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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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?

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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’.

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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!!!!!”

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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One thought on “Six Days in Shikoku: The Great Shrines of Konpira-san

  1. Pingback: Six Days in Shikoku: Matsuyama | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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