Shikoku Henro by Car I: Temples 09 – 16

[2018.03.30-2018.03.31]

We managed to complete 11 temples on the first day, of which 8 were covered in the previous post. Under usual circumstances, we would have wanted to visit the temples in the numbered order, but in cases where it didn’t make sense (especially true in Tokushima since we made the city centre our base and travelled out every day to the next temple in line) the mister made some adjustments to the order.

Temple 09: Hōrinji 法輪寺

Again, we arrived at Temple 9 Hōrinji in less than a 10-min drive. Surrounded by rice fields all round, Hōrinji is generally more austere in appearance than the other temples we’d been to.

It was also close to noon time. With the mid-day sun shining upon us mercilessly, I wasn’t quite in the mood to further explore the temple grounds. Also, having started our day relatively early, we were famished by then and decided to have a very simple lunch of Zaru Soba ざるそば at one small eating house set up directly opposite the main gate of Hōrinji. It may be early spring but the weather in Tokushima was surprisingly warm and more resembling early summer. The short respite in the dark, cool eating house was welcoming. We were even served baked Naruto Kintoki 鳴門金時 (an excellent sweet potato variety native to Tokushima region) as appetiser.

Temple 10: Kirihataji 切幡寺

After the quick lunch, we were ready to continue with our journey. By then we were also somewhat curious as to how many temples we could push to finish within the first day. That was until our drive reached the final leg of the journey to Temple 10 Kirihataji. This was probably where we had our first taste of how tough some of the roads ahead are going to be.

I believe this was also the first temple that truly tested our physique; it is a total of 33o stone steps to get to the temple. I know the stone sign indicated 234 steps, but that was likely a midpoint check to encourage pilgrims. Being physically stronger and more ready for this than before, I ascended the steps steadily with little difficulty. Even then, H frequently turned around to check on me since I’m known to be klutzy (I’m completely capable of tripping over my own feet even on flat ground :lol ). I love this man in spite of his usual brusque manners.

Oh, but we were rewarded with such a beautiful sight when we finally arrived at the temple. I was busy taking pictures after our rituals when the mister told me that we probably should explore the temple grounds further in, pointing to a pagoda in the near distance. We walked further in, and I groaned at the sight ahead of us. It was another few flights of steep stone steps, I reckon about 100. As we climbed up slowly, three Japanese middle-aged men came jogging down the steps and greeted us cheerfully. I might have failed to share this earlier, but every temple we went almost every person we met had greeted us. The mister and I are reserved by nature but appreciated such unobtrusive greetings, and we usually responded in kind. By and by, we caught on and even initiated greetings at times.

In Zen philosophy especially in Japanese Tea Ceremony, there’s such a saying Ichi-go Ichi-e 一期一会 (loosely translated as ‘one encounter, one opportunity), where the notion behind it means that every tea ceremony is unique and will never be repeated again hence one must put one’s whole heart into looking after the guests of the ceremony. In my opinion, this is the rationale behind the approach Japanese have towards dealing with strangers. They don’t have to, but chose to be kind to us foreigners. This is the real charm of little towns in Japan. You’ll never meet with such genuine kindness in the big cities. Believe me, we tried in Kyoto and were met with icy stares.

To think that I almost gave up on this view. After 1oo steep steps, we got to my favourite place of this whole trip.  Butterflies flitting, birds chirping, with pink petals of the cherry blossoms floating slowly as the wind blew. This is close to my idea of paradise. I cannot put into words how surreal it all seemed like but take a look at the video I took with my iPhone, with the volume on. That place is truly out of the world and far exceeds my expectations.

Now, the ancient pagoda is also somewhat worthy of mention. It is daito 大塔 pagoda, a unique design quite rare in Japan now. What’s even more interesting, this pagoda used to stand on the grounds of Sumiyoshi Taisha 住吉大社 (one of the oldest shrines in Japan) in Osaka, but was moved to this location in 1873. While I cannot find any records of how old this pagoda is, Sumiyoshi Taisha apparently dates back to 211 A.D. so go figure. I’ll say it’s… pretty ancient.

And then it was time to make our way down the 100 steps, before we tackle the 330 steps. Over 400 steps in all, but so, so worth the climb. Kirihataji is by far my favourite temple to date.

I have to give some attention to this lone cherry blossom. It’s nothing special, so why, you may ask. Because this is the only flower the mister has even presented to me, unprompted! You must have figured by now that my mister is not big on romantic gestures, and he doesn’t believe in flowers. Yet at the top of Kirihataji, he picked a fallen cherry blossom and asked me to safeguard it for him while he went to get a stamp for the booklet. Oh well… it just occurred to me that I was actually safeguarding it for him. Hmm…

As we descended the 330 steps (descending actually gave our knees more problems then ascending – getting old…), we noticed something we didn’t on our way up. There were coins astrewn on both sides of the steps, shimmering in the sunlight. The mister concluded that we were probably too tired on our way up to notice, but I though it could be a matter of angle. I turned around and looked up… yup, couldn’t sight the coins at all. They must mean something but I can’t seem to locate any resources explaining this. I’ll return here to update if I find anything on it.

Temple 11: Fujiiji (Fujiidera) 藤井寺

The distances between temples are getting wider but we managed to arrive at Temple 11 Fujiiji within 15mins or so. Fujiiji means “Wisteria Temple” so it’s not difficult to guess how it got its name. On its temples grounds are numerous wisteria vines that bloom in May. We were too early though. 😦

Other than the wisteria, there’s something else unique about Fujiiji – it’s a Zen temple. Am afraid I can’t tell what’s so special about it but having only 3 of the 88 temples on the Shikoku Henro route being Zen temples, I reckon they are somewhat a rarity.

