  Up there was a large, shady deck you could sit on and enjoy the views from every angle.  There was one floor above it that afforded more of a 360 degree view, but no shade.  Not going to lie, it wasn't the most rewarding summit hikes I've done, but now I can say I've done it, I supposed. 

We had intentionally only purchased a one-way ticket for the ropeways.  I wanted to hike down the mountain, because I am better at hiking down, and because I was hoping to encounter some wildlife (especially monkeys).  We flew down the mountain; I found it easier to basically run rather than taking one step at a time.  By the end, I was exhausted and hurting, and my quads paid the price for the next week or so.  There were some very pretty waterfalls along the way, and we encountered several different kinds of butterflies, but no monkeys.  Near the bottom was a Buddhist temple, and I showed Jaiman how, going up the steps, you run your hands over the scrolls in the railing, spinning each one, and they say you inherit the wisdom of those scrolls.  There were two such staircases; we both went up the first and I rested while Jaiman went up the second and back down again.  I had gotten that wisdom before, and didn't feel like I needed it right then.  We admired the Buddhas and other statues and architecture, and then headed back down into town to get ourselves cleaned up and get some lunch.  

The place we went to for lunch was one of my favorite meals of the trip - I got yaki udon and it was so much like the meals I cherished at my dorms that I scarfed it down.  It could also have been my desire for protein after the crazy hike and the lack of meat from the previous meals, but still.  It was delicious!  I also had some local Miyajima beer, which wasn't great, but I felt special for drinking local stuff instead of the typical Asahi.  

The first several times we saw deer, it was from small distances and the deer left us alone.  The signs around the island warned not to get too close to them, and not to touch them, although I saw plenty of kids riding them like they would their pet dogs at home.  We didn't touch them, and only took pictures of them from a close proximity.  But then we went and got ice cream - I, of course, opted for the deer poop ice cream featuring little nuggets
of chocolate - delicious!  We sat on a ledge, and before long, we had a friendly deer approach us and make licking and biting attempts towards our ice cream.  This, of course, was hilarious, and only moreso when a second deer came up from behind us.  They were double teaming us now, and it made it very hard to avoid the loss of ice cream.  Many of the tourists around us laughed with us, and we were cracking up.  Jaiman was able to snap a pretty funny picture of me, which I will always treasure, before a third deer approached, this one with antlers, and I knew better than to mess with a deer with antlers.  So I stood up and finished my ice cream out of the immediate reach of the adorable thieves.  

There was something resembling an owl cafe, I suppose it was more like a petting zoo for just owls; we thought about going in, they did advertise a specific breed that Jaiman wanted to see, but it was a little pricey and would be closing soon.  We had gone to Fukuro no Mise just a few days before, and had gotten to hold owls for about an hour, so we ended up passing on the owl place in Miyajima.

We then strolled down the walkways lined with shops back towards our hotel, and Jaiman got some yakitori and squid on a stick from a street vendor.  The squid wasn't great, and he ended up feeding the rest of it to a grateful deer resting in the shade.  We sat down on a
bench by the sea, and laughed with the two girls on the next bench over as they were bombarded by two friendly deer trying to steal their snacks.  

Then we walked down into the sand and approached the Torii Gate, the tide being low again, and took some pictures out there.  The base of the gate was covered
with Japanese coins, looking as if they had been there for ages, having been slammed into the wood by the intense waves. 

Soon, it was time for our dinner reservations.  We made sure to pick up the room a bit, knowing that the hotel staff would be setting up our futons again for us.  I had forgotten that we had requested anago, eel, for dinner.  Boy, they gave it to us!  I think we had four courses in all that consisted primarily of anago.  I can eat a piece or two, but I was over it real quickly.  The steak was amazing, and we ended up using the hot plate it came with to cook a lot of the raw fish served to us, even though it was meant to be eaten raw.  Even then, I really didn't eat a lot, and Jaiman did better than me but still was over the anago by the end of the meal.

The hotel had a decent sized gift shop in it, and we had a 10% off coupon as part of our stay, so we checked out some of the goods.  There was also a public onsen bath in the hotel, one side for men and one side for women, so I ventured down that evening just to check it out.  There was an indoor bath and two outdoor baths, reminiscent of the onsen I had gone to with my host mom 12 years prior.  There was nobody in the women's side, but after just a few minutes, I got
bored.  It would be inappropriate to bring my phone in to the public bath with me, whereas, in my private bath, there was nobody to object to taking my phone in with me.  So I went back upstairs and hopped in my private onsen with my phone.  If you want to go to Miyajima and don't want to splurge on the fancy room like we did, you can certainly get the benefits of the hot spring by going to the public bath.

I think two nights is the right amount of time to stay on the island of Miyajima.  I mailed some post cards in the morning and then we checked out and the hotel shuttle took us to the ferry station.  What?!?  They have a shuttle?!?  Okay, lesson learned, I should have arranged for a shuttle to pick us up when we had arrived.  Ah well, now I know.  For anyone visiting Japan, I highly recommend this beautiful little island, along with the Peace Park Memorial Museum in Hiroshima.  Besides, if you're going to Tokyo, you can take a Shinkansen down to Hiroshima, which is another thing we checked off our life lists.  

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