up and over and down; oh matsuyama!

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September 1st 2008
Published: September 1st 2008
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i was so busy concentrating on not getting lost in its suburbs that i forgot to glance behind me at the castle, and at the cute little city uwajima had been. another place passed through and left behind. we'd shared an existence for about a day and a half, but now i'd probably never see it again in my life. for several miles i walked uphill along a stream into which yellow leaves were falling from the trees. a buddhist would regard it as a symbol of transcience. the henro signs pointed me across a bright yellow field where i surprised a gold snake with a lime green head. they dont scare me but i scare them. (later, i almost trod on a black one in the forest. i can just see my parents reading this in despair!) at ryukoji, temple 41, i rang the giant bell to mark my arrival. i usually just ring the little ones, but the loud gong echoing through the valley was so pleasing that i am now a total giant bell gonging convert. at 42, butsumokuji, people pray for the health of their cattle and in memory of their dead pets. the route to 43, meisekiji, was longer and involved climbing though the woods. sometimes these woodland paths smell like vanilla, sometimes like wet earth and green leaves. in the woods, i feel like an adventurer. they can be creepy, though, it must be said. finally emerging out of the trees and into civilization, i followed a flat road for the rest of the way to the temple. it was a muggy, grey day, and i was sluggish, as were the other walking henro who i overtook. the cicadas were singing their night time song, even though it was only 3pm, and the farmers in the fields looked to be thinking of packing up for the day. i have seen rice, corn, onions, grapes, watermelons, tomatoes, bell peppers and apples growing as ive walked around shikoku. the place is heavy with natural goodies. when i reached the temple, it was stunning, incorporating shinto elements as well as buddhist ones. two trees had been joined together with rope in a kind of matrimony. the preist had short curly hair and his calligraphy was beautiful. the next temples, 44 and 45, were a long way off, inland and in the mountains. it would take me two days to reach temple 44. on the first, i was in a bad mood. hard to say why; pilgrimage is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. mostly i walked along the busy route 56 highway but at the end of the day, there was a path that hugged a spooky wood. i was not in the mood. i stayed in the quaint town of uchiko and tried raw octopus, suckers and all. (chewy.) i was walking again by six the next morning. a slice of the sky turned pink with purple streaks across it, like veins under burnt skin. then began the thunder and lightning. it was a hard days walking, 23 miles mostly in torrential rain, with the steepest woodland track over a pass right at the end. my feet pruned inside my shoes from the weather. i got three new blisters and had to stop to squirt my feet with antiseptic and change my socks. (i can't believe how normal such behaviour is to me now!) by the time i arrived in kuma-kogen, the small town by temple 44, there was white foam coming out of my shoes from the antiseptic. i thought, 'brilliant;i'm going to be walking into inns, asking for a room, with foaming feet and totally soaking!' before looking for lodging, i went to the temple (daihoji). there was mist all around and the sound of drip, drip, drip as rain water fell from the trees. for the first time on the pilgrimage, i encountered a preist in a bad mood! he seemed quite pleased to inform me that the temple lodging was closed and he corrected my pronunciation. he barked orders at me and the other henro as we waited for our stamps. maybe he was just a bit of a character, but it was so unusual as to be entertaining. i stayed for two nights in a lovely, traditional ryokan (inn). i had a comfy futon, a big tatami room, and the hostess (who always had a half-smile on her lips) looked after me and the other tired henro very well, cooking us gorgeous meals in the evening. i was able to leave my pack behind and walk out to temple 45, iwayaji, and back without the extra weight. this was a good thing, since iwayaji is a nansho temple, perched on mountian, beneath a cliff. there was a lot of uphill walking and it rained again. a woman pulled over to offer me a lift. this happens often and saying no can be painful. she lent me her aston villa fc umbrella (!) instead, and i returned it to her in her vegetable shop cum cafe an hour or so further down the road. it was so wet that there was a toad on the vending machine when i stopped to buy a coke. the road passed koiwaya rock, a dramatic, eroded gorge, topped with foliage. it was a quintessentially asian scene, fit for a scroll painting. soon i was stood at the bottom of the mountain on which iwayaji sits part way up. the 800 metres uphill werent so bad. the bus tour henro didnt agree. this temple is probably the only truly steep one without cable car access, so they were huffing and puffing up the slope, calling out to each other 'ganbatte, kudasai!' ('have strength, please!') it was the first time i'd seen tour group henro actually using their staffs! they were loving it though, all in great moods, and i thought how nice it was that they were in such a big sociable group, sharing