Shikoku Henro by Car I: Temples 01 – 08

[2018.03.30]

After a good night’s rest, we were ready to embark on this unique spiritual journey. As a general rule of thumb, the temple stamp offices 納経所 operate from 0700hrs to 1700hrs daily. Since it was our target to arrive at the first destination before 0700hrs, we left our hotel early in the day and were greeted by this sight:

Mind you, this was before 0630hrs although the sun has already risen. The Japanese sure do start their day early.

Temple 01: Ryōzenji 霊山寺

The drive to the temple is well-marked, so we would have no problems finding our way even if the local GPS had failed us. Not that it did; not at this juncture anyway. We arrived at Ryōzenji in good time, before 0700hrs, to find that several like-minded pilgrims-by-car already arrived before we did. It being our first temple, we fumbled a little while getting our necessities in place: stamp booklet 納経帳, self-made temple signage, tripod, camera, lenses, pen, mobile phone, water etc. You get the drift.

For certain we got better and faster as we went along, in part because the mister got rather amused by the haversack I prepared to visit each temple and decided I could do away with it and more.

Knowing how I tend to lose track of time photographing, I accorded 1hr for each temple during the planning phase. The instance we arrived at Temple 1 we knew my estimate was way off. Amongst other reasons, the simple fact that we frequently found ourselves to be the only ones roaming the temple grounds we visited was indication enough that we wouldn’t be needing much more time around after completing the pilgrimmage essentials.

I knew the temples would be tranquil and possibly quite picturesque; ’tis was part of the reason why I decided that we should embark on this long-discussed journey this year amidst the abundance of ‘noise’ in our lives. But nothing prepared me for the undisturbed peace and calm that washed over me as we walked around the temple grounds. Every person we met were respectfully friendly yet quietly went about minding their own businesses, mindful and always speaking in hushed tones. And the koi in the koi pond… I seriously have not seen such huge koi fishes in my entire life!

Apart from its reputation as the first of the 88 temples on this circuit, Ryōzenji is apparently also reputed for good academic performance. Hence apart from the usual sight of pilgrims, students are known to visit this temple prior to university entrance exams.

It seems that the Shikoku Henro is currently campaigning to be considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I reckon it’s a good thing because it translates to additional funds going into maintenance and restoration of the temples and routes. Yet, there is a nagging apprehension; that a newly-minted status as such may attract unwanted attention and visits from tourists. I’ve seen this happen to Cinque Terre, and loathe for this to despoil Shikoku and its untainted beauty.

Temple 02: Gokurakuji 極楽寺

A short 3-5 minutes drive away, we arrived at Gokurakuji. The temple didn’t look very large from the exterior; even the car park was just right beside the entrance. But we were in for a surprise when we walked in.

Very large compound Gokurakuji has. While we were not the first to arrive (it was just about 0730hrs then), it seemed like we had the whole place to ourselves. In chinese we have an idiom 鸟语花香 (literally translated as ‘birds chirping, flowers blooming’) that so aptly describes the scene before us. I could really get used to this.

But at Gokurakuji, the 2nd temple of the Shikoku Henro, we were given a glimpse into how performing the pilgrimmage is not going to be a walk in the park in the form of a long flight of steps leading to the main temple hall where the enshrined deity resides. Really have to hand it to the pilgrims doing it on foot – 90% of the ones we met along the way are pretty advanced in age.

Anticipating difficulty in identifying all the temples by the time we get home to process the pictures, I conjured the idea of printing ‘signages’ for the various temples, and taking a picture while holding them at each temple to conclude our visit. The mister approved of the brilliant idea. 😀 While they eventually fall short in terms of size, they have been immensely helpful in temple-identification.

Temple 03: Konsenji 金泉寺

Another short drive away and we found ourselves at Konseji. In comparison to Gokurakuji, Konseji is smaller in scale but equally serene. And we were practically all alone.

Konsenji means “Golden Well Temple” so there has to be some connection to a spring or well within the temples grounds, doesn’t it? Well yes, it seemed that Kōbō–Daishi performed a miracle at the temple where he struck ground and water gushed out. I would suppose this has largely contributed to the name of this temple.

While small, Konsenji certainly packs a punch, so to speak, in the form of a raised pagoda all the way in. A very picturesque sight and called for several attempted shots. No cherry blossoms in sight at this temple yet there’s something truly charming about blue skies, red structures and greenery. Aesthetically, this colour combination can never go wrong.

Temple 04: Dainichiji 大日寺

We learnt, as we went along the pilgrimmage, that there are several temples named Dainichiji. In Tokushima itself, Temples 4 and 13 are named this. And there’s a good reason for this: in Shingon Buddhism 真言宗 (a major school of Buddhism established by Kōbō–Daishi) the Chief Deity is no other than Dainichi Nyorai 大日如来.

