2011 Archive

29Oct2011: Jonathan Burns

Henro Experience
By Jonathan Burns


Henro Jonathan.JPG


I generally hate mornings and will take any measure that will allow me sleep a little longer (why I take my showers at night and why the lady and the conbini knows my name and what onigiri I like for breakfast). But this past Saturday, I found myself up and awake at 6:30 in the morning, with my lunch and day bag already packed. 

This was my third Henro excursion in Kagawa, but my first time to Unpenji temple in Kanonji.  After an hour train ride followed by another half hour bus ride, our group of about twenty made it to the starting point of our hike, and you couldn't have asked for better weather.  The sun was shining through the forest of pencil-straight pine trees, and the trees held a cool breeze that invited us forward.  The hike itself wasn't too bad: a gentle uphill slope through the woods, the majority of which was on a narrow paved road.  The hiking is usually my favorite part of the Henro trips.  The physical exertion combined with the quiet and solitude of the mountains and forests always has refreshing and invigorating effect. And in between the moments lost in my own thoughts, I find that I always have the most interesting conversations, whether it be with a fellow English teacher and good friend, or with a director at the Kagawa prefectural office, whom I just met that day.  The fact that we are sharing this common journey always seems to break down walls and open people up.

Once the uniquely distinct arches of the temples begin to show through the trees, we know we have made it.  And though I have been to a number of temples during my stay in Japan, I have never found two that are the same.  Each has a history and a unique feel to it that is genuinely its own.  I have loved collecting the stories of the temples as I've toured them, from cow demons to lucky eggplants, its all there (and I leave it up to you to find which is which). 

Lunch with the backdrop of a temple hidden and shrouded by the woods does not compare to anything I have seen: it stirs something within a person.  After making a our prayers and purchasing a few lucky charms, we head off again down the mountain.  Though the path became a little more rough, and though the group's energy levels were starting to drop, we all remained in good spirits.  We continued down the sloped, rocky path, talking happily with each other and sharing our impressions of the temple (and as an added bonus, we were introduced to "field strawberries", an edible wild berry resembling a miniature raspberry that grew along the path).

By the time we make it back to the bus, everyone is exhausted and a little sore, but extremely satisfied.  The ride back home was a little more quiet than the ride there, but the air in the bus had changed.  We had all experienced something together and taken something back with us.  And though these experiences and souvenirs varied greatly from person to person, we all shared it together.  After it was all over, after returning home and reflecting on the days journey, I did what an sensible person would do: I went to the onsen to shower and soak my legs.

29Oct2011: Jasper Wood

Henro for a day
By Jasper Wood


Henro Jasper.JPG


We climb.

raising ourselves and our spirits

Sun, trees, fresh air, silence

sharing thoughts, and food.

Descend, tired but refreshed.

back to life's bustle

Life simplified for a time, creating a clean space inside.

29Oct2011: Arran Chambers

The Henro Experience
By Arran John Chambers


Henro Arran.JPGI

 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!

29Oct2011: Lindsey Clarke

8th Henro Experience, 29th October 2011
Lindsey Clarke


Henro Me.JPG


As an uninitiated pilgrim but a committed Kagawa enthusiast, I felt both daunted and excited at the prospect of sampling the Shikoku 88 Temple Trail, also known as the Henro. Although we would only visit one stop on the Henro trail that day, we were venturing up to the highest and most remote temple on the island, Unpenji. Apparently, the monk Kukai was so struck by the beauty of the mountain on which Unpenji stands that he felt compelled to build a temple there as soon as he arrived. I had read a little about the philosophy behind the Henro and hoped to acquire improved stamina, self knowledge, unparalleled tranquillity and Buddhist enlightenment on that day, as many pilgrims had before me. Perhaps my expectations were a little high. Although I didn't quite reach nirvana, I learned some important lessons from the Henro experience.

Firstly, as with so many things in life, the game is worth more than the prize. Although our goal was to reach the temple, scaling the mountain provided the most satisfaction. Picturesque woodland and glimpses of wildlife punctuated our route to Unpenji, distracting us to the point that we no longer noticed the kilometres slipping away.

Secondly, a good travel companion provides more motivation than a good travel destination. Part of the attraction of walking the pilgrimage route is the chance to interact with a variety of people. The traditional garb worn by most pilgrims gives everyone a sense of common purpose, regardless of their background. The pilgrims in our party came from all over the prefecture and from all over the world. Despite our reticence at meeting some of our companions for the first time and our exhaustion during the long hike, the air was full of animated conversation. We shared in the beauty of the scenery and encouraged each other to continue on our arduous journey.

Lastly, life is best experienced at a leisurely pace. I, like most of my fellow travellers, rarely take time to appreciate my surroundings. Spending a day in the countryside allowed us to focus our attention on the sights and sounds of the mountains, leaving behind the stress of the city.

I am extremely grateful to have taken part in the Henro experience. In just one day, I felt that I understood what drives pilgrims to complete the full 88 Temple Trail. I hope to do the same myself one day.