Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Saigoku Pilgrimage

(July 20-August 16, 1999)

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August 2, 1999
I got up about eight, feeling much better. I asked the proprietress of the ryokan for the location of the nearest post office, and sent home some of my extra weight; and then I was off.
Both Oka temple and Tsubosaka temple, it turned out, were on the same rail line that Hasedera was on; the same rail line that ran right through the town I was presently in... and they're just three stops away from one another. Pretty convenient! I did have to change trains twice, but I'm getting used to that. One of the stations was an indoor mall... not very big, but it must get a lot of traffic! You'd have to pay just to shop here, if you weren't traveling. I stopped by a bakery and picked up some specialty breads for breakfast -- a fried roll with curry inside, a strawberry muffin, and an egg salad muffin; delicious! Folks, I definitely recommend the bakeries in Japan as a great place to find unique (and cheap) meals.
At Okadera station (named after Oka temple), I had no good idea where to go. At most of the other temple stations, there were signs, maps, information booths... in short, some form of advertisment about the actual direction (if not location) of the temple. Here, there was none. So I looked around, and thought about it. The station itself is unimpressive... it's actually underground, so the only indication of its presence are the subway-like stairs that lead down into it. Logic said that if the station and town were named after the temple, one of the stairways should be pointed in the direction of said temple. Only one opening had a street that lead forward from it, so I walked up it a little and found a sign pointing the way to the temple. I'm getting good at this, eh?
So I walked, following the signs, for about an hour, out of the town and onto some roads that I would rather not walk on again. As they came up onto a blind corner, I took a shortcut through a graveyard and found I'd gone exactly the right way... the path drops down from the road just around the corner, and comes out near the opening of the graveyard. The road this took me to went straight up to the temple.
It was a pretty simple temple, and I didn't see the pond the dragon was supposed to be in; I'll probably return at a later date to ask about that. After the long, hot walk, my mind was more on reaching the next temple... and the long walk back that would likely require.
At the front gate -- by the way, most of the temples on this route are famous enough to charge entry fees, if I hadn't mentioned it -- I asked if there was a bus stop near by. The answer was yes; and he pointed back down the road I had walked. I saw no bus on the entire trip in, and I saw no bus on the entire trip back... such is way of things. But in walking back down the road, I bypassed the graveyard and just kept going forward... and found myself back on the road I'd walked to get to the temple in the first place, at about the 2/3 of the way mark. I didn't have to walk on the dangerous country roads; but, for some reason, they're what was marked as the walking path. Wheeee.
From there, the walk was hot, but easy and quick. I got back to the station by twelve-thirty, and headed on to Tsubosaka-yama (Tsubosaka Mountain), location of the next temple, Tsubosaka -- naturally. This was more promising to me; a large map outside prominantly showed the location of the temple from the station, as well as the bus route and the walking path, and the walking path was shorter than the path to Oka temple had been. Cake walk! So I stomped off.
Things are rarely that easy. I kept getting confused by conflicting signs that seemed to indicate the temple was everywhere (someone had been turning these things)... and, because I'm an obvious foreigner, no matter how correctly and precisely I asked someone the way to the temple, their first reaction was to point me back to the station; after all, that must have been what I had actually -intended- to ask, right? In any case, I finally found someone who gave me a tourist map of the area, marked where we were, marked the temple's location and the path, and made an offhand comment about being impressed I was going to walk there. I looked at the map; it was not my imagination... the temple was reasonably close. So why would he be so impressed?
I followed the map as closely as possible, and soon found myself walking up a lonely single-lane country road... I was beginning to think I was lost. It ended at a small farm's driveway, with a dog looking up at me from it's doghouse, just in front of a small bridge over a creek that went up a path into some dark greenery. On one side were rice fields stepped slowly up a hill; on the other was a deep creek and a semi-steep slope up to the side of a two-lane road far above me. Now I -knew- I was lost. I really didn't want to walk all the way back and start guessing where I went wrong, so I went to the house right next to me and asked the owner where I was on the map... and she pointed.
The walking path actually does go past her doghouse, over the creek, and up into the dark greenery.
I started up; and quickly froze in front of a humongous spider web crossing the path. As I turned back, the house owner was troting up to me with a bamboo stick that I could clear the webs away with. So, with her calling "motto ue, ue!" ("up, up!"), and swinging the stick madly, I walked up the questionably soft green path. Please note, the tourist map shows a characture of a happy couple walking along the line representing this path; I have to wonder who's idea of a joke that was.
