#5 Be Here Now

IMG_0203Yeah, well he couldn’t work it out either. We asked him.

Tram (just visible in the background, the orange and yellow one) from Dogo Onsen to Okaido. Take the 10.02 JR bus bound for 落出. Get off at 久万中学校前 where it might be late. The driver of the connecting Iyotetsu bus bound for 面河 usually waits for 10 minutes. He will take you to 岩屋寺 where you get off and begin your walk.

And even though there was an unbroken procession of buses going through the Okaido stop, an hour and a half later that’s how it was. The traffic began thick but gradually dissipated as we headed down a very long, very narrow major street towards increasingly dramatic mountains. (Myrna’s photo: on her phone out the bus window)IMG_5637My Japanese expert, thank you Shelley, translated the sign for me. ‘CAUTION. From here on there are many curves.’ And so indeed there were. A long haul up and over a pass, but by the time we got to the bus change the mist had dissolved into a beautiful day. 

IMG_0162The first temple was about 800 metres from the bus stop and about 400 metres vertically, a heart starter. Iwaya-ji, The Cavern-housed Temple, Number 45, is set into the side of what is really a cliff face and was an intriguing affair. Internet information: 

This temple is one of the nansho of Ehime Prefecture and is one of the sites where mountain recluses and wandering holy men once performed their religious disciplines. Be sure to see the surface of the cliff above the temple. The mountain is famous as the dwelling place of seven kinds of sacred birds. Legend states that the temple was donated to Kobo Daishi by a mysterious female recluse named Hokke-Sennin. Was she a shamaness or just a woman well advanced in Buddhist training? [We may never know.] Kobo Daishi carved two statues of Fudo, one in stone and kept in a cave at the rear of the temple, and the other in wood and enshrined in the hondo. By keeping the stone statue in the cave, Kobo Daishi ensured that the entire mountain needed to be worshipped in order to worship the statue. This way the mountain remained sacred, just as it had been in Shintoism. Over time, every nook and cranny of the mountain became sacred and every rock and slope became part of the sacred object.IMG_0144ODSC01138n the way up you pass remarkable sets of Jizo statuary, which had been constant companions on the way. Jizo is a bosatsu (bodhisattva), a god? an entity? who has achieved nirvana but who chooses instead to provide assistance to others, in this case being the protector of many types of people including travellers, pregnant mothers, and in modern Japan in particular, the guardian of unborn, aborted, miscarried and stillborn babies. Jizo appear in many forms often decorated with bibs or hats. People who have lost children or who are seeking help for those who are sick, dress up the statues to keep them warm believing that if they clothe Jizo, so too will Jizo clothe their children in his warm robe of kindness and shelter them in his capacious sleeves. However expressed, there is something utterly poignant about this.IMG_0168AIMG_0174bove the temple is one of many caves nearby where monks have meditated for centuries. I climbed up to look at walls covered with coins and other offerings, but mostly coins.

‘Every nook and cranny of the mountain became sacred’ and every nook and cranny of the mountain was covered with interesting things to examine, as well as a maze of tracks which somehow didn’t seem to disturb its transfixing beauty. We deviated from the instructions but this splendid day there didn’t seem to be any wrong turns. We were climbing quite hard but it scarcely seemed noticeable. Transcendence? Sure. In its own way.IMG_0163When we reached the top there was a kilometre or two of plateau frequently with a sheer drop on one side of the track. Long views would suddenly unfold especially on the next descent. Glorious glorious walking.IMG_0187WIMG_0192e were sitting up in the air maundering our way through lunch complemented by some new discoveries from the Matsuyama shopping arcade, when I got the white book out again and realised it was going to be another rush to get to our bus. If we missed the one we’d set ourselves for the next one would get us home around 8.00, too late. So down through the paddies at pace and through the town of Fusuwara. We got two lots of additional advice about where the track restarted. Both were correct in their own way but incomplete costing us about 20 minutes. 2.3 the sign said when we got back on track, then 1.4 after that and, with a very steep and slippery climb included, 50 minutes to do it in. This colours the experience.

IMG_5689As things stood, after climbing very hard for about 20 minutes we topped out and had a steepish descent: steps, cobbles, following a concreted creek, in mud — all that. We saw the day’s second temple, Daiho-ji, Great Treasure Temple, Number 44, but didn’t stay. We had a bus to catch. We arrived a bit sweaty but deeply content at 15.38 for 15.42, four minutes, just time to breach the vending machine. This had been a fabulous (half) day’s walking. I would like to do it again, more slowly.

The arcade was quiet on our return. It was Monday and all the tourists had gone back to work. We went straight to the front of the line for the softu crema, orange this time and magnificent. (Oh dear. A theme. However it sounds, we did do more than eat softu crema and drink vending machine coffee.) Manifold interesting types of fish for dinner including this chap. They have very fine cooks at the Sachiya Ryokan.IMG_5692

Last day. Culturally crippled as I am, there was a fleeting feeling that a bed off the floor and something other than rice, tofu and fish for breakfast would be nice. Just a hint. And lo and behold, our hosts had worked out what we had liked and what we had left for the previous breakfast and tailored the menu accordingly. 

‘As with yesterday, please check carefully that you board the correct bus.’ We returned to the Okaido bus stop not actually brimming with confidence but we had been there before, we knew where the Starbucks was and where to sit to inhale the passing parade, and took the wrong bus. Wrong-ish. It was an Iyotetsu bus. It arrived at 9.33. I asked a bystander if it went to Niihama. He said sure. I asked the driver if he stopped at Ooto. He said sure. What are you going to do?

So, great. We’d got on the tour of the hospitals and community facilities of south-eastern Matsuyama bus. First stop the Cancer Centre, next stop the Matsuyamajoto Hospital, then the University Hospital, then an old folks centre. Only faintly troubled, we watched the aged and infirm emptying the seats. I tried the driver again. ‘Ooto?’ which might sound something like ‘oor-ooor-tee-orh’ and I wasn’t confident I had it down. He nodded reassuringly so we sat tight and, wrong bus right outcome, we did get there but 20 minutes after the appointed time. The appointment was with a taxi to allow us to miss another two-hour crawl up the bottom of a mountain. Time was important today because we had reserved train tickets to take us all the way back across the island to Takamatsu. And voila. Bless him.IMG_0204Another day in the forest and another very stiff climb. Writing about it in my journal that night I began: Maybe I’m too tired to write about this. It was just hard work right from the start, unrelenting. IMG_0010

Yes. This one. (With the merest hint of a General Teaching Council of Scotland paperweight Ivor.) But you might notice that once we had reached and enjoyed Yokomine-ji, Flat Peak Temple, Number 60, it was downhill all the way. Somewhere down here on the far distant flat was our station.IMG_0221One of the issues was that there kept being things to look at and enjoy, like these ancient man-made dirt ‘bridges’ between two humps …IMG_0216hollowed out versions of the track, here on a detour that extended the journey …IMG_0215and wandering down embedded stone steps while being assailed with constant birdsong.IMG_0212This too was great walking. And we didn’t want to miss anything. While you’re there … So we got off the track to visit Koon-ji Oku-no-in, Koon-ji temple’s ‘hidden inner sanctuary’. (Oku, 奥, with whom we were travelling, of course insist you visit it.) And how could you miss this?gods in creekFudo Myo-o at top with Kongara and Seitaka.

At 19, Mongaku experiences a religious conversion to Buddhism. Leaving his job as a civil servant, he takes a vow of poverty and sets off to the mountains to live as a wandering monk. In order to express his devotion, he sets himself a variety of impossible tasks. First he lies in a field for eight days and nights tormented by the hot sun and the bites of flies and mosquitoes. Next he decides to make a pilgrimage to the Nachi waterfall where the god of the waterfall lives. He wades into the pool at the base of the freezing waterfall, vowing to stay there for 21 days reciting prayers to the saint Fudo. [Saint eh? That’s another idea.] After three days the monk’s numbed feet slip on the rocks and he is swept downstream. Rescued by a passing stranger, Mongaku is anything but appreciative. He yells at his rescuer and immediately wades back into the pond under the falls. Eight boys jump into rescue him but he fights them off. After three more days the monk is so weak he loses consciousness and slips under the water. Fudo sends his god-like boy servants Kongara and Seitaka to help. They use magic to insulate his body from the cold. After being heartened by Fudo’s interest and concern he returns to the water and remains there reciting prayers for 21 days. Later, full of holy indignation, he fights and subdues The Dragon King, a sea god responsible for the sea and its storms.

