Six Days in Shikoku: Zentsuji to Saijo

The photo shows a five-level wooden pagoda, with a bright blue sky behind it, and treen branches in the foreground on the upper-right side and center-left side of the photo.

This series of posts updates on a Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday schedule.

Just one stop away from JR Kotohira is JR Zentsuji, and about a twenty minute walk away from JR Zentsuji station is Zentsuji itself. Zentsuji is the largest and most famous of the 88 Temples of Shikoku, for it is where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was born and raised, and it is the first Shingon Buddhist temple ever established in Japan.

The map shows the location of Zentsuji and Saijo City.

The map shows the location of Zentsuji and Saijo City.

My guidebook says that, if you’re only going to visit one of the 88 Temples of Shikoku, you should try to make that one temple Zentsuji.

DSCF4746

It’s certainly on a bigger scale than the other of the 88 Temples of Shikoku I visited, in fact, it is the biggest temple in Shikoku (though it is on a smaller scale than Konpira-san, which I had visited earlier in the day).

DSCF4747

One of the sights of Zentsuji is the wooden pagoda, shown in the photo above.

DSCF4749

There is a little dark tunnel which visitors can pass through in exchange for a small fee. Since I had a similar experience in Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, I decided to pass the experience here.

DSCF4754

There is an arcade with illustrations of the life of Kobo Daishi.

DSCF4770

Since I don’t actually know much about the life of Kobo Daishi, I didn’t recognize the episodes of his life in the pictures.

DSCF4772

I wonder, is the picture above showing Kobo Daishi meditating in the cave at Muroto Cape (in Shikoku) and achieving enlightenment? Even I know about that incident in the life of Kobo Daishi.

DSCF4765

I admit, I am not sure what the purpose of most of these structures are.

DSCF4775

I know that there is a tree in the temple which supposedly was around when Kobo Daishi was a boy. Is it the tree in the photo above? I don’t remember.

DSCF4758

After visiting Zentsuji, I returned to JR Zentsuji station, and rode trains all the way to Saijo, thus leaving Kagawa Prefecture a second time and entering Ehime prefecture. Since I didn’t take any photos on the trains, all of the photos in this post are from Zentsuji.

DSCF4761

‘Iyo’, of course, is the old name for Ehime prefecture, and was one of the ‘four countries’ (‘Shikoku’ means ‘four countries’ in Japanese). The train station in Saijo city is ‘Iyo-Saijo’, following the tradition of Shikoku train stations putting the old domain names (Sanuki, Awa, Iyo, Tosa) in train station names.

DSCF4763

After hearing about how sparse public transportation is in Shikoku, and travelling in Hokkaido and Tohoku, I was expecting lots of inconvenience. (Note … everything you hear about Japan being so public-transit friendly, and trains always being on time, and how fast Japenese trains are, etc. … does not apply to Hokkaido and Tohoku, though to be fair Hokkaido and Tohoku have much better public transit networks than parts of the United States with similar population density). Thus, I was pleasantly surprised that the trains from Zentsuji to Saijo were 1) not late or cancelled 2) the local trains ran about once an hour 3) I only had to make two transfers, and the wait time between transfers wasn’t more than 30 minutes. You can’t appreciate how convenient this is unless you’ve travelled extensively by public transit in regions where trains/buses only run once every three hours, and they might be delayed/cancelled, and transfers can take 2+ hours.

DSCF4767

Of course, I should point out that I only travelled in northern Shikoku, which is where the vast majority of the population, and thus public transit services, are. I strongly suspect that public transit in southern Shikoku is no more convenient than public transit in eastern Hokkaido.

DSCF4768

In any case, I got to spend a bit less than three hours riding trains, which suited me just fine. I appreciated spending hours riding trains in Japan since they allowed me to rest, read, do travel planning, look out the window, etc. While I was walking from the temple back to JR Zentsuji station, I picked up some snacks as well as a cold, fruit-flavored alcoholic beverage. I discovered that the cold, cheap, fruit-flavored sugary alcoholic drinks found in convenience stores all over Japan are a great thing to drink on trains – I didn’t want to be the least bit impaired by alcohol when I was doing something active like a hike or visiting an important cultural place, but I felt that a long train ride was the perfect place to dull my senses a little and enjoy the buzz. I looked out the window, though I don’t remember what I saw. I also wrote in my diary about my one-day tour of the temples in Tokushima prefecture.

DSCF4769

I arrived at Iyo-Saijo station a little before sunset. I didn’t have any reservation for a place to sleep for the night, but that turned out to be not a problem – there are a number of inexpensive business hotels clustered around Iyo-Saijo station. I walked around, and then went inside the hotel with the lowest advertised price (I think it was about 3,000 yen per night). Nobody was inside, but there was a phone number. I called the number, and about ten minutes later, a middle-aged Japanese woman walked in to give me a room key and accept my payment. I think I was the only person, guest or staff, in the hotel building that night. There seemed to be something off about the room – as in the furniture didn’t really fit in the space or something – but since it was clean, and everything worked in the bathroom, and the bed was fine, I definitely got my money’s worth.

