Hidden Gems of Japan: Iwakuni + Miyajima

When we tell people we visited Iwakuni and Miyajima, they typically respond with “Where?” Most people who are planning a trip to Japan typically look into the “Big 3”: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. While we did visit both Tokyo and Kyoto (and a *quick* pitstop in Osaka), Iwakuni was actually one of the main reasons we visited Japan.

So why Iwakuni? Zack’s parents lived there just before he was born – his dad was stationed at the Marine Corps Base in Iwakuni, and Zack grew up hearing stories about this place (one restaurant in particular which I’ll share about in this post), so we always knew that our first trip to Japan would have to include a stop there.

And Miyajima Island? It’s nearby Iwakuni and looked beautiful. Didn’t need much more convincing.

IWAKUNI

Iwakuni is a small, coastal town at the southern end of Japan and is ideal for a day trip, especially if your are already somewhere nearby (Hiroshima is only about an hour by car or train).

We were definitely worried that the city wouldn’t live up to our expectations – after all, everything was based on stories told to Zack from 30 years ago! But we were blown away by how beautiful and peaceful it was. Definitely not very touristy either which was a nice change of pace.

Here’s how to spend a day in Iwakuni:

KINTAI BRIDGE

One of the major landmarks, this wooden bridge is recognizable for its 5 arches. Definitely a beautiful spot for photos. Purchase a ticket to walk across the bridge (a combined ticket includes the bridge, castle, and castle ropeway).

KINTAIKYO CASTLE

With the combined ticket you can take to ropeway to the top of the mountain and check out the castle as well as stunning views of the city below.

ICE CREAM

Near the bridge you’ll find several places serving up soft serve ice cream – what makes it fun is how many flavors you can choose from. With over 100 flavors, you’ve got your standard flavors like chocolate and vanilla to local flavors like green tea and lotus root. Then there were the really out there options like ramen, garlic, soy sauce, and wasabi. Zack tried chocolate mint and I went with black tea. Both delicious even though it was freezing outside!

THE CHICKEN SHACK

Ok, so it’s really called Irori Sanzoku Kuga, but it’s often referred to as the Chicken Shack, and it definitely deserves the name! THIS was why we visited Iwakuni.

Zack grew up hearing about the amazing “Chicken Shack”…and I’ve been hearing about it since we started dating at age 16! We did our research and found that it still existed, and 30 years later, had expanded into SIX different restaurants at 3 locations.

We ate at the Kuga Area location which has 3 different restaurants. We chose the Kamado dining area so we could eat outside (at HEATED tables) with an amazing view of a waterfall and beautiful fall foliage.

We ordered the 3 specialties to eat: udon, musubi (seaweed wrapped rice ball with salmon filling), and of course the CHICKEN. And honestly, the chicken was probably one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

And of course we washed it all down with some hot sake.

IMPORTANT INFO
• Hours: 10am–midnight but check the calendar for specific restaurants
• Address: 1380-1 Kugamachi, Iwakuni, Yamaguchi 740-0314, Japan
• Cash only
• Getting there: This part is important. Read on.

Getting there is easy – you can just grab a taxi from the town and it’s about a 30 minute drive up the mountain. That’s what we did. Getting back down the mountain? Not so easy. There were no taxis, and we even had the restaurant call, but none would make the drive. The closest train station was too far to walk since the road was narrow and winding…and there were no sidewalks…and it was dark. It was also a week night so the restaurant wasn’t very busy, but luckily we found an American family (who had been stationed at the nearby marine base), and they gave us a ride to the train station. Honestly THAT is a whole different story but we made it safe and sound.

SO my advice: rent a car.

I also imagine it may be different if it was busier (maybe more taxis?) or if it wasn’t dark perhaps we could’ve walked along the road. Either way, it was worth it, we made fun memories, and I would ABSOLUTELY go back.

MIYAJIMA ISLAND

Miyajima Island sits in Hiroshima Bay and is know for its ancient temples, peaceful forests, and the giant torii gate. This beautiful island is a wonderful way to escape the hustle and bustle of the big cities and really enjoy a scenic day in nature. Below is everything you need to know for a day trip to the island.

HOP ON THE FERRY

You’ll have to take a ferry to get to Miyajima Island, but its a short ride (about 10 minutes) AND the JR Ferry is included with the JR Pass.

ITSUKUSHIMA SHRINE + TORII GATE

If you google “Miyajima Island” you’ll be flooded with images of the iconic “floating” torii gate. You can actually walk out to the gate during low tide, but at high tide the gate seems like it’s floating in the water. This was actually a huge reason we chose Miyajima Island, but unfortunately right before our trip the gate went under construction so it was completely covered for our visit (a reason to go back!).

Across from the gate is the Itsukushima Shrine, which was beautiful to walk through. And also gives the illusion that it’s floating when the tide is high enough.

SIKA DEER

One of the first things you’ll notice is all the deer running around. These friendly little guys are all over the island, and they are fun to watch and snap pictures of, but don’t touch or feed them!

MOUNT MISEN

The highest peak on the island offers great views of the surrounding islands. You can hike to the peak, which from what I’ve read takes about 2 hours. We weren’t exactly wearing hiking attire, so we took the Ropeway Gondola to the top. The ride takes 20 minutes, and you have to transfer ropeways on the way. It was one of the more expensive attractions at 1800 JPY for a roundtrip ticket, but the views on the gondola ride and at the top were definitely worth it in my opinion.

OMOTESANDO STREET

The main shopping street has TONS of food and shops and is an ideal place to try some of the island and region specialties:
Oysters (this region of Japan is known for having the BEST oysters)
Momiji (maple leaf shaped cookies with filling of different flavors, best eaten fresh and warm)
Hiroshima Buns

We enjoyed sampling several different snacks along the street, and found a great spot to enjoy lunch (with a view) at the Miyajima Brewery where we drank local beers and ate fresh grilled oysters.

EVEN MORE

The island is full of many beautiful temples, pagodas, and shrines. It’s best to just wander along the paths and see what you discover!

BONUS: OSAKA!

Visiting Osaka wasn’t in our itinerary, but we ended up having some extra time on our way back from Miyajima Island to Kyoto, and the train already had a transfer in Osaka, so we figured why not make the stop?

We checked out Dotonbori Street, and talk about sensory overload. It’s essentially a food lovers haven – we tried a few different things from various street vendors, checked out the canal, and just soaked in all the sights and sounds before heading back to the train station.

Quick visit, but a nice little surprise stop on our trip!

I’m so glad we visited these 2 beautiful places – definitely hidden gems of Japan. While it’s impossible to pick a favorite city or activity that we did during or Japan trip, I definitely have some incredible memories for the 2 days we spent in southern Japan.

– Courtney

JAPAN: THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
TOKYO CITY GUIDE
KYOTO CITY GUIDE
IWAKUNI, MIYAJIMA ISLAND, OSAKA
TOKYO RESTAURANT GUIDE
KYOTO RESTAURANT GUIDE


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