Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Saijo and Niihama

Friday 20 April

After our efforts yesterday climbing to Yokomineji, today we decide to be content with a 15k amble to Saijo. Along the route today are temples 61-64

Temple 61, Koonji, is unusual - the main building is a huge brown concrete building which looks more attractive than it sounds. Visitors can enter the main hall of the temple via a flight of steps on the side of the building where rows of red velvet seats face the altar. We sit for a while n the front row, resting and admiring the lavish gold decoration of the temple and the golden statue of Buddha.

I am not too sure what is going on at Hojuji, Number 62. In the car park of Temple 61 there is a temporary office for Number 62, where pilgrims can obtain a stamp to show proof of visiting. According to our guidebook this is because Temple 62 does not welcome pilgrims from certain bus companies (many pilgrims visit the temples on specially organised bus tours). Temple 62 is also the only temple that does not belong to the Shikoku pilgrimage temple association. We remember this temple from four years ago; then it was a sorry sight, uncared for and dirty. To refuse to welcome pilgrims does not seem in keeping with the spirit of the Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage and as we have elected not to bring a nokyocho -  pilgrimage stamp book - on this occasion and we are not visiting all the temples anyway, we decide not to visit Hojuji. 

Instead we visit the launderette on the opposite side of the road. The place has window blinds so I quickly remove all my gear and don my over-trousers and rain jacket and chuck everything into the washing machine. In the meantime, Mick goes off to the local convenience store to buy some coffee. He is a little worried on his return, to see a police car with flashing light parked outside the launderette and me in conversation with the police officer. The officer nods and smiles to me and drives off and Mick turns to me. 
'Everything ok? What did the police want?'. 
'Don't know, he emptied a box outside the launderette then came in for a chat.'
'Are you sure he was ok? I thought you were getting arrested.'
Not long afterwards another policeman, this time on a motorbike, parks up and comes into the launderette, wishes us good luck and then disappears again.
'Now what did he want? says Mick perplexed. 'That's two of them. How odd.'
I shrug. 'No idea. But they seem friendly.'

The next temple is only a short walk away so, with our clothes now delightfully fresh, we visit Kichoji and then head on towards 64, Maegamiji. Just before the temple is a huge tori gate which leads to Ishizuchi Shrine. This is the first of four parts to this shrine; two more are located on the mountainside and the final part is on Mt Ishizuchi-san itself. It is a beautiful shrine and worth the additional steps we have to climb to reach it.

I like the wooden tengu, supernatural beings known for their long red noses.

Mick says he can detect a resemblance...

We head into Saijo after visiting Temple 64.

Saijo is an industrial town  - as far as we can tell there is not a huge amount here for the visitor - but it does have good water. Saijo is famous for its spring water which can be obtained around the city at uchinki water fountains and we fill our bottles before heading down to the banks of the Kamo River to camp for the night.

Saijo Water Fountains

As the sun dips below the horizon, a cloud of bats come from the trees to feed and we enjoy watching them swooping and diving for their prey before turning in for the night.

The Median Tectonic Line is Japan's longest fault line and it runs right through the north of Shikoku island. The result is a mountain range which rises abruptly from the flat coastal plain leaving only a thin slice of land between mountain and sea. As we make our way east, we walk along this plain with the mountains rising up on our right hand side. The route is for the most part along quiet residential streets behind the main Route 11. Mick complains I am hogging the map so I allow him to navigate for a brief time but it doesn't last. He soon gets bored of  checking the map and I get exasperated at his lacksadaisical approach and so we agree I will be in charge of the map.

I allow Mick to navigate...we are soon lost
We are now in Niihama, location of the Besshi copper mine. The mine dominated this area for three hundred years until it closed in 1973 and was the primary source of wealth for the Sumitomo family, now one of the largest companies in Japan.

We leave the pilgrimage route to walk up a traffic free cycle path, along the line of the Old Dozan Railway. A left turn at the top brought us to Oyamazumi Shrine and the Besshi Copper Mine Memorial Museum, established by the Sumitomo Group to mark to the closure of the museum. There is no entry fee and the exhibits and photographs offer a fascinating glimpse of life in the mountains behind us when 10,000 people lived and worked the mines here. Afterwards we take a short walk up the valley. Farther on, the industrial remains of the mines are now becoming a tourist attraction.

That night we once again camp alongside a river, this time the river is the Ashitani. The bats are here too although not so plentiful as at the Kamo River, and the sound of water running over the stones in the shallows is therapeutic as we go to sleep.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Imabari to Yokomineji

Monday 15 April - The breeze off the sea is welcome  - the temperature is beginning to ramp up now and is in the mid 20s although the nights are still a bit chilly in my summer climate sleeping bag.