Why spend a night in Saijo city? Because I wanted to go to Ishizuchi-san, and to get an early start, I had to take the first bus leaving Saijo City in the morning. Ishizuchi-san will be featured in my next post.

DSCF4773

Six Days in Shikoku: The Great Shrines of Konpira-san

DSCF4678

Most people who come to the town of Kotohira come to ascend Konpira-san, which is the #1 shrine for the Shinto god of seafarers. Japan is an island nation – during my travels in Japan I rode ferries twenty times – so the god of seafarers is pretty important.

The map shows that Kotohira is in northeastern Shikoku, a bit inland, and west of Takamatsu

To get to the topmost shrine, visitors must ascend 1,368 steps.

Statue at the entrance of the shrine complex

Statue at the entrance of the shrine complex

I was expecting it to be easy. I mean, come on, I had hiked to the top of Rishiri-Fuji, as well as Mt. Yakushi, and Mt. Miyanoura in the snow. I was expecting Konpira-san to be a walk in the park, just like Haguro-san, another sacred mountain which is famous for its long staircase.

DSCF4683

Okay, obviously, Konpira-san is not as challenging as Rishiri-Fuji/Mt. Yakushi/Mt. Miyanoura. But that doesn’t mean that walking up the steps of Konpira-san requires zero effort. I was expecting to zip up the steps like a hummingbird, and instead, I found myself having to stop to take a breath quite often.

DSCF4687

Fortunately, there was a lot to look at while I was catching my breath.

I could look at this wooden horse while I was catching my breath!

I could look at this wooden horse while I was catching my breath!

Though Konpira-san is officially a Shinto sacred site, in practice its a blend of Shinto and Buddhist shrines, like Haguro-san. That means Konpira-san is a great place to check out Shinto and Buddhist structures.

DSCF4697

I swear that Konpira-san is tougher to hike up than Haguro-san, even though Haguro-san has 2446 steps. Of course, maybe that’s because I brought luggage up with me until I found a place to discretely stash it a few hundred steps up the mountains. The humidity also wasn’t helpful.

DSCF4694

Once you get about midway, views over Sanuki (Kagawa Prefecture) start to open up.

DSCF4709

The mountain on the left side in the photo above is Sanuki-Fuji. Being a volcano, it looks like Mt. Fuji, and it’s in what used to be called Sanuki Province (now it’s Kagawa Prefecture). Since in the old days most people in Sanuki Province couldn’t visit Mt. Fuji themselves, they worshipped their local ‘Fuji’. Japan Hike has more info about Sanuki-Fuji.

DSCF4723

I could also see the Seto-Ohashi bridge – the bridge I used to enter Shikoku via train – though it doesn’t really show up in any of the photos.

DSCF4699

Seriously, I was impressed with the sheer variety (and size) of shrines in a relatively small area.

DSCF4700

I almost considered *not* going to Konpira-san because I figured I had already seen enough Japanese shrines/temples for a lifetime. Sure, I’d see some of the 88 Temples of Shikoku because they are special, but Konpira-san? I’d already been to Haguro-san, another mountain famous for its long stone staircase, and I’d been to a lot of other famous temples/shrines in Japan. How different could Konpira-san be?

DSCF4708

I can’t say that Konpira-san it particularly different, and certainly, I would say that travellers with limited time would be better off visiting Haguro-san or Koya-san (though, for travellers who are really pressed for time and have JR passes, Konpira-san might be a good choice because it’s the only one of the three which is close to a JR station).

DSCF4712

I didn’t mind that I had seen buildings like this before because it was still neat. Okay, I guess one thing which makes it different is that there aren’t a zillion foreign tourists (unlike anywhere famous in Kyoto), and most of the people at Konpira-san feel some religious/cultural connection to the place, even if they have mostly-secular lives. On the other hand, since Konpira-san is more accessible than Haguro-san/Koya-san, the visitors here tend to be more casual. Yet they weren’t mostly tour bus groups, unlike Ise Jingu. And there were tons of people there, unlike many temples/shrines I’ve visited where hardly anybody was around.

DSCF4710

There’s the lower area (about the first 800 steps) where most of the buildings are, as well as most of the people. Past the main shrine, the steps pass through a forested area, with only occasional shrines along the way.

DSCF4715

Though most people don’t go to the upper area, there are so many visitors that there was almost always at least one other human within my line of sight.

DSCF4716

The forest itself is nice. It’s not a pristine virgin forest, but it’s not a zombie cedar forest either.

DSCF4717

There are little signs telling them how many steps are left before they reach the top of the stairs. There’s also a little shelter at one point, which I made use of.

DSCF4721

Eventually, I reached the uppermost shrine of Konpira-san. Though there were quite a few people there, it wasn’t nearly as bustling as the main shrine below. This is part of what makes Konpira-san neat – you can get the large busy cosmopolitan Shinto shrine, and the somewhat secluded and quiet Shinto shrine in the forest, all in one place.

This is the uppermost shrine

This is the uppermost shrine

Since this a set of shrines dedicated to the god of seafarers, there is of course an area dedicated to depictions of seafaring.

DSCF4728

There is something really quirky about seeing a building which looks like it belongs in medieval Japan … and then see all kinds of photos of modern seaships and an actually modern boat inside it.

DSCF4729

DSCF4741

It was only on the way down the stairs that I realized just how big some of these buildings are.

DSCF4740

According to my diary, I thought the building with the really spacious ground floor was ‘neat’.

DSCF4743

I remember, during my first few months in Taiwan, I thought temples were really cool, and when I moved to Taoyuan city, I thought it was cool that there were so many temples in my neighborhood. But eventually, Taiwanese temples all started looking the same, except for the most unusual/extraordinary temples.

DSCF4742

The very day my uncle arrived in Taiwan, I took him to the Tianhou temple in Ximending and Longshan temple. He had never been in Asia before, and he thought the temples were really, really interesting. He also noticed that I wasn’t enthusiastic, and said something like ‘So, this isn’t interesting to you at all’. I replied ‘I’ve been in Taiwan for over a year, and I’ve seen all this before’.

DSCF4724

Of course, Japanese temples and Shinto shrines are different from Taiwanese temples, so at first they were new and fresh to me, but there were several points in my travels in Japan when I felt “ENOUGH WITH THE TEMPLES/SHRINES!!!!!”

DSCF4725

Yet strangely, I didn’t feel temple/shrine fatigue at all in Konpira-san. Perhaps it was because I visited a lot less temples/shrines in my second trip to Japan than in my first. But it also may be because I knew Konpira san was the last place I’d see a Shinto shrine like this.

DSCF4726

Japanese temples and shrines are beautiful. When in your quest to experience new things you instead see similar things over and over again, frustration can interfere with appreciation of the beauty. But when you’ve spent almost six months in a place where beautiful temples and shrines are all over the place, and then you realize you are about to leave that place, and possibly never return ever again, that frustration disappears, and the beauty is particularly apparent.

DSCF4727

I knew that visiting Konpira-san, and by extension my entire Shikoku excursion, was a farewell to a world I had lived in for months, and might never return to.

But I had one more Buddhist temple to visit that day. That will be the subject of my next post … “Six Days in Shikoku: Zentsuji to Saijo”.

DSCF4738

Review: Cymbeline at Marin Shakespeare

Tommy Gorrebeeck as Posthumus, and Stella Heath as Imogen in Marin Shakespeare's Cymbeline

Tommy Gorrebeeck as Posthumus, and Stella Heath as Imogen in Marin Shakespeare’s Cymbeline

I want to see every Shakespeare play performed live, so when I learned that Marin Shakespeare was putting on Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s obscure plays, I decided to go. What did I think?

The Play & Adaptation

Cymbeline is Shakespeare’s third longest play, and not as good as the two plays which are even longer, Hamlet and Coriolanus. I’ve heard that practically every production of Cymbeline liberally cuts lines, and since this production is only about two hours long, it is no exception.

The most famous part of the play is the song “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” which is sung by some outcasts as they bury an innocent youth who had been wronged while alive. It might be the best song to appear in any Shakespeare play. I like this Youtube version.

This production takes the music and runs with it – I lost track of how many songs had been added. Aside from “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun”, they were generally light-hearted and simple, and were both enjoyable and made it easier to get into the story.

There are some lines which had clearly been added in order to clarify some of the denser parts of the play. For example, after Iachimo gives a long and ornate speech about what Posthumus has been doing in Italy, he pauses, and sums it up by saying ‘He’s having sex with prostitutes’. It made me laugh. There was also a convoluted speech where Belarius was revealing who his two ‘boys’ true identities, and then he came out and said ‘okay, there are two boys, and four names. Get it?’.

All in all, the plot was fairly easy to follow, which considering that this might be the most convoluted plot of any Shakespeare play, is no small accomplishment. For that alone this production is a success. It is also done as a slight parody of itself which. Considering how ridiculous the story is, maximizing the humor might be the most entertaining way to do this play.

Costume Design

The color theme for the costumes seemed to be blue, with the help of some greens and purples. It certainly made the Romans/Italians stand out with their bright red clothing, which is fitting, since they were foreigners in Britain. Though the Roman military was dressed like ancient Romans, most of the other characters were dressed in Renaissance/Tudor style.