It’s another small temple, with neither a garden nor a pagoda to boast of. Just very serene but since the facade was undergoing some restoration works and that I’m not fond of taking pictures of deities and temple interiors, I took little pictures at this temple.

At the end of every temple visit, we took some time to admire the ‘stamp’ we received from the office admin staff. Such beautiful calligraphy. Pilgrims could also opt to have these stamped on a scroll or a piece of cloth, to be framed up after completing all 88 temples. We decided that a booklet is most handy for us though.

Temple 05: Jizōji 地蔵寺

Jizō 地蔵 statues are a common sight all over Japan. Often depicted with a child-like appearance, Jizō is particularly known to be the protector of children, women and travellers. However, there’s something unique about Jizō enshrined at this temple – the deity is depicted as Shogun Jizō 将軍地蔵, a warrior which is clearly a departure from the usual gentle image we are more used to.

While within the temple grounds, we came across this adorable sign cautioning us not to swat at any bees. Note that the sign was written in two languages; I think it’s quite telling of the pilgrims’ demography. Fully intending to follow the instructions (we are obedient like that 😀 ), we quickly went about the usual procedure at every temple but I don’t think we encountered any.

Just as we were done and I was about to leave the temple, the mister suggested that we explore the area on the hill behind the temple. And boy, I’m so glad he suggested we do that.

We discovered an enchanting enclave with a U-shaped hall that houses 500 Arhats 羅漢. And we found ourselves very, very much alone in that huge space. Coming from a small bustling city-country with a population pushing 6 million, you have no idea how much I appreciate the space and solitude.

200¥ to enter the unmanned hall. No one would know if we didn’t pay the entrance fees or took too much change. We marvelled at how much trust was at play here. For the record, we paid in full before entering the hall from the left.

The burning question you must have (that we had too): are there really 500 Arhat statues here in the hall? We didn’t believe there could be when we first entered, imagining that all 500 statues would be life-size. As we progressed down the U-shape hall, we started believing the number (and lamented that we probably should have counted right from the start 😆 ) – the statues got smaller at some sections and some were even no taller than 30cm. So yes, I believe there are 500 Arhat statues housed there.

Temple 06: Anrakuji 安楽

Another 10-15mins drive away, we arrived at Temple 6 Anrakuji. It’s another beautiful temples, complete with a pond, a garden and a pagoda.

This is really the first time we’ve timed our vacation to coincide with Hanami season in Japan, and my eyes have been blessed with so many beautiful sights. Not the typical places recommended to view cherry blossoms but also beautiful in their own right.

One possible reason for the sprawling temple grounds would be that it has a no-frills 80-room in-house lodging for pilgrims. I would reckon that some on-foot pilgrims might pick this temple as their accommodation for the first night.

Temple 07: Jūrakuji 十楽寺

Temple 7 Jūrakuji was a short 5-min drive away; might have been faster if we had walked. The main gate that greeted us looked strangely Chinese in style, but to be honest, we were more distracted by the cherry blossoms in full bloom. Now I fully understand why some folks are so obsessed with cherry blossoms.

We took the short flight of steps to get to the main hall but later found out that if we followed the slope on the left, it would eventually lead us to the same place. After passing through the gate, we were greeted by a group of Mizuko Jizo statues 水子地蔵 dorning red bibs. They memorialise stillborn, miscarried or aborted babies. No pictures, but a very common sight in Japan itself.

By then, we were very practised in what we have to do at the temples so the mister and I went about with our separate rituals before coming together again to admire the temple grounds in detail before bidding it farewell.

Temple 08: Kumadaniji 熊谷寺

Temple 8 Kumadaniji literally means “Bear Valley Temple” and is situated far back in a narrow valley.

The imposing main gate 山門 of Temple 8 is widely considered to be the finest of all 88 temples but one could easily miss it. Reason being that it is situated a distance away from the rest of the temple grounds, separated by a road. We would most certainly have missed it, if not for the row of beautiful cherry blossom trees lining the path leading to it.

This is not saying the rest of the temple pales in comparison. In contrary, Kumadaniji is truly one of the most  beautiful temples we’ve come across thus far. Apart from pilgrims, we saw a lot of hobbyist photographers in the area shooting pictures of the cherry blossoms and the two-storey Shingon-style pagoda. If anything, I suppose the sprawling car park is probably indicative of how popular this temple is to pilgrims and photographers alike.

My mostly reliable husband is learning day by day that he has to curb his temper around me (since it will likely trigger an even more violent response from me), and that he can’t expect me to always obey or respond to his instructions immediately. It’s an occupational hazard of his, that I’m also learning to accept it, especially since I too, was once in the same job. Nowadays, he doesn’t wait around with a frustrated face as I take my time to admire my surroundings and frame my shots; he just finds someplace comfortable to take a rest or research on our next destination. Great time management, in my opinion. 😀

This wraps up the first post of 8 temples although we managed to push on to Temple 11 by the end of the day.