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Deer Roam the Streets of This Japanese Island That's Considered Sacred for Its Natural Beauty

September 30, 1990|MARGO PFEIFF and JIM HUTCHISON | Pfeiff and Hutchison are free-lance writers and photographers living in Westmount, Canada.

MIYAJIMA, Japan — Who could argue with a millennium of kudos? Throughout the ages, poets and travelers have praised the tiny jade green island of Miyajima, claiming it as one of the most beautiful places in all of Japan.

To make it official a thousand years ago, the Japanese pinpointed the three most scenic spots in their country and christened them san kei , meaning "three views." Though most foreigners have never heard of them, they are legendary destinations to the Japanese.

To visit Miyajima Island or the two other spots--Matsushima, an island-studded bay north of Tokyo, or Amanohashidate, near Kyoto, with its famous gnarled pine trees that are said to resemble the path to heaven--is more a pilgrimage than a vacation.

Japanese tourists eagerly collect the souvenirs of each of the san kei , and for many Japanese, it is a lifelong dream to journey to all three sites.

One fall we did the trio. We sailed lovely Matsushima Bay in a dragon boat blaring Japanese folk music. We stood on the viewpoint above Amanohashidate--though we had to squint a bit to visualize the route to heaven. And we discovered Miyajima, the most exquisite of the san kei and a mere speck among hundreds of islands in the Inland Sea.

Miyajima could have been lifted from a dreamy, classic Japanese watercolor. Each spring the enchanting isle explodes with cherry blossoms. In the fall, "viewing autumnal tints," as the brochure puts it, brings hikers to walking trails leading into a deep forest that is home to weathered temples, pagodas poking their tiled roofs through morning mist and teahouses resting peacefully beside waterfalls.

After a 12 1/2-mile train trip from Hiroshima, it is only a 10-minute ferry ride to Miyajima.

The steep green slopes of the island plunge to the sea, where, wading in a shallow bay, sits the tall orange torii (gate) made famous in travel posters. Tucked behind it is spectacular Itsukushima Shrine: a Shinto complex of pillared orange buildings that appear to float on the water.

We checked into one of the small Japanese inns in the peaceful town, slipped on our wooden geta (clogs) and headed for an early hot bath.

Miyajima's peacefulness is partly due to a lack of cars. Apart from a few delivery vans, vehicles are not allowed. One of the pleasures of Miyajima is watching the town unwind in the evening following the departure of the last ferry filled with tourists.

Men congregate in the street to smoke. Kimono-clad women draw their black shawls close and gossip in the twilight. Except for the colorful glow from electric lanterns strung zigzag across the main street, evening on Miyajima hints at the pace of Japan centuries ago.

The island dinner specialty is oysters plucked fresh and plump from beds we'd seen on our ferry trip across from the mainland. They are delicious served with scrambled eggs and scallions over a bowl of rice. For dessert, we purchased warm Momiji Manju: tiny maple leaf-shaped cookies filled with sweet bean jam, for which Miyajima is famous.

Rising the next morning, we were startled by half a dozen noses poking through the doorway curtain. Even knowing in advance about the tame deer that roam Miyajima, it was a shock to find droves of them on the main street, panhandling and taking advantage of their status as one of the island's sacred animals.

Later, a deft pickpocket tugging from behind pulled a shopping bag from my shoulder, scattering the contents across the pavement. The thief looked at us with innocent brown eyes, sniffed disdainfully at our spilled post cards and strolled off to nibble on a cardboard cutout of a bikini-clad Japanese girl in a shop front ad.

Always restrained, Japanese tourists stifled laughter behind hands held politely in front of their mouths, unaware that rice biscuits were being pilfered out of one of their gaping handbags.

For centuries, the island deer have been considered sacred, like those at Nara, but this hasn't necessarily made them more tolerant of people. Though generally docile, they will, if pestered, drop their heads and charge. But there is nothing to fear: their horns have been trimmed to deny them revenge.

While the deer are amusing, guaranteed to impress even the most jaded temple-goer is the island's famous shrine--painted the bright orange of the Heian Period (794 to 1192).

With its gabled roofs, the shrine stands above high tide on seven-foot stilts. Reflections shimmer on the water and, in a masterful illusion, the pavilions and long, open galleries appear to float on the incoming sea.

Monks dressed in white and turquoise gowns tend the immaculate grounds. A musty perfume from burning joss sticks fills the air, and paper fortunes bought from the monks are tied to lanterns, door handles and tree branches for good luck.

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