Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Saigoku Pilgrimage

(July 20-August 16, 1999)

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August 9, 1999
Let me tell you bit about my hotel last night. It was the only 'business' hotel in a small cluter of 'love' hotels -- places with names like "Hotel Wedding Bell", etc. To say the area was seedy sort of understates it; there were prostitues talking to business men, as well as homeless people litterally camped on the sidewalk; one guy had two shirts drying on coat hangers hanging from the tree he and his wife had lawn chairs under.
Considering this, the hotel I stayed at -- Green Hill Hotel -- probably gets a lot of strange business. Starting off with I was offered one of four room types: single, with or without individual bathroom ($10 difference), or double, with or without bathroom ($20). Once upstairs though, I discovered that the same floor that my room was on -- single, no bathroom -- had only three such rooms, a bathroom shared, and one big room marked "Capsule"... a capsule hotel room with about twelve sleeping pockets in it. That had not been mentioned to me; and probably would only be mentioned if all the normal rooms were filled up.
The attendant at the desk also informed me that there was an "panaramic view" Japanese bath on the ninth floor for the guests to use, open until 1:00 am. I was curious what she meant by 'panaramic view', so I went up to look after typing my notes. It was a big room, with the bath -- and, presumably, the bathers -- in front of a huge window with a glorious views of the city lights in the less seedy area. And there was a life-size statue of a female bather, modestly covering her groin with a bath towel.
I also had to note that the fire escape was open on that floor, perhaps to let some cool air in... perhaps. The fire escape is a stairway down to ground level behind the hotel, the exact same area where the 'love' hotels start... and there was no alarm on the door. The hotel rules state that their should be no unregistered guests in the rooms; but what about the bath? Given all this, I had to wonder about at the sign in the elevator offering massages from 8pm to 1am.
Anyway, I got up and out and back to the station by eight-fifteen this morning, and took a train the two stations to Osaka. Here I bumbled around for a while trying to locate the Hankyu rail way station, as it was the one that went to the next temple, Nakayama. Eventually I found it... it was under the Hankyu Department Store. I really should have known.
In any case, I got to Nakayama station by a little after nine. Nakayama is the last of the truly easy temples; it's only 100 meters from the station and, today in particular, really clearly marked. Over the past two days, I've been seeing signs posted at the stations and temples that indicated that most of the places I've visited had some festivities coming up on the ninth; but I couldn't plan my trip to return, so I figured I'd find out what the hubbub was about later. It turns out that August ninth is a BIG holiday for the O-Bon season, the first real holiday during it, and that all large and well-known temples become the center of activity as people swarm them to do services and pay for charms and prayers to help their dead loved ones find their way safely back to Earth for the month.
At Nakayama, the road to and the temple itself, were filled with tables and venders selling treats and toys, with games to play, and all sorts of religious knick-knacks for sale. As I walked through the temple's grounds to the main hall, I noticed a massive swarm of humans near the escalators... they were waiting in line for something, and I was afraid I knew what. But I ignored it for the moment, and went to the main hall to do my thing there. When I was done, I turned to the women selling the normal temple goods next to the main hall, and asked where I could get my book stamped. And they told me 'over by the escalators'... of course.
So I pulled out my book, walked down the stairs from the main hall, and joined the line. Luckily, a kind young woman saw me, and directed me to the REAL place to have my book stamped. She explained that, because of the holiday, most prople were there to have names inscribed on their family alter tablets rather than to get their books stamped... so the nokyos had been temporarily moved to a different building, away from the chaos. It was a nice place too, one big room, with a superb wood carving of a man near a waterfall discovering two images of buddhist dieties in the rocks. The nokyo also noticed how full my book was getting, and told me to fight on... which I will.
On the way back to the station I bought my self a small bag of cornbread treats (the same booth was also selling barbeques corn on the cob). Snacking on these, I made my way back to the station -- ten-thirty -- then back to Osaka station where I caught a JR train to Himeiji, home of the famous Himeiji Castle. This is yet -another- place I visited in 1990 with a group of students; but I didn't have time to re-visit it today. Instead, I did what no tourist does... I went to Himeiji, and never got near the castle; I took a bus to the base of Sosha Mountain instead, home of the next temple, Engyoji.
There is no official path to Engyoji anymore; none, at least, that anyone is going to tell a tourist about. The reason is simple... they want you to take the cable car that goes up the mountain instead ($9 round trip). It was fun, I guess (I'm not too found of hights -- the trip back down scared the bejeezus outta me). I would have preffered to walk, as that's part of a true pilgrimage... but, as it turned out, I had plenty of walking to do anyway.
The Engyoji temple complex is basically a -town- hidden in a forest on top of a mountain. Once up, I still had a two kilometer walk just to reach the main hall. In fact, they have a horse carriage that goes back and forth for those who don't care to walk it. By the way, I also got to see one of the unique species of racoon that is only supposed to live in the Engyoji area; it was so used to people, that it let me get three good pictures before I walked off (it just sat down and soaked up the sun when I was done pestering it).
The walk to the main hall was long and twisty, with sacred images peppered on either side along the way... and, once I got there, I had to pay a 300 yen entry fee. In any case, the whole area was swarming with grade-schoolers running around filling out worksheets: some were counting the steps up to the main hall, others were writing what was where on a map, and many were chanting "harro!" to see if they could get a response from me. I nimbly made my way around them and up the stairs to the main hall, where I did what I do. There was a service in progress;not surprising, with the holiday and all. The nokyo was friendly, despite -- or maybe because of -- noisy children running in and out.
As I made my way back down the stairs of the main hall, I was surrounded by a small group of kids. They asked if I spoke English; in Japanese, I told them that I did. So they asked me to speak some English; so I did. They were not quite following what I was saying until I translated it a little. When I told them my name was Garth, I got a few odd attempts from them to say it -- remembering that in Japanese, there are no strong 'R' sounds as in english, nor is there any real equivalent to a 'TH' sound. The closest was "Gaa-ru".
I escused myself after a while and walked back to the cable car for the scary ride down;the bus was there ten minutes later, and I was back at Himeiji sttion by three o'clock. I bought a box lunch and a drink, and jumped on the trains for the next temple... I knew I'd never get there by five, but if there were special festivals, they might stay open until eight or so. I'd hope I'd get there before then.
No chance in hell, however. From four o'clock until ten-thirty, I was on train after train... once, I missed my intended changing point, and lost fourty-five minutes getting back. The distance was great: Himeiji is on the southern coast looking across a bay; Matsunoo temple, my intended target, sits on a hill looking out over the ocean on the -northern- coast. I traveled through mountain after mountian, through big city and small, and pushed all the way to the Matsunoo station, just three kilometers from the temple... and that's where I'm sitting right now, typing this; the station, that is.
Last night's hotel had two big advantages over tonight's; 1) it was in a city, and 2) it was a hotel. In the littlelight I had -- until they all turned off automatically an hour ago -- Matsunoodera station is a pretty sad site. I'm in the middle of nowhere, at a station that no one actually works at or bothers to close. On the brighter side, no one works here, and no one bothers to close it... and there is not only a drink vending machine a short walk away, but the first hot meal vending machine I've ever seen (the meals come in boxes with chemical heating pads under them).So it's not a bad place to get stuck; I'll be able to walk straight to the temple after sun-up tomorrow, then move on to the only other temple in this area... and I don't have a hotel fee tonight, which definitely helps at this point. So I'm camping out at thr JR station tonight... night,night.

Onwards to August 10, 1999

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