I Was a Walker Who Put the Temples First

I recently read Making Pilgrimages: Meaning And Practice in Shikoku by Ian Reader, which is about Buddhist pilgrimage (specifically the 88-Temples pilgrimage) on the island of Shikoku. One of the observations he makes is that pilgrims who travel by motor vehicle (buses, cars, etc.) generally focus on the temples, whereas pilgrims who travel by foot generally focus on the journey.

I doubt I am ever going to return to Shikoku in my life, but the mode of pilgrimage which I am much more interested in is the walking kind, not the bus kind. However, as I said in one of my posts about my mini-pilgrimage, if I had lots of time to explore a rural area, I would probably choose a rural area other than the 88 Temples pilgrimage. Based on what little I saw, most of the 88 Temples pilgrimage consists of areas which have been built-up so much that, on the surface, they are indistinguishable from much of rural Japan (and as a pilgrim, I doubt I would get enough below the surface to learn about, say, local village traditions) and is not particularly scenic. Making Pilgrimages: Meaning And Practice in Shikoku also claims that, even though much of the media about the pilgrimage focuses on a serene trek through “nature”, only about 10% of the route could be considered scenic nowadays.

And before I went to Shikoku, I figured the pilgrimage would be more about the journey than the temples. It’s pretty clear from my own travel style that I care a lot about the ‘journey’ aspect of travel.

Then, on my own mini-pilgrimage, even though I insisted on walking the entire (short) route so because I felt that would be a more meaningful experience for myself, I ended up focusing on the temples. It certainly helped that I was not exhausted and the temples were close to each other.

Really, without the cultural/folk/religious traditions of the pilgrimage which, nowadays, are most readily accessed at the temples, what would be the point of walking in a circle around Shikoku instead of, say, Taiwan? Walking in a circle around Taiwan, I suspect, would have much better scenery. (And yes, walking by foot around Taiwan in a circle is becoming increasingly popular, though it is a pilgrimage inspired by patriotism rather than religion – though Ian Reader notes that some pilgrims on the 88 Temples circuit may also be motivated by patriotism rather than religion). And considering my own life history, walking in a circuit around Taiwan would probably also be more meaningful to me personally than walking in a circuit around Shikoku.

I was also struck by the comment from a temple priest, reported by Ian Reader, that doing the pilgrimage by bus was preferable to doing it on foot, since the bus pilgrims focus more on prayer and understanding the spiritual aspects, rather than always being in a hurry to walk to the next temple.

My point is that, due to my own circumstances, I was atypical of walking pilgrims in that the temples were the greatest point of interest to me, and I was atypical of the pilgrims who would focus on the temples in that I travelled between them on foot. Of course, the fact that I only did it for one day and only visited five temples also makes me atypical as well.

Six Days in Shikoku: Farewell by Ferry

Standing on the deck of the ferry, looking at little green islands on the Seto Inland Sea.

Standing on the deck of the ferry, looking at little green islands on the Seto Inland Sea.

As I was reaching the limit of my entry stamp to Japan, it was time to leave Shikoku. My next major destination was Busan, South Korea, so I took a ferry from Matsuyama to Hiroshima, where I could catch a train going west to Yamaguchi, where I spent my last night in Japan.

A map of the ferry route between Matsuyama and Hiroshima.

A map of the ferry route between Matsuyama and Hiroshima.

The public ferries actually depart from a terminal which is not so close to Matsuyama City Center, so I had to catch a bus (not tram!) to get there. There were some Russians at the bus stop who were trying to get a bus to the airport, and naturally their bus came way earlier than mine.


Once on the ferry, I was able to relax. It was a sunny day, with views of various little islands on the Seto Inland Sea.


I enjoyed taking ferries in Japan, and one of the pleasures is comparing their amenities. This ferry had pachinko and slot machines, which are uncommon (at least on the ferry routes I used in Japan). The pachinko and slot machines were popular with the male passengers.


There were also some video games from the 1990s. Nobody ever played them. My guess is that these video game machines were bought in the 1990s, and the ferry company just never bothered replacing them, even after these games fell out of fashion.


I decided to partake of the massage chair. I wasn’t going to need my leftover yen anymore after 48 hours, and I was never going to get another opportunity to get a massage while I looked over at the Seto Inland Sea.


