Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Road to Ryōzenji

We were on day 59 when we left the Chisun Hotel and walked the short distance to Konzōji, Temple 76. We had already been walking longer than most people take to finish the pilgrimage and we still had another twelve temples to visit and around 135 kilometres to walk. But this is not a race, I reminded myself. We had always planned to take our time. Last is the new First. After all, we already have the Slow Food Movement and the Slow Bicycle Movement. Mick and I are thinking of setting up the Slow Walk Movement, to promote slow walking everywhere. Why rush when we may never pass this way again? Ok, that's our excuses for being slowies over with…

The weather had been kind to us considering it was the rainy season; after the first few days of June it has stayed dry most of the time and although it is very humid the sun was not as burning hot as it had been during May. But how long could our luck with the weather hold?

We were now walking through the urban conurbation at the top of Kagawa Prefecture. Urban areas created more problems for finding somewhere to camp and we were reluctant to spend a third night in accommodation (reluctant due to our budget rather than for any masochistic preference for sleeping in a tiny tent). Late in the afternoon we visited Temple 79, Tennoji, where I had read there was a tsuyado (free temple accommodation for pilgrims). I asked at the office but was told there was no tsuyado so I asked whether there was anywhere nearby we could camp. The answer was a regretful shake of the head. We started walking down the road when we heard a call behind us. Another couple of about our age had been walking along just behind us and they were also carrying their tent. The woman beckoned to us to come back. Her English was limited and my Japanese had not improved itself during our stay but she conveyed to us that we should wait for the temple to close. I wasn't sure why but, taking her advice we sat on the steps and waited. Her husband tried to speak to us in Japanese but soon gave up and I wished for about the billionth time that I knew how to say more than "I am from England' and 'Excuse me, we are lost.' Leaving his pack, he disappeared off down the road. Meanwhile his wife had directed us to the shrine next to the temple. 'Ok,' she said, pointing to our tent.
We put our tent up and she put up theirs. A while later her husband reappeared, he had walked down to the convenience store some distance away. He brought over two cans of beer and some skewers of meat. 'Osettai' he said. 'Gift'.

The next morning they left promptly at five heading towards Temple 80, Kokubunji while we tried to wake ourselves up with copious cups of coffee. Eventually we followed. We had some climbs ahead of us today, onto the Goshikidai Plateau where temples 81 and 82 are situated. Mick dubbed Shiromineji, Temple 81, 'Worship through the giftshop'; the Daishi Hall was situated at the back of the shop and you had to look at it through trays of trinkets and keyrings which we found a little odd. But the walk on the plateau was fabulous, undulating through pine trees, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. We stopped at a small udon-ya for some lunch then walked on to visit Temple 82, Negoroji. I loved this temple, it was beautiful and even now in summer the Japanese maple was a stunning contrast of reds and greens; in autumn it must be superb. One of the huge pleasures of this walk was the anticipation each time we stepped through the temple gate, never knowing what surprises each temple would bring.

After Negoroji we walked through Takumatsu City, stopping for a while at the 300 year old Ritsurin Gardens, beautifully laid out with lakes, tea-houses and bridges. But we had not long entered when Mick had a 'moment'. 'I can't go on, Ellie, I can't do this any more,' he said, plonking himself down on a bench. I slapped him round the face and told him to shape up. (Only kidding, I gave him a banana and some peanuts.) We rested for a long time in the park and a lovely lady gave us two fans to help keep us cool. Once again we had been given a boost by the kindness of the local people here.

Ritsurin Garden, Takamatsu

Gift of fans

Temple 82

That evening we pitched our tent next to a small lake in the middle of a little village. Soon we had become the subject of much attention. In a good way of course. A man taking photographs by the lake went off and brought his family back to say hello. Later his wife returned with some sweets and some freshly cooked onigili (rice balls) filled with salmon. Another man gave us fruit. And even after we had tucked into bed and gone to sleep we heard someone calling only to find a another couple of ladies who had stopped earlier had gone home, packed up some food for us for breakfast and driven back with it! Blimey. If two strangers turned up in an English village and pitched a tent on the green would they get the same welcome? I suspect not somehow.

Uphill again the next morning to Temple 84. This morning it was my turn to have a 'moment' and I grumbled and scowled all the way to the top. Then down again and up again…then I thought about our friend Rachel who had walked this pilgrimage last year. She knew how hard it would get for us. When she had said goodbye to us at Temple One she had given us an osame-fuda (nameslip). Pilgrims write their name, address and date on them and place them at Temples and also give them to those who offer ossettai (gifts). They are different colours depending on how often one has completed the pilgrimage (by whatever means, whether bus, car, walking etc). Brocade slips are given by those who have completed the pilgrimage over 100 times. Rachel had given us a brocade slip that she had been given on her pilgrimage. The number on the back said 219.
'Carry this with you,' she had told us. 'Remember, it knows its way.'
Often, when we struggled to carry on I thought of Rachel's nameslip and Mick told me he did too. 'We can't give up,' we told each other. 'We have to carry the nameslip back to Temple One.' Thank you Rachel.

