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 splendid 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.
Birds, 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.These 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. After 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.
The 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. Easy walking even meeting this friend on the way. The road led to a disused farm where this oddity appeared.As 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.At 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. Half 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.
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.
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.
Shiromine-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.
This 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.
Those 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.
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. We 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.
Konpira-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.
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.Before 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. But let’s plough on.
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