[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 41: Unpenji

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Unpenji, along with Yokomineji, had been on my mind ever since I left Kochi Prefecture. They were two of the highest points in the pilgrimage and I dreaded them. After getting past Yokomineji, Unpenji was next, standing at an imposing 900+ meters.

I got up early again because I was so far from the main henro route. I was actually a little disoriented when I woke up. I had dreamed that I was back home and waking up in Japan, I was a bit confused for a few seconds. I had a moment of homesickness before henro business took over.

I got started at 6am and left an osamefuda and a couple pieces of candy for the Guesthouse owner with my key as thanks for his help with finding dinner last night. I really, really appreciated not eating convenience store food for once.

It took me about an hour to get out of town and get to the base of the mountain. After much debate, I decided to take the car route up the east side of the mountain instead of backtracking several kilometers to the trailhead (and the main henro route). It was longer but with the distance I would have had to backtrack to get to the main route, it worked out to be roughly the same, anyway. I also figured that, if I was going to walk about the same distance, I might as well be making progress up the mountain while I was at it.

I got to the base of the mountain around 7am and sure enough, it was pretty much all uphill. Because the road was made for cars, though, it usually wasn’t steep and the road had many hairpin turns. Still, about 20 minutes in, I was sweating and had to stop to take off my jacket.

The first part of the walk took me past cute little houses and farm fields, but after maybe 2km, it got isolated and the road smaller. I was surrounded by trees and not much else. Once in a while, there would be a break in the trees and I could see just how far up I had gone. Impressive as it was, I still knew I had higher to climb.

I forced myself to go at a slow, deliberate pace. The entire road course was something like 10 or 11km. There was no point using up all my energy in the first few kilometers. Maybe I had learned a thing or two from the old men henro – they went slow but steady. So I did, too.

I was alone most of the time except for the occasional car passing by, so I had my iPod on to keep my mind off the climb. At one point, though, I heard an animal, hidden in the trees, growling. I had no idea what it was but from that point on, I made sure to strike the ground hard with my walking staff, jingling the bell as I went. Sometimes, I even sang out loud to my music. I hoped that would warn off any wild animals nearby. I really did not want to have to end my pilgrimage because I was attacked by a monkey or something.

Around the 600m elevation mark, the road leveled off for a while. It was a welcome break and my pace naturally picked up a little.

The last 2km were an uphill battle again, though, but this time, it was almost a constant incline with no real flat sections. At that point, I had been on the mountain for about two hours and my legs were getting tired. I was sweating again.

At that point, I was also high enough in the mountain that I was getting into some low-hanging clouds. It made the surrounding forests quite spooky, like something out of a horror film. I will admit, it sped my steps just a bit.

Eventually, I rejoined the main henro route and the road leveled off again, and I found myself at the temple. Hallelujah!

I took some time to take it all in. I had been dreading getting to this temple, and there it was in front of me. I could breathe easy. The next several temples would be easy, sitting on flat terrain.

A henro I passed by and asked if I had walked the whole way up, and I confirmed that I had. He was visibly impressed and wished me well as he returned to the parking lot.

I had expected to get to Unpenji around 11am but found I had made it almost an hour before, a little after 10am. I used the extra time to take my time and wander around the temple grounds. The temple infamously has dozens, if not hundreds, of big statues, all different in appearance. They had so many varied poses and expressions and all were made with a ton of detail. I enjoyed looking at them.

I then returned to get my book stamped and also put my jacket back on. Up in the mountain, it was chilly and my sweat from the climb up was cooling me down, too.

A man who was obviously non-Japanese was having snack on a bench just in front of the stamp office so I stopped to chat. It turned out he was from Germany and mostly camped out. He had walked the entire pilgrimage so far and had been at it for less than a month! Color me impressed. He said he would often walk 30-40 per day. Amazing. At this point, roughly 30km a day was enough for me. However, he said he was way ahead of schedule and would be slowing down a bit.

We traded stories of our experiences so far and then I had to leave to find the ropeway. I still had about 20km to walk after getting off the ropeway and it was already 11am. I wished him well.

I found the ropeway station, paid for my ticket (discounted if you show a foreign passport, yay!), and bought a can of sweet coffee. I was still feeling a bit chilled despite the heater at the ropeway station. The temperature displayed outside showed it was only 6 degrees Celsius.

At 11:20, I boarded and was zipped down to the bottom of the mountain. The height was dizzying at times, but I was amazed at how far up I had managed to go in my own two feet (and with my backpack, too!).

After deboarding the ropeway gondola, I had yet another debate as to which route to take. The alternate route from the ropeway station in my book was about 11km to the next temple. Or I could cut across using a small road to rejoin the main henro route and eliminate maybe 4km of walking.

In the end, I chose to stick with the alternative route, even if it was longer. I didn’t want to get lost because I chose another path. I felt safe following the route markers and henro signs.

In the end, I still got a little lost. Thank goodness for Google Maps. Even still, it was a great little road that took me past more farms and orchards, as well as a tiny park that had cherry blossoms everywhere. Elderly folks having hanami picnics greeted me as I passed.

Despite the little detour, I still made it to Temple 67, Daikoji, in good time, a little before 2pm. I made my rounds and got my book stamped, as usual. I tried coaxing a cat I spotted to come to me, but it dutifully ignored me. Typical cat. I went to rest on a bench and rehydrate, as the sun had come out in full force and I had been sweating again. As I rested up, I spotted one of the monks picking up the cat and bringing it back inside the temple. It must have belonged to the temple, which would explain its collar.

After my break, I reluctantly picked up my pack again and got moving. My feet were getting sore but I still had a little more than 8km to go to the next temples (as both temples 68 and 69 share the same grounds), and if I kept up my pace, I would get there around 4:30. Temples close at 5pm, so I had a bit of flexibility but not much.

I made it there at 4:20pm. I rested on a bench for a few minutes, feeling completely spent, but forced myself to make my rounds so I could get my book stamped before they closed.

It was a bit confusing figuring out which hall was which and which belonged to which temple, but I think I managed it in the end. By now, I can recognize the kanji for the main hall and the Daishi Hall and I already knew how to read numbers, so that helped.

I got my two stamps at the same office and then rested some more. I had about a 2km walk back to my hotel and my feet were killing me. While I rested, I watched one car henro rush in at the last minute, cutting it close to closing time.

A bit before 5pm, I decided to go. Not having a deadline, though, I took my time. Somehow, going back always feel shorter than the first time going through.

On the way, I came across a non-Japanese young female henro with a huge pack. I greeted her in both Japanese and English and she asked if inunderstood English. I said, “I’m actually Canadian, so yeah!”

It turned out she was also from Canada, and we got chatting about our pilgrimages. It was great talking to someone in English again. We traded contact information and parted ways to find our lodgings for the night. I desperately needed a shower.

I found and checked into my hotel for the night. I had messaged Naoko earlier in the day, fulfilling my promise to notify her when I got to Unpenji. She called me via Facebook Messemger and we made plans to meet for dinner later in the week.

I lazed around for a bit before showering, then ate at the nearby Joyfull restaurant – not exactly fine dining but it was still a step up from convenience store food.

When I returned to my hotel room, I calculated that I had walked about 33km today, which includes my long walk up Unpenji. It was a long day for sure but I was glad to have done it!

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