Kamojima Town Kamo-no-Yu Onsen Henro Hut (鴨島町鴨の湯遍路小屋) → Tokushima Otsuru Ryokan (徳島市大鶴旅館)
Temples: 12 Shōsan-ji (焼山寺), 13 Dainichi-ji (大日寺), 14 Jōraku-ji (常楽寺), 15 Awa Kokubun-ji (阿波国分寺), 16 Kannon-ji (観音寺), 17 Ido-ji (井戸寺)
Weather: Sunny & Cloudy
Travel Method: Walking (+ Car + Train return to Tokushima)
Distance: 25.7km (+ 25.9km)
1305. 225. 15.7. 14:19. 25.7.
Sigh. Breathe. Smile. Sit. Close eyes.
Those are the last numbers of my pilgrimage. It is a 1305 metre elevation gain, 225 minutes of moving time, over 15.7km, at a pace of 14:19mins/km from my henro hut to Shōsan-ji. My total walk on my last day is 25.7km when I add Temples 13 to 17, my 88th and final temple.
Where there are no words, there is solace in numbers. The thousand interpretations can all be true.
My alarm goes off in twilight. I push off my tent-blanket and get up, awake but not alert yet. I slide my way out of the hut and pile my breakfast onto the picnic table just outside. The air is saturated with cool humidity, ruffled by a light breeze.
I munch on CalorieMate sticks and onigiri, sipping a veggie smoothie and water as I watch the sun climb the flat hills. I smell damp morning grass – a rare scent in these parts.
I retrace my steps to Fujii-dera, Temple 11. The route to Shosan-ji, Temple 12, starts here and goes straight through three mountains. It’s 6:30 and the early hikers and pilgrims have already begun.
The entrance into the woods is a ubiquitous collection of signs, altars and stones. Once upon a time, this was probably what most of the paths between the temples looked like, even the ones in the valleys that are now neatly paved over with gridded towns.
Alright, here we go.
I set a pace that tempts me to gasp for breath. Focus on breathing. Breathe through the nose. I keep my head down, watchful for anything on the trail that I can roll my ankle on. The shadow of injury lingers. Focus.
The path is nothing like I’d expected. I’d imagined an amalgamation of all the mountain temples: 20, 21, 27, 45, 60, 66, 81, 82, 88. Surely the hardest temple must match them. My memory weaves together the steep inclines, endless paths under dark canopies, mosquito havens, sticky mud, treacherous climbs, and ample weeds.
Instead, the dirt here is soft padding for the feet, and the natural undulation engages muscles that repetitive motions on flat concrete doesn’t. The roots of trees make natural stairs. The young evergreens sprinkle morning sunlight through their branches. The large stone slabs to push off during the climbs are cool to the touch.
The first climb runs along a hill still facing the Awa Valley and after 200 metres it opens up with a view and a natural breeze before turning into the mountains.
I can feel my breakfast. I ate too much to be walking so fast. A hornet keeps me at a brisk pace for the first few kilometres until I see a spring. There are only two or three spots to refill along the way, so I fill my bottle and remind myself to look around, enough to commit these places to memory.
I’m racing, against no-one in particular, just the average 5 hours. What I lack in physical talent, I try to make up for with sheer will. This trail brings back an instilled addiction: seeking pain for gain. You’re dying? Good, you’ve warmed up. Thanks, Coach.
When I first started, I passed a man at the trailhead, shortly followed by two ojii-san chatting at a bench. There’s another ojii-san henro that started again when I stopped at Chodo-An, the first checkpoint with a washroom; when we reached a clearing, I pass him after a brief chat. There’s also a couple that were returning from their morning hike – so early! Compared to my previous trails, this one is lively. The other henro…how’re they finding this? What are they thinking?
I’m not. This is way too fun for thinking.
The route to Shosan-ji is only 12.9km, but since most henro encounter it on their second or third day of walking, it looms as the test in later memory. Mountain roads are unpredictable, and most people are reduced to 3km/hr because of the uphill or downhill. In addition to being isolated, this route has three peaks to climb. There are three unattended Buddhist temples that serve as checkpoints: Chodo-An, Ryusui-An, and Jyoren-An.
My first real stop is at Ryusui-An, which has a bamboo water fountain and a bench. It has a series of small buildings, some old, some newer, that are maintained just enough to survive nature’s reclamation. It’s a shady spot on a slope, just like Chodo-An. I retie my shoelaces and, restless, set out again.
One checkpoint left.
What is this place? Two stone pillars rise from the ground flanking stone steps masked under a blanket of leaves covering the small slope. Branches reach and dangle around. At the top is Kobo Daishi himself underneath a gigantic tree. From the bottom of the stairs, his silhouette seems poised to descend. The tree behind him looks like it’s still bursting out of the ground.
This is Joren-An, the last checkpoint. The pools of sunlight only make the shade darker. The hydrangeas are wild orphans left behind by the people who once occupied the small, wooden buildings to the side. The bushes have extended in all unfettered directions. My spine tingles. I feel a current. Despite the occasional rustle of leaves, there is a resounding silence.
After lingering a while, a hornet urges me along.
The last stretch from Joren-An to Shosan-ji is a steep descent into a valley before climbing the final mountain. It’s down, down, down, and killer on the knees. I rely on both my staves and my upper body to take the weight.
