Sunday, 27 April 2014

Reaching the Pacific

A henro rest hut
The day after 'The Pilgrim Crusher' trip to temple 12 we took a day off and lounged around all day in the Michi-no-eki, in Kamiyama onsen and the camp field doing nothing in particular. It was lovely. Later that day Hamish, the guy we had met at Temple 8 turned up with his friends and camped in the same field. One of them, Espen, was using a hammock, a piece of equipment that looked impressive but I wondered how practical it was to find trees at every camp site.

The following day we were up and away early, early for us anyway, and were on the road by seven o'clock walking back along a quiet winding road into Tokushima for the next cluster of temples. Temples 13-17 are laid around the outskirts of the city and we visited them all in one day, before heading back into town to sleep.We camped in Kuramoto Park which looked leafy green on the map but turned out to be a massive baseball stadium. Still we found a patch of grass between the stadium and the main road and tried to get some sleep while the traffic roared by.

The following day was a long walk through Tokushima but at last we were heading south. The first 17 temples feel like a mini-pilgimage, a training run as you circle around the city before taking on the Pilgrimage Proper. Hopefully we were up to the task this time.

We stocked up on gas on the way out of town before looking for somewhere to stay. For the second night this turned out tp be next to a busy road, this time in a small but very nice henro hut. The only difficulty was there was nowhere discreet to have a wee which I overcame with the judicious use of an empty pot noodle container.

Rice planted
And so on to Onzanji, temple 18 and 19, Tatsueji. We were crossing one of the plains between the mountains now, through countless small paddy fields being planted out with rice shoots. During the middle of the day the sun felt baking hot between the mountains with not a breath of wind. If it was this warm in April what would June be like? Memories of last year's attempt to cycle this pilgrimage and the oppressive heat we experienced were still disconcertingly fresh in our minds.
'We'll just have to walk through the night,' said Mick.
'Won't that be dangerous?' I said doubtfully. 'What with traffic on the road parts and narrow paths in the woods?'
'Ok, we'll leave at first light,' he said. 'We'll get up at four and set off at five.'
This did not sound tempting but I decided not to argue. Instead I said, 'it'll be cooler on the coast anyway.'

Temples 20 and 21 are both up mountains. We decided to stay at the michi-no-eki at Katsuura below number 20 and tackle them both in one go. At Katsuura we headed down to the town where there is a sento tucked away next to the hospital which opens to the public in the evening. There was a little confusion when we turned up, as my very short hear resulted in me being mistaken for a man. It was only when I opened the door to the changing rooms and gave a little shriek that the poor woman showing me in realised her mistake. 'Sorry, short hair,' she gestured apologetically, showing me to the ladies changing room.

Woodland path
The walk up to temple 20 the next day was steep but very agreeable as Mick put it, a climb up through pine and deciduous woodland, with flashes of bright pink and red azaleas amongst the trees. The walk down the other side was steep, steep, steep though, down through the forest to the valley floor before climbing up again to Tairuji, temple 21. Tairuji is my favourite temple so far, beautifully laid out on several levels connected by stone steps and beautiful little arch bridges, with red and vivid green acers and pink cherry trees, still blossoming here on the higher slopes. We spend a long time sitting here enjoying watching the pilgrims come and go and listening the the calls of birds that I could not identify.

Temple 21


…and steps
Finally though we decided to head down. Just after the main gate a wooden post indicated a path through the forest rather than down the switchback road and we took it. It headed east along the ridge for a while before finally dropping down. The only trouble was it seemed to be dropping down to the north of the mountain not the south where we were headed. Finally, and far too late I checked the compass. Yup. We were coming off the wrong side of the mountain. One of the pilgrim oaths which henro pilgrims are supposed to subscribe to is: 'I will not complain if things do not go well while on the pilgrimage but consider such experiences to be part of ascetic training.' I wondered if exclaiming 'Oh bollocks!' in a very loud voice counted as a complaint.

As it turned out it could have been worse. We asked for directions and were told we had a 6k walk back to the bottom of the road we should have come down. But bad enough after two mountains climbed that day. We both secretly hoped that the woman who explained this to us would offer us a lift but none came and we trudged off down the road.

