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

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: