Kanonji City (観音寺市) → Fureai Park-mino (ふれあいパークみの)
Temples: 66 Unpen-ji (雲辺寺), 67 Daikō-ji (大興寺), 71 Iyadani-ji (弥谷寺)
Weather: Cloudy + Drizzles
Travel Method: Walking (+Car, Cable Car, Train)
Distance: 19.2 (+40km)

It’s 8:10am and I drop my bags on Jizo‘s lap. This is the same Jizo statue I’d always give a nod to even when I was reduced to mechanical reflex by heat and exhaustion. Why were there so many benches at the base of the trail and none up here when you really need it?

Despite getting a ride to the trailhead of Unpen-ji, by the time I got out my mosquito incense just 15 minutes after starting I was in a foul mood. It only got worse.

I’m tired, and I just started. 

I walked into my hotel grinning after being drenched in Kochi, but now everything irritates me. I hate the plastic bag, with my o-settai sandwich, and the noise it makes when it knocks against my hand. I hate the mosquitos hovering in front of my eyes, and its incessant buzz in my ear the moment the wind blows the mosquito incense off.

Fuck them.

When did I start cursing like this?

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Solution for keeping mosquitos away.

I wouldn’t have gotten this far this early without the o-settai drive from the ryokan owner, who often hikes this trail with her husband.

We had a few extended conversations last night as she was eager to practice her Mandarin with me. I asked her then if I could leave my bag at the ryokan while I walked to Unpen-ji. Her expression changed and she suggested it’s more comfortable if I stay another night. Unpen-ji has a tsuyado, and if I was going to take it easy, I’d rather stay up there tonight. I told her so. Her eyes widened in surprise before her face sank into resignation. She didn’t know about temple tsuyados, which is understandable since she wouldn’t have reason to use one as a local.

I didn’t know if she had made the suggestion because she was worried about me or if she was hoping for a bit of business. Probably both, and I couldn’t blame her. Summer is so slow she and her husband both need jobs to support the family.

After a bit of consideration, she said, ‘Then why don’t I drive you?’

‘But I won’t be coming back…’ I didn’t want to create a misunderstanding.

Her eyes widened again. ‘That’s okay! It’s my o-settai.’

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Dawn gracing the hills above the clouds.

I got up this morning when it was still dark outside, ate a quick breakfast, packed, and went downstairs to wait for my ride. I leave my sedge hat because the inner frame has broken off, but it looks good as a display piece.

The ryokan owner was in the kitchen cutting away. ‘Good morning. Sorry, please wait a moment, I’m just finishing this.’

No problem, I was just grateful for a ride out of the city in this drab weather. I watched the cats on the window sill. She adopted three over the years, amongst the many strays around town.

When she finished, she handed me the sandwich and said, ‘O-settai.’ Surprised, I took it and thanked her. She hesitated, then mentioned the payment.

Of course! I wasn’t sure when to pay after we put it off last night. I got out the bills, asking her for a receipt. She disappeared and returned with too much change. Surprised again, I asked her if I had misheard her quote from last night.

‘Yes, yes. It’s a discount.’ She must have remembered my arched brows last night when she told me the price for sudomari, a room without meals. It was more expensive than the ryokan next door, which was well rated.

She didn’t have to do that, but I took the change. People can only stay kind if we let them.

The path up is dark, strewn with the casualties of the recent typhoon. The trees are disemboweled and their carcasses are strewn everywhere. Amputated branches and mutilated trunks block the path. Under the dim canopy, the unkept trail looks morose, waiting for time to bury its wounds. 

Japanese forest trails are usually in troughs, which means they take an extra day to dry. The mud clings to my neon cloth runners, dragging my every step. On a sunny autumn day, it would be a golden tunnel into the sky.

I grit my teeth. The Ohenro’s highest temple will be finished. It’s only 800 metres above sea level.

Near the top, I pass two separate walking henro. I admire their tenacity. Slowly inching down in this mud and wreckage is more nerve-wracking and tenuous than stumbling up. Yet, I can only muster a mumbled ‘hello’ and ‘be careful’. 

I am using all my will to refrain from shouting into the hills in frustration. I think I’ve gone crazy.

Open space and light. A turn and everything is mist. I’ve reached the other side of the mountain.

In a few minutes I’m passing the Go-hyaku rakan, almost-life-sized stone statues of the 500 Disciples of the Buddha, similar to the saints and apostles of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The 500 are only found in China and Japan. These faces reflect the celebrated individuals, who come from all over East, South-East and South Asia. Whether the severe monk, the serene priest, the drunkard, the insane mystic, or the fierce warrior, their strong characters and intense postures exude a touch of divinity. A reflection of this temple’s perspective of Enlightenment, perhaps?

Droplets begin splattering around, so instead of lingering and studying their faces in turn, I continue following flat road wrapping around the side of the mountain.

An ojii-san henro emerges, and by now I’ve regained enough composure to warn him about the fallen trees and slippery mud. It’s summer and the handful of us still walking need to look out for each other. Message delivered, I excuse myself.

‘Wait a moment,’ he says and digs into his pocket.

O-mamori.’ For protection. He hands me the small charm, a bell with a pile of pink hyōtan, bottle gourd. I give him my osamefuda in exchange before we part ways.