I’m not quite sure what we can draw from that, or how it might reflect on Japanese culture, although it may help to explain some of its television game shows: you know, the ones where you have to eat 100 cockroaches while surrounded by people screaming. But after this, Koon-ji itself, Fragrant Garden Temple, Number 61, and resembling a large office block from the Brutalist School of architecture was small beer, and we still had two trains to catch.

FullSizeRenderWe were down in the town of Komatsucho by this stage with not much more than kilometre to go. Distracted by the boggled interest of some school kids, we weren’t quite sure how many right angle turns we’d made and asked a passing motorist for directions to the last temple, Hoju-ji, Preserved Treasure Temple, Number 62. She didn’t want to tell us. In a final gesture of ossetai she really really wanted to drive us there. But no, no way. Not today. We’d come this far and while trembling on the brink, we hadn’t tumbled over the train timetable precipice just yet. We turned a corner and in the far distance I could see a big traffic sign to the eki, which I knew was 100 metres from the temple. So we hustled along the footpath of a busy main road to find a good deal of Hoju-ji in the middle of major building works. The contemporary world will intrude.IMG_0231

And yes …IMG_0233with just enough time to tackle the vending machines.


Did we get sick of temples? No. There are half a dozen more I’d really like to see including Number 88. Did we find them all interesting? No. It varied. But almost always. Shosun-jiIwaya-ji and Tairyu-ji I am unlikely to forget, not for the pain but for the reward of getting to them. Did we become pilgrims? No. We were just walkers having a red hot time. In terms of background, do I wish I knew then what I know now? Mmm … moot point. Not sure. It’s a bit like track notes. They never make sense till after you’ve done the walk. But there is nothing which sustains liveliness of mind more than the joy of initial discovery. Do I wish I had known more about temple etiquette? Yes. You light your joss sticks in threes and ring the bell once only. Anything a) less and b) more is egregious.

Myrna says:

It was like solving a puzzle every day. That’s the pilgrimage.

We ate outstanding apples, and great rice crackers. The white bait was full of flavour and life. We appreciated water. That’s the pilgrimage too.

As you go up into the mountains, with the effort and focus of the climbing and the constant presence of the natural world, the daily concerns of life just fall away. You are reminded of this by all those jizos which represent so much pain, parents struggling to lighten the weight of their sadness. Then you get to a temple garden and there is stillness and peace in the beauty, peace stopping the usual hurly burly of your mind. It’s not the religion or the ritual or the statues or the temples; it’s the experience. That’s the pilgrimage.



#4 Getting into Focus

IMG_0061The next morning we found ourselves on a train heading further west along the northern coast of Shikoku. It was a late-ish departure and we’d spent part of the wait in Kotohira at the Palanquin, a tiny establishment devoted to coffee and sandwiches, thick with smoke and rarely I think patronised by non-Japanese. We were treated with glee and lavish assistance.

Yeah this day. I’d forgotten about this day. Two trains to get us to Imabari, two hours, then enough time for a minor feast at the station’s Willie Winkie followed by a short bus ride. Soporific that’s the correct word, I was lulled into a torpor. Torpor: a state of decreased physiological activity in an animal. Torpor enables animals to survive periods of reduced food availability. Or it could be a consequence of stuffing your face. I hadn’t felt so full since ravaging the menu at the Tiger Gyoza Hall in Kyoto. It was very grey day, a Japanese grey day — misty, still, humid. Quite possibly there are many days of that sort round here.

IMG_0072We did get the right bus — however short the trip that is a prerequisite — and got off at the right stop somewhere in the middle of the countryside and walked back the way we had come to Taisan-ji, Tall Mountain Temple, Number 56. The temple itself was not of great interest, but its siting was. It felt just a bit like being in another world, a possible product of too many trains and buses. IMG_0078I liked this rock with its colourful striations. The small pine next to it is believed to cure all lower back ailments. 

Complementing my general distractibility, I was thinking about the Patisserie Sourire which we were to find just past Pao Guitars Bread and Cafe. Ah my, we did our best but it was never going to be great. Even with their most diligent enthusiasm for things French, the Japanese just don’t get cakes. We discussed this with a young Japanese New Zealander in the spa of the Kyoto Aquacentre. (And not everyone can say that.) She was studying to be a pastry chef and she agreed. Myrna turned up her nose but I did my duty and ensured there was no waste.

IMG_0085This sort of country. Saturday afternoon, and he was reefing potatoes out of here like you wouldn’t believe. I gave him a wave and a thumbs up without really knowing what that might mean in Japanese. He seemed pleased, grinned and gave a generous bow.



And this sort of country. We were heading to a temple on the top of the ridge in front of us (which you can see with appropriate magnification) to spend the night. Our track took us along the verge of the trees. On the crest of the hill to the left is Eifuku-ji, Number 57 and, despite having a very clear map and the most thorough guidebook in the history of the universe, we walked straight past it. At the time, we were experiencing the impact of an adjacent tannery (as it happens the building to the left of the farmhouse) and were discussing what it would be like working there. And whether you’d ever lose the smell or whether it would attach to you like some succubus and you would take it to the grave. And the important place of dog shit in the industry. So, obviously, busy. As Maxwell Smart would say, missed it by that much: The Temple of Prosperity and Good Fortune wouldn’t you know. Real pilgrims would have been much more attentive.

Senyu-ji, Temple 58, is named for its location, the mountain on which it is built. You walk around a weir, the pitch is never too bothersome, you hit a road and think you’re there. We hadn’t done much walking, but it was about enough. Then we came to this gate.IMG_0092A mini version perhaps of the famous guardians of Senso-ji in Asakusa (eastern Tokyo). If so, they are Fujin the god of wind and Raijin the god of thunder. The road looked the easier option, but I had eaten the cakes and needed to perform some act of contrition. We made our peace with these chaps and headed through. Our progress was interrupted by some people in a car desperate to provide ossetai who, poor things, had to chase us 80 or so metres up some of the steepest and slipperiest steps going round. What was it? Bottles of drink, some crisps and lolly bars. IMG_5573We continued on 200 more metres making extensive use of the handrail, where there was one. That’s the ascent, the final 280 metres. What an entry. And we landed head first into thick fog.

IMG_0113We were staying here at the shukubo, pilgrims’ lodgings, billed as rather more hard core than those we had stayed in at Anraku-ji. One woman seemed to be running the whole show, doing everything, and it was big. There seemed to be 30 or so older pilgrims staying in a dormitory on the ground floor, 20 or 30 very polite young people who had a group cheer at the completion of their meals and maybe ten others, not quite like us but family groups, and then some people building a new shelter for the bell. It was a crowd. This is where the cuisine got the 0.4: unabashedly serious vegan, prepared and served by three people for all that mob.
This actually was okay. She’s just a bit tired. And it reminded her of boarding school. Breakfast was mainly brown rice in tepid water and less good; but look, pilgrims, what should you expect?

I actually liked it here a lot. I enjoyed the bath. I reneged on attending the service — Myrna went — and didn’t feel I’d missed that much. Instead I started reading ‘The (bilingual) Teaching of Buddha’ which I found highly informative. When we left, very early next morning, I asked if I could buy a copy and was given one. Just for interest, our room, which looked a lot like many of the rooms we stayed in. Nice air here. We seemed to be catching a breeze which cooled things down making sleep more accessible.IMG_0097I woke at 5.00, chanting and bells began at 6.00 and we were gone by 7.00, a misty descent down a different route running into the man with the cameras  giving each other a considerable surprise as we did so. But it was early Sunday morning in Imabari, a funny sort of netherland that I found most attractive. Just us and the grey mist.IMG_0122Except for these guys — the number of Japanese, in Ehime at least, it takes to dig a hole on a Sunday morning.IMG_0123Carefully tended and extremely productive vegetable gardens (for home use presumably although there were some rather half-hearted roadside stalls), paddies which were dry unlike those in the east, and no sign of wealth. We stopped at a Lawson for some coffee and watched the morning unfold. People in their bed wear coming in for the paper and some food, girls out without makeup (!in Japan) and rectifying that situation while glued to their phones, dads and their sons getting something to take to sports practice or matches, casual reviews of the shelves to find something to take home for breakfast, a couple in a car, silent and immobile, who might have still been getting home from the night before. The stuff of life really.

There was only one turn in this leg of the walk and we duly arrived at Iyo Kokubun-ji, the State Temple of Iyo, Number 59, and almost immediately were accosted by a pilgrim who rather fiercely remonstrated with us for walking on the wrong side of the road, gathered breath, and then for walking too fast, and then spent some time trying to pretend he hadn’t. Japan has its fair share of officious arseholes. We thought we’d move on.

