Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Saigoku Pilgrimage

(July 20-August 16, 1999)

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July 30, 1999
Good Morning. I have no idea where I am.
Allow me to explain by telling you how yesterday went.
After typing my morning notes, I went down to catch the train, planning to stop at the Otsu JR station to send and check email, and then catch a JR train to Ishiyama. It was while on the train to Otsu station that I finally gave it's route a good looking over, and realized I could just stay on this particular train... it went all the way to Ishiyama. THAT would have saved a few bucks, had I noticed earlier; ah, well. So I rode all the way to Ishiyama, and took care of my email there. Then I waited for the bus to Iwama temple.
And I waited.
Finally, I asked at the information booth, and their reaction was somewhere between confusion and amusement... "Imawa-dera e? Bus de?" ["To Iwama temple? By bus?"] This was not good. Not sure how to read their reaction, I took a local train to Ishiyama temple itself, and then started to walk to Iwama again, hopeing to stop at a bus stop and catch the bus to the temple. I'm not sure how far into the five and a half kilometer walk it was that I figured out two unpleasant things, but:
1) The signs indicating the distance to the temple were unreliable... consequetive signs would have 2 kilometers, 1.7 kilometers, 2.3 kilometers (?!?).
2) There IS a bus... it appears to run every August 17th. Oy.
So there was two ways to get to the temple: drive or walk. And I don't drive in Japan. So I walked.
And I walked.
Some four and a half hours later, after literally walking up a mountain, I reached Iwama, and boy! did it feel good. I took care of the things I needed to do there, and then was left at something of a stand still... I really didn't want to have to re-trace my steps all the way back to Ishiyama, but that was the only way up to this temple that I knew of. So I poked around... and found a path marked "Daigoji" -- Daigo temple -- and then I was REALLY in a quandry. Remember me mentioning that I was headed to Uji next, beacuse there are two temples there? And that one of the temples is a good hike from Uji? That temple's name is Daigo.
So I had a path to the next temple. Undoubtedly, it was a long path... and likely a rough one, an actual hike. Or I could play it safe, walk back the way I came, and approach the two temples from the pre-planned station. But I hated the idea of walking back four hours, only to have to hike to Daigo on the next day anyway.
I walked back to the small hotel near the temple to check the time and to check my information and think. While I was so occupied, a messload of kids came running through -- some noticing me, others not -- busy on a scavenger hunt of some sort. It seems that many of these remote temples get used as a sort of summer camp for kids; do two weeks or so at a historic site, and play the sort of character building games that go on at camps. This would definitely explain some of the groups of kids I'm been running into at other temples; in Kyoto, however, I had just assumed these were field trips of some sort, one day events.
One of the kids also accidently pointed out something that I didn't know existed in Japan: a stick-bug! It was working it's way up a glass door, so I had my choice of pictures of the little bugger. Hey, I'm sorry, but I think these sorts of things are cool; and the kids certainly agreed with me.
Anyway, in the midst of all this distraction, I decided the thing I needed to do was to ask the priest at the main hall if the old path actually still connected; many old pilgrim paths near temples are just dead-ended fragments of past well-used trails. The priest confirmed that it did indeed go all the way through, and he estimated the walk at about two and a half hours. It was now past four... there was no way I would reach Daigo while it was still open, but if I could get to it tonight I would be able to rocket through two temples tomorrow, and save the train fare I would have paid to get to Uji.
So I set out on the trail to Daigo; besides, I wanted to see more of the countryside. It started out as a hike down through forest area, then through a bamboo grove, and then shortly opened up onto a small valley full of rice fields and scattered farm houses. Signs clearly pointed the way each time there was some question as to what road to take -- and I was walking on roads again -- and a few brief questions to some of the people I encountered confirmed I was going in the right direction. The roads twisted and climbed... I was heading up another mountain.
I won't say it wasn't a pleasant walk, but I was pretty happy to reach the top of it and start down again. I knew that Daigo was supposed to be in a somewhat isolated valley, and this seemed to fit the bill... and after what I'd guess was two hours, I reached the floor of the valley only to discover a thriving campground with observatory and a small community built up near it. This was NOT what I expected to find.
More annoying still, there was one last sign in the series I had been following. It had arrows pointing in three different directions, including the direction I came from, and listed about eight different things and the distances to them... and none of them were Daigo temple. So my pointers had finally failed. My gut said to head up the valley to see where the road ended; my stomach said I was hungry. So I headed for the camp center to ask about both things, which was a waste of time... they only had prepared meals for campers, and they kinda pointed towards the direction I thought, but that was also the direction of a sacred gate opening to a mountain path in a different direction -- not a route I wanted. So I walked back to the path, and asked someone who was right there where Daigo was, figuring they could at least say that it wasn't the path.
