The Henro Experience
By Arran John Chambers
would be lying were I to say that the 927 metres of the Unpenji-san Mountain had not seemed somewhat daunting to my entirely inexperienced hiking legs in the early morning of October the 29th. Ultimately however the rewards gained by having successfully scaled the highest of the 88, Shikoku-wide pilgrimages, far outweighed the demands of the journey.
The day began at a time in the morning that quite frankly I had forgotten existed, 5:45 AM. There was just enough time in my semi-comatose state of consciousness for a quick shower, a double check of the backpack and a strong cup of coffee before I left the house to meet up with my fellow pilgrims ready to start the day's journey at 700. One coach ride later and we had arrived at our first sight of the day, the Honen dam. Already the landscape had vastly changed from the relatively flat lands of my home town, Takamatsu, into a series of lush green mountains and valleys that would feel very much at home in one of Tolkien's novels. The towering concave dam was a manmade rival to the beauty of the natural surroundings it had been constructed in, and to stand beneath it, I felt one of those strange vertigo-like experiences that always put me off balance when I stare up at something so high up above me. We managed a quick group shot at the dam's peak before having to continue our ascent up Unpenji to the starting position of the days trek. Once there we donned what has for some half a century been the commonplace outfit for any serious (or part-time) pilgrim. This worryingly enough was chosen for the ease a person could be buried in it should they keel over from the physical exertion of the journey, walking stick becoming tombstone, white jacket becoming funeral garb, which, akin to showing 'Alive!'' as an in-flight movie, was not encouraging, to say the least. All joking aside, the pilgrimage was promising to be no walk in the park. By that time though, caffeine rushing through my veins, suited and booted for the task, I was ready for anything Unpenji could throw at me.
After a short talk from our guide for the day, about the complex history of each of the 88 pilgrimage sites around Shikoku, we promptly set off on the first segment of the day's 10 kilometer journey. Perhaps the first thing that struck me about the mountainous environs of Unpenji was the denseness of the trees and foliage that covered almost every stretch of this almost untouched terrain, barring of course the road itself and a few abandoned houses that dotted our pathway. On the way up we took a paved road, that even to a novice such as myself, was not over exerting in any way and though the incline became really quite steep in places, this was never for very long nor did it prevent any of our group from reaching the temple. The 6 kilometer journey flew by, most likely due to good company and all the distracting views that we passed on our trek. Soon within the space of a few hours, we had reached the temple. And what a beautiful, serene one it is at that, entirely enveloped by nature. The look and atmosphere of the temple contribute to a kind of melding with the trees and wildlife that surround it, unlike the cold, hard stone of the dam we had seen earlier, that stuck out like a sore thumb. Immediately I felt a calm come over me as I entered the temple grounds, this was most likely due to the sheer euphoric relief at the opportunity to sit down for a time after 6 km of constant walking combined with all the fresh air up there, but possibly, it had something to do with the feel of the place itself. Looking to my left I could see an ancient temple, a place full to the brim of a kind of spiritual presence, to my right, a valley of mountains and hills covered in trees just beginning to change colour for Autumn, that stretched on further than the eye could see.
Once we had caught our breath back, all pilgrims assembled for a quick demonstration on how we should go about purifying ourselves before entering the sacred grounds of Unpenji. This age old process, involved the rinsing of the hands and mouth using pure water from a well just to the left of the main gate entrance. Our guide showed us that we should grasp the cup full of water in the left hand, and use it pour water over the right, then do the opposite, and finally pour a small amount into our right hand and take this water into the mouth. All pilgrims followed the example. I watched a few people do it just to make I wouldn't commit any cultural faux pas, and then carefully step-by-step I purified my right and left hands, followed by my mouth. And it was at that specific point in time that my body decided to inform me of an urgent need for a visit to the WC! But practice makes perfect I guess, and an additional purification later, I was free to pass through the beautifully crafted main entrance gate and to proceed up the stairs to the temple of Unpenji. There are many things to see and do at the temple which is split into to two major parts, personally, I lit some incense in a shrine that looks onto to the temple before going up the steps to ring its metal bell from a rope almost as thick as my legs, next, I struck a strange and extra terrestrial looking slab of metal somewhat akin to a meteor (I imagine) with the hammer provided and then listened to the quite unexpected note that rang out from it, after this I spun some prayer scrolls that I hoped would bring me good luck, and finally, after having explored the second half of the temple and said a wish to the magic aubergine (no, I'm not under the influence, you heard just right), at a small hut filled with all kinds of fantastic little creations I bought some really detailed handmade gifts. We had just enough time to squeeze in some calories during a lunch break, before setting off again on our trek down the mountain, there was however one final thing to see, the 500 stone Buddha that lined the pathway of our descent. Each one of these has a different facial expression, some of which are quite comical, and it is a strange feeling to think that although separated by so many centuries, by different cultures, and by distinct backgrounds, some things are just funny no matter who you are.
That was my Henro experience. Although I proceeded to feel the experience in my thigh and calf muscles for several days afterward, the memories I have from the trip will more than justify my having taken part for many years to come. Unpenji truly is a place of beauty worth exploring, undamaged by tourism and still as amazing as it was so many years ago. I urge anyone that enjoys fresh air, good exercise, fantastic memories, and brilliant views to take the effort to reach the top of mount Unpenji, the experience is well worth it in my humble opinion!