IMG_0130It was only couple of k.s to the station and they took us along a concreted canal which probably once would have been a creek, past tennis training where the Nishikoris of the future were playing very capably, four or even six to a court, past a school where band practice was in full swing and soccer and dance practice were vying for space in the yard. One of the complaints of foreign teachers working in Japan is that they work a seven-day week, 50 or more weeks a year, including summer camp supervision. To do less is to display lack of commitment. 

Iyo Sakurai station provided one example that not every bit of infrastructure in Japan is in exemplary nick.

IMG_0131And this is the local that took us to Matsuyama. Old people, women especially, and kids use the buses; but everyone uses the locals. Outside the major cities this is how people get around. 

Later in the day sitting back on the comfortable chairs in the terrace of our luxurious room in a ryokan just a dropkick from Dogo Onsen (below), one of the oldest organised hot springs in Japan,5502_01 and just as close to a shopping arcade with black sesame softu crema, I was thinking about where we were and what had been happening — no bird’s eye, no shape, bobbing up out the ground hither and thither. I was finding its intricacy  understandable but slightly wearing. Yesterday, we had been negotiating our way round a mountaintop temple. Today, in the heart of a tourist destination, choosing between a Lawson and Willie Winkie for coffee, eating an astonishing variety of food, encountering major variations in landscape … But then I thought maybe the medium is the message. This is how it is. This is what we were up for. If in some moments, and they were only moments, it was overwhelming, it was also unforgettable.

We ate some rather ordinary gyoza ordered through a wildly inefficient vending machine process and walked a kilometre or two towards our destination — it was still not much past midday — before deciding that a tram which would take us almost to the door of our accommodation would be a good idea. IMG_0132We had passed the Scrivener Department of the Ehime Prefecture Canal System and The Gright, billed in English as: ‘Location that has been the pride of the people living in Matsuyama, a place to make a lifetime of memories. Chapel and two banquet with the world feeling that has been refined in the quality of New York style. The hotel is a must to enjoy the special feeling and extraordinary feeling in spite of the wedding hall located in the good heart of the location environment. The wedding of a rainy day as a sunny day. Wedding winter day to as spring day. Us also give a sense of security to many people it is a ceremony of the all-weather.’ Inside, heaven:20150817shop_img9.pngviewWe were welcomed by another champion of the hospitality industry.IMG_0200A great man who couldn’t have been more helpful. We had a rest and then decided to see the sights. What was it again? When you’re there do everything? And the sights were readily accessible. There are eight 88 temples in or near Matsuyama and Ishite-ji, Stone Hand Temple, Number 51, was just down the road. On his death bed, centuries ago, someone called Emon Saburo expressed his wish to be reincarnated as a kinder man. Kobo Daishi honoured this wish by placing a stone in the dying man’s hand. It later reappeared in the hand of a new born child. A casket houses this stone here.

IMG_0147Sunday afternoon, and it was seething with o-henro and other tourists, a busload of Spaniards amongst them, who were behaving more egregiously than us at our worst. We were in town. The city gardens were on top of a hill which provided excellent views of the city and I had my bird’s eye view. We had passed the Dogo Onsen complex and stumbled over the Botchan Karakuri Clock, Botchan being a popular novel written by local Natsume Soseki and widely read by Japanese school children. On the hour the characters emerge and do their clockwork thing, delightfully, and then it all folds away till next time.IMG_0139At its base is a trough fed by a mineral spring for walkers to salve their weary feet, before heading off to the very fine onsen and the feast prepared at Sachiya Ryokan.

#3 Uneven Delights

IMG_5414 (1)Day 4. I didn’t really feel like I look. Just caught the moment. It had been a great day’s walking and I was actually ready for more, but we were shortly about to get off the mountain via cable car, ropeway in the vernacular. It was another nansho temple, Tairyu-ji, Grand Dragon Temple, Number 21.

We had shunned the taxi option and our splendidDSC01244 bus driver had dropped us off with 450m to climb in a bit over 3km, 1 in 6. That’s about what it felt like, but we were up for it that day. It was a lovely path winding through forest and we began with a preliminary reward.


It was still warm but a bit damp, although not enough for me to put my slicker on. Just enough to keep a fairly steamy version of cool.
DSC01254Birds, salamander-like oddities in a pond, locals who wanted to take our photo, in and out of farmland, before hitting a very steep dirt track which brought us up to the road to the temple.DSC01256These temples all have road access. How else would you restock the vending machines? But in the mountains at least it’s odd how little you encounter them.

There has been a temple at Kakurin-ji, Number 20, Crane Forest Temple, for more than 1200 years and we were walking in and out of a thick mist which added to its atmospherics. DSC01275After a short look round on this peak there was a long but straightforward descent which just kept unfolding in its loveliness. Near this point we walked through a serious and extensive collection of bonsai and met the gentleman who enquired about the health of Murray Rose. His group of o-henro were having a congenial but lively squabble about directions. Newly seasoned and knowledgable etc etc, we were able to point them in the direction from where we had just come.

DSC01278DSC01280The Nakagawa River, famed for the clarity of its water but on this day an opaque icey aqua, was at the foot of this descent. Across this bridge the next climb began. For half of the way, this one stayed on a tarred road, very narrow — just trafficable if you were driving a Japanese little car or van — following a creek valley up the hill. Uphill but only vehicle grade. DSC01283Easy walking even meeting this friend on the way. The road led to a disused farm where this oddity appeared.DSC01285DSC01293As customary, just to keep you honest and remind you of a few salient things, the big climb is supplemented by several sets of steps. Tairyu-ji was being repaired but that didn’t interfere with its complexity and beauty. It is suggested that Kobo Daishi sat on a rock peak near here to practice Kokuzo Gumonji-ho, a short mantra. To pray for improved memory this mantra must be repeated a million times over the course of 100 days. You’d probably remember that at least even if nothing else.

Then out of the gloom we saw the friends (pink and white on the right) we had met initially at our first temple lodgings then again at each of four temples on the third day, and now here again — the fifth small miracle. Perhaps not completely unexplained as Kaoru was completing her pilgrimage and had only one stamp to collect to complete her nokyo-cho.DSC01294At the ropeway station we were offered and gratefully accepted a cup of mushroom soup and paid startlingly reduced fares: a version of ossetai for overseas visitors perhaps. All sorts of things were promised of the view on the 15 minute journey down but in thick cloud we saw nothing till the Nakagawa suddenly came into focus just below us. We found a Lawson (ubiquitous convenience store chain) which provided coffee and a snack and we found the bus which would take us back to Tokushima. It was full of school kids, about 30 of them, whose hot breath and damp clothes fogged up the windows instantly which is how those windows remained for the hour and a quarter of the trip. We got on at Wajiki East which sounds as downtown as it was. The terminus of the ropeway was the only real built feature and yet here come all these kids. From where? And going past how many schools in 75 minutes on the bus towards Tokushima? And anyway, doesn’t Tokushima itself have schools? Thirteen train stations, no schools?

Anyway the views were limited so we watched the kids (and vice versa) for entertainment. IMG_5454Half slept; this was a standard journey. The groovy girls in the back seat did their phones. We got back to Subaruyado Yoshino (the ‘Pleiades Ryokan’: subaru=constellation) to be accosted again by very good food in vast quantities, and a long and exhausting conversation in a combination of those well known languages Google translation and charade.

The next day began with, well actually excellent coffee at a Tully’s round the corner. Beyond that, a one-hour train trip north to Takamatsu and then a half-hour bus ride which would take us into Kagawa prefecture (‘Nirvana’). Near our stop we would find a taxi to help us bypass a 90-minute crawl up a paved road. The taxi delivered us to the entrance of Number 82, Negoro-ji, Fragrant Root Temple. DSC01316

We found most of the features here including this chap, a youkai. As an insight into the challenges of translating from Japanese to English the word youkai is made up of the kanji for ‘bewitching; attractive; calamity;’ and ‘spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious’. Written Japanese seems to me to be as fluid and motile as public Japanese behaviour is precise, confined and measured. The kanji meanings bounce off each other like echoes in a well. As a reminder we live in the 21st century,  a contemporary youkai.Unknown 

On departure we had conversation with a pilgrim who spoke good English and who had quite a lot of questions. He was an interesting man: alert, calm, humble with a deep stillness, at once self-contained and yet completely open. I was going to say vulnerable, but that would be quite wrong. I wondered if this, made flesh, was the state that Buddhists aspire to.