Crap place to camp
We camped outside another michi-no-eki (Mick has a thing about needing to camp near a toilet) and the next day woke to a dripping wet tent. It must be raining. We put off getting up for a while, and it was only when we finally emerged from the tent that we realised that it was not raining, but that we had camped under a badly designed roof that had been dripping on us all night. Mick tried to blame me for this debacle which I protested and some rather choice words followed, causing me once more to recall that pilgrim oath. There seemed to be a lot of oaths on this pilgrimage but not quite of the right sort.

Snake in the grass

But we had a grand day, despite a 5k detour to a non-existent supermarket. Instead we feasted on fish from a local shop which was delicious although I have no idea what it was. While we were stopped resting on the side of the road we met the pilgrims from temple 12 who had laughed so heartily at our plans. It was really nice to see them and they seemed pleased to see us too. We exchanged snacks and address details and then for the rest of the day we kept passing each other, all the way to the coast.

Now THAT'S what I call a rest hut!

Henro man
The first sight of the Pacific was terrific, as we wound our way down to the little fishing village of Yuki. We planned to camp at Tainohama beach. The way on seemed to be up a large flight of steps. We puffed our way up them, and then up some more. Mick muttered something about being an effing fine way to finish a day's walking, as we made our way wearily up. But then we came to a viewpoint looking out over the ocean and it was suddenly all worth it. The late afternoon silvery light reflected in the calm water as it lapped rhythmically on the beach far below us and beyond the mountains rippled away down the coast, reaching to the water's edge and plunging far below the surface. From here it was a trot down to the hut alongside the beach where we set up camp and sent to sleep listening to the sound of the waves coming ashore.

Today we reached Hiwasa and after visiting the turtle museum spent the day doing some long overdue laundry before tomorrow's big push down the coast.

Camp at Tainohama Beach

Fish sorting - Kiki
Ohama beach Hiwasa, 
Street light, Hiwasa
Foot spa for weary travellers at
michi-no-eki, Hiwasa
Doing the laundry


Yakuoji, Temple23

Monday, 21 April 2014


It’s now Monday and we are on our fifth day of pilgrimage. We arrived on Shikoku last Wednesday, having caught the overnight ferry from Wakayama. We spent Wednesday shopping and preparing for the trip before heading to the Michi-no-eki a kilometre away from Temple one which has a large expanse of grass where we could set up camp. The next morning we wandered up to the shrine called Ōasahiko Jinja. Our guidebook told us that is is believed that by many that by visiting and praying here one will be protected while on the road, and we figured we needed all the help we could get. (Shrines are associated with Shinto and temples with Buddhism. Many Japanese practice both faiths.)

(left to right) Rachel, a henro whose name I never discovered,
me, David and Mick
Day one was great – we met our friend Rachel, a former Shikoku 88 o-henro who completed the walk solo last autumn, an awesome achievement in my book. (We met Rachel last time just after we gave up cycling the route but at the time I was too downhearted/embarrassed to admit it. But we got on so well and as I wanted us to be friends I was later forced to confess the truth.) 

We also met up with David Moreton author/translator of the definitive guidebook for English speakers of the Shikoku Pilgrimage: the 88 Route GuideAlthough the pilgrimage is well signposted, the Route Guide has details of all the henro huts (shelters), supermarkets, convenience stores toilets etc. etc. I would not walk the pilgrimage without it. We were still clutching the copy we had used last year which by now was missing its cover (from when Mick threw it into a bamboo forest then, realising what he had done, made me dangle off the road to fish it out, the argument being he could pull me back out whereas I couldn’t pull him). David told us there was a new edition with updated information so we trotted into the shop at Temple One to buy a new copy which I insisted he sign for me. 

After the four of us had consumed a fine lunch next door to the temple, Mick and I set off, accompanied by Rachel for the first three temples. Each one was as beautiful as I remembered, each one different, a constant surprise and delight. We took out time and so when we had finished at  number three time was getting on. We said goodbye to Rachel and headed back to the Michi-no-eki- by train for a second night.

Most of the route is well marked
The next morning it was hammering with rain so we took a while to get going. Finally though, there was nothing for it but to head off. I put on my new kneelength Sealskinz socks, shorts and cutoff waterproof trousers. A bright yellow cape over my rucksack completed the ensmble. I looked like a cross between Billy Bunter and the hunchback of Notre Dame. Mick on the other hand was looking very suave and very Germanic in his felt hat and goatie beard. So Germanic that one passer-by commented that his English was very good! “Danke,’ Mick replied. 

