Shikoku, Japan 88 Temples Foot Pilgrimage; Climbing Mountains, Getting Lost, Jungle Roads and Visiting Temples 79-81
Today we had a tough day of mountain climbing, steep ascents and descents, up and down mountain peaks, WITH our heavy backpacks on our backs.
It wasn’t an ordinary day of walking, but a more challenging one, because the forest trail that we followed wound up disintegrating into an impassible jungle, and we had to walk through dense scrub bush and to climb a tall stone wall, in order to get to the road.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
We started the day with a lovely breakfast at the Sunroute Hotel.
They had a great selection of fresh, roasted and pickled vegetables, and I made myself a feast of good food.
After breakfast we got ready to check out of our comfortable room in which I had slept very well on a soft, fluffy pillow.
Jules put on his pilgrim’s white jacket that makes us look like we are dental hygienists, and asked me jokingly: “Will you be having the X-rays today, or perhaps the fluoride treatment?
We dentists always like to recommend that you have the fluoride treatment once a year.”
When I planned our walking route for today, I saw that there was absolutely no possibility for us to walk all the way from Temple 79 to Temples 80, 81 and 82, all in one day.
The distances were too great and the area is very mountainous and full of peaks.
I chose to make a shorter plan of visiting temple 79, then climbing up the mountain to temple 81 and then walking down the mountain on another path, to temple 80.
I booked a room in a small Ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) near temple 80.
Because we were walking from temple 79 to temple 81, there were no pilgrim’s trail arrows to follow, and no trail markings on our way up the mountain.
After visiting temple 79, I found the shortest hiking route on Google Maps, and we followed it towards temple 81.
Everything was fine for awhile.
The road meandered by the main road, which was lined with small trees that did not provide much shade.
It was a scorching and humid day of well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the trail became a forest road, initially both Jules and I were delighted.
We were happy to climb in the shade of the trees, which creates a cooler feeling.
But after a few kilometers of climbing up and up, the road turned into a path of overgrown weeds and finally disintegrated into a completely impassible jungle.
We tried to continue walking through the tall weeds of the jungle, but there were no longer any remains of the road to try to follow.
Reluctantly we retraced our steps back to the last part of the road where there was a turn in the road, and started walking up another forest path, that we hoped would connect to the vehicle road farther up the path.
We were walking in the wrong direction and making our route undoubtably longer, but we had no other option.
Along the way we came upon narrow mountain trails, that people have used to dump garbage from, or to send old junk cars over the cliffs.
Vines and weeds grew though the rusted metal of those cars and the jungle has covered them with dense overgrowth.
The road zigzagged up the steep mountain and then, for the second time that day, the path disintegrated and then disappeared altogether, becoming thick bush with tall weeds.
But according to my map, we were just a few zigzag turns from the car road, so we decided to try to climb through the jungle in a vertical line straight up, to make it to the road.
It was a muddy and miserable affair.
We were quickly covered in stickers and thorny vines and bushes poked us through our clothing.
Wild Rose vines and berry bushes scratched us with their thorns as we climbed up and up the muddy mountain, which was dotted with trash.
To top this, the area was infested with huge mosquitos, who seemed delighted to feast on the two idiots full of tasty blood who had come right into their forest home.
We were bitten everywhere.
I got sixteen mosquitos bites on one arm alone.
But there was no way back…we had to continue…
We finally made it to a spot from which we could see the white guardrail of the road, right above us.
But a tall stone wall separated us from access to the road.
The stone wall was covered by many years’ growth of green moss, and so it was very slippery as we attempted to climb it.
We decided to walk along the wall, until we reached a section of the wall that was a bit lower.
It was not easy to follow the wall.
Trees and tall weeds as well as thick vines blocked our way, but as Jules reminded us: “Living in the Wild Far North of New Zealand had prepared us for dealing well with impassable bush.”
We finally found a place in which the mountain and the mudslides had created a bit of an elevation, and we felt that this was our best spot to attempt to climb over the wall.