Imogen’s dress (which is not the same as the dress as the dress in the press photo above – those press photos must have been taken before the costume designer finished her work) was lovely, with ribbons trailing from her waist. I think the ribbons helped her seem more innocent, which is exactly what’s needed.

The queen had a very appropriate dress, being stiff and straight, which formed a contrast with Imogen’s flowing dress.

Cloten’s costume had plaid running down his chest on one side, which made him look both snobbish and clueless. The headband also helped identify his head after it was separated from the rest of his body.

The one costume which didn’t work for me was the Goddess – rather than getting the sense that she was a divine being, she just seemed out of place.

Set Design

The diagonal ramps with multiple entrances/exits worked very well at positioning multiple actors in different levels and offering many staging options. The grey + camouflage look also made the set very flexible, so we could believe that it was King Cymbeline’s palace or caves in the wilderness or a battlefield, depending on what was needed.

Lighting & Sound Design

Since I saw an afternoon performance, the lighting was designed by the sun and various nearby trees.

Acting

I must applaud Tommy Gorrebeeck. I didn’t even realize he was playing Posthumus and Cloten, even though at one point Cloten puts on Posthumus’ clothes until I checked the cast list. Sure, the wig helped, but that wouldn’t have stopped me from figuring it out if Tommy Gorrebeeck weren’t a fine actor on top of that.

Aside from that, the actors who stood out the most to me were Jed Parsario (Pisanio), Debi Durst (Cornelius), and Davern Wright (Iachimo). What all of their performances have in common is that they are good at comedy. Jed Parsario had good timing and was quick to react to the other actors. Though Cornelius is a minor character, Debi Durst made him into one of the most memorable by being the sardonic Greek chorus commenting on the ridiculousness of what was going on. When reading Cymbeline long ago, it never occurred to me that Iachimo could be a comic character, but now I must admit that Iachimo can be funny.

Aside from the comedic aspects, there was a striking silent moment where, on the battlefield, Posthumus (Tommy Gorrebeeck) and Iachimo (Davern Wright) recognize it other. It added gravitas.

The performer who did not stand out is Stella Heath as Imogen. I could understand her easily enough, and considering that this is Cymbeline, being comprehensible means that your performance is at least OK. However, Imogen, as the most important character in the play, can be a lot better than ‘OK’. That said, this production is slanted towards comedy, and Imogen lends herself to tugging heartstrings, not making people laugh. Still, I get feel that, while Stella Heath’s performance is adequate, it could have been more.

Overall

Seeing Marin Shakespeare’s Cymbeline was well worth my time and money. Cymbeline is rarely performed, and I suspect performances which are actually easy to follow and entertaining are even rarer. It’s not a great play, but this time, it is fun.

If, like me, you don’t have a car, fear not – this show is within walking distance of the San Rafael Transit Center, which has buses running to San Francisco, El Cerrito Del Norte BART station, and Santa Rosa.

Six Days in Shikoku: Kanamaru-za in Kotohira

Above there are many cylindrical lanterns shining brightly.  Far in the distance is a wall covered with white and red cloth.  On the right side we see a raised wooden platform, called the 'hanamichi', extending into the vast area where the audience would sit on tatami mats.

Looking down the hanamichi of Kanamaru-za, the oldest intact kabuki theatre in the world

This series is running on a Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday schedule.

I kept on changing my mind about whether or not I actually wanted to go to Kotohira. I eventually realized that I would have to pass through Kotohira anyway to get from JR Oboke station to my next destination. Once I was in town, I went straight to what was of greatest interest to me: Kanamaru-za, the world’s oldest kabuki theatre.

The map shows that Kotohira is in northeastern Shikoku, a bit inland, and west of Takamatsu

It takes about ten minutes to walk from JR Kotohira station to cross the river into the old part of town.

This is a Shinto shrine, with a tori gate, a very tall lantern in the distance, and a towering green tree

I passed this shrine on the way to the old part of town

There is a historic street which is all geared up to separate tourists from their yen. Apparently, it had once been a flourishing merchants’ area.

Ye Olde Japanese Architecture

Ye Olde Japanese Architecture

Removed from the noise and bustle of the historic/touristy street, the Kanamaru-za is in a surprisingly quiet area.

It's the KANAMARU-ZA!!!

It’s the KANAMARU-ZA!!!

An old man gave me a tour of the theatre. Since I had spent almost 6 months in Japan sharpening my Japanese language skills, I was actually able to understand a lot of what he was saying, at least with the assistance of lots of gestures and my prior knowledge of traditional Japanese theatre (i.e. I already knew what a hanamichi is).

DSCF4658

Above is the room where audience members remove their sandals, since sandals/shoes are not permitted inside the theatre.

