[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 56: The Road to Mount Koya

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I had debated with myself for days about how I would get to Mount Koya, the final stop in my pilgrimage image as well as my trip as a whole. Most people take the trains and cable car, but a traditional pilgrim trail still exists, called the Choishi Michi.

The Choishi Michi is named for the stone markers (most of them still the original ones from hundreds of years ago) that mark the mountain trail, as a “cho” was an old form of measuring distances (something like 109m) and “ishi” meaning “stone”. So, the distance between each stone marker is roughly one “cho”. They are numbered from 1 to 180 (in Japanese), with 180 being located at Jison-in Temple at the base of the mountain and 1 being located within Mt Koya. The whole route is about 23.5km.

My main problem was my luggage. I had more clothes and souvenirs with me now and I didn’t fancy lugging that up a mountain. Also, did I really want to climb yet another 800m mountain? Hadn’t I had enough of that?

Apparently not.

On the proddings of former henro and still-current blogger, Athena, I decided to go for it. My knee was feeling better and I felt like it would be a great way to end my pilgrimage. A part of me also missed the challenge of the mountain trails, though I had read that the Choishi Michi is mostly a gradual sort of climb compared to the likes of, say, Yokomineji.

Unfortunately, I slept poorly the night before. I was no longer accustomed to going to bed early and waking up early. I also had a lot on my mind, what with the end of my trip coming up.

And then my roommates came into the dorm room around midnight, turned on the lights, had whispered conversations, and decided to go through all their luggage until about 2am. One even went to shower and blasted K-pop presumably from her phone while doing so. I had the urge to smack them all.

So overall, I think I managed a meager 3 hours of sleep. To say I was unimpressed would be an understatement. When I woke up at 5:30am to my alarm, a part of me wanted to make noise while I got ready as revenge for last night, but in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to do it and got ready as quietly as I could.

I was out the door by about 6am. I made my way to Namba Nankai Station and went to find the coin lockers to stash my extra stuff in. I would be returning to the same station to get to the airport anyway. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough change so I went to buy my train ticket to break a large bill.

It was so confusing. There were many different ways to get to Mt Koya and I had no idea where to start or how much to pay. I took my best guess then returned down to coin lockers and stashed my carry-on bag inside it.

I then went back to the platforms and couldn’t find a platform that said it was bound for Mt Koya. At this point, I was wholly frustrated and grumpy and went to ask a staff member for help. Eventually, he explained that I would have to transfer at Hashimoto Station, so I had to take the train bound for there first.

All of that back and forth took time and I ended up taking the 7:04am train, a touch later than I wanted. I transferred at Hashimoto Station and got off at Kudoyama Station, the station closest to Jison-in Temple.

I became less pleased when I found out the frame of my sedge hat broke, probably when my backpack fell on it for the nth time. My backpack does not stand upright well, so it frequently falls over, and if my hat is tied to it, well…I guess the repeated stress to it finally broke its delicate frame. I used a bandage from my ample supply to try to tape it back together, then tied my hat on over my hachimaki.

The walk to Jison-in was short and uneventful. The Temple was built for Kobo Daishi’s mother and women go there to pray for pregnancy and easy childbirth. As a result, people donate breast-shaped plaques to the main deity there.

The start of the Choishi Michi trail begins at the top of a long set of stairs at Jison-in. The trail starts off easy but quickly becomes a steep incline and takes one through a large orchard (growing what, I’m unsure). There were plenty of spots to look out over the town of Kudoyama and it really was quite a sight. The stone markers show the way but aren’t always right by the path itself, so other signs are present to help guide the way, especially for the trickier parts, like in trail forks. To my pleasant surprise, the henro route stickers also made a comeback and I saw them here and there. To me, they were a sign that somebody cared enough to mark the way.

However, it was another hot, sunny day so I had to take frequent breaks to catch my breath, wipe sweat from my face, and drink some of the Pocari Sweat I had bought.

Thankfully, the path eventually became a dirt hiking trail through thick forest. To my relief, the trees provided ample shade and the path flattened out, more or less. All was not easy, though. The trail was still slick and/or muddy in many places from yesterday’s rain, and the hems of my pants and my shoes were quickly thick with mud. I had to step carefully in places because whatever tread my shoes did have, it was now pretty well gone after weeks of walking.

I had expected to see many henro along the trail, as it was henro high season and a beautiful day, but only ended up seeing two: an older woman who fell behind during the first incline and a young man who was tall and long-limbed and got ahead of me in the span of a couple of minutes despite also having a large backpack. His walking staff was worn down very short and looked almost comical compared to his tall height, as if it was a child’s staff. The only other people I saw were a couple of Europeans (I couldn’t quite place the language) out for a hike but they, too, outpaced me eventually.