It took nearly three hours to get to Hiroshima, from where I took a tram to the main train station. To quote my diary “I underestimated the slowness of the Hiroshima tram! No! I’ve been to Hiroshima, I should know better. Oh well, I got to see more of Hiroshima and its terrible traffic.” I think I once saw a list of the Japanese cities with the worst commuter traffic, and I think Hiroshima got the #1 place. I can believe that. I think it took nearly two hours to get from the port to the train station. I didn’t get to the ryokan in Yamaguchi until 10pm. Fortunately, the women who run the ryokan were very understanding and welcoming when I finally arrived.


The next day, I visited Akiyoshi-do (one of the largest limestone caves in Asia), and then went to Shimonoseki to board a ferry to Busan. If you want to know more check out my South Korea travel blog.


So that was the end of my six days in Shikoku. Or rather, my six days in northern Shikoku. If you look at the map below – which shows my path through Shikoku – you’ll see that I didn’t go to southern Shikoku at all.


Of course, the vast majority of Shikoku’s population lives in the north, thus most of the cultural heritage is in the north as well, and the most significant mountains (Ishizuchi and the mountains around the Iya Valley) are in the north as well. And finally, as I’ve said, the north has much better public transportation.

Of course, I actually wanted to go to southern Shikoku precisely because it’s more remote, rugged, sparsely populated, and mysterious. However, due to my time limitations, it simply wasn’t practical, and I definitely packed in a lot more sightseeing in my precious six days by staying in the north. Besides, I spent 40 days in Hokkaido, so I definitely got to experience remote and rugged parts of Japan. Heck, I even went to the Iya Valley in Shikoku itself, which is remote and rugged in its own right.


So, what do I make of Shikoku? I think it’s a great place to go if you want to get a broad sense of what travel in Japan has to offer within a limited time (say, a week), or you don’t want to go over long distances, AND you’re allergic to the beaten path. Shikoku has a fantastic traditional garden, a beautiful Edo-era castle, historic onsen (hot springs), *very* important religious/cultural sites, delicious food, the sea, the ocean, and beautiful hiking. Admittedly, it does not have any megapolis like Tokyo, Osaka, or Sapporo, but I personally don’t miss that. Aside from the lack of a megapolis, Shikoku is like a mini-Japan with some excellent places to visit.

And I strongly encourage people to get off the beaten tourist path in Japan – it seems like 90% of the foreign tourists just go to Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Osaka, and maybe Fukuoka/Kyushu. Even when they are in those places they mostly go to certain famous tourist spots, and ignore whatever else the city/region offers. I’m not saying that the beaten path should be avoided (unless you want to avoid it, which I can understand) – I’ve visited quite a bit of the beaten path too, and some of it is very much worth visiting. I do feel that most tourists would get a lot more out of their trip to Japan if they didn’t have the same travel itinerary as a million other tourists, and they went to at least one significant place off the beaten path.


Aside from the 88 Temples pilgrimage – which really is unique to Shikoku and is island-wide – I don’t feel that there is something which is specific to Shikoku itself. Each of the four domains (Iyo/Sanuki/Awa/Tosa or Ehime/Kagawa/Tokushima/Kochi) have their own distinct traditions, and I feel that Ehime prefecture (Shikoku) has about as much in common with, say, Okayama Prefecture (not Shikoku), as it does with Tokushima Prefecture (Shikoku).

To me, Shikoku was my farewell to Japan. It was my last chance to experience these kinds of distinctively Japanese places. In other words, it was like a recap of my prior months of travel in Japan. It was a good, succinct, and meaningful recap.

Farewell Shikoku. Farewell Japan.


Six Days in Shikoku: Matsuyama


I took a bus leaving the lower ropeway station of Ishizuchi-san, returned to Saijo, picked up my luggage, visited a little museum about local Saijo culture, and then hopped on a bus to Matsuyama.

Matsuyama is in northwestern Shikoku

I was hoping the bus would be faster than the train since the train goes all of the way north to Imabari before going south to Matsuyama, whereas the bus can take the roads which go straight from Saijo to Matsuyama. Well, there are two shortcut roads between Saijo and Matsuyama, and while one of them is a freeway, the bus stuck to the slow road to make stops en route.

However, I was rewarded for taking with one of the most memorable views of the moon I have ever seen. I’ll quote my diary “I saw the full moon roll like a marble between two mountains (maybe one was Ishizuchi?) and then roll up and launch into the air”. Alas, no photos.