DSCF4661

And those are the lanterns which light up the theatre, though I suspect they are now lit with electricity and not fire (theatres were the very first places to install electric lighting – within a year of the electric light bulb being invented, theatres in Europe were installing electric lights, because there are Serious Problems with using fire/gas to illuminate a theatre). There is also a contraption up there which allows kabuki actors to fly, though I can’t really see it in any of my photos.

DSCF4662

And of course, any theatre with built-in flying machines is also going to have some trap doors.

DSCF4664

Apparently, there had been several temporary theatres built here before the construction of this permanent theatre in 1835. When it was first built, most of the audience was people visiting Kotohira for religious reasons (if you want to know why people came to Kotohira for religious reasons, you should read my next post!)

This is one of the 'backstage' rooms for the actors

This is one of the ‘backstage’ rooms for the actors

The theatre had fallen into disrepair until top kabuki actors rediscovered it in the 1980s. Since then, it’s hosted a kabuki festival every year featuring Japan’s finest kabuki stars.

DSCF4668

But this … this is the REVOLVER! It revolves the stage! I think it’s supposed to take 6 people working together to revolve the stage.

DSCF4670

That is the hanamichi – as seen from below. It’s designed so that people can *ahem* appear and disappear from the hanamichi rather quickly.

And this is what the theatre looks like from above

And this is what the theatre looks like from above

I notice that they have a screen showing a pine tree on the stage. Noh and kyogen theatre always have a pine tree in the background because, historically, those plays were performed at temples literally in front of pine trees, and when they started performing noh and kyogen indoors they brought (painted) pine trees with them. However, the kabuki play I saw at the Minami-za (the kabuki theatre in Kyoto which was established in 1610 BUT the current building was built in the 1920s, therefore it’s not as old as Kanamaru-za) didn’t feature any painted pine trees in the background.

Good-bye, Kanamaru-za!

Good-bye, Kanamaru-za!

The theatre definitely got my visit to Kotohira off to a good start.

DSCF4676

I went back to the historic street, and saw a little dance-and-song show put on for tourists. I don’t remember much about it though.

The steps leading up to Kompira-san

The steps leading up to Kompira-san

So now I went to the big, big, big tourist draw in Kotohira, which is Konpira-san. Yup, Konpira-san is where those steps lined with merchants trying to separate tourists from their yen is going up to. That’s the subject of the next post.

DSCF4745

Six Days in Shikoku: Kul-nel-asob and Oboke

This is the 'husband' bridge, not the Nishi-Iya bridge

This is the ‘husband’ bridge, not the Nishi-Iya bridge

This series is running on a Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday schedule.

I had a reservation at Kul-nel-asob, which means ‘Sleep, Eat, Play’. Since my guidebook says they include meals, I at first thought ‘nope, can’t stay there’. I’m a vegan, and the vast majority of guesthouses/ryokan in Japan don’t offer vegan meals. However, I decided to look at their website to see if there was some kind of no-meals option … and I was shocked to find that it is a vegan guesthouse. In rural Japan. And it’s not a Buddhist temple. Again, it is a vegan guesthouse, in rural Japan, and it’s not a Buddhist temple. I couldn’t believe it.

Here's that handy map of the Iya Valley again

Here’s that handy map of the Iya Valley again

Well, I put in my reservation, even though it was much more expensive than most of the places I had stayed at in Japan, partially because I thought it was my best option for the night, and partially because I would finally be able to go for a meal plan at a Japanese guesthouse.

The 'husband' bridge

The ‘husband’ bridge

The owner of the guesthouse grew up in one of the big metropolises of Japan, and as a young man lived in Botswana for a couple years. He didn’t want to live like a salary man, which is why he bought a historic building (now over 90 years old) between Oboke and the Iya Valley and opened a guesthouse. He’s also a vegan. He says that when he opened the guesthouse there was little tourism in the Iya Valley, and practically all foreign tourists would stay at Kul-nel-asob. In fact, as soon as any foreigner appeared at JR Oboke station, taxi drivers would call him to tell him that he had a guest. Now, he says, there’s more tourism in the Iya Valley.

One of the other guests is from Osaka. He came to Shikoku just to spend a night at this specific guesthouse, because his friend said he should.

There were only three guests that night, so I got my own room – with tatami mats, painted screens, and views over the river, in a historic Japanese house. Since I was mostly staying at budget accommodation in Japan, I really wasn’t used to having such a nice place to myself for the night.

