Thursday, October 19, 2017

Kuma Kōgen - Ishiteji

Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage, day 29.
Temples: #46-50 (Jōruriji, Yasakaji, Sairinji, Jōdoji, Hantaji).
Distance: 31.4km (859.0km), time spent: 9:23.
Weather: Overcast first, then rain.


It is time to pack my belongings and go down from the mountains. In another day of rain by the sounds of it when I wake up early in the morning, it is far from quiet outside the windows. When I finally crawl out from underneath my blanket, the sounds of the rain from outside has been muted, the sky is quiet. I do not know how far I will go today, but I know where I will stay for the night. Booking a place in Matsuyama was not easy, even with the help of the people at the tiny hotel. No rooms left or no rooms for gaijins (foreigners) was the usual responses, finally just settling for Terminal Hotel Matsuyama. I wanted a place close to the train station.

Small shrine on the way out of Kuma Kōgen, clouds drifting through the mountains behind.

Before starting the descent though, I walk for some kilometers out of Kuma Kōgen, passing by the place I came down from Sembontōge yesterday. The pass is engulfed by clouds, as is all the mountains around. Although it is not raining, I do not feel upbeat about the walk today. After a short brush through a short and odd forest path and a walk on a road with almost all of the forests and hills over me hidden in the clouds, I came to the pass where I will begin my descent from the mountains. I bet there can be some great views from the Misakatōge-pass, the sea may even be visible from here, but now there is just an unpenetrable grey wall that I stare into.

The fog created a special and atmospheric light through the trees and foliage on the descent from the Misakatōge-pass.

Small landslides has uprooted the path down from the pass, and all the rain of late has made this path the most slippery of the forest paths so far. Still I do not have any trouble going down, except maybe for the lack of views. Atmospheric is still the keyword when it comes to describing the wooded paths on the Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage in fog and rain. Coming out on a narrow road, you would normally expect to see Matsuyama in the horizon, maybe even the sea, but now only a muted horizon.

A monument and statue on top of yellow sand at Jōruriji.

Down from the mountains I feel kind of, depressed actually. Not knowing the exact reason for it, it is as if a gloom has settled on my mind. The weather most likely, and maybe also the lack of seeing other henros. However, getting to a temple is a good thing, they works sort of like prozac to me. My mood lifts the moment I arrive at Jōruriji (temple #46, Pure Emerald Temple). Sometimes it is like you step into another world when you enter a temple, such as this one, with the trees surrounding the temple barring out the rush and burdens of the modern world outside. Time seems to move slower when you are inside. There is a tree over 1000 years old at this temple. At the back of the temple there is a monument and statue on top of yellow sand, forming a stark contrast to the the sky and forest behind. At the same time, other henros appears.

A miniature temple and some waymarkers between temple #46 and #47.

Temple #47, Yasakaji (The Temple of Eight Slopes) is just a short walk away from Jōruriji. And despite being a relatively small and modest temple, without any particularly outstanding features, I like it here. Even the sanmon (temple gate) to the temple is small and modest, but it is quite nice, as it also is a tiny bridge over a tiny creek.

The temple gate to Yasakaji.

Rain finally returns on the way to the next temple. Another bekkaku temple is passed by on the way, Monjuin, which is where Emon Saburō confessed and apologized of his sins to Kūkai and left for his pilgrimage. Given the start of another rain period, I find it suitable to seek momentary shelter in a conbini for lunch. In Jōnofuchi Park I find the okunoin of Sairinji, which is located on a tiny island in a pond, accessible by a small bridge. A scenic spot in the middle of the less scenic flat plains the route crosses over on its way towards Matsuyama.

Jōnofuchi, the okunoin of Sairinji. Here Kōbō Daishi struck his staff on the ground and water sprung forth.

Sairinji (#48) itself, West Forest Temple, distinguishes itself from the others by that you have to step down to get to the templegrounds, since they are located lower than the surrounding land. It is also the sekisho, the barrier temple, of Ehime prefecture. This temple feels almost like a garden given all the trees, plants and bushes planted around the features of the temple, as well as small carp ponds.

