Friday, 13 June 2014

Shikoku 88 - almost there...

With Matthew and Noriko at the wonderful
Sen Guesthouse, Matsuyama
Perhaps we had stayed too long at Matsuyama. It felt so hard to get going again after our four day mini-break. On the other hand we really needed the rest time. In truth we could have stayed there another week and it would still have been hard to get going again. We had walked farther than we had walked in our lives before and we were dog tired. But on Friday morning after innumerable cups of coffee we finally said goodbye to Sen Guesthouse and shuffled our way out of town and towards the top corner of Shikoku. After visiting two more temples we camped in a nice looking park called Bunka-no-Mori and settled down for the night as soon as it got dark.
Camping at Bunka no Mori park

We were both fast asleep when a flashlight shone into the tent. Blearily I tried to rake together my Japanese phrases to explain what we were doing, walking the pilgrimage. Normally camping in a park isn't a problem but we had obviously inadvertently goofed this time. I assured the man we would be gone at six and he was fine with this. 'Good night,' he said, and left us to it. The next morning I noticed that there was a temple on the edge of the park grounds which we had not noticed the night before, so maybe that was the problem.
Cafe outside Matsuyama -
gave us free drink as walking henro

Matthew at Sen guesthouse had told us about Kashima Island, a little island with campgrounds not far from here. The little ferry was not the last word in style, it had a massive model deer stuck on the roof in homage to the deer that roam the island but when we got there the only deer we cold see were in a cage next to the  museum. It was a lovely place though, and nice and quiet so we decided to take yet another rest day and relaxed playing scrabble all day and camped overnight before catching the first ferry back in the morning. Although it had been lovely this would not do, at this rate we would still be walking this pilgrimage in September. We needed to up our game.

Sunset on Kashima Island
Petrochemical works - less scenic section...
Lovely Udon

Luckily or unluckily, the next section through Imabari did not make us want to tarry. It wasn't terrible, just boring, industrial landscapes. Trudge, trudge, trudge for the next few days up and down city streets with barely a bench or rest place for miles. Despite the effort I knew it would entail, I found myself looking forward to the next mountain temple. Mick, however was not. His combined phobias for snakes and heights meant he viewed the hillier parts of the trail with some trepidation.

We had now entered June, Japan's rainy season, and sure enough it started to rain. We decided to wait it out before climbing up to Temple 60, Yokomineji, which is at 740 metres up a mountain trail and instead detoured to Komatsu Oasis where there was a michi-no-eki and onsen. I had entertained hopes of trekking on from Temple 60 to Ishizuchi-san, which at 1982 metres is the highest mountain in Western Japan, but Mick was not keen to say the least. 'Don't you think we've got enough to do?' he demanded, 'without climbing mountains which are not even on the route?' I suppose he had a point, and in any event the weather made it impossible, even at 900 metres the clouds brought the visibility down to zero. Mount Ishizuchi would have to wait for another time.

Camping under  cover to avoid the rain
Coin launderettes mean clean clothes
…for a while
Just a few of the umbrellas left on trains
Two days later it was still raining and we gave up waiting and walked the path up to Temple 60. Yokomineji is the remotest temple on the Shikoku 88 route and the last one to have road access, although we would not be taking the road way. Despite initial trepidation about climbing up in the rain, it turned out to be a lovely path alongside a full river that tumbled down the mountain next to the path. We picked our way carefully up to avoid the many freshwater crabs or sawagani that were scattered across the path.


The top of the mountain swirled with mist and the temperature had dropped enough for me to don my jumper for the first time in weeks. We ate lunch in a room set aside for the purpose before winding our way down the other side of the hill and back to the michi-no-eki for another night. I wondered whether the staff suspected us of becoming permanent residents. But the following morning the rain started to clear and we finally set off for the walk across the top of Shikoku. It was a long straight road but at least every step now took us in the right direction. I was seriously flagging now, constantly checking the guide to see how far we had walked, and, more importantly, how far we had to go. We had been walking for 50 days and walked 'officially' 900 kilometres although our actual total was a little higher. Mick had taken to escapism, fantasising that he was lying on a beach with a pint of Exmoor Ale at his side…

We camped at a bangai (unnumbered) temple, Enmeiji. Already installed in the henro hut was a henro we had met way back before Temple 40, Zenku, who had told us he had been on the road for twelve years, and another henro on a moped who was taking two weeks to visit the twenty bangai temples of Shikoku. We had a lovely evening, the four of us, sitting at the table until late in the evening. Well, until nine o'clock anyway, which these days is way past our bedtime. And for the second time since Matsuyama, we broke our self-imposed alcohol ban with a bottle of cold Japanese beer while Zenku regaled us with tales of deadly snakes and insects to be found on the mountain.
'The mamushi is the worst snake,' he said. 'If it bites you...(Zenku waved his hand) then bye-bye. You go up there, (he pointed skywards) to heaven.' Then he started on the insects. 'There is a big insect, if you see it you must get down on the floor. If it stings, then bye-bye.'
'You go to heaven?' I asked.
He nodded. 'Yes, you go to heaven.'
'I don't want to know,' I said.

Hasa Gawa, Zenku and Mick
For some days now Mick had been muttering darkly about the next mountain temple on our route - Unpenji, the highest of them all at 900 metres. There was no putting it off though, and the next day we set off towards Togawa Park where we planned to camp before walking first to Sankakuji, Temple 65 and then on to Unpenji. The walk would be around 25 kilometres, and we hoped to stay at the temple when we got there. Zenku had reiterated several times that there was no food to be had on the walk so we set off staggering with the combined weight of several bags of peanuts, dehydrated meals, six boiled eggs, a bag of fruit and a litre of water. I could barely walk under the weight of it all.