Most of the picture is dominated by a large lump of a mountain, with a river flowing around it

This is the view from the guesthouse on the morning that I left

The guesthouse doesn’t have a bath/shower, so the owner offers all guests a trip to a local onsen at no extra charge every evening. Since I was the only female guest – and apparently the onsen hotel wasn’t doing much business at that hour – I was the only one in the female baths, which felt lonely. I like sharing onsen with people. It was an okay onsen (I have been to a lot of onsen in Japan, so my standards are pretty high). There was a bath made out of hinoki wood, which was a nice touch. The views over the river gorge, alas, were marred by the hulk of steel bridge and bright green lights.

DSCF4606

Dinner? To quote my diary “DINNER was PHENOMENAL!’. It was by far the most delicious meal I had in Shikoku, in fact it was the most delicious meal I had in Japan west of Kansai, and I have spent about two months in west-of-Kansai-Japan.

The guesthouse also had a bookshelf. I flipped through a book of photographs of Botswana, and I also noted Eat Sleep Sit (which I still haven’t read, but I’d like to read it some day). The book I did end up reading was Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr.

Alex Kerr bought a historic farmhouse in the Iya Valley in the 1970s, and now it’s a guesthouse which charges over 20,000 yen (about 200 USD) per night, is on an obscure side road, and does not offer pick up from JR Oboke. The owner of Kul-nel-asob knows Alex Kerr personally, but says that Alex Kerr rarely comes to the Iya Valley because he’s so busy.

DSCF4636

I didn’t read all of Dogs and Demons in one night, but it definitely left an impression. It explained a lot of things I had seen in Japan, and confirmed things about Japan which I had suspected but didn’t know how to put into words. For example, I had felt that there was something wrong with the cedar forests in Japan, and I could tell you things like ‘the forest is too quiet, and there are hardly any understory plants’, and that there were some landslides around cedar forests before I read the book, but the book explains that, yep, the cedar forests are an ecological void, they destablize hillsides, and the book explains how zombie cedar forests came to dominate more than 25% of Japan’s land area. I disagreed with some of Alex Kerr’s conclusions, but even when I disagreed the book still provoked my thinking.

I asked the guesthouse owner what he thought about the book. He said that he agreed with a lot of what Alex Kerr says, and that Japan has a lot of problems, but he thinks the younger generation in Japan is different, and that things will get better.

That evening, it was raining. Between the food, the wonderful old Japanese house, the food, the weather outside, the books, and the food, I was very, very glad that I had not gone camping out this night.

DSCF4638

The next morning, the owner drove me to JR Oboke station so I could catch a train to Kotohira. JR Oboke is the last station on the Dosan line in Tokushima station – just past the station, there is a tunnel, and on the other side of the tunnel is JR Tosa-Yamada station in Kochi Prefecture. I wanted to go to Kochi, and in my original Shikoku plan I was going to take the train to Kochi immediately after visiting the Iya Valley. If it weren’t for the fact that my 90 days in Japan were almost up, I would have probably taken a southbound train down to Kochi. However, I couldn’t see everything in Shikoku in just six days, and I had to cut Kochi prefecture out of my plans. Instead, while waiting for the northbound train, I thought about just how close I was to Kochi, and how I wasn’t going there.

On the train, I looked out at the Yoshino river below.

And that is how I left Tokushima Prefecture.

In the next post, I will describe the town of Kotohira, which, among other things, has the oldest kabuki theatre which is still standing.

DSCF4649

Six Days in Shikoku: the Iya Valley

We are on a suspension bridge made out of vines extending forward toward the right, leading into a thick patch of leafy tree branches.

The ‘Husband’ Bridge

This series is running on a Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday schedule.

I was dropped off at Oku-iya-kazura-bashi – the ‘Inner Iya Vine Bridges’, which is in the upper part of the Iya Valley.

Iya_2

Before the days of steel and cement, people crossed the Iya river by vine bridges. There were once many vine bridges in the Iya Valley, but now only three remain – one in Nishi-Iya, and the two Inner Iya Vine Bridges in Higashi-Iya. These bridges have been here for centuries, though the vines have to replaced from time to time. Most tourists go to the bridge in Nishi-Iya because it’s close to the major highway and Oboke train station. My guidebook, however, recommended the Inner Iya Vine Bridges because a) there are two of them b) it’s much more serene and scenic.

Here's a handy map of the Iya Valley

Here’s a handy map of the Iya Valley

If you are familiar with pre-modern Japanese history or literature, you know about the famous war between the Heike and the Genji clans. The Heike clan lost, and the survivors had to flee from the victorious Genji clan. Supposedly, some of the Heike fled to the Iya Valley, and when the Genji clan pursued them, the Heike cut the vine bridges.

The steps going down to the vine bridges

The steps going down to the vine bridges

I paid the modest entrance fee, and the woman at the entrance agreed to watch my luggage while I was down there.

These two bridges are also called the ‘husband-and-wife’ bridges. The bridge shown in the photos above and below is the ‘husband’ bridge.

DSCF4605

While standing on the husband bridge, I looked down at the Iya river.

