MATSUYAMA, EHIME PREFECTURE
Hey, all. Well, I’m 38 temples into my journey, having visited #51, Ishiteji (“Stone Hand Temple”), the day before yesterday, here in Matsuyama, and numbers 53 and 52 yesterday. Yes, out of order, which is due to some unforeseen good fortune two days ago. What we used to call Trail Magic on the Appalachian Trail.
It was about time my luck changed. Let me set the scene.
Overall, it’s been a rewarding journey, though one of the hardest I’ve done and I’m only a couple of weeks in. I do remind myself sometimes that I’m not the 42-year-old who finished the A.T. feeling the strongest I’d ever felt years back; I’m also lugging the kind of pack weight that helped me develop stress fractures back on the A.T.
But it’s one of them thar lonesome trails you hear about, and even for me, a man used to solitude, this one pushes the boundaries at times.
My sentiments precisely, big boy. A succinct & accurate review of today’s maps.
Doing the pilgrimage in reverse order would challenge the social life and sanity of even a Japanese person (or Japanese speaker), even in the more popular seasons such as the one beginning now. I started at one of the least popular times, and when I do meet henro walking the other way, they tend not to be the most ebullient of fellow travellers.
Here’s a picture of a henro walking in the misty woods:
Pilgrim in the Forest.
I like the shot, and right after I took it we met, paused, and said hello. He was an older guy, his smile was genuine, and he obviously didn’t speak a word of English.
“This weather is crazy, eh?” I said, clutching desperately at the world’s most popular conversational gambit.
He smiled and agreed. At least I think he agreed. Maybe he was just smiling.
“But beautiful,” I added desperately.
“Mou sukoshi, ne,” he replied, waving behind him towards the temple he’d just left: Just a little further. “Ganbatte, ne.” Stay strong, chin up, hang in there — that kinda thing.
And he was gone.
That was the best conversation I’ve had with a henro since starting.
I forget which temple, but it had these great modern living quarters which complemented the traditional buildings at the rear.
I did run into a fellow western henro a few days back. He was powering, head down, towards me, in the full pilgrim outfit including pointy sedge hat and big-ass pilgrim staff. He was tall and bearded and I pulled down my Buff sun-protection thing, and my shades, and offered a cheerful “Hey!”.
“Konnichiwa,” he replied, barely glancing up from that mesmerising and baking-hot tarmac. He was halfway up the hill when I next turned back. Talk about being in the zone…
So there’s the lonesome, and there’s the getting-lost-and-backtracking thing, which has probably cost me an extra 15-20 miles in total so far. Add that to the 750 and let me know — I flunked high school maths.
But the worst thing has been the nightly quest for a bed. Try finding some level ground, in one of the world’s most mountainous nations, that hasn’t already been claimed. Try doing it (my fault) in the dark. And try finding it in the dark and far enough from the road that you’re not woken all night by screeching engines, hoodlums on muffler-less motorcycles, and sweeping headlight beams.
There are numerous trail angel types and guesthouses in the guidebook, but that would require funds, organisation, and preferably some language skills. Also, I’m not packing a phone. And I like having my own space.
To sum up, before arriving in Matsuyama and not counting the internet cafe where I managed a few hours to an all-night piano-music CD accompaniment and lights with no “off” setting, or the one hotel room I paid for in Saijo but where, oddly, I still slept poorly (bed too comfortable), I’d had one decent night’s sleep on the whole pilgrimage, in this apparently home-made pilgrim shelter on a lonely country road:
It doesn’t look like much but it was a rare terrific night.
It was blissful: a bench, a table where I could rest the laptop, the beer and the convenience-store dinner I’d walked a few miles off-trail to buy, and a nice cozy floor with a roof over it. Not a car all night, just some weird cat-fighting yowls in the darkness.
In the morning, I woke rested, savouring the novelty as I trudged to the next vending machine…
Breakfast. Time for a 130-yen “cafe au lait”.
..and my (cold) morning brew.
I still love the mornings. Most of them are magical. For instance, that same morning, I took the header shot above, and this one of a roadside spider:
I love not knowing what the next temple will look like, feel like, having to improvise to get a shot, sometimes a few, to suit the light and weather and setting…
Bus-pilgrim walking sticks (they use them between bus & temple, a gruelling slog of several metres) with group prayers underway in the distance.
And I never tire of the randomness of the walking life, the chance encounters, the glimpses of unknown and unknowable lives, human and otherwise:
Every day is long, but some are ridiculously so. Sometimes you can knock off several temples in a day — my record is six — and then there was the longest stretch between temples, such as the 45km/27m road-trek between Temple #65, Sankakuji, and #64, Maegamiji, both in eastern Ehime Prefecture, the one covering the north-west of the isle.
(There are bigger stretches to come.)
I’d had a shitty evening the day before, getting lost and backtracking etc etc long into dark, giving up, pouring a can of hot beer down my throat in combination disgust/ecstasy, and crashing behind yet another shrine.
In daylight I found a stream, stripped off, jumped in, rinsed my raggedy rags, found the temple easily — and was quickly overrun by a plague of (ugh) taxi pilgrims:
Enlightenment comes cheap when you can squeeze four or five into one cab.