their pilgrimage experiences. kind of the opposite of being a lone walking henro. there was mist around the temple and in the trees. somebody somewhere was playing a flute. the great bell rang out across the hill and into the valley each time someone arrived, exhausted, at the temple. back at the ryokan of my dreams, bathed and well fed, i anticipated the following day, wondering if i'd make it all the way to matsuyama. they say that, from matsuyama, the pilgrimage gets easier. i hardly dare to imagine it. there's no room for complacency in such a big mission. at 6am, kuma kogens loud speakers played the usual lullaby across town. i don't think i've mentioned this yet, but at various times of day in japan's towns and villages, announcements, sirens, lullabies are played for the general attention and time keeping of all. i'm totally used to it now but at first it used to shock the hell out of me. i remember that night when i slept at the shrine in the mountians, jumping out of my skin at 8pm when a voice started booming out of nowhere. i was thinking, 'oh my god they're announcing an earthquake is coming or something, and i cant understand a word!' other times its the news, or a bit of 'greensleeves' or, my least favourite, the siren, making me think i'm in battle royale or that there's a war on. but at this point, its all very normal, so i left kuma kogen with the lullaby ringing in my ears, walking uphill for two hours and enjoying the juice and banana that my hostess had kindly given me as o-settai. then, from a woodland path with earth as soft and brown and sponguey as a chocolate brownie, i plunged downhill for miles towards matsuyama. two young men at a henro rest house invited me in for a refreshing glass of cold tea. then i headed on to temple 46, which had a gnarled and ancient, wise old tree, and where the preist's wife gave me a handful of sweets and two mikan oranges, which i ate on my way to temple 47. all these temples were so close together, and all this o-settai was giving me so much energy, that i just kept on going, like the duracell bunny. i hadn't stopped for lunch, but somehow everyone knew to fuel me up! at temple 48, a car pulled over and a lady henro with a long grey plait jumped out and gave me a can of orange juice, which i drank on the way to 49. on the way to 50, a little old lady pushing a small trolley crossed the road to give me a ginger-tea boiled sweet. by the time i reached temple 51, with its huge pagoda, i had been walking for nine hours without really stopping, fuelled by little presents from kind people, and i had seen six temples. tired, i took off my hakui (pilgrim shirt) and packed it in my bag. time for some city life. i walked into central matsuyama, checked into a big business hotel, looked at all the new calligraphy in my stamp book and could hardly believe that the mountains were behind me and i had made it to this city. do i dare say that the end of the pilgrimage is almost in sight, maybe even two weeks away? that this mission might actually be possible for me to complete? no, i dont! but i can tell you that matsuyama is what i hoped it would be. it's castle lovely, it's streets busy, the energy just right. it's funny that someone who likes cities as much as i do should be drawn to a pilgrimage around japan's most rural major island. i also don't exactly love walking, just the feeling of freedom and independence that comes with it. i guess sometimes we do things with clear reasons, other times we do things just by following our hearts, our instincts. a final note!: it has been noticed that i am a bit of a poser in my photos. damn right! as a lone traveller you become the absolute master of the self-timer setting. i'm reminded, though, of a summer afternoon in giggleswick school sixth form, when an eccentric traveller came to do a talk on his trekking experiences in bolivia. although we found him rather sweet, we all giggled at the many photos he'd set up of himself in front of mountains (some of whcih had him still rushing to get in the frame...) he also had tape recordings of him climbing and nearly falling off cliffs ('oh dear, i seem to be losing my grip!' etc.) we all thought he was a mentalist. ten years on, walking around shikoku island in a strange outfit, recording video journals and running into my own photographs, i am that guy!

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2nd September 2008

He he chocolate brownies and weird sirens lol! U go girl, you'll make it.
4th September 2008

thanks em, i`ll try!
10th September 2008

hey i came across your blog and i am moving to matsuyama soon. are you a teacher there or are you just visiting? how do you like it?
12th September 2008

hi; just visiting, and its a good place, lively and exciting. good luck with the move, im sure youll enjoy matsuyama.
28th May 2009

Thank you!
This is such lovely writing that gives a great sense of your experience. My husband has just arrived in Uwaijima today, and I'm in Sydney and only able to communicate by text message, so it's great to be able to get a vicarious sense of participation in the experience via blogs such as yours!
6th June 2009

thanks Linda, for reading my blogs, and ganbatte to your husband .... if hes at Uwajima hes doing well, not too far to go and some great temples coming up... best of luck to him p.s eleven to seventeen includes some nice temples too, twelve is pretty dramatic isnt it

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