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

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).

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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Near the summit is a complex of Shinto shrines.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Six Days in Shikoku: Going up Tsurugi-san

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Tsurugi-san is one of the two hyakumeizan in Shikoku, and at 1955 meters, the highest mountain overlooking the Iya Valley. There is quite a network of trails through the mountains on the south side of the Iya Valley, and I am sure they are worth exploring, but due to my limited time I picked Tsurugi-san which, in spite of being the tallest, is also the quickest to summit and descend.

The blue shows the route I went by train; the green shows the route I took with the old Japanese man, and the red indicates the location of Tsurugi-san itself

The blue shows the route I went by train; the green shows the route I took with the old Japanese man, and the red indicates the location of Tsurugi-san itself

There was a problem. 1) I did not have a motor vehicle, nor could I rent one due to my lack of an international driver’s license 2) there is no public transit to Mi-no-koshi (where the trailhead is) outside of July/August 3) it was not July/August.

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What I did is I took a train from Tokushima City to JR Sadamitsu station, which just happens to be a few minutes’ walk away from a road which goes straight to Mi-no-koshi. And I stuck out my thumb.

Above is a blue sky with little white puffs of clouds.  Below is a valley, flanked by green mountains on both sides, heading straight into another green mountain in the distance.  Above the distant green mountain is a blanket of white clouds

Looking down at the Iya Valley, from near Mi-no-koshi

There were a couple of young guys who stopped. I asked if they were going to Mi-no-koshi. They said, nope, they were going to ‘Tsurugi-san’, and then left before I could explain that Mi-no-koshi was the trailhead for Tsurugi-san. I’m guessing that they were not locals. I waited for over 40 minutes, and aside from those two young guys, nobody else was going in the right direction.

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I was beginning to lose hope, and considering taking a train out of Sadamitsu, when an old man stopped, and agreed to take me to Mi-no-koshi.

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The road between Sadamitsu and Mi-no-koshi follows the Sadamitsu river. In my diary I wrote that it’s “a beautiful deep valley with a river and green hills soaring above”. It whetted my appetite for reaching the Iya Valley (the Iya Valley starts at Mi-no-koshi). We passed through the one significant village between Sadamitsu and Mi-no-koshi, called Ichiu, and the old man said that he lived there. When I realized he was going out of his way to drop me off at Mi-no-koshi, I said that he needed have done that for me, but he insisted that it was his pleasure.

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The old man is not originally from Shikoku. He grew up in Akita in the Tohoku region – i.e. the other side of Japan. I would have been interested in learning more about him, but alas, my Japanese was not that good.

By the way, none of the photos in this post show the route between Sadamitsu and Mi-no-koshi since I didn't take any photos in the car

By the way, none of the photos in this post show the route between Sadamitsu and Mi-no-koshi since I didn’t take any photos in the car

When we arrived at Mi-no-koshi, the man insisted on buying me something to drink. I tried to refuse, and I tried to buy something for him too, but he refused my gift and insisted that I accept his. And then he left. The storekeepers agreed to watch my luggage while I went hiking up Tsurugi-san (this is another reason why I couldn’t do more extensive hiking – I’d have to find a place to store and then pick up my luggage).

A grey-and-rust-colored bird with a cream colored neck and face, with black on its crown and like a scarf around its neck, is eating sunflower seeds

This little bird was snacking on sunflower seeds in Mi-no-koshi

Mi-no-koshi has a temple, a few stores (only one was open), and I think there’s a minshuku or two, and possibly one or two other buildings, and that’s it. Oh, and of course, there is the Tsurugi-san ropeway, but I’d read it was a waste of yen, so instead I started hiking up on foot.

We look up at a really, really, really tall cedar tree

The first part of the hike passed through some forest.

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However, it only took about 45 minutes to get to the top of the ropeway, and the views started to open up.

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It seems most people take the ropeway after all, because once I passed it there were a lot more hikers around (to be fair, some of them were young children).

This is much like the previous photo looking into the Iya Valey, but with some stunted pine trees in the foreground at the bottom of the picture

Looking down into the Iya Valley again, from a higher location

Of course, the views over the mountains bordering the Iya Valley weren’t the only thing worth looking at.

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But there were also plenty of lovely views.

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In the foreground, on the right, is the shadow of a dead tree, with a single truncated branch extending to the left.  In the background there is a blue sky which is about to be swarmed by white clouds, with a green mountain peak below.  The top of the peak is still in the sun, but it's clear that the shadows of the clouds will soon thrust the entire mountain into darkness.

There are three routes from the top of the ropeway to the summit of Tsurugi-san. I picked the route which passed by a small Shinto shrine, Otsurugi-jinja, shown in the photo below.

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The reason I picked this route is that it passes by a little mineral spring which is one of the 100 Famous Water Sources of Japan, so of course I had to fill up my water bottle here (I had previously drank the water from the Kanrosen spring, which is another of the 100 Famous Waters, as well as well water from Matsumoto, which I think is also one of the 100 Famous Waters).

The srping is that rectangular dark hole in the ground, and that dipper helps people get the water out.

The srping is that rectangular dark hole in the ground, and that dipper helps people get the water out.

I then passed by this place with some really interesting rocks as well as a … temple? shrine? I’m not sure whether it’s Buddhist or Shinto, though I’m guessing Shinto since this mountain is primarily considered a sacred Shinto area.

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In addition to being a place of worship, it also has very basic quarters where someone can spend the night, and it seemed there was a woman (who seemed to be affiliated with the religious order which maintains this structure) who was overnighting there.

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In the next post, I will describe the summit of Tsurugi-san itself.

In the foreground, we see two grey, jagged rocks rise up, one on the left, one on the right.  In the background, we see the green mountains of the Iya Valley right before they get smothered with clouds.

Six Days in Shikoku: Jizoji, the Fifth Temple

The photo is filtered so it only shows black, white, grey, and green.  There is a tall gingok tree on the left side in the foreground, there is a grassy lawn below, and behind is a wide, wooden temple structure

The very last temple on my mini-pilgrimage was Temple 5, Jizoji.

The map shows that this temple is not so far from the previous temple, but getting back to the nearest train station is a bit of a walk.  From the Itano train station, I returned to Tokushima City by train.

I felt that each temple I had visited had it’s own vibe, so I was wondering if Temple 5 would finally feel like a repeat.

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Well, Temple 5 feels different too. It felt like the biggest, grandest, yet quietest temple, possibly. There was hardly anybody there.

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I played with the color filter on my camera.

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There is a hall with a famous collection of 500 arhat statues, but I didn’t want to pay the entrance fee, so I didn’t see it.

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Even though each temple has its own vibe, there are certain features all Shingon Buddhist temples have in common – like the purple flags. If I bothered to learn more about Shingon Buddhism, I would probably learn what the specific features are and how to identify them, but in my ignorance, I only get a sense that ‘yeah, this looks familiar’.

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I was originally skeptical that I could be interested in all 88 temples – I figured the value of the pilgrimage would lie in the journey, not actually experiencing the temples themselves. I still think that visiting 88 temples might be overkill for me. However, these temples actually are neat places, and they have more variety than I expected. Maybe I could become fascinated by Shingon Buddhist temples if I immersed myself in that type of study.

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As you can see in the map at the top of this post, though the (downhill) walk to this temple was pretty easy, the nearest train station was a bit of a walk away.

A very tall, old ginko tree almost completely blocks the view of the temple building behind

The road to the train station did have some convenience stores where I could get some food. Alas, the road’s scenery was very uninspiring. It didn’t help that it started to rain while I was walking to Itano train station.

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But I didn’t get too wet, and I did get on a train back to Tokushima City. I was very surprised to hear Mandarin on a train go through rural Shikoku. It turns out the Mandarin speakers are a group of young Chinese men who are studying at a university in Tokushima City.

One of the great things about the 88 Temples pilgrimage is that it is very flexible and customizable. In my case, I only wanted to participate for one day, and I wanted to do it entirely on foot between the temples, so I picked a pilgrimage itinerary which could be done that way.