We are off the 'official' route and walking along the coastal path. To start with the route passes around a harbour with pleasant gardens but as we head down the coast road the houses disappear and are replaced with a line of derelict hotels, no doubt victims of the fancy new hotels at Yanoura Heights, high on the ridge above us.

We stop to admire this man's beautiful garden

A derelict hotel

The road becomes more overgrown and then turns into a sandy track which is getting ever narrower. Bound by cliffs on one side and the sea on the other, we are just beginning to think - horrors -  that we will have to turn around and retrace our steps when we suddenly find ourselves in a smart campsite with brand new sinks supplied with soap and washing up liquid. Joy! We take the opportunity to wash our smalls in the sinks and hang them in the sun for a while.

Lovely campsite!

We are heading towards Saijo city now; making our way towards the next temple which is inland and up a mountain. We camp in a local park again that evening, and plan to have a quiet day the following day.

A rest day gives us chance to catch up on chores such as  -

Hanging out the washing:

Doing the housework:

And the washing up:

The weather is fantastic for the climb up to Temple 60, Yokomineji. The route heads up a long river valley along a quiet road which eventually terminates at a hut. From here a steep flight of steps are the route on for a 450 metre climb up to the temple which sits near the top of the mountain at 750 metres above sea level.

A few cars are parked here and we talk to one man who tells us he climbs up to the top of this peak every week. He waves to us and sets off briskly up the steps while we labour slowly behind him us carrying our big backpacks.

The path is well maintained and is enjoyable to walk. 

Yokomineji Temple was quiet with only a few pilgrims present when we reached the top. The site is small and serene, and the air refreshingly cool after the heat of the plains below.

At the temple, another pilgrim advises us that the view of Mt.Ishizuchi is particularly good today which spurs us on to climb another 600 metres up the track from the temple to Hoshigamori. The pilgrim was right, the views are breathtaking.

There is a trail down the back of the mountain from here which takes you on to Mt Ishizuchi-san but sadly this will have to wait for another time. 

Instead we follow another trail which leads out the other side of the temple towards Komatsu Oasis. We do not like this trail much. It is narrow and high with vertiginous drops. We are both keenly aware that to topple off here would be an end to the walk and possible an end to everything else as well. Mick, much to my surprise given his vertigo, makes no comment and follows behind me without saying a word. We both know there is no going back now and so we are committed to heading down, come what may.

The route follows what appears to be an old streamway and is uneven and steep. But eventually the path mellows and becomes a pleasant and undulating walk through pine forests. On the lower slopes, bright flashes of azaleas line the route.

At a break in the trees we can see the route we took this morning up through the valley: 

Once down we head straight to Komatsu Onsen and reward our efforts with a long soak in the hot springs in baths with views across Saijo before a tasty meal in the restaurant and a beer.

The final treat of the day is a marvellous sunset as we settle down in our tent for the night. Today has been a good day.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

From Matsuyama to Imabari

Thursday 12 April. We walk out of Matsuyama heading northwest towards the coast. Soon the square concrete blocks of houses and neon lights give way to square rice fields and wooden houses with roofs of blue or silver-grey tile.

We are heading for Temple 52, Taisanji, around 10 kilometres away. Along the way we pass a reservoir where clusters of turtles are warming up on the concrete bank. As we walk past they all take to the water - plop, plop, plop  - dozens of little black heads bob up and down on the surface of the green water. After we have walked by I pause and look back. One by one the turtles are resuming their positions, scrambling back up onto the warm concrete.

Taisanji is set in woods a short climb from the road. As we make our way up to the temple a man in a car calls out to us. 'Osettai, osettai! Please wait!' He pulls into the carpark and jumps out of his car. Going round to the boot he opens it and fishes out two oranges for us. We thank him, and he then gives us two biscuits as well. Then he reaches into his boot again and brings out a large notebook. He opens it and shows us the contents. It is full of messages and photographs of foreign henro who he has met over the years. Arita San has been offering osettai to foreign henro for almost 20 years and has been keeping a record of their country of origin. He is also trying to get more signs in English to help foreign henro. We all visit the temple together.

After we wave Arita San goodbye we head off towards Temple 53 just a short distance away and then begin to consider our accommodation for the night. Small local parks are always a good bet - they almost always have toilets and a water fountain and nobody seems to mind. We find a park just off the main road and once it is dark we settle down for the night.