We tromped out the back way. This section had another flavour. Initially it was a little like the outskirts of somewhere: here a restaurant, over there lodgings, here a bank of vending machines, toilets, a small shrine, over there what might have been reception rooms, a scattering of farm sheds but at the same time lots of forest, a nature reserve in fact. Different. And despite obvious directions, because of the number of roads and tracks a good place to lose your way. I pulled my glasses out of my pocket somewhere here and our map went with them, but it wasn’t far till we were absolutely en route to Shiromine Rest Area. From there the forest was more like subtropical Australian savannah. An occasional ooze of water through the track of dirt and broken rock, some desultory streams, comparatively low and open canopy, busy undergrowth and a tremendous amount of insect and bird noise.
DSC01326Shiromine-ji, White Peak Temple, Number 81, was a fascinating place with at least three major layers of buildings in the middle of very highly developed gardens. At the entry we were welcomed by this collection of maneki-neko, and then there were goats and chooks and sheep and birds and monkeys. And this chap. No idea who or what he is, but there will be a story. There always is.

DSC01329DSC01331This is also where my camera lens decided to stick on the limits of its digital zoom. This is the last picture it took — from about 40m away.

We sat down to a lunch of rice crackers and dried whitebait (with hindsight, not very Buddhist really, so many young lives) and I found myself singing away: ‘Immortal invisible god only wise/ in light inaccessible hid from our eyes/ most blessed most glorious the Ancient of Days etc’. I’d never really noticed the words, just as… mmm can I say loopy? as anything we were seeing here, just more familiar.

I was lying back into the day and the splendid temple surrounds when I thought I’d get the white book out to work out when we actually needed to be at Kokubu station. This train would finish taking us half way across the island to Kotohira, our bags and a change of clothes. 16.12. There would be another train, but we didn’t know when and probably not for an hour (17.39 I later discovered). 2.7km plus another 5.8, no map, maybe another one for getting lost, call it 10 — and it was 13.50. 

It wasn’t a relaxed walk. Myrna thought we were going about the pace we used to, but I don’t remember hurtling along like this, not for a couple of hours at a time anyway. We got back to Shiromine Rest Area 12 minutes quicker than the outwards leg. That augured well. The next section was a grassy road pretty much on the contour and we made very good time. 2.9ks to do in a bit under an hour. Cruising. But we were a long way up in the air and had to get down, so just as it started pouring rain we came to a few hundred metres of badly eroded steps with risers varying between 30 and 45cm. The worst. Clonk goes tibia on femur. Clonk. Clonk. Clonk. And that’s a fairly slow clonk clonk clonk.

We decided our target was the station and not the next and last temple. We saw one sign to the station and hared off in that direction. I think maybe we would have found it but not all members of the group agreed. So we waved over a driver who had a bit of trouble explaining just how to get there — we were probably beyond easy directions in any language — so she offered a lift. ‘It is the rain time after all’, and so it was. My companion accepted with alacrity, not because she couldn’t have walked to the station and the temple (Sanuki Kokubun-ji, Public Tribute Provincial Temple, Number 80) which was more or less on the way, but neither of us wanted to miss the train. It had been a slightly ratty sort of day. Missing the train would have put the cork firmly in the bottle. Five minutes later we trail cheaters had opened a Suntory Boss and a Coke from the station vending machine and begun arguing about which side of the line we should be on.

The train to Kotohira was the slowest local ever. Ever. It didn’t just stop at every station, it stopped at every station to admire the scenery and discuss the weather. Just under two hours later we pulled into Kotohira in steady rain. We walked past this, the famous unmissable lantern tower, visible for miles, landmark of Kotohira, without seeing it. Probably more correctly, saw it but were beyond registering. We went straight on rather than turning left as instructed. Read the instruction but were beyond comprehension. This can happen.

IMG_0036Those instructions claimed that our accommodation was six minutes walk from the station. It might have taken us nine. Maybe 15. No disaster. We were the only customers at Kotobuki (Congratulations! or Long life!), sank into its bath and ate one of the really great Japanese meals ever. This wasn’t perfect classical cooking. We had some of that at Matsuyama and applauded it roundly. This was a meal cooked by people who have a deep-seated understanding coming from the very marrow of their bones for what would be interesting and tasty. They proved themselves to be wonderful hosts in any number of ways. IMG_0046


What do you do on a rest day? I had two things on my list: washing clothes and buying a new camera. Getting to the industrial-strength laundrette provided a substantial tour of the flat non-tourist side of Kotohira during which we saw three young non-Japanese people, the first for five days. They were looking lost. I did buy a camera, Myrna bought some clothes, we bought some excellent loquats which neither of us had had since we were kids. IMG_0016We went to see the Sheath Bridge. This is the information I have about it: ‘Year is a bridge that God is in you over only once. Since a little away from the approach you can see people even less slowly. It can not be over, but I recommend enjoy the view.’ Challenging, but I think — God is in the bridge. You can only cross it once (a year?). It’s locked up the rest of the time. But it’s good to look at. I’ve also found a story about a demigod who had all his toes cut off and therefore made sheaths for his feet which came off while fleeing from an army of monkeys. Take your pick really.

But Konpira is definitely the god of choice here for his contribution to the health and wellbeing of sailors and to the health and wellbeing of the local economy.

IMG_0038Konpira-san is the largest Shinto shrine on Shikoku and that’s the main reason for visiting the town of Kotohira. Its population is officially about 10,000, although I don’t know where you would put the city limits. On the flat side of the main drag it’s heavily populated semi-agricultural land which covers a considerable plain. (At left: peak hour at the covered market on the flat side. Below, some of the constant stream of school kids heading up to Konpira-san) On the steep side it’s tourism.IMG_0009

Konpira-san is finally reached via 1368 steps but Konpira Dai Gongen, a series of large shrines is reached at 785. Sutra: when you’re there do everything. So like Tour de France cyclists who go for rides in the mountains on their rest day, in the late afternoon we were enticed upwards because that’s what you do at Kotohira. Really the only thing we missed was Japan’s oldest kabuki theatre, the Kanamaruza.

About 100 steps up. Find me the city limits.IMG_0021Before moving on, I’d like to illustrate an option that you might like to consider while doing the walk. $90 for up and back to the halfway shrine. It was very hot this day. Murder. I shake my head. Japanese. IMG_0020But let’s plough on.


#2 Times of Blessed Trial

DSC01127Kobo Daishi is lurking under the trees in the car park where we are waiting for a taxi. The hills in the background are modest versions of what we were off to climb.

A taxi! Did you say taxi? I thought you were walkers … 

Mmm true, but we’re not observing the strict Shikoku 88. We are kugiri-uchi, doing bits. We’re skipping Temples 7-10 and we’re off to our first nansho temple, where o-henro korogashi, ‘pilgrims tumble’. Distance to be covered: 15km. Ascents: three, 1400m vertical gain. (500 is quite a good day.) Descents: three, 1100m downwards. Oku gives you the option of increasing the length of the walk by 6km. We thought, just this time, no. Hence the taxi which would take us to the car park of Number 11, Fujii-dera, the Temple of the Wisteria Well. 

There were two car parks at Araku-ji. We choose this one, the wrong one, but a hiccup of very modest proportions. We found ourselves being driven by a cheerful soul who completely understood the meaning and implications of the term ‘7/11’. We scoured the shelves for some food that said lunch and found what were to become our staples: apples and bananas, rice crackers and chocolate. Our purchase entitled us to go into a lucky dip from which I drew, dah dah, a pack of iced tea, which I was pleased to pass on to our driver. He was more than suitably appreciative. DSC01129

DSC01133I’ve seen bigger wisteria plants but this one was enormous and, in flower, has five colours. We had a look around and like anything built into the forest wall this temple had its charms. I rang the bell and murmured a request for good fortune, found the track opening and off went. Up up up.

It was quite civilised for a start. We began walking with a pilgrim, a fit 50 year-old and we were walking about the same pace. When I’m climbing so steeply I like just to be in my own head with no one else much around, so we let him go. But 15 minutes later ran into him again sitting on a rest bench puffing hard. We giggled at each other, shook our heads and ploughed on. After two km and close to an hour of walking — it was relentless — we found this most welcome spring.DSC01142Note the fall off to the left. We quite often found ourselves walking next to a sheer but quite heavily forested drop. The pad would be running round the lip of small plateaux. Splendid walking. We got to Choudoan Temple, not one of the 88, but the peak of the first climb and ate one of our volley ball-sized apples and some rice crackers, discovering that the packet was a quarter full of dried whitebait. Japan. It was hot, round 30C and fairly sticky. My clothes were wringing wet.

Okay, I thought, we’re about to ease off and go down for a while. I hope it’s a generous grade. But you don’t go down. No way. You enter this series of rolling pitches, short ups and downs, like interval training, designed to chew up anything you’ve got left, 2km of them, before a sort of hilariously steep descent to Ryusian Temple (not one of the 88 either). You can just see Myrna in this photo but, no more than 30 metres behind, I’m looking at the part in her hair.DSC01158One blogger writes: ‘Today is the first real test and the day some will ponder what they have got themselves into. The climb from Temple 11 to 12 is very hard work and you go up, then down, then back up over three mountain passes. At the end of the day you will be exhausted and have sore legs, feet, and shoulders. Some will have blisters. What’s more, you still have to walk part way back down to find lodgings. Many people are in tears at the end of this day.’

DSC01167In his account of the pilgrimage Paul Barach can’t believe this section of the pilgrimage either. ‘Since I was 13 I’ve been an athlete, lettering in four sports, bicycling century rides and running the Seattle marathon. So I’m confused when my legs buckle and the blurry ground rushes up to my face. … With long rests and short hikes I force myself up the switchbacks until I sprawl across the foot of a stone staircase. The benevolent iron visage of Kukai [Kobo Daishi’s original name] peers down at me. Behind him I’m sure I can hear a soda machine thrumming. I made it. … I catch my breath and charge to the top. Past Kukai is an empty clearing. No temple, no water faucet, no soda machine.’

DSC01165This is what he means. And he’s right. The second climb is shorter and not as difficult as the first. But when you get there, there’s no there there. It is where we met the delightful people in the opening photo of #1. They were at the top of this last staircase, the sting in the tail of this section.

But we could overplay all this. Yes, it is a climb, and yes it was a hot day. But there is an enormous amount of encouragement from bird life. One species in particular pushes itself to the limit to provide a song of joy, nearly conks out but then goes again, and then again. I took heart from its performance and cheered each time. One more … come on … push it out. The forest is shady and remarkably diverse, and you’re not climbing Everest. DSC01172

When you’ve got this far, you’ve almost certainly found a rhythm. And from here you are going down, not violently as previously but on a steady grade down through a cluster of farm houses to this delightful river crossing. If you haven’t felt immersed in beauty by this time there is something quite wrong. Anyway, the options of escape from this track are limited, so er … suck it up. Enjoy it. That’s the sutra.

DSC01139At right is what a lot of this part of the track looks like, fake logs made out concrete keeping the surface in shape. As well as forest left to its own devices, there was quite a lot of silviculture which provided views like this.DSC01155The last big climb was an effort. I remember we passed a group of six middle-aged women o-henro, and flopping at a rest area with some chocolate and resisting the temptation to finish off our water — not much else. There is no photographic evidence of anything till we get to Shosan-ji which itself provides 20 minutes worth of false dawns. You hit the DSC01173made road and think you’re there. Then the distance signage goes a bit weird. Another kilometre just drops in from thin air. It looks domestic when you get to the wonderful entree of a fenced path with scores of stone lanterns and start being entertained by a dozen or so huge bosatsu, but there’s still quite bit to go.DSC01174This is Fudo Myo-o, a figure central to Shingon Buddhism. Fudo converts anger into salvation. The purpose of his crazed expression is to to frighten people into accepting the teachings of Dainichi Buddha. He carries kurikara, the devil-subduing sword which represents wisdom cutting through ignorance, and holds a rope in his left hand to catch demons as well as to bind and focus thought. He is often seated or standing on rock because he is immovable in his faith. His aureole is typically inflamed, which according to this strain of Buddhist lore, represents the purification of the mind by the burning away of all material desires.The_Five_Wisdom_Kings His buddies are the five Wisdom Kings (at left) which (or who) share some of his characteristics.

This is a taste of the endless texture of Shingon Buddhism. No Buddhism is straightforward, but Shingon Buddhism’s precepts appeared to be buried in a vast mountain of imagery, ritual, story, myth and endless personages and personifications.

For example, Shosan-ji means Fire Mountain Temple. The dull version of its creation (around 700AD) credits En no Gyoza, an ascetic who founded Shugendo, the religion of mountain worship which interlaces with aspects of Shingon. A racier version has Kobo climbing to this point through the flames after battling with and defeating the dragon which had set the slopes alight. Got it? My point. A lifetime of study would barely be enough to become familiar with this version of the universe.

Whatever happened, whoever built this glorious temple in such an inaccessible spot … well, they did something remarkable. And not only did we get there, they had vending machines.DSC01177Non-pilgrim walker slumped drinking two cans of Suntory Boss Ice Coffee Blend in front of 60m cedars at Shosun-ji, after a fabulous walk. But then of course we had to get down.DSC01183It looked easy. We found bits of the road and were supposed to find short tracks to cut across the huge hairpins. Some we found and some we didn’t, ending up in a sort of shadow game with a young pilgrim both of us assuming the other knew where they were going. I was holding our map ostentatiously, but like all maps at this time of day we were about a kilometre behind where I thought we were. We stopped the shadow game, had a yarn, told him where we wanted to go and he zipped off at speed. (He hadn’t done the climb from Number 11.) In a few minutes he was waving and pointing. He’d found our minshuku (big b&b, small guest house). Arigato, my friend wherever you are. Arigato.

Although only by ten minutes, besides being smelly and tired we were late, a bad move where mountains and hosts are involved. You might have had a heart attack, gone over a cliff or more to the point ruined the timing of the delivery of the dinner courses. We’d been put in separate rooms which was corrected simply and easily. But the bathing arrangements were not quite intelligible. Men could use the women’s bathroom as long as they didn’t use the bath and didn’t go into the bathroom when women were actually in there. I think. Then in short order on entry I put my pack in the wrong place. I lurched on the verandah and stepped on the ground shod with indoor shoes. I trod on the tatami with slippers on. I pulled out the bedding and put it together the wrong way. I sat on the lacquered table and left a mark. (Hmm I don’t think I’ve told anyone that. Do NOT pass it on.) Making a cup of tea I pressed the wrong button on the Thermos and water squirted all over the matting. Bloody hell.

DSC01189I would do none of those things usually, and our hosts were extremely gracious and forgiving, cooking us a terrific meal. However two middle-aged, gimlet-eyed female guests were monitoring our every move to see what infamy we (Myrna was in this too. She washed her clothes in a hand basin and wanted to leave them to drip on the tatami!) would commit next, and the intake of breath when I staggered off the verandah in my indoor shoes was like the hissing of a snake.

You do sleep well after a lot of exercise, especially after a good big helping of anti-inflammatories, and there was no urgency in the morning. There were three possibilities from which we chose the ‘lots of temples but not the 3.5 hour walk to get to them’ option which meant finding a bus in Yorii 4km away at 9.59. Easy. It was a delightful stroll down the road next to the river in the cool of the morning and we got there an hour early. IMG_5378I watched the kids going to school and examined a remarkable sport-proof fence 15m high that surrounded the playing field with an ingenious system of stiffening by cables with zig-zag buttressing. And with the gracious assistance of a stonemason’s products, I studied up the day.

Our bus arrived on the dot and going the right way, two commendable and encouraging things. When our driver established that we were off to Ichinomiya Fudashomae, the temple stop, he made every effort to make our trip interesting and comforting by pointing out features and using every bit of English he had. It’s always such a pleasure when you see that light click on in someone’s eyes: Ooo something a bit different. I will rise to this occasion. I can make something of this. And he did.

At 7.25 the next morning at Tokushima Station, some distance from Yorii, we boarded the bus for Ikuna, and who was driving it? Our man.DSC01244This was the day of small miracles.

DSC01200We got off at Number 13 Dainichi-ji, The Temple of the Supreme Buddha Dainichi. It had lots to interest us and lots of 0-henro action for mid morning. Its accessibility on a main road may have been a factor, but it also has this rather striking statue of the bosatsu Kannon, the goddess of mercy, enclosed in prayerful hands. Several pilgrims took our photo; it must have been a slow day shutter-wise.
DSC01203Over the road was the Ichinomiya Jinja, a major Shinto shrine with big horses and a large stone construction which suggested Shinto’s animist roots. In addition in this photo you can almost see the entrance to the Ichinomiya Castle ruins, to the path up to them anyway.

Despite creaky legs and being bit post-Shosun-ji generally, Myrna thought we should go up and have a look. While you’re there you need to do everything. (Sutra) After nearly turning around half way up, we climbed steps up several hundred vertical metres to see this, and to enjoy a breeze which was undermining the impact of hard midday sun.DSC01206The track would take us through the those paddies, across the bridge, through the intersection of the two green hills in the mid ground and eventually to Tokushima in the far distance. Several temples were bedded in the back of the hill on the left. It all looks so easy.

We crossed the river and lo and behold there was a bank of vending machines. In Japan, this should come as no surprise. But a caffeine hit was exactly what was required. (Real pilgrims may well have sworn off caffeine, alcohol and all artificial stimulants for the course of the pilgrimage. You could say, they don’t know what they’re missing; but of course they do.) We drifted along the footpath on the main road and suddenly a car pulled up and the driver started gesticulating wildly. Despite the iced coffee we had no idea what she was talking about. Then she opened the door and made to usher us into her car. She was looking after us. We’d missed a turn off the path 50m back and as far as we could work out, later, she wanted to drive us to the temple. I’m calling that (very) small miracle number two. I checked the map and we backtracked onto one of those wandering back lane/ back yard/ paddyfield walks that I enjoy so much.DSC01213

This dekotora (decorated truck: go and have a look) was just one of the many points of interest. The house it was parked near had a Japanese garden with the lot: lantern, rock, bamboo, okarikomi-trimmed bushes, colour variation, water feature, maneki-neko (welcoming lucky cat), religious figurine — in a very small space. It looked even better in the flesh than it does in the photo. Subarashīdesu!


DSC01216We were welcomed by another sort of cat at Joraku-ji, The Temple of Eternal Peace. Awa Kokubun-ji, Awa State Provincial Temple had been built as a result of an edict in 741. The current building (at right) DSC01225is on or near archaeological remains of the original and just as the guide book says, it exudes age and atmosphere.

Kannon-ji, The Temple of Kannon the deity of mercy and compassion, might be the temple I remember least well, although I do remember this statue. DSC01228A great deal of the imagery and statuary we saw was concerned with the protection of the health and welfare of children. Placing a bib on the infant is a worshipful act reflecting a specific or general request for care or intervention.

The other reason I remember it is the third small miracle. A 70 year-old pilgrim 16 temples into his second full pilgrimage had been staying with us at our minshuku. He had left at 6.30 and walked many more kilometres than we had but we had caught each other up and found that our walking pace was close to identical. The beat of his stick on the pavement was unvarying, metronomic, providing an irresistible discipline. He knew the way and although he spoke no English for an hour or so we became cheery companions of the road.DSC01230DSC01231


Here he is at Ido-ji, a magnificent suite of buildings and artefacts, directing us to the bus stop we need to get to our accommodation at Tokushima.DSC01235 Ido-ji means ‘The Water Well Temple’ and we were hustled into the well enclosure (above, but look at those azaleas) by an elderly woman (at left) to see if we could find our reflections. Yes and things were fine; no, and you would be subject to an accident in the not too distant future. DSC01243
I couldn’t see mine as it happened and when we were sitting at the bus stop wondering from which direction we might expect it … well, it was four minutes late and there wasn’t going to be another one for an hour regardless of the direction. An ageing woman cycled up and assured me the bus had gone. We consulted the schedule on the lamp post together and I thought not. But as the actual bus per se trundled up the alley she was still insistent. In a cosmic sense of course she was right. All buses have gone, except those which are still to come. Zen.

Twenty minutes to Tokushima Station. It should be straightforward but we collectively still had a degree of watchful unease. New place. We had no idea if it was bigger or smaller than Geelong. And was the station the terminus? Probably was. If so we could just lie back and forget about it. Enjoy the scenery. But what if it wasn’t? Twenty minutes passed. 300 had clicked over on the fare grid a while ago. We were several minutes past due arrival time. I place these facts before you now for reasons of exculpation. Then I saw a big sign saying Eki, ‘station’. I asked the driver if this was the case. He agreed that this was indeed the case, even if his expression suggested otherwise. I pressed the stop button and he let us off.

We walked the 500 or so metres to Sako Eki and it was pretty smartly apparent we were in the wrong place. I’ve just now counted 13 eki in Tokushima City and we weren’t at the one we were looking for. Close, but no banana. We discussed this matter with the woman at the ticket office, showed her the relevant section of our detailed itinerary, ‘the white book’, and she sold us tickets for the next train to take us to our intended destination. We weren’t fully relaxed but the matter appeared resolved. A train came quickly and we were eating an excellent softu crema from a Willie Winkie Baked Cake Shop when I asked Myrna for the white book to check how to get to our ryokan. She thought I had it etc etc and no one had it, and we were ruined, damaged, defeated, wiped out, in shreds — anything to avoid saying rooted. At least I knew where it was. I could see it sitting right there on the ticket counter at Sako. Raced to the ticket machine, all in kanji — I might as well have been sticking a finger in my eye for all the good that was. But of course one of the virtues of JR is that its stations are quite heavily personned with persons who want to be helpful. A rather cross guy pressed the button that turned it all into English and squeezed ¥320 out of us for two tickets back to Sako.

It was the post school special and the two-carriage train was full of school kids. For some reason it wasn’t going. I think they were adding a carriage. Suddenly there was a disturbance in the crowd. Two young JR officers, girls, were running through the crowd on the platform and began gesturing at us. ‘Passoporto’ I thought they were saying. Bloody hell. What now? Come on. We have issues to resolve. But it wasn’t ‘Passoporto’. It was ‘Pasmo’. I’d tucked my Pasmo card in the back of the itinerary to use when we got back to Honshu. They had the white book and all its contents and it was being sent to Tokushima on the next train which was already nearly there. Three minutes later we were presented with the lot in a sealed envelope (except strangely enough for the Pasmo card which didn’t bother me one bit). The ¥320 for our tickets to Sako (4 bucks Australian) were refunded. 

Apart from weeping with gratitude, several things occur to me. That we were found so readily in busy Tokushima Eki (Geelong x2, with a lot more involvement in train travel) indicated just how many non-Japanese were around. We didn’t see any for five days. Anywhere. Second, how smart was that ticket lady at Sako? Not just polite and helpful but quick, efficient and effective. Third, a big call, but nowhere else in the world would this happen. There are a lot of reasons to really love Japan.

From there it was a very straightforward walk to our accommodation, not five minutes away. We were welcomed by a superstar of the hospitality industry who that night fed us, among endless other things, Tokushima noodles with conger eel. But there was so much more.DSC01308

#1 Finding the Entrance


O-henro (honourable pilgrims) in front of a statue of Kobo Daishi with Ipponsugi, a named and noteworthy cedar, at the highest point of the climb on the second day. Kobo looms as you climb the last stretch, a long and steep flight of steps. Gambatte, do your best … In this case I think we already had. 

As we got on the bus at the remarkable shrine to train travel that is Kyoto Station I began thinking again about a question that had been vexing me.b03202en_map01

The Shikoku 88 is one of the world’s great pilgrimages, perhaps only to be matched in general terms with the Camino de Santiago which begins, well wherever, Poland for example, but in most versions walking across the top of Spain to finish in Santiago de Compostela. From Roncesvalles to Santiago is 750km. The complete distance of the Shikoku route, visiting all 88 temples circumnavigating the island and arriving back at Temple 1, is somewhere between 1200 and 1600km, two or three months walking. A quarter of a million people walk the Camino annually. About the same number complete Shikoku 88 but mainly by using transport other than feet. Busloads of 0-henro lining up to get their nokyo-cho stamped were a regular sight.

And that’s the point. ‘Remember this is a religious journey, not a stamp relay or a back-packing route.’ That advice recurs. I’d read and screwed my nose up a bit at an account by a young American who treated it as an ultra marathon finishing the lot in 27 days. That seemed like wolfing a gourmet meal while reading a comic. But we were only doing small bits — by my reckoning in ten days we walked about 140km — and I knew little about Buddhism and nothing about the practice of Japanese Shingon Buddhism or the mass of stories with which it is embroidered. Although from time-to-time I offered some very half-hearted prayers, we weren’t seeking healing, favours or nirvana. On a practical level I wanted to be respectful but hadn’t done any research about what might be appropriate behaviour in visiting temples. That might strike you as remiss and in retrospect it was.

