Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Saigoku Pilgrimage

(July 20-August 16, 1999)

Return to Oniko Goes To Japan


August 14, 1999
Twenty minutes later I was at the temple. I climbed the steps, and had to ask which way to go; Seigan temple shares it's hilltop area with a large Shinto shrine as well. The reason is simple; both were built here because of the wonderful view of the nearby waterfall, the real treasure of both temples.
I slowly made my way up -- slowly not because I was tired, but because I was following a small group that kept stopping to take pictures, and I didn't want to get in their way. They noticed this, and, once I had done what I do at the main hall, they started talking to me as we were all waiting to get our books stamped. They asked the usual questions, then asked if I had been to any other temples. Since they were just starting the Saigoku route, this was the fourth temple or so they'd been to: as a group, they had four books and three shirts they were having stamped. [Yes, -shirts-. Traditional pilgrim dress includes a white shirt that few people seem to wear for this route, but is still common dress for many other routes. Many people will have these shirts stamped as proof of where they've been; when I climbed Gassen last year, there were a few people with shirts that had almost solid red backs, from all the times they had been stamped! Anyway, the group getting their shirts stamped this year weren't wearing them; they pulled the shirts from a special bag they were carrying them in.]
I pulled out my book to show them, and they were pretty surprised -- I now had thirty-two stamps out of thirty-three. They all wished me luck, and I headed down to the bus stop again, and waited for the bus to return. I got back to the station at Kii-Katsuura by nine, pulled my bags from the coin locker, bought a box lunch and drinks, and headed to the train pads by nine-thirty.
The next -- and last -- temple is named Kegon, and it's a couple hundred miles away. My instructions describe how to reach it from Osaka, but I was a four hour train ride away from Osaka... after thinking about it, I headed to Nagoya. It's closer to both Kii-Katsuura and Kegon temple than Osaka; and, if I find I still need to go back to Osaka, I can take the Shinkanzen bullet train, and be there in less than twenty minutes. So I took the first train to Nagoya, hoping it would be reasonably fast. I'd hope to type this up while riding it but, after I ate my lunch, I konked out and basically slept all the way to Nagoya. During a waking moment though, I accomplished an amazing physical feat for a non-Japanese: I successfully used a Japanese style toilet on a moving train (they're hard enough when you're sitting still!).
I arrived at twelve-twenty, almost a three hour ride. Nagoya was a madhouse. Unlike most JR rail stations, none of the rail maps included the English names for any of the stops; which was a pain, as I was on a very tight schedule to reach the last temple before five and then head to Tokyo. My instructions from Osaka are a brief list of station to transfer through, the last JR one being called 'Ogaki'... so what I wanted to know was whether or not I could reach Ogaki from Nagoya, or if I had to waste time traveling back towards Kyoto to use the instructions my information had given me. After an annoying twenty minutes of asking questions and checking rail pads, I finally found the train that would take me straight there; and I got lucky too, because it was an express with only four stops. So, by one-twenty, I was at Ogaki station.
From here, I had to transfer to a private rail line to go to Tanigumiguchi station (great name, huh?). So I checked around; a helpful tourist agency lady informed me that the JR station also served as the private railway station; she helped me get the right ticket, and then I went right back out to the rail pad, and waited. And waited.
The train I wanted wasn't due until about five past two; so I waited about thirty minutes for it to arrive. I was getting nervous around this point. My information had made it clear the Tanigumiguchi was about 4 kilometers from Kegon temple, so I had to estimate about two hours to walk it, with the assumption that the temple likely closes at five o'clock.
The train arrived, and I got on, and it rolled slowly forward. Tanigumiguchi was the ninth stop on a long list... and from what I could see of the private railway's stations, I had made a serious error. I was still carrying both of my bags -and- a box of books that I had not had a chance to mail off before the weekend struck; and it looked like it was pretty unlikely that I would find any sort of coin locker at the trains station I was headed for. So I was likely to walk all the way to Kegon temple with a tremendous armful.
So the train rolled on, eating at both my time and patience; and, two stops away from where I was headed, the train stopped... and everyone was shooed off of it. I asked what was happening, and let them know where I was headed; "no problem," said the attendant, "there a train to Tanigumiguchi coming." It was due at three-thirty... more than a forty minute wait; and it would get me to the station with far too little time to reach the temple. I headed to the station master.
As I was explaining the situation, an older woman who was sitting in the station waiting for something chimed in with an idea. I could take a cab to the station I wanted, then walk from there. It was the only thing that sounded like it would work, so I agreed; and discovered that what she was waiting for was a cab to take her to Tanigumiguchi. How's that for luck?
The cab arrived, and we got in... and then then cabby blundered around trying to find the main road among a host of seriously messed up backroads. This cab driver easily made me more nervous than I've ever been on any bus.

Sideline: More reasons Garth hates cars and buses in Japan.
Almost all roads in your general run-of-the-mill Japanese towns have deep rain gutters -- a groove from about a half foot deep to a couple feet deep -- on one or boths sides of the road. Some roads, in hilly areas, just plain have a six to seven foot drop into a house or rice field. And most of these are the small roads I love so much. So imagine two trucks dancing around each other, one pulled so far to the side that an inch or so of tire hangs over the gutter... because this happens a lot when you ride in buses. I haven't seen it myself, but I've seen enough evidence to know that -- occasionally -- cars and bigger vehicles will mis-step during this dance. At best, they get a wheel caught in the gutter; at worst, they end up on their sides in a field. I spend a lot of time on buses holding my breath, closing my eyes, and reminding myself that the driver is a professional.