Stealth camping has its downsides - one of which is that in order not to be a nuisance we aim to be away not long after dawn. (I won't call it 'wild camping' - the only 'wild' thing about our camping last night was the colour of the children's play equipment).

So the next morning the alarm goes off at 05.30am and we are  up and gone by 06.30 am before too many people are around. Today's walk is mostly along the coast. The weather is superb, bright and sunny but with a cool breeze, perfect for hiking. We are heading towards the northern coast of Shikoku which is the islands more industrially developed and populous side, being closer to the larger island of Honshu.

We reach a small town called Kikuma and the road is lined with tile factories. The town is famed for its decorative roof tiles and at the back of the town, set into the hillside is the Kikuma Roof Tile Museum. We camp near here under wisteria trees for the night.

Tile Museum

We are heading towards Imabari, an industrial port on the north of the island. On the way into the city we reach Shikoku's answer to Milford Haven, a huge oil refinery which dominates the skyline. Right next to the site is a small temple, dwarfed by the huge metal towers, a stark reminder of the juxtaposition between ancient and modern which is a constant feature of this walk.

Imabari is also the starting point for the Shiminami Kaido, a magnificent cycle route which crosses six islands via seven fantastic bridges. You can read about my 2013 cycle trip on the Shiminami Kaido HERE. Bicycles are now easy to hire for those who want to cycle the route, which you can read more about HERE.

As we enter Imabari, Mick's watch bleeps a storm warning. I am dubious about Mick's watch. It tells us we are 6 metres under the sea when I know for a fact I am sitting on a hill, it cannot tell you which way is north without Mick performing an elaborate figure-of-eight movement with his arm for ten minutes and the walking distances it comes up with are barmy. So I take the warning with a pinch of salt.

But as we head into Imabari large drops of rain start to fall. By the time we reach the centre of the city it is tipping with rain. There is nothing much to do in Imabari at 5pm when its raining so we mooched about a while, hanging about under covered walkways and in the ferry terminal until it was getting dark. We set up the tent in a local park and went to sleep listening to the rain splattering on the tent.

In the morning it has stopped raining. We are up at 06.0am and Mick announces he is going to the local conbini (convenience store) for a coffee. (Convenience stores in Japan have good food and all the general necessities for daily life. They have coffee machines and kettles of hot water. They have toilets which are invariably spotless and many have seating areas and charging points. They are open 24 hours a day. As a traveller, convenience stores are a godsend.)

Giant propeller in the centre of Imabari

Cemetary Imabari

With no sense of timing I suggest to Mick that we could save some money by brewing our own coffee, here in the (very wet) park. 'No booze, no bed, no bath and now you want to deny me coffee?' he says incredulously. Hmm, perhaps he is right, I could be taking this ascetism too far. I follow him over the road to the convenience store.

It is Sunday 15 April and we are now heading out of Imabari. At the first temple of the day we are sitting watching people praying or lighting candles, and generally enjoying the peacefulness when a tall Westerner wearing a bandanna appears. He heads to the bell tower and rings the bell, as is the custom when arriving at a temple. The sound reverberates around the grounds but not satisfied, the guy grabs the rope attached to the large piece of wood which acts as a hammer and this time rams it even harder onto the bell. 'Oh my god!' I mutter, putting my hands on my ears.

Just then the head priest walks by. Noisy Guy strides over to him and grabs his purple robes. 'Hey man, nice colour!' he exclaims. To his credit, the priest is restrained and simply nods and walks on. A Japanese couple lean over and explain that the priest is very famous. 'He wrote a book which has been made into a film.'
I couldn't take any more. 'Come on,' I said to Mick. 'Let's go.'

The next temple, Senyuji, is 250 metres up a mountain road. Resting in a hut we meet Thomas, a softly spoken young man from Sydney, Australia who tells us he had been saving for this trip for a long time. At the top of the road just before the temple we meet a lovely young Japanese couple. Both encounters are a welcome antidote to Noisy Guy and help restore my equanimity.

After the final temple of the day. Kokubunji, Number 59, we decide to head out towards the coast at Sakurai to find a spot to camp for the night.

Shaking hands with Kobo Daishi
We find a great spot next to the beach. A local couple are walking their dog and we ask whether it is ok to camp here. They tell us it is no problem. For once we can set up before nightfall which gives us chance to dry the tent and  - luxury!  - we decide it will be fine NOT to get up at the crack of dawn and we turn off our alarms.

It is the evening of the 4th day since we left Matsuyama (Sunday 15 April) and we have walked around 70km. An average of 15-20km per day suits us both and my leg seems happy too.