We took off our backpacks and shoulder packs, and Jules went up the wall first, using some trees to lift himself up.
When he was half way up, I pushed him from the bottom, hoping he would make it to the top.
I then handed him our packs and followed up the wall myself.
Jules reached over and gave me his hand which helped me up the wall.
We felt grateful to Kira (Jules’ daughter) who had just gifted us a rock climbing lesson, while we were in Boston together recently.
It made our climb up the tall wall less daunting, since we knew what to do and what to look for.
We quickly put on our backpacks, because the mosquitos were eating us alive, and climbed the last section up and onto the road.
When we were finally on the car road, we looked at ourselves and assessed the damage.
We were muddy, soaked in sweat, badly bitten by mosquitos and covered in plant stickers, but we had no serious scratches or injuries.
We decided to walk on the car road for the rest of the way.
It was much longer, adding another four kilometers to our walk, and it zigzagged up and up, but at least we knew that it would eventually take us to the temple.
After following a walking trail that had disintegrated and disappeared TWICE, I was no longer interested in following the walking route on my map.
It was a very hot day, and we had not brought enough water with us.
All day long we were conserving water as best we could.
There were no places to buy drinks and no houses from which we could ask to fill our water bottle.
After about another hour, we came upon what seemed to be a mirage, but was actually real – a small restaurant and cafe.
There was even a vending machine and public toilets, at the bottom level of the building.
I drank two bottles of cold water right then and there and refilled our water bottle.
In the toilet, I washed my face, neck and arms, using the little towels that we usually carry with us every day, to clean the sweat as we hike.
When we looked more or less presentable, (mostly less), we entered the cafe.
The friendly owner made us iced coffees and gave us some cookies as gifts.
We drank two large iced coffees each, sweetening them with the honey that we carry with us.
We rested in his air conditioned cafe for as long as we could.
We still had to visit temple 81 and to walk all the way down the mountain to temple 80, before five o’clock, when they close the temple’s gates.
It was already well past lunchtime, but I simply could not eat anything.
The heat and the exertion had made me lose all appetite.
We took our time to enjoy temple 81.
It is a real mountain temple with an important Shinto shrine that houses the ashes of Emperor Sutoku.
From there we walked into the forest following the pilgrims’ signs, but only backwards.
Many pilgrims walk the Shikoku path counterclockwise, so some of the wooden signposts point in either direction and give the estimated kilometers between temples.
The minus is that those wooden signposts are written only in Kanji, which Jules and I cannot read.
Before we started walking, I asked a young Japanese pilgrim to translate the Kanji Characters on the signpost for me, so I could memorize the character for Kokubunji, (temple 80) which was where we were headed.
She told me that she was also going in that direction, and showed me the Kanji for Kokubunji.
It started out as a lovely forest trail, but slippery in places and very muddy.
Clouds of mosquitos swarmed around us, biting us at every available opportunity.
We had to walk fast and take no breaks, just to outrun these ferocious mosquitos.
It soon became a treacherous path.
Our legs and feet were hurting and the path continued to climb up to the summit.
It then leveled off, and descended deeply into the forest below us.
I followed the wooden signposts with the Kanji characters, but at one point we caught up with the young woman pilgrim, who told us that we must retrace our steps and take a fork in the road to the right.
I was not sure why she said that, because the Kanji for Kokubunji clearly showed that we should continue to walk the way we were already going, but we decided to trust her and reluctantly climbed back up and retraced our steps to the last signpost.
As we got there, we met another Japanese pilgrim.
I asked him if he knew which way to walk towards Kokubunji, but he said that he did not know for sure, but that he thought we should take a path to the right.
I then pointed to the signpost and asked him to translate the Kanji for me, and he said that the arrow pointed towards Kokubunji.
This was really baffling to me.
Why would the young woman and the man, look at signs that clearly say Kokubunji was straight, and tell me to walk the other way, to the right?
Despite my better judgement, I decided to trust them.
We took the road to the right, that had a sign that clearly was NOT marked Kokubunji.