In any case, we reached the main road, and shot along, at one point passing through the longest tunnelunder a mountain I've ever run into. A little past this, we hit a stop light and waited. The customer who had coaxed me into this ride pointed at a sign up the roadway that crossed the one we were on, and told me that the was the way to Kegon temple. I asked if that was right, then asked if I could be dropped off there... and, because the customer had called the cab to go to Tanigumiguchi station before I showed up, both she and the cabbie said I didn't have to pay the $18 fee that was on the meter.
So I was free of the ride, and closer to the temple than I would have been from the station... but how close? I had saved time by not waiting for the train, but I still didn't have much to waste, so I started walking, even with all my stuff in tow, as fast as I could manage. I stopped to ask if I was headed in the right direction a few times, just to be sure.
Along the way I got to cross a bridge over a small river. On one side of the bridge was a full camping area, with kids and paprents playing in the water; on the other side, several serious looking gentlemen were fishing with traditional Japanese fishing poles... poles that are anywhere from twenty-five to thirty-five feet long (not including fishing line). It was quite a sight; but I was in a hurry.
As I walked, I kept getting this bad recurring thought. I could see the railline on my right side, just thirty feet away or so; what if the road I was walking was just taking me to Tanigumiguchi station? I would still have to walk another 4 kilometers from there, in an impossibily short time... but I pushed the worries and fears back. I didn't know what was ahead of me, and I wasn't going to give up before I found out. So, working harder than ever before -- carrying more, and walking faster -- I walked.
And then I ran into Tanigumi station, and my heart dropped for a moment. But the station I knew of was called Tanigumiguchi... was this another station with a similar name? I asked inside: it was indeed a different station -- even a different railway company -- and kegon temple was only one kilometer away. It was four-twenty; there were no coin lockers, so I'd have to continue carrying my stuff. So I started walking again.
I panicked once; I had walked up the wrong street, and it dead ended. I took a moment and a deep breath, then walked backdown to where I'd gotten confused and started up the right way. I was pouring sweat and, with my arms as well as my back full up with stuff, I practically ran upthe road... I had no idea when the temple might close, and I was very aware that there were a lot more people coming down the road -from- the temple, then there were people going up the road -to- the temple. So I pushed myself through the last kilometers, surounded on both sides by shops with all forms of food and souvenior, and made my way to the large front gate... there was a man with a baseball and glove, idly bouncing the ball off the side of the gate into his mitt. I walked in, and up... more stairs... past undefined temples buildings until I found the biggest and busiest structure: the main hall. I had made it.
I dropped my box and larger bag at the bottom of the hall's stairway where they'd be out of the way of the other visitors and, sweating and breathing hard, visited the main image in the temple and said my prayer. I had to take off my shoes to visit the nokyo -- felt good, smelled bad -- and, with a red stamp and a flourish of pen, my pilgrimage was completed. It feels good to set a goal and finish it. I had read about the thirty-three temples in a book my parents gave me almost seven years ago now, and had always wanted to find the temples having no idea of the tradition of pilgrimage in Japan. Someday, I will return to many of these temples at a more liesurely pace, so I can really visit each and it's surroundings.
Why did I push myself to do in less than one month what should have taken two? As always,my reasons remain my own... maybe if you run into me someday, and ask, I'll tell you. In the meantime though, just think; now that I've visited all thirty-three the temples, I won't go to hell... I get to work off any bad juju in a sort of purgatory instead while a bad person gets sucked into the void in my place. You better be good!
I rested a little, letting my heart and breathing return to normal, as I thought about all this. I had noticed on the way up to the hall that people were stopping near where I had left my bags to touch a metal relief figure of a fish on the pillar. On closer examination, people had been also wedging small coins in all the dents and gaps on the figure and between it and the pillar, and there were many coins on the base of the pillar also. I'm not sure what the fish represents; but I'll guess it's either good fortune (as in money) or good health. In either case, I reached up and patted it too, then started to pick up my bags... and a lady stopped to ask what country I was from. I said America, and we chatted a little -- her daughter is staying in New Jersey, it turns out -- and then she asked where I was headed from the temple. I said Ogaki station, maybe... she asked if I would like a ride to Gifu station. Gifu is one of the stations the train from Nagoya to Ogaki had passed through, so it would let me go straight back to Nagoya, and I wouldn't have to take any slow local trains to get to Gifu to start with. I'm thinking now that the fish was more of a general good luck thing, eh?
So we walked to her and her husband's car, and were off. They, too, had just finished the Saigoku route, but they were still working on a different pilgrimage also -- one that went specifically to just Shinto shrines, a new thing to me. They gave me a mochi bun to eat, and some water, and after a half-hour of checking maps and making endless U-turns in Gifu, we found the station. I was back on a train and in Nagoya by five-forty-five. I caught the first Shinkanzen to Tokyo -- I want to meet a friend there tomorrow -- and read for the next two hours. I had to notice as I used the "Western style" toilet (the chair version everyone in the States uses), there were instructions warning Japanese (no English instructions) to lift the seat before urinating; also new this year, "Seat Overlays"... the toilet seat covers that are so common in restaurant, school, and gas station toilet rooms, but not something I saw here at all last year.
Anyway, from Tokyo station I made my way to Nishikasai ward, and got a room at, where else, the Toyoko Inn. Now, I'm going to clean up, go buy books, and get the sleep I desperately need. Night.

Thirty-three Done.
The Saigoku Pilgrimage Has Been Completed.

Onwards to August 15, 1999

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