[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 32: Mountain Trails and a Singing Henro

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I woke up multiple times throughout the night. It sounded like one of the other guests was having stomach problems and woke up every now and again to vomit. Old Japanese buildings being the way they are, sound travels very easily, so I heard everything, unfortunately. It was definitely not my most pleasant night.

So, I was a bit sluggish getting up and out of bed in the morning when my alarm went off. I had breakfast (with the inn’s owner giving me a banana as a snack for the day), then returned to my room to get my day bag together. I made sure I had my candles and incense for the temple, some snacks (including the banana), and a bottle of water, along with my usual items. As I headed out, I got to chat a bit with one of the ladies from the Netherlands and we wished each other well.

The morning was actually quite cold and I had to wear both my soft shell and outer shell jacket, and even then, I felt chilled and wished for gloves. But I knew that I would be climbing uphill again, so I wasn’t too worried; the exercise would warm me up quick enough. And, well, I was right.

I made my way back to Temple 44, Daihoji, and knew the trail to Temple 45, Iwayaji, would continue past it. The sign markers were a bit poor around that area, though, so I backtracked a bit, then realized I had been correct all along, and then went back. Whew.

The road became a hiking trail called Tonomido Pass. The path became quite steep and the trail was still very muddy from yesterday’s rain. I stopped caring about the hems of my pants because I knew they were already dirty from yesterday, anyway. Even though it was difficult, the scenery was gorgeous. The sun filtered through the trees, creating soft beams of light. The trail navigated by and through a tiny creek. Except for my sniffling (allergy season in Japan, I suppose), the mountain was totally peaceful and all I could hear was chirping birds and the creek.

The path took me back onto a road again, which I followed for a bit. I went past a little village (a section of Kuma Kogen Town, I believe) and farms. The route markers pointed me onto another hiking trail. I knew from looking at my map that I could technically continue on Route 12 to get to Iwayaji, but the adventurous part of me decided to take the hiking trails.

I did regret it just slightly. The route became a stone path and the stones were still slick from the rain. At one point, I had to hop across yet another little creek. The “bridge” consisted of two (slippery) stones and I had to go very slowly to ensure I didn’t accidentally give myself a cold bath. The path the went further into the forest, and more than once, I found myself clambering over fallen trees. I was grateful that I didn’t have to balance my big backpack while doing so. One misstep and I would be tumbling down the side of the mountain. However, the trail was fairly flat in this section, so it wasn’t particularly difficult.

On the path, I ran into the Austrian couple from yesterday. They were going in the opposite direction and had plans to stay at Temple 46. We chatted for a bit then moved on.

Then the henro route forks. The route between Temples 44 and 45 is basically a big loop, which is why I decided to stay at the same inn in Kuma Kogen for two nights – I could leave my backpack there while I headed to Temple 45. I knew by looking at the elevation profile in my book that Route A, to the right, was longer an steeper, but Route B took one back onto the road. Both involved a climb to the temple. Because I apparently enjoy suffering, I chose Route A, which takes one up Hacchozaka slope. I wanted to do the entire loop and see both routes, and figured going up the big incline would be easier on my knees than going down it. I could walk the road back into town.

And boy did  Hacchozaka Slope live up to its name. Hacchozaka Slope starts at an elevation of 573m, and over a distance of 700m, ends with an elevation of 724m. At some points, I was sure the trail was at a 45 degree angle. My calf muscles were screaming at me to stop and I had to pause frequently to catch my breath. And if that weren’t enough, the trail still goes up, just not as steeply, for a peak elevation of about 785m. Then the trail plateaus a little, but there is still one very short climb up a bit before the big descent to Iwayaji.

Still, as I approached the main temple, I came across a huge statue of (what I later learned was) Fudo Myou, enshrined within a depression in the face of the cliff. I later learned that Kobo Daishi actually carved two statues of Fudo Myou, with the other being enshrined in the main hall for worship.This was to ensure that the mountain remained sacred. There were numerous other little statues dotting the area, and the big trees and stones covered in moss were quite pretty.

I made my way down to the main temple, passing through an impressive Niomon Gate. I wanted to take photos of the two guardian deities but they were tightly enclosed in a fine mesh boxes. Oh well. Still, I was glad that I had arrived at the temple that way. Less people, more peaceful, and some interesting sights. I wondered how many people who came in from the other side bothered to venture this far.

I made my prayers at the two halls. Unusually, the Daishi Hall was more impressive than the Main Hall. Many henro were around, with many out of breath after reaching the top of the stairs. I would later learn that it was still a 20 minute uphill walk from the parking lot.

A Japanese henro arrived and pointed out the ladder I had seen when I arrived. So, after my prayers, I returned to the ladder, steeled my nerves, and climbed up it. The ladder led to a little crevice in the face of the wall, allowing one to look out over the temple grounds. There was a little stupa there, where some people had placed coins and osamefuda. Numerous other small coins littered the little indents in the side of the walls, so I placed a one yen coin in one, too.
A pair of foreign henro joined me. I found out they were from Britain, but I got the vibe that they weren’t interested in chatting much, so I left it at that and went down the ladder (more nerve-wracking than going up!).

On my way to the stamp office, I found a little cave. There were lamps on the ceiling that provided minimal light and I had to use my staff to feel my way through.It was filled with the scent of incense and at the very end was some little statues and flowers. I didn’t really understand what it was for, but I suppose it was a place of worship.

When I got out, the Japanese pilgrim who pointed out the ladder was on his way in. He was really energetic and seemed eager to chat and even knew some English. I learned his name was Toshio and he was from Osaka. When I told him I was from Canada, he said he wanted to visit Yellowknife. I was surprised – most Japanese people want to visit Vancouver – but he said he wanted to see the aurora. I had to laugh. Not many people even in Canada would venture out to Yellowknife.

After we parted ways (with Toshio even giving me a big hug), I got my book stamped and then stopped at a bench to buy a warm drink from a vending machine and eat.a snack (lunch). Once done that, I made my way down and out the other end of the temple grounds. The stone stairs were a bit hard on my left knee, which was probably irritated from two days of slogging through steep mountain trails. If I walked to Matsuyama tomorrow, it would involve more of the same, so I made the decision to take a bus.

After walking through mountains all day yesterday and all this morning, I decided to take the road back. It was harder on the feet, it involved going through a couple of tunnels, and I baked in the sun, but at least I wasn’t trying not to fall over in mud or huffing and puffing up 45 degree angle slopes.

Eventually, I caught up to two walking henro, an elderly man who was leaving to get to his inn and Toshio. Toshio greeted me warmly and walked with me back to Kuma Kogen, where he was going to visit Temple 44 and stay the night in town. He told me he was going in reverse order (said to be luckier than going in the normal order) and that it was his 7th time doing the pilgrimage. He said he was retired and liked doing the pilgrimage, but his wife was never happy when he would come to Shikoku (LOL). He as really energetic, perhaps a bit too much for an introverted person like myself, but he did make me laugh many times.

He once asked me to sing a Canadian song, but none came to my mind. I told him most of our music is American. He said he liked Bob Dylan and started singing Bob Dylan songs. Then he switched to an old American song from, well, decades ago. Then he switched to a children’s song. It was amusing. He pointed out the signs showing the mountain trails and asked if I wanted to go. I told him I had done them in the morning, and he said, “You are in very good health!” I will admit, I was a bit proud of myself, but I told him I was still very tired after going through those slopes and I had found them difficult.

We parted ways at Temple 44, as I had already been yesterday. He shook my hand and wished me well, then he left to do his prayers while I went back into town and returned to the inn.

Two Japanese henro were staying at the ryokan tonight, one man and one woman. The man didn’t talk too much at dinner, but the woman was really friendly. She was also doing the pilgrimage with a mixture of walking and public transportation. She sounded impressed when I told her I walked to Iwayaji today. She was planning on taking the bus about 3/4 of the way there tomorrow, then walking the rest of the way to the temple. She was worried about it being difficult, but I told her the temple was great, and told her to go behind the two halls to see the big Fudo Myou statue.

After we finished eating, we both left to turn in for the night.

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