The terrain actually varied immensely. Sometimes, I was walking through dry dirt path, other times, tip-toeing my way through thick mud. Sometimes, the path was nice and clear, other times it was covered with leaves and branches and loose rocks that did their best to try to trip me. Sometimes, I found myself carefully making my way through jagged rocky paths or navigating my feet around snake-like tree roots.

And so, I walked and walked and walked. My body was unused to walking over 20km, having had the last week off and even my last several days of the pilgrimage, I had taken it easy due to my knee flare-up. My feet became sore and I was getting irritated by my big, bulky backpack and purse. They were starting to chafe at my shoulders, where my loose shirt exposed some skin at the collar. I cursed myself for bringing so much. I felt exhausted and cursed my inconsiderate roommates who had kept me up until 2am.

Around the marker #50, I stopped at a rest hut and ate my apple I had bought in Osaka. All I had had to eat so far was a Calorie Mate bar and a dorayaki- not exactly anything substantial.

After resting and eating, I felt a bit better and walking became tolerable again. I was also buoyed by the fact that I was nearly there, over halfway done.

My left knee started to complain a bit again, though. While the path mostly didn’t have any major inclines or descents, it was a bit hilly and involved many small inclienes and descents between the flat sections, which my knees did not like.

It took me about 6.5 hours to reach the Daimon Gate, the traditional entrance to Mt Koya. I was intensely relieved to see it, as I was exhausted and sore, and the last ~100m was a steep climb. I snapped some pictures, then bowed and made my way into town.

It was a bit funny seeing other tourists’ reactions to me. On Shikoku, if you are dressed as a henro, everyone knows what you’re doing and why you’re dressed so strangely. Although Mt Koya is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism (the sect that the pilgrimage belongs to), I guess not every tourist is acquainted with the different sects of Buddhism in Japan or even aware the pilgrimage in Shikoku exists. I actually expected to see many henro out and about but only saw maybe two. The rest were either locals, who paid me no mind, or tourists who usually did a double-take.

My original intent was to climb to Mt Koya and use the remaining day to visit the Okunoin, the most sacred site of Shingon Buddhism and where I would receive my final stamp after thanking Kobo Daishi for a successful pilgrimage. However, it was already 3:30pm, the Okunoin was another 3km on the other end of town, and the temple I was staying in was also about 3km away and I had to check in by 5pm. Did I also mention I was sore and tired?

So, I chose to go straight to Rengejoin, the temple I would stay at overnight. I could visit the Okunoin in the morning.

I found the temple on the northern edge of town and checked in. The monk who checked me in and showed me around spoke a bit of English and I was relieved. He was surprised to see my henro walking staff and said that he had never been to Shikoku but wanted to do the pilgrimage.

I settled into my room and relaxed, stretching my aching muscles and placing a medicated patch on my left knee.

There was a meditation service led by the head priest at 5pm and guests were invited to attend. The head monk spoke some English but was heavilt accented, so it wasn’t always easy to figure out what he was saying. I found the whole thing difficult. You are supposed to stay in one seated position and focus on taking seep breaths, controlling each one. My legs were sore from the hike, so I kept getting distracted by them past the first 10 minutes or so.

All in all, we meditated for about 30 minutes…or at least, tried to meditate. I saw at least a couple of other guests squirming uncomfortably about halfway through too.

After was dinner, which was traditional temple food – that is, all vegetarian and no garlic or onion. Even still, everything was delicious and I devoured it all, having hardly are anything throughout the day.

I was seated in a room with all the other foreign guests. The Japanese guests had another room. I found it intensely amusing when the other guests, apparently not used to traditional Japanese meals, looked to me to figure out how to eat it. I told them that I had simply spent a lot of time in Japan, and that I could very well have gotten things wrong. Still, I reassured them that no one had yelled at me yet, so that was probably a good thing.

We were told stories about the temple, Rengejoin, about Mt Koya, and about Kobo Daishi by the head priest’s own mother, who said she was 97 (but looked to be in her 70s!). I knew most of the stories about Kobo Daishi and Mt. Koya already from my pilgrimage readings, but it was nice to hear about it from someone’s personal experiences, especially during the WW2 years.

After dinner, we hurried over to a small ceremonial room to watch the goma fire ceremony. Truth be told, I haven”t had the opportunity to look into it at all so I actually can’t tell you much about it. I assume it was some sort of purification ceremony. The deity overseeing it all was the fearsome Fudo Myou  (whom I can recognize now after seeing the huge Fudo Myou statue at Temple 45, Iwayaji).

With that done, I washed up and tool a nice soak in the temple’s communal bath. My muscles needed it! But as usual, I didn’t stay in the bath too long, for fear of passing out again! I bid the others goodnight and headed to bed.

I was so exhausted that I had no trouble falling asleep.

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