Even in English, there are a lot of descriptions/memoirs of the full pilgrimage available. Don Weiss’ pilgrimage memoir is available online – you can read his description of his journey through the first five temples here. The section of Lisa Dempster’s memoir Neon Pilgrim which covers the first five temples is also available online. Though I thing I have the physical ability and skills to do this pilgrimage, I lack the motivation. Reading Don Weiss’ and Lisa Dempster’s memoirs did help me better understand why people do undertake this pilgrimage.

The next day, I headed into one of the three hidden regions of Japan, the Iya Valley.

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*** BONUS ***

After I returned to North America, I watched a public broadcasting show, Sacred Journeys: Shikoku with my mom. They didn’t cover all 88 temples in the one-hour show, but they did feature Temple 1, Ryozenji, as well a temple I visited on a different day, Zentsuji (which I will describe in a future post). The show featured a few pilgrims from California/Oregon.

For me, the main value of the show was nostalgia – ‘oh yeah, I remember travelling around rural Japan’ and pointing to my mom ‘hey, I’ve been there’. I also commented on the pilgrims’ hiking plans. My mom’s reaction? She says that people who can afford to do the pilgrimage, in terms of time and economics, are privileged, that it’s possible to do this because Japan is such a safe country (note: I now know enough about Japan that I can no longer make statements like ‘Japan is such a safe country’ without adding qualifiers). Overall, she seemed to think that going on this pilgrimage is some kind of luxury. I think this sentiment reflects on my mom’s way of thinking more than it reflects on the content of the TV show.

Six Days in Shikoku: Dainichiji, the Fourth Temple

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It took me over an hour to get from Temple 3 to Temple 4 – it was a much longer distance than the distance between any of the previous temples (then again, considering that Temple 37 is an 87-kilometer walk away from Temple 38, the 4.9 kilometers between Temple 3 and 4 is nothing.

You can see how far Temple 3 (Point C) is from Temple 4 (Point D) on this map

You can see how far Temple 3 (Point C) is from Temple 4 (Point D) on this map

There were times when I thought I was lost because it was taking so long to get to Temple 4, and I wasn’t sure about some of the signs, and some of the paths … didn’t quite look like they were stomped on by tons of pilgrims (then again, the majority of pilgrims these days don’t travel by foot).

A little temple gate, with a straw sandal over 6 feet (two meters) long on each side of the entrance

In the middle, I ran into a little temple, which is not one of *the* 88 temples, but has some kind of affiliation with the 88 temples, and for some reason is decorated with giant straw sandals. I bet the bus pilgrims don’t come through here.

A closeup of the gate with the straw sandals.  On the other side of the entrance, we can see some well-trimmed green bushes in the distance

You might be wondering why I am only sharing photos of the temple and not places between the temples. To be honest, I thought the countryside between the temples were uninteresting.

See, by the time I had been to Shikoku, I had travelled through rural Kansai, and rural Nansei Shoto (all of the islands south of Kyushu – I’ve I’ve written a little about it), and a couple spots in rural Kyushu, and the rural Sanin region, and rural Hokkaido (I’ve written some posts about rural Hokkaido), and rural Tohoku, and rural Chubu … and yeah, I had seen a lot of Japanese countryside, and basically the only thing in this corner of Shikoku which stood out to me was the temples themselves and the pilgrims. I had seen everything else before.

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Walking was okay – I could think my thoughts while I was walking, and I did satisfy my curiosity about what this specific part of Shikoku was like (after all, this was my first taste of rural Shikoku). I’m sure that, say, walking through the really rugged and sparsely populated parts of Kochi Prefecture is a different experience.

There is a two level gate to a wall compound, with a hillside covered with bamboo forest in the background

The gate of Temple 4, Dainichiji

Finally, I reached a road where I saw a henro on a motorcycle zooming on his way, and soon enough, I was at the temple. As you can see in the map at the top of this post, it’s a bit removed from the more settled area and is tucked into the hills.

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The fact that it is in the hills and is a bit secluded definitely gives it a different vibe than the other temples I visited as a one-day pilgrim.

The next post will present the final temple of my mini-pilgrimage.

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