After Fujiiji, we officially called it a day where the pilgrimmage was concerned. Covering 11 temples within a day was way faster than we anticipated. That meant that we could spend the other days in Tokushima at a less punishing pace.

Temple 13: Dainichi 大日寺

Given its proximity to Temple 11 Fujiiji we should have pushed on to Temple 12 Shōsanji the day afore, but since our camera was fast running out of battery we decided to call it a day.

This Danichiji (the second one, since Temple 4 shares the same name) was rather hard to reach and quite a distance from our hotel in the city centre. We had to park our car some distance away, and walk single-file along a narrow path by the side of a windy road with blind spots aplenty. The first temple that we come across with the main entrance just by the roadside. To take a shot of ourselves in front of the main entrance, I also had to dart across the road several times to set up the tripod and camera, and subsequently collect them again.

It was at this temple that we noticed our day in terms of the pilgrimmage is going to turn out quite different from yesterday’s; we saw 2 busloads of local pilgrims at the car park. We quickly realised it was a Saturday and that we were seeing (and likely will see more along the way) weekend pilgrims. The mister reminded me that I cannot afford to linger too long at each temple since we should endeavour to get ahead of them in order not to get held up at the stamp offices.

Temple 14: Jōrakuji 常楽寺

While Temple 14 Jōrakuji isn’t physically located far away from Temple 13 Dainichiji, the drive brought us through residential areas with narrow lanes meant for 2-way traffic, hence compelling me to drive even more cautiously than usual.

I was quite surprised when we arrived at the temple, and even wondered if we have not arrived after all. Unlike all the other temples with flat courtyards and neat, manicured gardens and ponds, it seemed like this one was simply built on the existing ground without taking the time to flatten it for easier construction. The most ‘rugged’ courtyard we’ve seen so far.

Legend has it that a wife carried her impaired husband on the pilgrimmage circuit five times in total. On the 6th time, they vowed to take their own lives if the husband didn’t get healed. At this temple the husband was miraculously healed and started walking on his own for the rest of the pilgrimmage. For this very reason, Jōrakuji is particularly popular with people with physical disabilities.

Over at this temple, we met with another busload of pilgrims and experienced how much longer the wait would be if we ended up behind a big group for the stamp on our booklet. Have to admit that spurred us to move a little quicker so we can get ahead.

Temple 15: Kokubunji 國分寺

There are a total of 4 temples named Kokubunji in Shikoku, one in each prefecture of Tokushima, Kōchi 高知, Ehime 愛媛 and Kagawa 香川. For an official state temple, Temple 15 Kokubunji felt a little underwhelming at first sight. Perhaps we couldn’t get a good feel of its imposing presence since the main gate was undergoing retiling work when we visited.

This Kokubunji has a rather small and compact compound, and it was here that we met a middle-aged Japanese couple arriving in a car, and seemed to be in a huge rush. I had the opportunity to get close to the wife while waiting for the mister, and thought that she didn’t look too well. Perhaps she was praying for restoration of good health.

Subsequently we met them at the later temples, although we lagged further and further behind (they were in a hurry). Furthermore it didn’t seem to be their first time on this pilgrimmage; the husband knew the shortcut roads to take while we could only follow where our GPS brought us to. In any case, I fervently hope their wish is granted.

Temple 16: Kannonji 観音

A short drive away (would have been even shorter if we followed the Japanese couple we met at the previous temple), we arrived at Temple 16 Kannonji.

The drive was getting progressively more and more tedious, and was taking up a lot of my mental bandwidth. I have to admit that I was starting to go through the motions at these few temples hence not a deep impression of Kannonji. Of course we were also trying to be as quick as we could to complete the planned temples for that day since we had a schedule later.

Temple 12: Shōsanji 焼山寺

To date (after completing 23 temples), this Temple 12 Shōsanji is the most difficult to reach. By car, that is. Little wonder, since Shōsanji is the first mountain temple we encountered. To be honest, I’m relieved that the mister decided to end it before this temple the day before. I would have been too tired and not alert enough to manoeuvre the mountainous roads.

If you’re thinking that it’s a steep footpath leading to Temple 12, you’re quite wrong. It’s one of the least challenging sections of the drive up to the temple where I could see the way ahead and behind of me to safely stop the car for a moment to take a snapshot. This road width is very familiar to me, because this is how wide a lane in Singapore is. However, this road is meant for two-way traffic up and down the mountain temple. It being the weekend also meant that we frequently met oncoming traffic along the way. I was so stressed up whenever that occurred.

‘Tis was a long drive, and a tedious walk up to the temple but who am I to complain? At least I drove and wasn’t walking.

Shōsanji means “Burning Mountain Temple” and has an interesting legend about a fiery dragon linked to it. The dragon frequently terrorised the local folks living in the area by setting fire to the mountain but was subsequently subdued and imprisoned in a cave by Kōbō Daishi himself.

Dreading the way down the narrow mountainous road, the mister hurried me when he saw a car getting ready to leave as we neared our car. It’s stressful being the first/only car and I didn’t relish on repeating the experience, but things would be quite different being a follower car. I was too slow in getting ready; the car left… and then we noticed an elderly man in a second car gleefully driving off, following the first. Looks like I wasn’t not the only driver unwilling to be the leader of a convoy. :lol

The video that the mister took captured how we finally managed to catch up with the first two cars when they had to slow down to pass oncoming cars, and subsequently had two other cars catch up with me. And so, we descended the mountain in a convoy of 5 cars. Much, much less stressful drive down than up.

After the drive up and down Shōsanji, I felt so much more comfortable that I would be able to tackle any other roads we may come across. The drive was that defining.