There are three ways to climb Unpenji. I had wanted to climb the old pilgrim route but Mick, looking at the guidebook over my shoulder spotted the word "steep" written underneath that route. Another pilgrim confirmed that the easier route was through a 900 metre road tunnel and up the path on the other side. Well it depends how you define easy. Personally I would take a steep mountain path (plus deadly snakes and insects) over a tunnel with a six inch pavement and huge lorries roaring past every time. By the time we emerged at the other end my white jacket was filthy from where I had pressed myself to the wall every time a lorry roared past and I was weeping in terror. Mick was contrite. 'Ok, no more tunnels, Shortie,' he said. 'You're right, they're deadly. Next time there's a tunnel we go over the hill.' We started the climb up the mountain. It was crushingly humid and the way up was steep. But every time we stopped for a rest, mosquitoes would descend on us with relish and we were forced to start moving again. Finally we reached the top, only to find there was a shop at the ropeway station selling peanuts, crisps and offering complimentary cups of green tea.

Umpenji is a magnificent temple of beautiful buildings. It also strongly features an aubergine (eggplant) for reasons which I was unable to discover; you can sit on a brass eggplant and make a wish, which we did of course. It also had free accommodation in the form of a tsuyado which we gratefully accepted. At five the temple and the ropeway closed and all was quiet on the mountain. There was just the two of us and David, a German henro who told us he had come from walking the Appalachian Trail and found this walk easy after the AT. He was walking around 40k per day. At dusk Mick and I walked out to the ropeway station and took in the view across the city below with the Seto Inland Sea in the distance. On our way back to our room we were startled by a German Shepherd dog which suddenly bounded out of nowhere and began jumping up at us. Eventually a monk on a moped appeared and called the dog away, perhaps he had not expected to see us there.

Tsuyado at Temple 60

Some of the statues, over 500 in all, of Buddhists
 who have attained enlightenment

I dunno, this one reminded me of someone...
Pilgrims arriving on the cable car at Unpenji

Making a wish on the aubergine

The next morning we bumped into Kenji, whom we had not seen since Matsuyama. After we descended the mountain, we went for an udon meal along with another pilgrim, Chiaki who we had enjoyed chatting with along the road from Unpenji. We were now in the final province Kagawa, which is famous for Sanuki udon noodles. Chiaki ordered a cold udon and was given a bottle of soy sauce with his meal. Mick and I ordered the hot which comes in a warm broth. Mick reached for the soy bottle and simultaneously Kenji, Chiaki and the waitress all shouted 'NO!' The waitress lunged for the bottle and grabbed it from Mick's hand. Mick's face was so sunburnt I didn't think it could go any redder but it did. He had clearly committed a terrible faux pas, perhaps he had inadvertently cursed the table by using someone else's soy sauce? Later he plucked up courage to ask the other two what was wrong. The answer was disconcertingly straightforward. 'You should not add soy as the udon already comes in soup,' Kenji explained.

Chiaki was so hungry he ordered another bowl of udon, hot this time. He sprinkled it liberally with chilli pepper. 'So soy sauce is not allowed but chilli powder is ok?' said Mick. Apparently so. It was very confusing.
Kenji and Chiaki
The next section took us around the plains. We were feeling exuberant after putting Unpenji behind us. The end was surely now in sight! And herein lies a lesson - premature celebration can be dangerous. We had set up camp near the double temples of Kanonji and Jinnein. A supermarket was nearby and we relaxed our no alcohol rule (again) and treated ourselves to a bottle of wine and some sake. I am sorry to say that at this point we got a little carried away and made the fatal mistake of going back to the supermarket for another bottle of wine. The repercussions of this were that when we staggered into bed we did not fasten the tent properly. By the time we came round the tent was full of mosquitoes who were having a veritable banquet on our flesh. No more wine for me, I vowed.
The perils of too much wine and sake...

Temple 71 has many steps...

Camp at park -ok except for the boy racers and the wild dogs….
The following night we camped at a play park alongside another pilgrim, a smashing bloke called Chris  who was from Berlin.But during the night we were woken, first by a group of motorcyclists who were apparently so bored they spent their time biking round the park at night revving their 50cc two-stroke engines to a scream and then after they went I was awoken again, this time by a pack of wild dogs howling outside the tent. I found it unnerving and wondered how scared I would have been had I been camping alone. The following day we visited some wonderful temples including Zentsuji, birthplace of Kōbō Daishi. Here, for 500 yen you can descend below the main hall into a tunnel where you walk in complete darkness for ninety metres, feeling your way along the wall, known as the Kaidan Meguri. Mick did not fancy it and there were no other visitors so I was totally alone as I felt my way along, chanting a sutra as I went. The walk is circular and it is not long before the darkness envelops you completely. It is surprising how long 90 metres can seem in total darkness and silence.

We also stopped for a bowl of udon at a brilliant little place where the udon is made out the back and you serve it yourself. Even better - when we came to pay we were told that a 'man from Osaka' had left 5000 yen to pay for meals for walking pilgrims that happened by so we had a free meal to boot. Wonderful.

Lovely udon - which turned out to be free...

But fatigue was getting the better of us. It had been two weeks and many kilometres now since we had slept in a bed. Every day it was getting harder to keep going. My body stung from the bites we had sustained a couple of nights ago. We needed a break. I checked the map; the guidebook listed a business hotel near Temple 76. The hotel quoted 7800 yen including breakfast, around £21 British pounds each. The next morning I went back to the desk and booked us in for another night.  We felt that we had earned it.

Ooh, look what Mick found

Our route so far:

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