Upon arriving in Matsuyama, I got on a streetcar heading straight for Dogo Onsen, and then checked into Sen Guesthouse. I was greeted by the co-owner from Texas. We talked about my travel plans, and I mentioned that I was planning to go to South Korea for two months, and I found out that he had lived in South Korea for a few years. He then said “If you get bored of South Korea, you can always go to Taiwan.” I can go to Taiwan? HA HA HA HA HA HA. I then explained that I had lived in Taiwan for three years. It turns out that he had never been to Taiwan, but he really wanted to go.


Much as I enjoy talking to guesthouse owners, I also really want to soak in an onsen (hot spring), and Sen Guesthouse is only a five-minute walk away from Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest developed onsen in Japan.


I went for the deluxe package at Dogo Onsen – hey, if I’m only going to be there once, why not go all the way? I went to both the large and the small female baths – the water is the same, but the large bath feels like a busy Roman bathhouse, whereas the small bath (which is only for people who pay the higher price) feels calmer and more intimate. I know that the water is supposed to have amazing properties but … I wasn’t impressed. As I’ve said, I went to a lot of onsen in Japan, so I got pretty high standards. To me, the water at Dogo Onsen isn’t in the same league as Yunomine Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture (which has the oldest bathhouse in all of Japan – it’s even older than Dogo Onsen), Noboribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido, or Tsuru-no-yu in Akita Prefecture.


But hey, a hot spring soak is a hot spring soak, and after a hike even soaking in a bad onsen like Kusugawa Onsen in Yakushima is nice (note: never go to Kusugawa Onsen unless you are desperate for a bath or you are desperately curious about bad Japanese onsen), and Dogo Onsen is way, way, way better that Kusugawa onsen.


What makes Dogo Onsen special is everything aside from the water. The architecture of the building itself is noteworthy (it helped inspire Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, though I didn’t really appreciate it since it was at night and its exterior is not well-lit. If you go for the more expensive option, it is the most deluxe treatment you’ll get at an onsen short of staying overnight in an onsen ryokan. There is a special rest area where, among other things, I wrote in my travel diary about hiking up Ishizuchi-san. It was nice to observe the other people lounging around. There was also an LED scream showing colorful patterns.


The most special part, however, was seeing the baths built for the exclusive use of the imperial family. Apparently, they haven’t been used since the 1950s since nowadays the imperial family just uses the baths in whatever hotel they stay at in Matsuyama rather that go to the public bath. The guide explains the significance of many difference features of the imperial bath, and it is impressive just how much gets lavished on the Japanese imperial family simply because of their royal status. It wasn’t so much the luxury – I imagine you could get something just as luxurious at a good onsen ryokan for about 200 USD per night (i.e. it’s within reach of the upper middle class), but all of the particular details and specific rules of the proper way to treat the imperial family because they are the imperial family. Among other things, photography is forbidden, so I didn’t take any photos in the imperial baths.


Sen Guesthouse is a good guesthouse. The lounge area is chill. They also have a very interesting selection of books, including Dogs and Demons (which I first encountered in Oboke), which I read some more of. A lot of the books were about religion, which makes sense, since Sen Guesthouse caters to henro passing through Matsuyama (if you don’t know what a henro is, read this post).


Furthermore, I cooked some of the best food I ever cooked in Japan in that kitchen at Sen Guesthouse. Other guests even commented on how good it smelled. Thank you, Muji to Go, for supplying such tasty ingredients.


The next day, I saw the nostalgia chibi choo-choo train in the photo above making its way on streetcar rails.


I basically only had time to see one thing in Matsuyama that day before I had to leave Shikoku, and naturally I chose to see Matsuyama Castle (note: nearly all of the photos in this post show Matsuyama Castle since, unlike Dogo Onsen, there aren’t rules against photography there).


I could have just walked up, but there is a chairlift and a cable car (why?), and since the chairlift was inexpensive, I decided it would be the fun way to go up.


I had already seen Kumamoto Castle, Himeiji Castle (supposedly the greatest castle in Japan), Shikone Castle, Inuyama Castle, Kanezawa Castle, and my favorite, Matsumoto Castle. Just as I felt I had seen enough temples, I also felt I had seen enough castles, and that Matsuyama caslte wouldn’t make any impression on me.


First of all, Matsuyama Castle has excellent views over the city – some of the best views I ever saw looking out from any castle (note: I visited Shikone Castle during hazy weather, so I did not get great views over Lake Biwa).


The castle itself, however, is also lovely in its own right. It is the last castle which was (re)built during the Edo period, and that is the structure which still stands there, so it has an authentic quality that castles rebuilt in the 20th century lack.


Perhaps I loved Matsuyama castle for the same reason I loved Konpira-san – just as Konpira-san and Zentsuji were the last major religious places I would visit in Japan, Matsuyama was my last Japanese castle.


The next and final post in this series will describe my journey out of Shikoku, and present some concluding thoughts.

Six Days in Shikoku: Ishizuchi – The Roof of Western Japan

There is a blue sky above with little puffs of white clouds.  The mountian ridge rises up before us, with a sharp green slope of rugged trees on the left, with the peak in the upper right side of the photo, crowned by a little wooden Shinto shrine dwafed by the massive forms below it.

This is it! This is the top of Ishizuchi-san, the highest mountain in western Japan.

The map shows that Ishizuchi-san is in northwestern Shikoku


Once I got up to Ishizuchi-jinja, the sight of the green mountains which lay beyond dazzled me.


Here’s a panorama shot of the Green Mountains Behind Ishizuchi-san (i.e. the Rugged Heart of Shikoku).


I saw Ishizuchi-jinja itself, the very important shrine on Misen (the peak at 1974 meters). Taking photos of the interior of the shrine is forbidden, so if you want to see it, you’ll have to go in person.

Since you can't see what's inside the shrine in this photo, this photo is OK.

Since you can’t see what’s inside the shrine in this photo, this photo is OK.

By itself, the shrine doesn’t look so different from a zillion other Shinto shrines in Japan.


It’s when you combine the sight of this shrine with its surroundings that you start saying ‘wow’.


Most hikers only go to Misen, since that is where Ishizuchi-jinja is. However, the true summit of Ishizuchi-san is Tengu-dake (Heavenly Dog Peak).

The sharp point of Tengu-dake, 1982 meters above sea level, the highest point in all of western Japan

The sharp point of Tengu-dake, 1982 meters above sea level, the highest point in all of western Japan

I had read that the trail from Misen to Tengu-dake was difficult, with a big drop. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it. But when I saw it, I thought – heck, this isn’t any worse than a lot of the peaks I’ve climbed up in Taiwan!


I was very grateful to Taiwan for offering so many rocky, scrambling peaks with big drops so I could build up the nerve it takes to hike up a peak like Tengu-dake without freaking out.

Bare tree trunks stick up from the slope, with majestic mountain peaks behind

On the trail between Misen and Tengu-dake

Of course, any reasonable person would be careful around sharp long drops like that, but compared to what I had been imagining the trail to Tengu-dake being like, it was relaxing.


If I hadn’t built up that nerve in Taiwan, I would have felt a lot less comfortable going to Tengu-dake.


And if I hadn’t gone to Tengu-dake, I would have missed the most beautiful sight I ever saw in Western Japan.


That’s right – the view from Tengu-dake looking towards Misen is the most beautiful thing I saw in all of my travels around western Japan (and I went further afield than the vast majority of foreign tourists who go to western Japan).


It’s so beautiful, I’m going to show you another photo.


And I’m going to show you yet another photo.


Alas, I did have a bus to catch, so I made my way back to Misen.

Along the trail, back to Ishizuchi-jinja at Misen.

Along the trail, back to Ishizuchi-jinja at Misen.

I am so glad that this was my final hike in Japan. It is one of the best.



After all of this hiking, I was looking forward to soaking in an onsen. There is an onsen right by the lower ropeway station, but I was holding out because I planned to go to one of Japan’s most famous onsen that evening – an onsen which helped inspire Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. That’s right, I was going to Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama. Read about it in the next post!


Six Days in Shikoku: Ascending Ishizuchi-san


One of the things I most wanted to do in Shikoku was hike Ishizuchi-san, one of the seven great sacred mountains of Japan. At 1982 meters above sea level, it’s also the highest peak in western Japan. It was my last hike in Japan.

The map shows that Ishizuchi-san is in northwestern Shikoku

There are four buses per day from Saijo City to the Ishizuchi-san ropeway station. I took the first one. My diary says “The bus to Nishinowkawa takes a scenic route through forested hill/mountains, [with] a dammed river which cuts through a stone gorge”. The bus must have gone near one of the 88 temples, for I saw some walking henro on the road (most likely Temple 60, which is on the slope of Ishizuchi-san).