Temples three to six involved a meander around the wide alluvial plain behind Tokushima. It is fertile land here and we passed fields of onions and cabbages set out in orderly rows, and walked along small suburban streets of houses with immaculate gardens and grey tiled roofs. We spent the second night in tsuyado – free temple accommodation – situated in the bell tower of Temple Six, complete with the bell!
Flooding the fields ready for rice growing
The bell tower Temple Six
Our accommodation 
Wisteria at Temple 8
The next morning we were feeling peckish, having uselessly forgotten to buy any food at the last shop marked on the map. All we had eaten since yesterday lunchtime was an ice-cream from the temple shop. We had set off early today, about six o’clock, and for the first couple of hours nothing was open. We visited temple seven and temple eight, where we met the first English henro we had come across – Hamish from London – and managed to find nearby a shop selling bananas. But by the time we reached temple nine we were famished and very pleased to find a small udon-ya opposite the temple. The woman showed us the menu but we were none the wiser. Another henro was tucking into a bowl of udon which looked good so we pointed to his bowl. ‘That one please’ I managed in very poor Japanese. ‘Two please.’ Soon we were tucking into two steaming bowls of udon and were given to boot, some delicious kusamochi on the house. A traditional Japanese dish in spring, we had tried this the day before and loved it.
We struggled with the menu...

...but the food was delicious

Mr Yasuchi Mori
More kindness near temple ten, where a lovely shopkeeper, Mr Yasuchi Mori, gave us tea, looked after our bags while we walked up the steep hill to the temple and then on our return sent us on our way clutching gifts of bottles of water and some advice on the best place to stay the night. 
Mr Mori's shop

Awa-chuo bridge over Yoshino River

Outside our little henro house next to
Kamu no Yu Onsen
Steps at Temple Ten

Top advice as it turned out – next to an onsen (a Japanese hot spring bath) was a tiny Japanese house for henro complete with tatami mats, electric light and sockets. We unpacked our gear then went for a welcome soak in the onsen. In the bath I chatted to a woman whose English was very good, her daughter it turned out, had studied at Essex University. Afterwards she told me to wait and disappeared, returning a few minutes later with a bowl of carrot and egg salad for our supper. Awesome.

Our accommodation at the onsen
Mick and I were a little apprehensive of day four – a short walk to temple eleven then a days hike through the mountains over three peaks – a walk popularly known as ‘the pilgrim crusher’ We had intended to set off at six but as usual, by the time we had faffed around packing, brewing coffee etc we were running late and we finally left our little house at seven to tackle the mountains. I was paranoid about not having enough food after the temple six cock-up over nourishment so was staggering under the weight of countless rice balls, pot noodles, a pot of yoghurt and pastries. It was so heavy I was forced to consume most of it at Temple Eleven before we set off, which of course did not make the first steep ascent any easier as I tried not to vomit. But we soon got into our stride and although it was a bit of a climb, it was not terrible. After all we live in North Devon so steep inclines are not exactly unknown to us. The weather was perfect, slightly chilly but dry, and we had a fabulous day hiking high above the plain where we had fabulous views across to the next range of mountains. This is one of ‘the last remaining paths of Kukai’ no tarmac or modernisation on this route. Much of the Shikoku pilgrimage is on roads and we are prepared for that. But this day hiking through the forest as we climbed up and down one peak after another was truly memorable.

At the top of the third peak is Shosenji, temple twelve, set magnificently overlooking the valley below. We performed our usual temple rituals and then called into the little café to ask for some water. We were given a pot of green tea and biscuits and when we tried to pay were told nicely but firmly, ‘no, no charge’.

We had passed another, older Japanese couple on the mountain and they appeared now waving to us as they climbed the steps. We greeted then and stopped for a chat with them. They asked where we were staying and I fished out the guidebook and pointed to a spot about eight or nine kilometres away. ‘Walking?’
‘Yes,’ we said. At this the man literally roared with laughter, head back and holding his sides with mirth. Finally he wiped the tears from his eyes. ‘We are finished for today,’ he said. He pointed below the wall of the temple. ‘Taxi’.
How wise. That final section was the hardest part of the day, down a winding mountain road which went on forever. But we knew that at the end was a superb onsen and we wanted to soak our aching bones. We headed straight for it and afterwards set up camp in the little park behind the onsen building. Needless to say it was not long before we were both sound asleep.