My google maps also pointed in that direction, so I decided to rely on it.
If we no longer were to see any wooden signposts along the way, I could always hope to navigate by Google maps.
Finally we made it over the mountain peak and started descending steeply down towards the city below us.
When I saw the city below us, I knew that we were heading in the right direction.
It was a long trail, full of stone and wooden steps, created to stop erosion and mudslides.
Those uneven steps, and tree roots everywhere, felt very tiring to navigate after our long day of walking.
Jules said that this was also a very hard day for him, and both of our feet really throbbed.
We made it to Kokubunji temple with only about fifteen minutes to spare before they closed the gates.
It is a big prefectural temple with lots of buildings, Shinto shrines, statues and a beautiful garden.
We walked through it without even taking off our heavy backpacks like we usually do, because we knew that we would have no time to go back and retrieve them.
There was an ancient tree that twisted and turned to resemble the skeleton of a dragon.
It was beautiful.
Our guesthouse for the night was only a kilometer away from the temple.
They asked us to come in time for dinner by six o’clock.
The owner met us at the door with cold iced teas.
We could hardly make it up to the second floor where our room was located.
We showered for a long time, scrubbing ourselves very well and wearing the clean Yukatas (casual kimonos) that he’d given us.
Then we went downstairs to have a vegetarian dinner which they had made for us.
The owner also did our laundry.
We apologized to him as we handed him our muddy and wet clothing.
He gave them back to us clean but wet, and told us to hang them in our room to dry.
It looked like we’d “decorated” our room with our “hiking clothes motif,” with all our clothes hanging all around us.
Dinner was wholesome and good.
There was steamed rice, miso soup, bitter gourd which was pickled, a peeled and steamed eggplant served with grated ginger and soy sauce, a small salad, a cooked tofu patty with vegetables, some vegetable tempura, a slice of orange, grapes and green tea.
They had no internet, but it did not matter.
We took our futon beds from the closet and went to sleep while scratching our mosquito bites.
What a day!
Here is a little about the temples we visited today:
Temple 79 – Tennōji (or Kōshōin) – The Emperor’s Temple
This temple is popularly called Sūtoku Tennōji (Emperor Sūtoku Temple) because his coffin was preserved and worshipped here after his assassination in 1156.
In the temple compound is the Yasoba fountain where the body of Emperor Sūtoku was cleaned daily for twenty-one days after his death before being moved to Temple 81 for burial.
Temple 80 – Kokubunji – Official Prefectural Temple
The temple was founded by Gyōgi Bosatsu in the year 741.
The sixteen-foot statue of Kannon is the finest and largest statue on Shikoku, and has eleven faces and forty-two arms.
The hondō is of the Kamakura period and is the oldest physical structure remaining of all the Kokubunji.
Its bell is also one of the oldest in Japan.
The walkways of this temple are lined with stone sculptures, each representing one of the eighty-eight temples on the pilgrimage.
Temple 81 – Shiramine-ji – The Temple of White Peak
The temple was founded by Kōbō Daishi.
Chishō Daishi later added forty-seven buildings to the temple.
The Honzon (enshrined main deity) was carved from a shining piece of wood found floating at sea.
Legend say that a white-haired sage appeared and said: “This is the holy site in which to turn the wheel of Dharma and to enter Samadhi.”
The temple now contains the mausoleum of Emperor Sūtoku, who was assassinated near Temple 79 in 1156, after being banished from Kyōto following an unsuccessful coup attempt against his brother, the then current emperor.
Our Location On The Earth:
T79. Tennōji (天皇寺) –Temple of the Emperor
T80. Kokubunji (国分寺) –State-Sponsored Temple (Of Kagawa Prefecture)
T81. Shiromineji (白峯寺) –Temple of White Peak
Overnight at Seto Kokumin Ryokan in Kokubunji
Active walking 6:15 hours
Active day 8 hours
Walking grand total: 1130 km
Happy 4th of July to my American friends!!!!