They wanted to help. They suggested I ask at the camp center; when I told them that hadn't worked out, they went to check the last sign, I saw... and it -still- didn't point at Daigo. By this time it was definitely past seven at night. After some debate, one announced that she knew exactly where Daigo was, and off we flew in her car over yet another mountain that I'm thankfull I didn't have to scale. And yet, I had a bad feeling about it... I really didn't think the temple should be that far away. After a twenty minute ride, they dropped me off in the middle of downtown somewhere on the other side of the mountain, pointed up the road and said 'that way', and took off. So I didn't know where I was. And it was getting dark.
I followed the direction they pointed out, for a lack of better ideas; I was in a disticntly residential area... the sort of area with no hotels or ryokans, and a good walk away from any area with such. Which was a pity: the direction they pointed me dead-ended, nowhere near a temple. And now it -was- dark.
So I walked towards lights, looking for stores. At the first I asked if there were any hotels or ryokans nearby; they said no, so I walked awhile more. At the second, they thought about it, pulled out a phone book and called two or three places. At first, all they had was one place for $80 a night -- which hurts, but I'd have done it at that point -- then a customer had a different idea. She ran off, and a few minutes later came back to announce that she had a place for $35. Then they asked me... "Sauna daijoubu desu ka?"... Is a Sauna okay?
There are plenty of saunas in this part of Japan, in areas between towns that have actual hot springs, but one that you could sleep at was a new thing to me... and I couldn't turn down the price, so I said it would be just fine. And so I was packed into another car, and rocketed off towards an actual downtown area about twenty minutes away.
A word now on Japanese drivers: they scare me. The first car ride was scary enough in daylight, shooting along fairly curvy roads in a mountainous area at a speed I wouldn't normally be tempted to try driving in a straight line. This second ride was just as scary, but for different reasons. You see, many of the roadways in towns and cities in Japan are only a little wider than one car width... and these are still two-way traffic roads. In the dark, at fairly good speeds, through areas with no visbility because you have nothing but walls and buildings surrounding you, there's only three ways to tell if another car is coming at you or trying to turn onto the street in front of you; you see their lights coming, you hear a horn beep, or you see their reflection in one of the many mirrors set up at the trapazoidal corners. I suppose you get used to it if you live with it every day; there's likely a very complicated set of road rules that everyone here is subconciously aware of. But damned if I'll ever be crazy enough to try and drive in Japan... it's bad enough being a passenger.
But back to my accommedations for the night. After a long ride, during which time my driver pointed at a gate and told me that was Daigo (before we drove another fifteen minutes away from it), I was dropped off in front of 'Sauna Green Palace' in the middle of downtown somewhere... which was definitely nothing I was expecting. The shop keeper, who had driven me here, told me I could take a bus to Daigo in the morning, and made sure to point out all the different restaurants in the area before bidding good luck and taking off. I was curious about why he was so concerned about the restaurants... but my first concern was to get my room and dump my stuff off. So I took the elevator up to the sauna.
I had to remove my shoes and put them in a locker, and was billed $25 up front... I was then given a braclet with a number on it and a key built into it, and directed by the female clerk towards some lockers where naked and robed men were wandering about doing stuff. "Okay," I thought, "I've seen this before... it must be a capsule hotel." If only it was that simple. I located my locker, dumped my stuff in it, and walked back to the front to get my shoes and go out for a short walk and dinner. But they wouldn't let me go out... and then I understood why the shop keeper had pointed out all the restaurants. Once you go into the sauna, you can't leave and come back without re-paying for your stay. They have their own restaurant that they expect customers to eat at. So I was stuck.
I walked back to my locker, and one of the attendants helped me get a gown/shorts set to wear. On the same floor as the lockers was the sauna itself, and using it would get me billed a further $40. For some reason, I just wasn't in the mood to visit the sauna; go figure. So I headed upstairs to find the place to sleep. The next floor up was the restaurant, so I just walked past it to the third, and last, floor. This floor was where massages were being done ($50 for 50 minutes), but nothing else. So where was I expected to sleep? Confused, I walked back down to have a closer look at the "restaurant".
I'm not sure how to put this, other than to say it was Archie Bunker's dream. The restaurant consisted of a bar and three tables. The rest of the room was filled by eight TVs, each permanently tuned to a different channel, with three long rows of easy chairs in front of them; about 36 chairs in all. Waiters were bringing food and drinks to customers sitting in the chairs... and some chairs were fully reclined with sleeping customers on them (blankets were freely available near the tables).
After the intial shock wore off, I was able to finally relax; sure, it was wierd, but it was a pretty benign weirdness... the sort that's easy to just go with. So I grabbed a comic off the book racks stocked with all the newest books and newspapers, sat at a table, and found the food was no more expensive than it would have been outside anyway. So I had a good dinner, sat down in an easy chair, tuned its individual sound system to the channel I wanted to watch, and eventually drifted to sleep. And that's what happened yesterday.
So as I said... good morning; I have no idea where I am. I had breakfast at the sauna, then checked out, paying for my meals and an additional $10 fee for staying overnight (the reason I had been told it would be a $35 stay in the first place). I'm now waiting for the first bus that's headed for any sort of station, and there I'll find out where I am and how to get back to Daigo temple... unless THIS plan goes astray also!

