Yeah, 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)My 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.
The 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.On 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.Above 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.When 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.We 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.
As 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.
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.Another 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.
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.One of the issues was that there kept being things to look at and enjoy, like these ancient man-made dirt ‘bridges’ between two humps …hollowed out versions of the track, here on a detour that extended the journey …and wandering down embedded stone steps while being assailed with constant birdsong.This 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?Fudo 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.
We 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.
And yes …with 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-ji, Iwaya-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.
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.