We see a blue river flower past white-grey rocks, with lots of leafy green trees hanging over it on the far bank

Below the ‘husband’ bridge is a lovely little waterfall.

DSCF4611

I then went back across the Iya river on the ‘wife’ bridge.

The 'wife' bridge

The ‘wife’ bridge

I looked at the Iya river again.

DSCF4619

Back in the old days, people used a ‘wild monkey’ cart to send things across the river.

Above the river is a set of ropes, with a little wooden cage suspended on the ropes.  As people inside the wooden cage pull the ropes, they move across the river.

The ‘wild monkey’ cart

I decided to cross the river again, this time pull myself along in the cart.

I'm in the cart and ready to pull myself across the river

I’m in the cart and ready to pull myself across the river

There is a cheap campground by these vine bridges, and I seriously considered spending the night here. But I had already sent my tent back to the USA in Tokushima city, and I already had a reservation at Kul-nel-asob. I just didn’t want to take the risk of being stuck there in bad weather with no public transportation. But seeing how nice the weather was when I visited the bridges, and thinking of all the yen I could save by camping, I was wondering if I had made a mistake.

Looking at the Iya river again, this time on the wild monkey cart

Looking at the Iya river again, this time on the wild monkey cart

Even though the Inner Iya Vine Bridges don’t get nearly as many visitors as the vine bridge in Nishi-Iya, there were still a number of cars in the parking lot, and there is basically only one road, so it wasn’t hard to hitch a ride to JR Oboke station.

While crossing the river, I saw these berries

While crossing the river, I saw these berries

An older Japanese man and woman agreed to take me in their car. We moved down through the Iya Valley. At one point, they turned off the main road. I didn’t know why, but I was sure that they weren’t going to Oboke, so I was concerned. They then got lost, and had to ask someone for directions. They then reached the place they wanted to see, and I figured out why they wanted to see it.

There is a tall green mountain, with a long switch-backed road creeping up its face.  Along the road is a village with many traditional Japanese farmhouses

Ochiai Village

The couple went on the side-road because they wanted to see Ochiai Village, and thanks to them, I saw it too.

A close-up of Ochiai Village

A close-up of Ochiai Village

They then kindly brought me to Oboke train station. By then, the weather was getting worse, but that was fine with me because I was done with outdoor activity for the day. I had thought that Oboke was part of the Iya Valley until … I started writing this post. As you can see from the map above, Oboke is on the Yoshino river, not the Iya river, and thus is technically not in the Iya Valley.

I will describe my experience at the Kul-nel-asob guesthouse near Oboke in the next post.

Through a mess of green leaves on tree branches, we can see a vine bridge below

Six Days in Shikoku: Summiting Tsurugi-san

DSCF4553

This series is running on a Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday schedule.

This is a continuation of my previous post, in which I describe how I got to Tsurugi-san.

Tsurugi_map2

Near the summit is a complex of Shinto shrines.

DSCF4554

Practitioners of Shinto have a tendency to set up shrines on mountain tops, even in Taiwan, but this is by far the largest Shinto shrine complex I’ve seen on a mountain that is 1000+ meters above sea level.

DSCF4557

The fog reached the summit at the same time I did, obscuring the views.

DSCF4560

I rushed around with my camera, trying to catch views in all direction before everything was obscured with grey and white.

DSCF4562

Several trails converge at Tsurugi-san – if I had time for a multi-day hike (or even a very long day hike) I would have taken one of the trails at the Tsurugi-san junction.

DSCF4564

I must catch that patch of blue sky with my camera!!!

I must catch that patch of blue sky with my camera!!!

There are a set of boardwalks at the summit, probably to prevent hikers’ boots from eroding the area.

DSCF4570

I am guessing that rope on the rock circle has some religious significance.

The sign says 'Tsurugi-san mountain summit' in Japanese, which conveniently is in kanji so I can readily understand it (I am one of few white people who while visiting Japan found hiragana/katakana to be more intimidating than kanji)

The sign says ‘Tsurugi-san mountain summit’ in Japanese, which conveniently is in kanji so I can readily understand it (I am one of few white people who while visiting Japan found hiragana/katakana to be more intimidating than kanji)

Above, there are white clouds swooping down.  In the background is a green mountain which is about to be obscured by white clouds moving in from the right.  In the foreground is a set of pine trees on the bottom left, bravely standing in the face of the cloudy onslaught

In addition to the shrine buildings, there is also a mountain hut where you can stay overnight (for 4,800 yen per night, more if you want meals), which has its own (Japanese-only) website.

In the background, there is a blanket of white cloud smothering green mountains.  In the foreground, on the right side, is the blue metal roof of a building, and there is a man sitting on the roof.  The man looks small compared to the roof, let alone the mountains.

The mountain hut seemed to be undergoing renovation when I was there.