A carp pond in Sairinji.

The forecast for today had been abysmal, and so I had not counted on reaching any further than temple #49, Jōdoji. Where there is a train station nearby, which also was convenient for getting myself to my hotel. However, I have made some really headway today and I think most of the forecasted rain came in the morning before I left, so I arrive at the temple before three o'clock. Jōdoji (Pure Land Temple) is now but a shadow of what it once was apparently, it had about 66 branch halls and 7 affiliated temples. In 1416 all the buildings burned down. Being a small and modest temple, my time at the temple feels a little bit rushed by the time I am about to leave. A quick look in the guidebook though, forces me to take off my backpack again. There is something in the hills above.

Jōdoji temple.

A path disappears up into the trees, leading up to a junction where two staircases goes up in two different directions. I follow first the one going to the right, taking me up to the okunoin of Jōdoji, Ushinomine. An alley of Jizō-statues watches over my steps to the small shrine. On the way down again, I just have to climb up the other staircase too. There an observation tower kindly gives me a great overview of the big city. Matsuyama is the biggest city on Shikoku.

Ushinomine, the okunoin of Jōdoji.

View of Matsuyama from an observation tower above temple #49, Jōdoji

I must confess that when I come to Hantaji (#50), The Temple of Great Prosperity, I feel quite tired. The young German couple I met yesterday is also here, leaving as I enter through the temple gate, they had taken the bus down from Kuma Kōgen. It is also a fine temple, though not out of the ordinary. After coming down from the mountains, the string of temples has kept me busy. I spend some time resting at the temple, regaining some strength, before I hurry towards the next temple.

A small dam next to Hantaji temple.

A giant Kōbō Daishi statue stands guarding the approach to Ishiteji, temple #51 (Stone Hand Temple). This temple is one of the largest of the pilgrimage so far, also noticeable by the numerous souvenir-stands in the entryway to the templegrounds. There are a lot of people here. I arrive with about fifteen minutes left until the temple office closes it doors. It should be just enough time to conduct the rituals, but there are three busgroups of henros at the temple. And only one poor munk that has a huge stack of nōkyōchō-books to go through. I decide to call it a day and return tomorrow, and will take a better look at this majestic temple then. For now, I have another pressing matter to attend to, the one I have been waiting for all day.

The pagoda at Ishiteji with the 60-meter tall Kōbō Daishi statue in the background.

"Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can't remember."

Together with two french ladies also on the pilgrimage, though without the pilgrim attire, I walk to a famous house in Matsuyama. It is with a sort of awe that I stand looking up at Dōgo Onsen, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan. However, it is not because of its age that I am so excited about it. This is one of the bathhouses that Hayao Miyazaki used for inspirations for the bathhouse in the magical movie Spirited Away. I had planned to go here after arriving at my hotel, but now I have to do it the other way around. Stepping into the onsen fully dressed in my pilgrim attire, I slide down in the hot water dreaming of water dragons, witches and Japanese mythical creatures. Now, this is magic.

Dōgo Onsen.

All things comes to an end, so I have to get up from the bath before I magically turns into a raisin. Taking the tram down to downtown, I check into my hotel. Getting into my evening clothes, I go to the Okaido arcade, where I find a nice izakaya serving meat that I grill myself on a small barbecue in front of me. A few beers get drowned too.

Dōgo Onsen belltower in front of a painting of how the ancient bathhouse looked in old times.

Back at the hotel I just dump down on the bed, where I plan for tomorrow and go through the day. Tomorrow, I want to see a bit of Matsuyama, as it looks like a great city, so I do not expect to walk very far. That is fine, as I walked longer than I had expected today. All my depression at the beginning of my day was washed away by the hot and magic water in Dōgo Onsen, listening to Chihiro running around in the many passageways of the bathhouse.

Dinner at an izakaya next to the Okaido arcade in Matsuyama.

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