Brocade Nameslips
On the afternoon of Day 63 we arrived at Nagao michi-no-eki (road station). We had visited 87 of the 88 temples on the pilgrimage. Only one more to go then there was just the 40k walk back to Ryōzenji, Temple One. The only problem was that before reaching Temple 88 there was the small matter of climbing Mount Nyotai. Mick had been scaring himself for days by reading about the climb up which apparently involved some scrambling up a rock face. The best thing, we decided, would be to put it off.  We decided to have the following day as yet another rest day. In any case we wanted to visit the nearby Maeyama Ohenro Salon. We set up camp next to the reservoir opposite the michi-no-eki. We treated ourselves to a couple of bottles of beer and then realised that we still had not remembered to buy ourselves a bottle opener. Mick opened the bottles on the stone steps, succeeding in chipping the neck of each one as he did so. We drank them gingerly, watching out for slivers of broken glass, as the liquid slid down.

Not recommended...

Osettai from a local lad
Some signposting is a little confusing...

The next morning we visited the Ohenro Salon and were presented with a certificate and a little badge, given to walking henro who get this far. My certificate was numbered 2497. As the year ran from July to June and we were mid-way through the latter, not many more than 2500 would be issued. Not everyone stops here of course, but this tied up with the estimates we had read of 3000-5000 walkers per year. Of these around 50-100 or so are foreigners. The manager of the centre handed us the certificates. 'You need to read and understand what it says,' she said to me. I read the English translation:

 This is to certify that you have successfully completed the 1200km of Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage on foot and that you are named as a Henro Ambassador. We wish that the interaction with the people, the culture and the nature of Shikou enriches your life and that you will spread the Henro culture worldwide.

As I reached the end of the paragraph I burst into tears.
'Hard walk?' asked the woman sympathetically.
'No. Yes. I mean, it was difficult but I'm crying because it was such a lovely thing to do,' I said incoherently, sniffing into a tissue she had handed to me. We drank green tea and looked around the henro centre which had some great exhibits showing the history of the walk. This year was 1200 years since its inception when Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism, first established the pilgrimage and pilgrims have been following the route ever since. There were old stamp books with ink stamps from each of the temples visited, some of them so many times that the pages had turned entirely red with ink. Walking this pilgrimage had been walking in history. We also signed our names in the register and were pleased to note some familiar names of people who had passed ahead of us (by now everyone we met had long since gone home and were no doubt settled in front of the telly with a beer watching the world cup). Hamish, Nico, Kenji, Chiaki had all signed the book and received their certificate here.

Proudly receiving our certificates

The next morning we knew we had to get on with it. We had our certificates now, we had to get this walk completed. We left at five thirty, amazed that once again we had a dry day in this rainy season. It seemed the rains had not come this year. As is so often the case, anticipation was worse than the reality, and the walk, though steep, was enjoyable as we climbed ever higher. There was indeed a scramble at the summit up over rocks where we were mindful of keeping our balance with our 10k+ packs on our backs, but it was only short and quite good fun. As we pulled ourselves up some new metal handles newly placed into the rocks onto the summit we were rewarded by terrific views, even through the summer haze, back down the mountain.

Walking up….

At the top of Mt Nyotai
Walking down...

The path down to Ōkubunji, Temple 88 was hard on the knees as it dropped steeply down the other side of the mountain but it was not long before we were walking through the temple gate with great big grins on our faces. Many people leave their staffs here, considering that it's job is now done, but I decided to hang on to mine until we reached Temple One. The temple was busy with pilgrims and we received many smiles and good wishes as we walked from the temple down to the cafe outside. Fortified with large bowls of udon we headed down the road. Almost there!!

Staffs at Temple 88

Temple 88

Some of the path between Temple 88 and
Temple 1 is very overgrown...

True to form, it would be another four days before we finally completed the walk through the mountains over Ōsaka-Tōge Pass to Ōasahiko Jinja Shrine and walked the final kilometre down the lantern-lined road from the shrine, under the huge torii gate and arrived at the entrance to Temple One, Ryōzenji. It was 68 days after leaving here on 17 April. It seemed such a long time ago. Then the temple had been bustling with pilgrims, now it was quiet with just one or two people walking in the gardens. We both felt a little choked. Mick has wanted to walk this pilgrimage for the past ten years. He came out to walk it in August 2009 but it was too hot. We tried to cycle the route in September 2013 and gave up at Kochi. Now, finally, we had done it. I left my staff at the temple and we went to the stamp office to get a temple stamp. We were delighted when the monk there gave us each a bracelet as a present for completing the pilgrimage. For us it was a final reminder of why this walk is so special, as we recalled all the gifts, kindness and support we had received as we had travelled around this amazing island. It was an experience that I knew neither of us would ever forget.


I'm writing this from the comfort of a hotel room in Tokushima where we are spending a few days  relaxing before travelling around Japan for a couple of weeks, not on foot this time but by train. My head is full of the experiences of the past two months and I'm trying sort the jumble out into a coherent narrative of our journey. And through it all a thought occurs and a smile spreads across my face. I remember Bristol Airport all these weeks ago and I say out loud to Mick, 'I need to tell my sister, we didn't fuck it up!'*

*see post dated 14 April 2014

The road to Ryōzenji

At Ryōzenji, Temple One


  1. Amazing! Congratulations, what an incredible journey!
    PS how about the Pacific Crest Trail next?!

  2. Great blog and a fantastic achievement!