The 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.
We 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. I 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.
This 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.A 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. We 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.
We 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.I 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.Except for these guys — the number of Japanese, in Ehime at least, it takes to dig a hole on a Sunday morning.Carefully 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.
It 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.
And 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, 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. We 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:We were welcomed by another champion of the hospitality industry.A 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.
Sunday 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.At 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.