[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 39: The Temple on the Side of a Mountain

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I woke up extra early – 4:45am to be exact. While I knew it wouldn’t take me all day to get to Yokomineji and back, the problem, once again, was rain. The weather forecast predicted the rain to start up again around 10am and I hoped to at least be at the temple or almost at it by then.

I unpacked and re packed my backpack. Normally, I’d leave it behind but I wanted to bring it to store my sweater and poncho in case I needed them (in the latter’ case, it was very likely I’d need it. I also needed to bring water and snacks. My purse simply did not have enough space for all of that. However, I did leave all my other stuff in a giant pile in my hotel room. I hoped the cleaning staff wouldn’t mind and would just clean around it.

I took the first train from Iyo-Saijo Station to Tamanoe Station and made my way back to the henro route, perhaps about 3km. The walk was fairly boring so I listened to music on my iPod to help ease my nerves about the upcoming hike and make walking a bit more enjoyable.

When I reached the henro route again, I stopped at a Family Mart to pick up more water and some snacks for the day. I knew there wouldn’t be anything on the mountain.

The road became a mix of gradual inclines and flat ground. I wandered through a little village nestled between the mountains and children on their way to school greeted me. It must be a thing in Japan to teach kids to greet people they pass by on the way to school.

As I took the road further into the mountains, I found myself completely alone save for one monkey I briefly spotted in the trees before it leapt away into the thick foliage. And it started to rain slightly. I glanced at my phone. It was only around 8am. I prayed it would hold off for a while longer.

It was not to be. By the time I reached the rest spot where the asphalt road turns into a trail, it was raining steadily. It was only about 8:30. Those darn weather forecasts are never right.

I took shelter in the rest hut and took some time to have a snack. I had had a quick small breakfast before I left the hotel but my stomach was already feeling a bit empty. As I ate, I noted the stacks of blankets left by a generous donor for henro who might want to stay in the rest hut overnight.

I stayed there for a while, hoping the rain would peter off but, again, it was not to be. A male henro came up the road. He had a huge backpack but was toting it around on one of those things on wheels you use when moving boxes. He left the bag at the rest hut before going up the trail.

I waited some more, but a little after 9am, the rain showed no signs of slowing (and the weather forecast changed yet again to show the rain would get heavier by the afternoon) so I got my backpack rain cover ad poncho out and put them on, then reluctantly moved on.

The sign markers said it was another 2.2km to Yokomineji, which doesn’t sound like much but I knew from reading other henro blogs that this was the difficult part of the climb. Everything until this point was easy.

Actually, the first kilometer was fairly easy as far as mountain trails go. If anything, it was quite scenic and beautiful. The trail followed (and occasionally crossed and re-crossed) a meandering little stream. The rocks and towering trees were covered in moss.

I realized, though, that I did not need my poncho in the forest. The trees must have been thick enough to block most of the rain. There was no rest spot or benches so I simply had to find a relatively dry and flat spot to put down my pack and remove my poncho. It was too warm and big to keep on if I didn’t need it.

The last kilometer or so, however, turned steep. I found myself climbing up rocky, slick paths or, once more, hauling myself up tall, steep steps. Or both. My knees really felt some of the taller steps, but otherwise, they held up reasonably well.

I really had to force myself to keep climbing  at around the 500m-to-go mark (and there are handy signs along the trail that tell you how much further there is to the temple…or to remind you of how little progress you’ve made). I felt like I had spent all my energy. I felt mildly nauseous from the exertion. I was dripping in sweat. But at that point, there was no turning back.

But then, miraculously, I could see what looked like a roof. Could it be…?

YES! It was the Niomon gate, perhaps only about ten (steep) steps above me. Even the sign beside me no longer had the number of kilometers to go. I was at Yokomineji. I let out a laugh, relieved and happy.

I climbed the rest of the way and took a moment to simply take it all in, then bowed at the gate, and made my way in.

To get to the two prayer halls, there is a short staircase to get to them. I laughed a little at the irony. Climb up over 700m and you get…more stairs. As if we weren’t high enough already!

Actually, Yokomineji is located on the side of Mt Ishizuchi, the tallest mountain in western Japan at an elevation of something like 1900m and it is considered sacred. I was just happy that they had decided to put the temple at a much lower peak rather than any higher.

I made my prayers at the two halls. At the Daishi Hall, instead of making a wish, I simply thanked Kobo Daishi for my safe ascent to Yokomineji.

The man who left his bag at the rest hut was still doing his prayers. I thought he would have already finished at this point, but he seemed to like to chant and pray alone. I saw him waiting for a small group of henro to finish at the Daishi Hall before he went himself. I congratulated him for making it up but left it at that. He seemed like a quiet man.

The whole area was covered in fog and low hanging clouds from the rain. I knew from reading another henro blog that, somewhere, there was a good viewpoint to see Mt Ishizuchi. However, with the rain, I knew there was no point even trying.

I went to get my book stamped. An older monk was stamping the three books for the group of henro so a younger monk came to the desk and stamped mine so I didn’t have to wait long. He was very friendly and smiley, and coupled with my own good mood from completing Temple 60, I gave him two candies, one for him and one for the other monk. He seemed surprised and happy.

It was still raining steadily and without the cover of the forest, I was slowly getting soaked. I pulled out my poncho again, put it on, and started for the trail again to look for  where it diverged into a road where the bus stop was.

To my pleasant surprise, the young monk from the stamp office came running up to me and asked where I was going. I told him I was trying to find the bus stop. He pointed in the opposite direction and told me to follow him. Sure enough, I had been about to go down the wrong trail for nothing! He left me at a garage and pointed down the road, saying the bus stop was in that direction. I thanked him profusely. My knees were saved!

As I walked, I bumped into a familiar figure: Hyatt from Matsuyama! He had come up the mountain from the other side and looked tired. I sympathized and said I was tired, too. I told him I was taking the bus down and he said he was thinking about it.

We parted ways and I made my way up to the bus stop. Yup, you read that right. Up to the bus stop. Luckily, it was short and easy but I was exhausted.

I soon found myself at the parking lot where there was also a rest spot and a coffee shop. Someone had set out a little basket of seeds and some little birds keep flying in and out of it, grabbing more seeds every time. I asked the shop keeper where the bus stop was. With all the fog, I couldn’t see any signs. She assured me that I could wait at the benches and the bus would stop nearby.

I gratefully took a seat and entertained myself watching the birds come back for more seeds. And because I was no longer climbing a mountain, I found myself chilled and ordered a cup of coffee. The cafe owner gave me two pieces of chocolate, too. I was unsure if that was simply part of the deal or if it was osettai, but I thanked her regardless.

When the bus came, I downed what was left of my coffee and boarded. It was a bit of a wait until it had to leave but the driver let me on so I could sit in the warmth and out of the rain.

One other henro boarded and shortly after, we left. The road was bumpy and full of hairpin turns. I was grateful a bus service even existed. My knees were happy.

When I first decided to use public transportation as a part of my pilgrimage, I promised myself I would climb to all the mountain temples. However, I had no objection to using public transportation to get down from them. My knees would not tolerate the long, steep descents and I had to climb up to Unpenji in two days’ time, as well.

When I got off the bus, I paid for my one-way free and then walked the rest of the way down to the nearest train station. Technically, I could transfer to a city bus that would take me back to Saijo but I wanted to walk a bit more instead of wait for another bus. The descent was very gentle, too, as we were almost at the base of the mountain.

I made it back into town and ate my onigiri while waiting for the train. I then took the train back to Saijo and headed to the hotel right away. I rested for a bit but took an early shower since I smelled like stale sweat (and felt like a giant sweatball, too). Then I did some laundry, happy to be wearing fresh, clean clothes.

Dinner was convenience store food again since theee was a Lawson’s literally right beside my hotel. I didn’t feel like eating at any of the restaurants nearby and it was still raining, so I didn’t feel like walking anywhere. I was able to pick up food for tomorrow, too.

After eating, I went to relax in the hotel’s bath. I had been waiting for Aunt Flow to leave so I could relax in one. Today was the perfect day after the hard climb to Yokomineji. I loved it. It was a great end to a hard day, although I knew the next two days would be difficult, too. For the time being, I relaxed.

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