Here are some pictures from the walk from Fujidera (11) to Shosanji (12)

Jizo Bosatsu

The path

Time for a brew

Mick - mountain man

One of my favourite snacks - rice triangle with
mystery filling 

Path to Temple 12

The best way to travel!

Monday, 14 April 2014

Back in Japan

Shaving my hair before leaving
When we abandoned the Shikoku pilgrimage last year we had no idea we would be returning to Japan so soon. I had anticipated it being at least a couple of years before we'd be able to come back. But Mick is keen to have another go. And as he offered to pay for me to come along as well it seemed churlish to refuse…

So we are heading back to Shikoku to attempt the 88 temple pilgrimage again. This will be my second attempt and Mick's third. I have written previously about my reasons why I think we failed last year and this time we have tried to address the problems by a) not bringing bicycles b) arriving here earlier in the year when it is much cooler and c) allowing ourselves lots (and I mean LOTS) of time, up to 85 days. Frankly, if we can't walk this pilgrimage in that time then it is unlikely we could finish it at all.

My old rucksack
Mick's Osprey Kestrel
As usual I have dragged my old kit out of the cupboard while Mick has used the trip as an excuse to go shopping. I have a rucksack I bought in the St Nicholas Market in Bristol for £20 in about 1982. Mick has a brand new Osprey Kestrel 68 rucksack with Airscape back panel, compression straps, multi-pockets, pole attachment blah blah blah…

Shoes - I am wearing the Merrell shoes I bought last year for the SWCP while Mick has purchased a pair of Salomon Campside mid boots for the trip. I did, however, invest in a new pair of Bridgedale Trailblaze socks. Mick of course had to outdo me and so he bought three pairs. I will write a full kit list when I can be bothered. But right now I'm a little weary, having arrived in Osaka this morning and have now not slept properly for about 32 hours.

At Bristol Airport

The offending curry
We flew from Bristol, rather than travel to London. I like Bristol airport. Heathrow is grumpy and busy and makes me feel tense. Bristol airport is so laid back and good tempered in comparison. Although Mick did get a scare at customs. He had brought a chicken madras curry along for breakfast. (Chicken madras at six in the morning is more than I can face but he seemed to think it was a good idea.) As we walked through security one of the staff enquired as to the owner of the curry.
'Er that's me,' said Mick, embarrassed. 'I suppose it's over the maximum liquid allowance?'
'No it's not that,' said the custom's officer. 'I was going to put it in the microwave, I'm a bit peckish.' He gave it back and Mick tucked into it while we waited for our flight.

My sister had dropped us off. As she hugged us goodbye she said, 'now, may the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back…how does it go? Anyway, whatever, just don't fuck it up, ok?'
Don't fuck it up. Brilliant advice to which I shall do my very best to adhere at all times.

At Schiphol Airport - I want I want I want
We changed at Schiphol where we caught a direct ten hour flight to Kansai International Aiport. Mick had a minor panic when he thought the Osprey had flown but it eventually emerged on the baggage carousel and we made our way across to the station and caught the direct train to Tennoji in Osaka. After the last visit we knew the ropes a little at least and bought tickets from the machine rather than join the massive queue of visitors in the ticket office and before long we were whizzing through the Osaka suburbs.

So, we've now been in Osaka long enough for Mick to buy a trekking pole at Montbell (excellent outdoor shop) and for us to stock up on camping gas. We've filled up on octopus tempura and baked aubergine from the supermarket and we're ready to head back to our favourite little bar, tucked down a backstreet near Tennoji station for a couple of pints of draught Asahi before we head back to our hostel, Tennoji Guesthouse, a small but friendly and spotlessly clean little hostel just down the road.

Tomorrow we will catch the train and then a cable car to Mount Koya, which pilgrims traditionally visit before starting on the Shikoku 88. I'll talk more about that next time but for now I'm off to the izakaya.

Izakaya in Osaka


 Oyasumi nasai