There is a trailhead near the ropeway station, and I could have done the whole hike on foot. However, given that there are only four buses per day, I figured that I shouldn’t risk missing the last bus out. Sure, I *probably* could have made it to the last bus even if I hiked without using the ropeway, but I would have been nervous and in a rush, and that wouldn’t have been much fun. So I decided to use the ropeway and enjoy the hike without worrying about missing the last bus.


A quote from my diary: “The cable car whisked us up, with a good view of a green mountain on the other side of the valley”.


Ishizuchi is one of the most important centers of shugendo – a religious tradition which fuses Shintoism and Buddhism. It only took about 20 minutes to walk from the upper ropeway station to Ishizuchi-jinja Joju-sha, a rather large shrine complex. In addition to multiple buildings for worship, there are several ryokan where visitors can stay overnight (expensive), as well as shops selling things to visitors.

We see a wooden statue of a man in the foreground, and in the background, therough a window, we see Ishizuchi-san

In the windows of this room, you could see Ishizuchi-san itself.


After passing through the large shrine complex, the trail went downhill, then a steady uphill again. Even though September is not the hottest time of year in Japan, and we were in the mountains, everyone was sweating a little. My diary says “I was glad that most of the hike was shaded”.


For centuries, women had been forbidden on Ishizuchi-san. However, the restriction on women was lifted at some point in the 20th century, which is how I was able to hike. There is still one day a year when only men are allowed to hike Ishizuchi-san – fortunately for me, this wasn’t that day.


Eventually, the views did open up.


I’ve read that, in clear weather, it’s possible to see practically all of Shikoku, as well as the Aso caldera in Kyushu. The skies weren’t that clear when I hiked, but the distant clouds have their own beauty.


It seems that, at the time of my hike, they were (re)building one of the shelters along the trail. There was a helicopter bringing in supplies, and at one point I had to wait for a helicopter to clear before proceeding.


The degree to which Japanese people use helicopters seems ridiculous to me. One time, I witnessed a helicopter sending supplies to a place which was only a 40-minute walk away from the nearest road – at it was not a particularly strenuous trail (this was in Yakushima). When I asked the men why they were using a helicopter, they said nobody wants to carry supplies.


I’ve been told multiple times, by multiple people, that there are no mountain porters in Japan. This is not entirely true. I met one mountain porter in Japan. He’s from Nepal, he was hired to carry alcoholic beverages to a mountain shelter so they could be sold to hikers at inflated prices, and he was also trying to persuade Japanese hikers to hire him to serve as their hiking guide in the Himalayas. I also met a Japanese man who was making a very short portering run to resupply a mountain shelter (by ‘very short’ I mean that he only had to hike about one hour between the shelter and the nearest chairlift).


Taiwan does have quite a few mountain porters. Helicopter drops are still sometimes used in emergencies or for supplies which are particularly difficult for porters to handle, but porters are the default means of moving supplies in areas inaccessible to motor vehicles. Most mountain porters are indigenous people, and they earn decent pay for people living in Taiwanese mountains. I once met a 19-year-old porter who already had a wife, and a baby, and was saving money to buy a house, which he expected to be able to buy in a couple years. Very few 19-year-olds in the USA expect to be able to buy a house in a couple years.


This, of course, is tied to the stereotyping of indigenous people in Taiwanese culture. Taiwanese people tell me that indigenous people are particularly strong and suited for heavy work, unlike the Han Taiwanese (the vast majority of the population). Many Taiwanese people consider indigenous people to be unfit for any kind of work other than manual labor or singing and dancing – this makes it difficult for indigenous people to get white-collar jobs in Taiwan.


Taiwan, at least, has a group of people who are willing to work as porters. Japan doesn’t have that among its native population, and Japan is very reluctant to accept immigrants (even though the Japanese government seems to be laxer about enforcing immigration rules in the mountains than in the cities). Thus, even though helicopters require a ton of fuel, and gasoline is significantly more expensive in Japan than in Taiwan … well, the Japanese can’t hire porters they don’t have, so they use the helicopters they do have.


There are three sets of chains up to the peak. Pilgrims are supposed to use the chains to go up. If I really wanted to, I could have gone up the chains as well. However, I did not come to Ishizuchi-san for religious reasons, and I don’t like going up chains, so I went up the stairs instead.



I will describe the roof of Shikoku – and the most beautiful sight I saw in all of western Japan – in the next post.


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.

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.


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).


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


‘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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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?


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).


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.



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


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


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.


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’.


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!!!!!”


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.


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.


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”.


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).


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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