For me the toughest task navigationally is usually finding the start of the path to the next temple. The map is so small-scale, and everything’s aimed at the clockwise-walking pilgrim. But this time I was in luck: an older local man asked if I was going to Maegamiji, and took off at once…
Breaking the land-speed record en route to maegamiji.
..leading me at a breathtaking pace through the maze of forest and backstreet paths to meet the long, straight stretch shadowing the expressway…
The majesty of nature along the henro path.
..where he left me to my own devices.
I got most of the way across that night, enjoying myself much more when I was back in farmland…
The critics agree.
Unless you’ve hiked the henro, you have no idea how welcoming & enticing one of these can appear.
..and I slept that night, after a fashion, under a river bridge.
It rained on and off for over a week. Weird weather, but more comfortable than getting sun-blasted. That was another moody-skied morning…
..and I was soon at Maegamiji, passing Tyrion Lannister doing something naughty by the roadside…
..as well as some nice rural Shikoku touches:
Mikan (mandarin) orchard.
Unfortunately the next stretch of temples was disappointing.
There was a 1970s brick-and-cement reconstruction, and a couple of rundown, neglected places. I had my hotel stay there and then set off inland for the temple considered one of the most inaccessible or remote, Yokomineji, #60, in the foothills of Ishizuchi-San.
I certainly raised a sweat in my freshly laundered rags as I slogged up through rainy, misty woods…
..reaching the temple in late afternoon in light but persistent rain:
Fortunately one of the no-nonsense lady staff offered me some tsūyadō — free lodging. It’s usually in a rarely used storeroom or shack; this was a powerless shed with some floor space between benches, but it was way more appealing than camping in the woods.
I thought I was set to go, planning to spend the next couple of days climbing 1,982m Ishizuchi-San, highest mountain in western Japan, mystical peak once off-limits to women, with a name that reflects its fearsome appearance: Stone Hammer Mountain.
This mountain had evaded me on my 2008 Shikoku trip, and my friend Chris had recommended it. The priest at Temple #1 had even marked the route for me in my book, having climbed it twice during his four pilgrim circuits.
But one of those random-but-not-really occurrences: I got online in my dark little digs, with the rain falling outside and the temple utterly quiet and still, and got some bad news, some terrible news. My night was ruined, and I debated quitting the whole trip.
When I split before dawn, it was to backtrack towards the coast, abandoning Ishizuchi for the second and final time, and doing 18 fast miles wracked with sadness, the pain in my guts temporarily dulled by a couple of 8:30am shots of Jack Daniels.
I won’t go into it here, now or probably ever, but it was a hard couple of days. I’m hanging in there/here, and I did those six temples the following day…
A pilgrim on the far bank, oblivious to his western counterpart lurking in the bushes.
A hungry stray cat in a park that touched me with its lonesomeness. It was very wary & wouldn’t come close, but I fed it the chicken and fish that came in my bento lunch, then went to a convenience store and bought it some cat food that it sniffed at with disdain & ignored!
Nothing more healing than a walk along the coast. When I reached the coastal highway the other evening, with its views of a placid Inland Sea, I felt a lot better:
A tiny cliff-top shrine just before sunset.
The world’s most beautiful petrochemical plant.
I had a terrible night, however. Wasted an hour trying to find a henro shelter marked on my map, roamed the busy road fruitlessly, and finally settled on something unconventional but promising.
An hour later I was disturbed by an old man standing silently near the foot of my groundsheet, presumably as shocked as I was. He shuffled off, and I packed up and left, cursing the book, my luck and the meddling gods.
Last time I try to stealth-camp in somebody’s garage.
So on I trudged, miserably, into the void. Settled on yet another shrine, put my tent up out of sight at the rear — and was woken early yet again by more shuffling feet stopping right outside my door.
Still, that lovely Inland Sea:
Dawn on the Seto (Inland Sea).
I was in my second Family Mart of the morning when my eyes met those of a fellow westerner. Always weird when that happens. We got talking.
“Are you a henro?” she asked.
“I’m doing a Family Mart pilgrimage. I just go from konbini to konbini.”
“Well, yes. But yes, I am a henro. Just not a very good one.”
We sat down and talked. Long story short: Danielle, originally from Quebec but living locally, was soon on the phone to her friends who run a guesthouse here in Dogo, Matsuyama, site of perhaps the most famous ancient hot springs in Japan.
She drove me here. I did one nearby temple that afternoon. I stayed the night. It was perfect. Matt and Nori are wonderful hosts. I had two baths. Began to feel pretty damned okay-ish.
Yesterday Danielle drove me back to the Family Mart, and I slack-packed with just my camera bag to two more temples, back to the springs for another bath, and back here for another night.
This damned post is taking so long, I just decided to stay one more night! Plan is to take a guesthouse bicycle into town and the Mont Bell store, perhaps buy a new tent (my 10-year-old leaks through the floor and has a broken pole), visit the famous castle, and enjoy another night of real sleep.
Things are looking up. Trail magic — o-settai — of the best kind. The human variety.
Thanks for reading.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote