Kobo 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.
I’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.Note 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.One 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.’
In 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.’
This 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.
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.
At 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.The 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 made 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.This 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. 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.Non-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.It 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.
I 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. I 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.This was the day of small miracles.
We 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.
Over 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.The 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.
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!
We 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) is 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. A 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.
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. 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.
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.