I soon reached a spot where the path opened into a clearing, next to the road, which was still a ten-foot wall up away from me... and, after scouting around, I found the best thing to do was what I was told; I went up. There was a set of stairs to the roadway, but I had to poke around a little to find them; then I walked up the road about twelve feet before I found a turn off marked "Tsubodera Hiking Path". This was a bit more do-able; it led down to a dirt path through a forested area, wide enough for a car or two... in fact, a car was parked down there, and recently. At last, something a little more straight forward. And so I tossed aside my bamboo stick, and set forth again.
Anyone who says I don't like to hike has simply never given me a good reason too; because if I didn't like to hike, I would have given up on this trail. The false promise of easy times ahead quickly turned into a single hiker path through brush with switchbacks up the side of a mountain, the whole area vibrating with more bugs n' such than I care to know about... at one point, a cicada, probably more worried about what it was running from than where it was running too, flew straight into the bridge of my nose; it felt like I'd been hit with a small rock! (To be fair, I doubt the cicada was very happy either...)
Soon the switchbacks went from being gradual uphill, to gradual steps; then from steps, to stairs so tall they could have been wide ladders. And just when I was about to really give up, I heard voices above me. I dragged myself up the last ten feet or so of steep climb, and I was there... I had made it. And it was three-thirty. I had been walking about two and half hours... where'd the time go?!?
Once I had paid my entry fee, I climbed more stairs to reach the temple itself; but it was an easy climb, comparatively. This temple complex is bizarrely different from every other temple I've seen in Japan, because, as I mentioned before, most the archetecture is Indian in style. The first building that I ran across was stunning... it might have been picked up right out of Budapest and dropped in place; it was just foreign to what I'd gotten used to. And there is a wall of bas-relief images depicting stories of Kannon and Buddha that stretches for fifty to sixty feet... it's an amazing view. But, after the trouble I had just gone through, my mind was on business first; so I paid my respects at the first building, then went to the main hall (up another flight of stairs) and paid my respects there also (literally, by the way... like most visitors, I drop anything from 1 to 50 yen in a box before praying. Think of it as the equivalent to dropping money in the basket at a church in the USA, and you've got the idea.)
After I had stepped out and gotten my boots back on, I interrupted a conversation at a small gift booth that was right there to ask where the Nokyo was -- the person that stamps your book (the Nokyo-Cho). Both pointed to a small building about twenty feet away, and then one -- a woman, about my age -- walked off ahead of me to it. It turns out she was the Nokyo on duty, but she'd been gossiping at the gift booth; lucky I asked!
As she examined my book and stamped it, she asked the usual questions... where was I from, was I living in Japan, did I drive up to the temple? When I told her I walked, she was impressed; when I told her I took the hiking path, she was dumb-founded. I sort of get the impression that, even in the busy season, few people take that path. I mentioned that I sorta hoped to take a bus back, rather than walk again... and, once again, lucky I said something. She looked at a schedule, then the time; it was now four-fifteen, and I had ten minutes until the last bus would leave! I gave her my thanks and beat feet, asking my way to the right place, and managed to get a cushy ride back to the station. All told, Tsubosaka temple's shorter walk had taken me about an hour longer to do than the walk to Oka temple!
But I had done it! With fifteen temples of the thirty-three under my belt, I got the ticket to the next station with a JR rail line; I was down to about forty bucks cash after the last two days worth of meals, ryokans, trains, and temple fees, so I had to go get more cash; and although Osaka was closer and, in theory, has a bank I can get money at, it was getting late; and in Kyoto I know -where- the bank is, and I know where there's a good hotel that will take my visa card tonight. So I took a long ride back to Kyoto, and headed back here to the Toyoko Inn -- the same hotel I stayed at at the start of this trip -- and got a room for two nights.
Two nights? Here's why. As long as I'm back in this area, there are a few temples that are difficult to get to, and which will require extra time and/or effort. If I can leave the larger of my two bags somewhere safe -and- not have to worry about where I'm going to sleep that night, I can concentrate on some of these temples. Tomorrow, I want to get up early and head off to Hogon temple... this is the temple that's on an island in Lake Biwako. This one is difficult mainly because I have to run on the boat's schedule once I get there; I don't know at what time I can catch one, or how long I'll be out on the Lake. But if I get back from that before two o'clock, then I'll try for a second temple, Matsunoo... this one is past the northern mountans of Lake Biwako, near the actual sea; difficult to reach mainly because of unforgiving train schedules. We'll see if I get two or not... night!

Onwards to August 3, 1999

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