We got up early today, packed up, and left on the expressway heading to Hiroshima. We grabbed a quick breakfast from a “konbini”, and leaving the Seto islands behind us for now, we drove through the mountains on the expressway and soon arrived at our Hiroshima Airbnb. I had chosen our apartment based on location, it being right between both Miyajima and Hiroshima so seemed to be the right compromise. I wanted somewhere not too far from Miyajima for the fireworks but also an easy ride on the tram into Hiroshima town.
After arrival we quickly unpacked our luggage into our modern, spacious apartment. But we were in a rush to get out for our trip to Miyajima to watch the famous annual fireworks. As an average of 300,000 people flock every year to Miyajima to be part of this spectacular event, we wanted to get there early enough to secure a good spot for viewing the firework later that evening at 19:40.
I had tried to find out online the best spots to watch the hanabi. Obviously the prime spots are on the beach just in front of the red tori gate, but we knew that the spaces on the beach would already be claimed by all the eager photographers that come, up to a day before and even stay there overnight in order to get their favourite place for taking photos. We were not trying to be quiet as ambitious, we just wanted to grab a spot where we could sit and enjoy watching the fireworks. This meant that we could not hang around at the apartment and needed to get to the harbour at Miyajimaguchi to catch one of the ferries across to the island.
The Hiroden line tram stop was just around the corner from our Airbnb apartment and they ran frequently, we took a ticket, which states the starting station of your trip from the yellow machine on the platform and then paid on the tram when we exited. We got onto one of trams, already cramped with people dressed up in festive yukatas all headed like us to Miyajima.
At Hiroden-Miyajimaguchi we decided to get return tickets for the JR ferry to cross over to Miyajima as this would surely make our life getting back in the evening after the fireworks easier and faster. If you have a Japan Rail Pass you can use it on the JR ferry to Miyajima. Surprisingly there were not any large queues for the tickets and the ferries. The ferries ran every few minutes, and were packed with lots of keen festivalgoers.
The closer we got to Miyajima the better we could see that the promenade was already heaving with people. We got off the ferry, and mingled with the crowds.
Despite the amount of people the deer that inhabit the island and run free soon surrounded us. The deer are very cheeky and will try and get what food they can from your possessions into their mouths. Do not try to feed the deer and be careful of what they might grab from you!
All the children including Jerome were fascinated by them just walking around, they showed no fear of human beings and were totally at ease with all the tourists surrounding them.
We tried to assess the situation of where we should set down our mat and decided not venture to far away from the ferry pier – something we were glad of later and can highly recommend considering. We found a place near the frontline in the memorial park next to the harbour. There were also some mobile toilets close-by, which considering that we had to wait until 19:40, for over 7 hours, would prove to be useful. We had brought one of the plastic sheets that Japanese people use for sitting on the grass or beach at Daiso, and I would advise doing the same. There were already hundreds just stuck to the ground by either tape or weighted down with stones. Weirdly enough, no one was sitting on them or standing around nearby.
Jerome and I walked off to get some proper food; in the end we chose to have lunch at a restaurant rather than picking out on food from one of the stalls. We had a hearty bowl of hot udon and bought some sushi to take away for Chris who was watching over our claimed space. We should not have worried as we later found out, no one dared to try to remove or claim one of the already placed sheets.
We started to get hotter and hotter in the afternoon sun. I could see the heat was frustrating Jerome and so we wandered off in search for an umbrella. Soon enough we found one and also stocked up on drinks in one of the shops. We strolled past the stands admiring all the deliciousness on offer, kakigori, cucumber on sticks, pineapple, candyfloss…
When we got back to our spot, Chris said he would like to walk around for a bit and explore the area. Jerome had made up his mind to stay put under his propped up umbrella; Chris and I walked towards the O-tori gate weaving our way through the masses of people still arriving from the mainland by ferry.
We would have loved to visit the Itsukushima Shrine but as expected there were long queues to get in, we did get a great view of the O-tori and the photographers who had set up their tripods on the beach. Instead we chose to go back to Jerome and started to play card games to bridge the waiting time.
Miyajima is always worth visiting all year around but if you are visiting Miyajima with children for the fireworks, there are plenty of exciting things to see and do to bridge the waiting time.
Start by strolling past the festival stalls, they always make a good attraction, as they are so different to anything you would find at festivals in Europe or the US. There is an aquarium past the Itsukushima shrine, a great way to spend some time inside away from the heat but it surely will be busy.
Fancy a swim? Then head to the camp ground with the little ones at the far corner of the island to spend the afternoon in the shade of the pine trees and take a refreshing dip in the sea or build some sandcastles.
If the kids are full of energy why not walk to the ropeway and take a trip in one of the gondolas to the mountain station. Hike up the last meters past more temples and shrines to the observation deck on top of mount Misen and enjoy the view of the crowds from the top and the beautiful surrounding scenery.
The sheets around started to fill up slowly; we had two lovely Japanese girls, dressed up in colourful yukatas, with their hair and makeup done up to match the outfits. I kept admiring the beautiful yukatas, Jerome and I chose our favourite ones.
I decided that next time I would wear one too, it would have to be silk or cotton though, it must be unbearably hot and sweaty in a polyester yukata.
The sun started to set behind the mountains across the bay filled with boats full of curious people wanting to see the fireworks. In front of us was an Indian expat with his four-year-old son. They invited Jerome to watch the fireworks with them from their prime spot in the frontline, whereas we stayed in our selected spot.
We could feel the excitement and we all started to get impatient now that the sun had set and soon enough we heard a voice coming from the speakers welcoming us to the Miyajima fireworks.
And then it started, a true firework extravaganza, unlike any firework we have ever seen before in Europe. The fireworks exploded, lit up our fascinated faces and drew incredible shapes into the night sky. Some looked like jellyfish, dragonflies or hearts while others were harder to decipher. We were totally speechless, while we could hear the Japanese around us mouthing “sugoi”.
The organisers had let off 5000 fireworks in six intervals, with the fireworks lasting just under an hour, the normal time for fireworks in Europe is around 15 minutes.
It was over far too fast, and as it had ended we could hear the people quickly getting up, collecting their belongings and rushing towards the ferry terminal. So did we… But how do you get 300.000 people off an island, when everyone has to get on ferries in order to get back to shore. The Indian expat had warned us that depending on where you are on the island to watch the fireworks it could take hours to finally get onto the boats. He had told us that he waited in line for 3 hours one time when they were near the Otori gate and I would advise you to keep this in mind when choosing your place to watch the fireworks.
Especially with children it is a long time to wait, crowded together in a tight space, but at least everyone was very civilised and there was no pushing from behind. If you were thinking of watching the fireworks with very small children, Jerome hated fireworks when he was small, I would consider staying overnight in one of the local ryokans or hotels. You would need to book well in advance otherwise there is no chance of getting a room on the island.
Even though we had left our viewing spot fairly quickly it took us half an hour to get onto the pier and then a bit longer onto the ferry. Keep in mind that there are two separate ferry organisations, JR to the left, Matsudai Kisen on the left. The guards checked the tickets thoroughly and did not let anyone on without a valid ticket. The ferry company must have had a longstanding experience with the huge crowds of visitors trying to get back to the mainland after the fireworks. Everything was very well organised and the ferries ran back and forth every few minutes; people were allowed to stand on the car deck to fill them, which made the whole process much faster.
Once we got back to the mainland we went straight to the Hiroden tram stop and were able to get straight onto the next tram into Hiroshima. If you need the JR Sanyo line it might be quicker to go one stop towards Iwakuni and then change to go back into Hiroshima.