. . .

It turned out I had made my way to Yamashina, a town between Kyoto and Otsu; and from the station there was indeed a bus that took me straight to the gates of Daigo that the shopkeeper had pointed out the night before.
So here's the punchline to yesterday's debacle: the nice people who helped me by driving me over the mountain had basically delivered me to the front gate of the long climb to Daigo... I had to hike back over the same mountain to reach the temple. Apparently, they just didn't realize that the gates were not the temple itself.
The hike was long, but nowhere near as bad as the 10 kilometer walk I did yesterday; I took my time, stopping often to sip at the two liter bottle of water I had purchased before starting, and, by and by, made it to the temple. It was just under the pilgrim's pass in the mountain, at the top of what was likely the same valley I was in yesterday. If only I had followed my gut, and walked up the valley... ah, well.
All told, the walk to the temple and back only took about four hours total. After I had rode a bus back to the station from the gate it was still only 2:30 in the afternoon, so I pulled out my laptop, and looked up the next temple. Mimuroto temple is the one that's supposed to be in short walking distance of Uji station, and reasonably near Daigo, so I went to see how much it would be to go to Uji.
I hopped on a train back to Kyoto, and then transfered to a train headed for Nara... Uji is closer to Nara than Kyoto, and just nowhere near Yamashina at all. Oy. In any case, I arrived in Uji at 3:15, and the map in front of the station pointed me to the information center, which was in the general direction I would have to go to get to Mimuroto temple anyway. If I could get to it before it closed (guessing that was around five), I could then head back to Kyoto and get a room there for the night and take care of cash and ticket related business tomorrow. So I hurried to the information center.
And there, at 3:45, my plans changed again. Mimuroto closes at four o'clock each day; I wasn't going to make it today. So I had the nice lady point me to a reasonably priced hotel, because I'm not leaving without getting to Mimuroto. So here I am, typing this.
Actually, it's well timed. I needed to really clean up after the past two days' hard hikes; my black jeans have big white patches on them where the salt I had sweated had dried in place, and I'm sure I smell pretty ripe. Besides, there's a new Lupin the Third movie on TV tonight (a famous comic book and animation series here in Japan), and that's followed by a new episode of Iron Chefs, currently a cult farvorite in re-runs in America. So I'm cleaning up and relaxing tonight; tomorrow, I want to hit Mimuroto early as possible, then go to Kyoto to get more cash and activate my rail pass... I'm waiting still on the decision to shorten the trip, but with the rail pass active, it'll be scads cheaper for me to run off to the more remote temples on the pilgrimage. If I finish all that early enough, I'll try for a second temple; but that's a wait and see. Night-night.

Onwards to July 31, 1999

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