 

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Hyotan (bottle gourd) charm from an ojii-san henro.

I was tempted to buy this exact charm several times. The bottle gourd has spiritual significance for both the Chinese and Japanese. It is associated with wanders, mystics, drunkards, poets, the insane, and the immortal. Distinct, understated, and divine. Plus, it’s cute.

As in legends, a being emerges from the mist with a gift and a riddle and fades back in with a laugh before you can even respond.

The henro-no-michi knows me better than I know myself. Here, it seems to say, take all you want. I’ll take care of things; now go figure yourself out. Keep going.

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A flame to help worshipers light incense.

In truth, arriving at Unpen-ji is almost like an afterthought. The serenity of the soaked and foggy grounds came with the chilliness of the mountain seeping into my clothes, wet from sweat and rain.

It takes me a while to light the incense in the temple flame provided, which is doggedly surviving the wind and rain. Eventually it’s done, and I wander down the elegant stone slabs to the other hall to repeat the ritual. 

Temple 66 was a great centre of learning in the Kamakura Period and reportedly the inspiration behind Chosokabe‘s quest to conquer all of Shikoku (and then burn down most of its temples, Unpen-ji included). The elaborate size, finish, and detail in the current wooden structures reflect the devotion of those who rebuilt and maintained it.

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The statue of Kanon above the Daishi Hall.

Yet, the spirit of the temple wasn’t in the structures, it is in mists that flow through the trees. It is named the temple on the edge of the clouds, after all.

After I get the nokyocho, I walk to the cable car station. Arriving just after the cut off to board, I enjoy my o-settai sandwich outside with a clear view of the sea of clouds below.  From here, I watch the sky currents sweep through, cover, uncover, re-cover, the peaks and ranges. What truths are revealed from this vantage of heaven? I’ll have to find out next time. The cable car has returned.

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Watching the shifting clouds beside the cable car at Unpen-ji.

After sailing down down the mountain, it is a smooth walk weaving down the hills to Temple 67. The forest and rivers slowly begin to accommodate settlements, then finally open out into the suburban fields. I take note of the well-kept tsuyado and rest hut that I walk past even though I won’t stop yet. All places of shelter are significant in a henro’s mental map.

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A well-tended rest hut close to Temple 67.

I am walking fast, but my arches are collapsing. My calf is tearing. Tomorrow, I will need to take a shorter walk. My leg is torn by the time I get down to Temple 67. Bah, but I’m on schedule!

You cannot miss the massive camphor tree, which is reportedly planted by Kukai himself, that sweeps over the stairs leading up to the temple.

I finish the usual routine, then sneak out the back entrance, which they didn’t want me to enter from. Having gone around once, I’d rather save 15 minutes of pain and get right out onto the correct street to catch the bus. If I miss this one, I will either have to wait two hours or walk to the train station (the faster alternative).

By 9:42 I am at the bus stop with a celebratory can of ice milk coffee. I made it! The rushing was worth it. Now, I’ll sit my way to my last temple today: Iyadani-ji.

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The sliding walls of Temple 67’s Main Hall.

By late afternoon, I have finished my temple routine at Iyadani-ji. It’s on a small hill with a view of the plains reaching the sea. Its areas of worship are staggered between steep stairs that eventually lead to the new(er) Main Hall. The entire complex seems to have grown out of the hill, the small buildings and shrines, statues, holy waterfall, and trees included. The Daishi Hall is built into a grotto with one wing for the gold-inlaid altar and another one leading to a large cave-cemetery. 

I get my nokyocho here, in the elegant tatami-matt hall. I ask the office for the tsuyado, which is on an updated Japanese nojuku henro list. The man I’m facing gives me a look and says stiffly, ‘We don’t have one.’

It is too late to move on to the next temple, which also reportedly has one. I do something out of character: I ask again and show him the list, which is effectively the official list from Spring.

He barely glances at it and repeats what he said.

‘What about the rest building down the hill?’ I ask.

No.

No explanation. It would be fine if it was like the Daishi-do in Kochi where the patron decided to stop hosting. Something is off about this man’s expression, different from the aloof monks in Kochi. There’s something about his eyes, how he wrote my stamp, something unwelcoming.

I get my bag and go down to the onsen just down the hill to make use of my coupon, and wash away the bruises of the day.

By late evening, I’ve enjoyed my fill of the onsen waters and am sitting in the lounge area. I dig into the snacks a worker at the michi-no-eki shop ran out to give me. Despite all the walking, I sometimes eat less than I used to in the office. I eat because I know it’s time to, before I’m hungry. In Chinese, they say people who don’t need to eat have become faeries (shengxian 升仙). I guess that’s what the heat does – creates faeries.

Finished, I wander downstairs to sleep on the reclining lounge chairs until the onsen closes at midnight, thanks to the advice of the cleaning lady. 

At midnight, I go outside, zip myself into my mosquito net, and lie down on the bench in a covered nook beside the main entrance.

I can feel the occasional breeze through the mesh. At some point, the downpour begins. Faeries also don’t sleep much.

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O-settai cookies from the michi-no-eki shop.

 

 

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