DSCF4575

When I realized that the clouds weren’t going to part any time soon, I decided to descend.

DSCF4576

Of course, once I got lower, I was able to see a little blue sky.

DSCF4577

In the background are the forested slopes of a mountain.  In the foreground, large grey jagged rocks emerge.  There are two hikers passing by the rocks in the lower right corner, showing that the rocks are twice as tall as an adult human.

It’s those cool rocks again!

When I got back to Mi-no-koshi, I thanked the shopkeepers for watching my luggage, bought some snacks (it was the least I could do), and went to the road just next to the store, which happened to plunge straight into the Iya Valley.

The photo shows a bird with a blue-grey black gracefully bent over to pluck one of the few remaining sunflower seeds with its beak.

I saw the bird which finished the last of the sunflower seeds when I returned to Mi-no-koshi

This time, I only had to wait about 15 minutes before a young Japanese woman and young Japanese man agreed to take me in their car (they were heading into the Iya Valley anyway, and there’s only one thru road). They dropped me me off at Oku-iya-kazura-bashi (the Inner Iya Vine Bridges), which I will describe in my next post. However, I want to share some of my observations of the Iya Valley in this post.

DSCF4579

I had read that the Iya Valley was the Shangrila of Japan. I think that’s an exaggeration, at least nowadays. It reminded me a lot of mountain roads in Taiwan, The highest section of the road, from Mi-no-koshi to Inner-Iya-Vine-Bridge, had very, very, very little human settlement. However, past Inner-Iya-Vine-Bridge, there was more and more human settlement, more than I was expecting to be honest. It certainly seemed more settled than vast swaths of Hokkaido. Sure, all of the development in the valley is concentrated around the road, but you can go long distances on Hokkaido roads without seeing even 10% of the buildings that you’ll see on the road between Inner Iya Vine Bridge and Oboke. Of course, a lot of Hokkaido is much flatter than the Iya Valley, which is probably why the Iya Valley looks more like mountain roads in Taiwan.

DSCF4581

One glaring difference between the Iya Valley and mountain roads in Taiwan was all of the nice cars. Most people in the mountains of Taiwan can’t afford nice, shiny, clean cars, so they try to maintain the vehicles they already have and run them until they fall apart – and it shows. Residents of the Iya Valley probably have higher incomes, and cars are probably cheaper in Japan than in Taiwan. However, the buildings looked like they could have fit in many mountainous areas of Taiwan – basic concrete structures for people who ain’t rich.

By the way, all of these photos were taken during the descent from Tsurugi-san - I won't reveal any photos from the Iya Valley itself until the next post

By the way, all of these photos were taken during the descent from Tsurugi-san – I won’t reveal any photos from the Iya Valley itself until the next post

I’ve read that you shouldn’t try to compare different places you’ve travelled to – that you’ll get more out of travel if you experience everything for what it is, and don’t try to decide which one is better, and which one is worse. I think that’s good advice. I also couldn’t help feeling that, after building up all of this anticipation for seeing the Iya Valley, from guidebooks, and then from seeing the road from Sadamitsu to Mi-no-koshi, that the Iya Valley was a bit of a letdown. For all that it reminded me of Taiwanese mountain roads – possibly more than any other road in Japan – it doesn’t have the stunning scenery of the more remote parts of Taiwan’s Northern, Central, and Southern Cross-Island Highways, let alone Highway 14 + the Dayuling-Hualien section of the Central Cross, which is the most beautiful long-distance road in Taiwan.

DSCF4585

I did, however, notice some guò​dù​ kāi​fā​ – that is, over-development (I think the fact that the Mandarin word comes to my mind faster than the English word says something about my experiences in Taiwan). Too much of the forest has become a cedar monoculture (I finally learned what was up with the cedar monocultures during my evening in Oboke – but that’s for an upcoming post). Too much concrete has been poured. The mountain slopes are being destabilized, which aside from the aesthetic problem, means high landslide risk. That’s a big problem because Taiwan gets hit by a lot of earthquakes and typhoons which can bury entire villages alive, but luckily there are never large earthquakes or typhoons in Jap- oh. Oh. Crap.

A set of beautiful flowers, which are facing downwards with their petals elegantly curled upwards, and their stamens hanging down.  The flower petals are white on the edges, and have a profusion of hot pink dots in the center.

Here are some beautiful flowers from the slopes of Tsurugi-san to balance out the negativity of this post

Based on this, you might think that my trip to the Iya Valley was a downer, but it wasn’t. I want to concentrate most of my negative thoughts in this post so that my next post will have a happier tone. I do think one of the most important things I do during travel is learning, and if I shut the bad things I observe out of my mind I won’t learn as much.

Next post: the Inner Iya Vine Bridges, which are very cool.

DSCF4586