We could have kitted out at Temple 1, Vulture Mountain Temple. It was all there: oizura (white cloak or vest), sugekasa (conical hat), kongo-zue (staff with decorations and bells), juzu (prayer beads), zuda-bukuro (a small satchel to keep all your pilgrim stuff in), o-samefuda (name slips), senko (incense sticks, which I investigated but didn’t really know what I was looking at) and a nokyo-cho (below, a stamp book to collect the often very beautiful insignia of each temple).nokyocho I thought about it. Even as souvenirs, but of what? Wouldn’t it just be a version of fancy dress? Most unsuitable for what the vast majority of pilgrims treat as a most serious undertaking. As it happens I was so discombobulated I didn’t even buy a guide book which, despite having our inch-thick wad of paper from Oku to protect us, would have been a good idea. One dominant thought was that anything we didn’t eat we’d have to carry.

So if not pilgrims what? Not quite tourists. We were going both too purposefully and too slowly to be proper tourists. Too purposefully … what was the purpose? The purpose was to enjoy a series of walks on this famous route: and that means, scenery, exercise, varieties of food and accommodation, but also learning what you can from the experience along the way. And if you want an insight into a part of Japan not much visited by non-Japanese this was an exceptionally fine way to do it.

Walkers then. Even if Myrna did wear her white shirt, and even if I did get John Bunyan’s ‘Who would true valour see, let him come hither‘ jammed in my brain, we were walkers. But walkers in the warm clasp of a particular backdrop. On the very first night we stayed in temple lodgings and were vigorously encouraged to participate in a Buddhist service. Not actually no attendance, no food; but vigorously. Big, muscular, fit, this monk didn’t speak much English, and no one else spoke any. Shikoku is not downtown Tokyo with multi-lingual signs and plenty of people wanting to try their English skills out on you. There is very little romanised signage except for JR, Japanese rail, bless them, and major road signs and the strange bits of English you get on shops. What I mean is ‘徳島市’ rather than ‘Tokushima City’.

We were at least partly in the Oku bubble. Oku (‘inner part’ in the sense of things you wouldn’t see normally and hence to some degree ‘outside’) is a travel company which, among other things, offers a number of self-guided walks in Japan. We had been very pleased with their design and support of our walk along the Nakasendo Trail, so when they offered this set of walks we were interested. When the offer corresponded with some cheap airfares to Japan we became more interested. When Myrna made a rather remarkable recovery from a hip replacement we thought we’d do it.

Oku plans the route, books accommodation, provides endlessly detailed track notes and guidance and off you go. It does its work so effectively and conscientiously that you can live by ‘the white book’ — the itinerary which regulated our lives so protectively outside the walk, enabling us to do what we did. We moved our luggage twice by Takkyubin, the amazingly efficient Black Cat couriers, but during the second half of the walk I was only carrying a slicker, an iPad, passports, money, lunch and just as it happens a hardback copy of The Teachings of Buddha.

Ten days seemed about right. Retrospectively the five days on the Nakasendo had been too short. For most favourable results visiting all 88 temples in leap years you are meant to go gyaka-uchi, backwards, anti-clockwise, but in some disorder we went from 1-3, then 6, 11&12, 13-17, 20&21, 82-80, 56-58, 59&51, 45,44, 60-62, lurching from Tokushima, the region of spiritual awakening (in terms of the pilgrimage), to Kagawa the region of nirvana, and then to Ehime the region of enlightenment, missing out Kochi the region of training in asceticism. final-88_ProfileIf you look at this set of elevations you’ll be able to see where we spent most of our time just by noting the lumpy bits. We didn’t miss the training in asceticism entirely. The walk contains nine nansho temples, ‘difficult to reach’, sometimes ‘dangerous’, ‘rough place’ or even ‘chokepoint’, where o-henro korogashi, ‘pilgrims tumble’. We got to a number of those.


[Note to self. Avoid photos in hat, however protective, and baggy shorts. An elderly bikie took this photo.]

But we’d got on the right bus in Kyoto, crossed the longest suspension bridge(s) in the world628 which connect Honshu, an intermediate island called Awaji, and Shikoku, and got off where we were told to, Naruto Nishi bus stop, and sort of looked around. That first moment … I don’t care who you are, you’re just not with it.

DSC01067We found the stone steps as required and shot up them, well past the metal gate (as specified) which would take us through the German Forest, a war memorial that you mightn’t have imagined being there. A couple of turns to find a main road and walk along it for 420m. (Don’t you enjoy that degree of specificity. In Tokyo we found signs that offered Ueno Station as being 675m. away. Ueno Station is the best part of a kilometre long and has a dozen entrances. Where do you measure from? But that’s not the issue here.) Far more to the point, how hard can this process be? Yeah, well … we could really have been anywhere.

Over the paddies and rooftops I caught sight of a golden cupola confirming our direction and we arrived, as noted, somewhat discombobulated, at Temple Number One, Vulture Mountain Temple, with the availability of softu crema with the big white swirl an important augury. Many temples have vending machines and I can’t tell you how grateful we were for this. Feeling somewhat cut adrift, we collected ourselves over a bowl of noodles.DSC01072We set about what we could do, and although it is not always the best advice, in some circumstances it can be quite helpful to just get walking. Almost immediately we started DSC01160noticing the little red and white pilgrims which so helpfully marked the way. Motion; and this track of course was easy. If you couldn’t get from Temple One to Temples Two and Three you simply wouldn’t be trying.

Although I didn’t realise it, we were walking around the northern suburbs of Tokushima City, the biggest city on Shikoku with a population about twice that of this blog’s yardstick, Geelong. Note the banks of azaleas. A week or two off full glory. This kid said ‘konnichiwa’ and gave us a slight bow as he rode past. DSC01092When we were uncertain a head would bob up from behind a fence and point, gesticulate and wave us along. We stopped to look at an orchard where all the fruit had been encased in bags to grow blemish-free. A passer-by stopped to discuss this with us in an enthusiastic and emphatic fashion.

We arrived at Number Two Gokuraku-ji, Celestial Temple, and as we bowed at the sanmon gate I suddenly thought, this is going to be Christmas. This is going to be better than I could have imagined. DSC01098 (2)As so often, the temple complex was embedded in a very pleasant garden full of enticing mysteries. I never unravelled most of these, but you could begin developing your own constructions of it all. DSC01097For example, at left are bussokuseki, forms of very ancient Buddhist icons from a period when icons of the Buddha were forbidden. (‘Thou shalt have no graven images.’ There is obviously an urge to make the ineffable visible and concrete which has a huge impact on the practice of any religion. Humans are easily distractible.)

The bussokuseki contain the circular wheel of life fundamental to Buddhist thought and swastikas on some of the toes representative of well-being. (Left-facing rather than right-facing as used by the Nazis.) A lotus is probably there somewhere. The fish suggest, to me, fecundity or productivity. A principal tenet of progression towards Buddhist enlightenment is ‘Knowing and seeing what is the path and not the path’, followed by ‘knowing and seeing the way’. Feet, pilgrimage, walking. These symbols talk regardless of language.

DSC01100That day I thought the bussokuseki might be connected directly with Kobo Daishi (below) and the pilgrimage and constructed a little story for myself about it. He is supposed to have planted this massive and somewhat decrepit cedar in the grounds of this complex which would make it at least 1181 years old. Its provenance wasn’t so important to me, but for ten days Kobo Daishi was a constant presence. He’s the guy.

220px-Kukai2Born in 774AD a kilometre from the temple where we stayed on this first night, he is the founder of Shingon (True Word) Buddhism. His own enlightenment seems to have been derived, initially at least, from long periods spent in isolated mountain retreats chanting sutras. An exceptional student, he gained the trust of his Emperor and was included in a state mission to China, Xi’an in fact which is a long way from Tokushima City. The story goes that he completed a prodigious feat of learning there, memorising in 3 months what usually took 30 years, and came back to Japan to spread Esoteric Buddhism. Esoteric: abstruse, obscure, arcane, rarefied, recondite, abstract, difficult, perplexing, enigmatic, inscrutable. Why would you be spreading this? What sort of rod have you made for your own back? Other perspectives suggest that Shingon introduced or enhanced ritual (especially the use of mantras) in a religion that had focused on good works and personal action.

When we arrived in Japan I was reading an absorbing study of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, ‘Why Angels Fall’, by British journalist Victoria Clark. She notes the way that these churches accommodate, even drive, the two extremes of relationships between church and state: phyletism, the absolute combination of church and state of which Serbia provides an outstanding contemporary example; and hesychasm, the doctrine of inner silence, whose adherents isolate themselves from society as far as possible. Buddhism is as subject to these avenues of behaviour as any other religion.