In the valley, it passes a hamlet and crosses a small road. At the base, I follow a path through garden grasses. I pass an elderly lady cutting the tall weeds on the pathway wall.
Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t lose momentum. Those words carry me up, up, UP! Yosh! I can’t stop to talk to the lean henro in the corner of my eye as I turn up the zig-zag route. I look up from the ground briefly to say hello and see him seated, mouth open, shoulders and chest heaving, wiping his soaked forehead with his limp arm. He has such sculpted calves. His eyes widen, but I’ve already turned again. ‘Are you a guy? A girl?!’ He shouts after me.
‘Yes,’ I exhale with another step. Hopefully, he heard.
Time doesn’t exist in ‘the zone’. At the right pace, balancing the muscle fatigue, the concentrated breath, the brow-wiping, you can go on forever. Next, next, next. Fast, but not rushed. Steady, but not slow.
Then, I’m at a clearing with a wide gravel path. I follow it and arrive at the paved road from the parking lot to Shōsan-ji.
The guest rest area of Shōsan-ji is empty. Still, there are visitors: two newlyweds, two Chinese, two staff-holding henro. It’s a quick set of rituals, buying the nokyocho, and then I sit with the view, enjoying an iced coffee and CalorieMate.
It is the temple of the burning mountain because, according to legend, a large serpent set fire here. Kukai had visited to carry out ascetic training, and chanted the Shingon Sutras to confine the dragon into a cave that is on the way to the Okunoin, the Inner Sanctuary.
I’ll visit the dragon another day. I’m thinking about the walk down to the bus stop. I’m hoping another aruki henro arrives so I have company walking down. The henro grapevine says that Shōsan-ji has someone lurking in the woods on the way to Temple 13 who approaches women walking alone and steals from nojuku henro at night.
But no-one comes, and the stamp office tells me that it’s close to a two hour walk down. It’s just past 11:00 and another tight call. Should I try another focused charging session?
That’s when I see a middle-aged couple stroll in, observing the architecture, checking the view, looking up the towering trees spaced out as natural pillars. The woman has an enthusiastic smile, and the man a patient, if aloof, demeanor. Would they mind if a random, scruffy fellow asked for a ride?
I pick up the courage ask the happy lady.
She defers to her husband who says,’What? Oh, a ride. Sure, not a problem. We’re leaving now.’
The couple are from Kochi City and driving to each of the temples whenever they have time. In the car, they can cut between the mountains at the heart of Shikoku and get to most places in a few hours. Their SUV cruises through gentle valleys that would take a day of walking. When the conversation trails away, I can’t resist the lull of the car and doze until we stop.
Some 45 minutes later, we’re in front of Temple 13. We walk from the parking lot into Dainichi-ji and do our rituals separately. I get the nokyocho first, then wait for them to pick up theirs and chat with the temple staff. When we leave, I give them an osamefuda for the ride.
‘You’re not coming with us?’ They’re surprised.
No, no. I just needed to get to Temple 13, and I can finish the rest walking.
At the gate, I notice the other aruki henro sitting in the shade with his lunch. He’s picked up a lute. We have a quick exchange, and then I head out the gate as he begins the first notes.
Temples 14, 15, 16, and 17 are a quick two hours, finished with my adrenaline high from my early morning hike and successful hitchhike. They are clustered within the town sprawl along the train line and look as if they’re having afternoon siestas. I finish my breadsticks at Temple 16, Kanon-ji, without a single soul entering.
At Temple 17, my lighter sputters its last breath at the Main Hall. What about the Daishi Hall?! I’m stuck at the finish line, lighter-less, three incense sticks in hand.
Just then, the lute-player henro from Temple 13 saunters in. Saved! I scurry over and ask to borrow his lighter. He laughs and hands me one.
A few minutes later, finish line crossed with incense lit and nokyocho procured, I return his lighter.
‘Keep it, I have a few.’ He chuckles.
I ask him where he’ll stay tonight and he says he’s just phoned to make a reservation at Otsuru Ryokan, the one I recommended to him earlier. I should have waited for him to make my call! I just informed the obaa-san I’ll be back in the evening. But it’s good, we can catch up later, then. When he gets his lute out to serenade the temple, I head to Kou train station.
I’m done. Sugi. Next. Train, and dinner!
I’ve forgotten what a celebratory dinner is. Kaiseki? The fried chicken on the ubiquitous signs, a marker of a local specialty? The izakayas that will open in two hours? Udon? I meander my way through Tokushima’s downtown looking for culinary inspiration.
After browsing the endless options, I slide open the door to a noodle shop just a block away from my ryokan.
‘Sumimasen, are you open yet?’ The sun has just disappeared behind the hill.
I slide onto the bar counter with a view of the kitchen and the ojii-san who glances up from under his newspaper.
Elbows propped up, I flip through the menu at the options. There are a bewildering ten. It’s an overload.
The ojii-san gets up once the order is placed. He takes his time. I sip my small glass of ice water and refill endlessly.
Finally, the bowl arrives on a tray. It’s a simple udon with deep-fried tofu skin. Right now, it’s all my simple henro palette needs.
I clap my hands together. Itadakimasu!
I slurp the first steaming strands. Kore wa shiawase. This is happiness.