How do you get your word across? When Kobo returned to Japan the Emperor who had provided him with patronage had died and the new ruler was more inclined towards Tendai Buddhism founded by a contemporary of Kobo’s, Saicho. I quote here from the guidebook: After repeated requests from the senior monk, Kobo Daishi taught Saicho the first two initiations in Esoteric Buddhism, but not the third and final initiation required to qualify as a master of the religion. From this, bitter rivalry ensued between the two men. When Saicho demanded to be taught the final lesson, Kobo Daishi responded, ‘You cannot learn Esoteric Buddhism from books. Understanding must come from within.’ 

In 810 he made himself useful to the new Emperor by carrying out certain esoteric rituals which were said to ‘enable a king to vanquish the seven calamities, to maintain the four seasons in harmony, to protect the nation and family, and to give comfort to himself and others’. It was from this point he proved his gifts as an administrator and organiser establishing a headquarters on Mt Koya south of Osaka where there are still more than 100 Shingon temples. Just prior to his death in 835AD Shingon ritual became incorporated into the official court calendar of events, and just two months before his death, Kobo Daishi was granted permission to annually ordain three Shingon monks, ordination being a process strictly controlled by the state. Koya-san went from being a private institution to a state-sponsored one.

If they want to be successful (and what is a successful religion? Number of adherents? Their relative fervour? Wealth? Certainty of redemption?) religions are left with no alternative but to hook up with some very earthly practices. Four of the 88 temples are Kokubun-ji ‘Official State Temples’, built at the behest of Emperor Shomu, a devout adherent of Buddhism; and despite the privacy at the core of Buddhism, the pilgrimage’s tracks were not built by wear from hesychasts’ rope sandals.

It is not the fact of these anomalies of logic or consistency of perspective that is interesting — they are entirely to be anticipated. It’s the way they play out in different settings.

But the walk, the walk.

Where does one look for guidance?DSC01102 These finger boards were one source of information. The symbols on the stem tell us we’re on the route — note the top one — and the kanji on the horizontal are the names of the temples. After a while and given our eccentric route, to generate another source of confidence we decided we would learn the first two characters of the temples we were heading for. Here we’re between Numbers Two and Three, Konsen-ji, the Golden Fountain Temple, where we arrived at the side gate on a track between paddy fields.DSC01103

Konsen-ji was another remarkable affair. I’m struggling for the right adjective. Complex, interesting, picturesque, potent, beautiful — all those.

DSC01106 (1)About a kilometre away was our bus stop. It had been quite hot, about 25C, and humid and there was a shop right there at the stop, so I tried my hand at getting some drinks. I chose two from the cabinet and had a handful of cash, but the shop lady waved me away. What had I done? Were these not for sale? Didn’t I have enough money? But she was smiling and mimed drinking them. A light went on. This was our first experience of ossetai, the practice of giving pilgrims drinks, food, money, souvenirs, free medical treatment, a lift, to help them on their way. In return I should have provided an o-samefuda, a name slip, but I was a long way from having a grip on anything like that. I just thought what a sweetheart, my primary concern being that we were on the right side of the road, because I was only guessing the direction the bus would take us in.

When you’re linguistically disabled you reach for as many cues as possible. For example you need to know that local buses in Japan operate on a system whereby you take a numbered ticket on entry and watch an electronic grid above the driver to see how much you need to pay. ‘160’ (yen) in box 6 it’ll go, then ‘210’, then ‘260’; in one mighty case ‘1790’. And you will tip exactly that amount into the fare collection box as you exit. If you know how much the trip will cost, you’ll have a rough idea when to get off. That’s one cue. Then of course you can ask, and alert, the driver when you get on: ‘Sumimasen. Higashihara?’ ‘Hai. Hai.’ ‘Arigato.’ You think that would be enough, but you diligently watch the fare screen knowing that you need to pay ¥330. Then the recorded woman’s voice of which you get almightily sick says ‘Higashihara. Higashihara. blah blah blah Highashihara.’ You’d think that would do it wouldn’t you? That would be enough. And there is a bus stop there. And the driver is making gestures. So you get off. You’re there.DSC01114But where exactly? You are in the middle of a series of paddy fields after a long day and there appears little option but to place your fate in the hands of the almighty. However, the only other guy on the bus got off with us and while he hadn’t gone the full o-henro I guessed our destinations were the same. And that he knew the way. So we chased him down the road.

Over that bit of a bridge above was our destination, Anraku-ji, Number Six, The Temple of Tranquility, and the customary first stop for walking pilgrims as it has shukubo, pilgrims’ lodgings (and mineral baths, and a pine tree which protected the meditating Kobo from the arrows of huntsmen who mistook him for a wild boar, and amazing decoration on the ceilings of the Hondo, etc etc.). We stopped for a softu crema at the temple shop. I think grape and persimmon flavours. I might have that wrong, but they were the best we had anywhere. We gathered strength and wandered round to meet the muscular monk and our accommodation. Dinner at 6.00. Meditation at 7.00. Quiet after 9.00. Breakfast 6.30. Bath here. Room there.DSC01125

Dinner was the first of 8.4 out of 9 excellent evening meals. (There were four six-star efforts among them. Extraordinarily excellent food.) We went to our assigned seats. If you work out, and follow, the (very many, so very many) systems in Japan, everything will be just fine. Our assignation was with dining companions who spoke English. How thoughtful. And Roy and Yolande, who tomorrow will be sending Le Tour off from Saumur with a heap of friends, turned out to be wonderfully interesting people making their own intrepid investigation of Shikoku. I did ask why they chose to stay in shukubo and I’m not sure if I got their answer. I think the siren call of adventure.

I was clapped out after dinner but, seamlessly, another young monk turned up to get us prepared to head straight off to whatever the correct term for a Buddhist service is. We each had bits of paper and slivers of wood to write on. One requirement was for your birth date, another was for wishes you wanted delivered. I didn’t quite have a grip on what was happening, but while you’re there you need to do it all.

We headed off into the temple with the 40 or so others who presumably were staying there. They had been at dinner. There were bells and shakers to summon the attention of the deities (deities? Can you say deities? This worries me), some chanting by the monk and then some collective chanting. This was followed by an occasional address in which the word or sound ‘nay’ was constantly repeated. If it was a Christian service I thought it might have meant ‘sin’ or ‘faith’ or ‘good works’, but on further investigation we found that it was a filler like ‘yeah’ or ‘and so on’ or even ‘like’. We were led further into the temple, a rather stunning experience because this was where all the treasures were. We lit incense sticks, stuck our o-samefuda on an image, set fire to our wooden slats (a goma ceremony as I now know) and circumambulated the temple’s magnificent honzon three times. I went to bed on the floor wondering if I’d done anything correctly. There would have been a system and I didn’t know it.

A honzon is the effigy or image of a temple’s primary what? God, deity, or do we say Buddha (except Buddha was someone else), or bodhisattva (and in Japan anyway bosatsu) perhaps? 

yakushi 1 resized_150107034514Q. on the internet: ‘Do Buddhists Worship Idols? A. Buddhists sometimes pay respect to images of the Buddha, not in worship, nor to ask for favours. A statue of the Buddha with hands rested gently in its lap and a compassionate smile reminds us to strive to develop peace and love within ourselves. Bowing to the statue is an expression of gratitude for the teaching.’

Mmmm well … the honzon of this temple is Yakushi Nyorai who/which has a particular interest in ensuring your good health. (One image of Yakushi Nyorai is at left. The one we saw was several metres high and deeply invested in shiny gold leaf.) I’m sure we were engaged in something worshipful and I think quite a few favours were being asked — and I suspect that is a major reason for many pilgrimages — but of whom or what? 

My reading suggests that in some forms at least Buddhism has much in common with contemporary physics. The idea of multi-universes is taken as given. Human beings are viewed not so much as consistent individual physical entities as collections of constantly changing bundles of energy influenced by karma (the choices being made and the conditions in which that energy is operating). The film ‘The Matrix’ is occasionally offered as providing insight into the nature of the Buddhist universe. The task of improvement includes freeing yourself from the anchorage of the senses and the bondage of egotism. Buddha was not a god. He was a man who found a/ the path to enlightenment which begins with the realisation and acknowledgement that life entails suffering. We don’t worship images or even seek comfort from them. Self improvement is an intensely private journey driven by personal responsibility.

But what did I say above? It is not the fact of these anomalies that is interesting — they are entirely to be anticipated. It’s the way they play out in different settings.

As my journal from that night says: ‘It’s a rich life. Very tired and just ever so slightly freaked out.’ But let’s move on. That’s only one day. A great deal lies ahead, some of it very steep. (Below: A Yakushi Nyorai mandala.)