One-Day Hiking in the Heart of Tokushima Along the Shikoku Pilgrimage

When I think of Shikoku, the first thing that comes to mind is the old pilgrimage route that circles the island. I had been to this part of Japan twice, but I had never walked any part of it, let alone visit any of the 88 temples along the way. In January, I went on a short sightseeing trip to Kamiyama Town in Tokushima. Since the pilgrimage trail passes through this town, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try one of Shikoku Island’s most famous activities.


Knocking Down Pilgrims

I had always known that the Shikoku Pilgrimage was mostly along the coast. However, there are a few sections that make a deep push inland. Looking at a map of the trail, I could see that the section around Kamiyama is the deepest inland the trail ever went. It’s so far inland that I probably wouldn’t be able to see the ocean. I might even forget being on an island!

The pilgrimage trail in its entirety (photo source: www.nippon.com)

Another thing I knew was that more than half of the pilgrimage was along paved roads. I anxiously searched online for information on the Kamiyama section. I was lucky: the section between temples 11 and 12, just before Kamiyama, followed a hiking trail through forested mountains. The walking distance between the two temples was about 13 kilometers, which seemed perfect for a one-day hike, for me anyway!

The part between the two temples looks deceptively short and easy on this illustrated signboard

My enthusiasm wasn’t dampened when I was told that this was one of the toughest parts of the pilgrimage due to its  many ups and downs. Apparently, a lot of pilgrims simply give up on this section. It’s known as “henro-korogashi” 遍路ころがし, an ominous phrase which means “knocking down pilgrims”. However, I enjoy hiking, and the climbing and descending it involves. Thus, I was looking forward to breaking a sweat on the trail, especially since I would be able to relax at the Kamiyama hot spring afterwards!

“Henro-korogashi” sign on the last difficult part

I was mainly concerned with the weather, since it was supposed to rain during my visit. However, on the day of my hike, the forecast was cloudy with some sun in the morning. I had brought all my waterproof gear, and although I didn’t mind a punishing course, I preferred doing it in dry conditions. I kept my fingers crossed that the forecast would be accurate!

Blue skies greeted me at the start of the hike

Following in the Footsteps of Kobo Daishi

My knowledge of Buddhism is limited, and so the significance of many temples is lost on me. Since I knew I would be visiting at least two temples, I decided to do some googling before my trip. The main thing I learned was that the pilgrimage connects places that were visited by Kobo Daishi (774–835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. The pilgrimage itself only became popular during the Edo era, 1000 years later. Nowadays, the Shikoku Pilgrimage, or “Shikoku Henro” (“henro” is the Japanese word for pilgrim) is 1200 km long, passes by 88 temples, and takes one to two months to complete on foot.

Statue of Kobo Daishi between temples 11 and 12

Although he’s one of the most famous historical figures from Shikoku, I had never heard of Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai in his lifetime), but I had heard of the temple town of Koya-san, which he founded in 819. Some people believe he’s still alive on Mt Koya, in a state of meditative consciousness awaiting the appearance of the future Buddha. He also is said to have invented the Hiragana and Katakana writing systems, two things I am very familiar with!

Mount Koya became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004 (photo source: JordyMeow)

Finally, it’s not necessary to be a Buddhist to appreciate the trail. It’s also a way to find yourself, and immerse yourself in nature. Pilgrims usually wear a pilgrim’s outfit consisting of a conical hat, white vest, and a wooden staff. Anyone walking the trail is free to dress this way, the same way one wears a yukata or a jimbe to a fireworks festival. However, I felt more comfortable in my hiking clothes, including a cap, backpack and sturdy hiking boots!

Ready to start my hike, I mean, pilgrimage

Seeing Wisteria at Fujii-dera

After I told Nakayama-san, my guide for my Kamiyama trip, my intention to hike the Shikoku Pilgrimage between temples 11 and 12, he offered to pick me up at Tokushima station, and drop me off at temple 11, officially known as Fujii-dera Temple. I gladly accepted his offer, since the temple was nearly one hour on foot from Kamojima station (about 30 minutes by train from Tokushima station). I wasn’t afraid of some extra walking, but I wanted to conserve my energy for the trials ahead!

The main hall of Fujii-dera, built in 1860

At around 9h30, we reached the small parking area below the temple, on the mountain side and above a wide valley. Before the temple entrance gate, there was an illustrated signboard showing the different landmarks along the trail, before and after Fujii-dera. It included distances and walking times, of great interest to pilgrims (and hikers). Since I hadn’t been able to get my hands on a paper map, I studied it religiously!

Signboard at the entrance of the temple

The temple’s name, “Fujii-dera” (藤井寺) includes the character for the Wisteria flower, and true to its name, beautiful blue Wisteria can be seen inside the temple grounds every year in May; unfortunately there weren’t any colours in the middle of January!

Wisteria flowers at Fujii-dera (photo source: Reggaeman)

It is said that this temple was founded by Kobo Daishi in the ninth century. It was converted into a Zen temple during the Edo period, and is one of the 3 Zen temples along the pilgrimage (the other 85 remained Shingon). As is often the case, the wooden buildings burned down several times throughout history, and the present ones date from the 19th century. However, a statue carved by Kobo Daishi survived each time, and is said to offer protection from disaster. Behind the temple there are 88 small statues representing the 88 temples along the pilgrimage. Unfortunately I was in a hurry to immerse myself in nature, so I completely missed it!

Sign taking a rest on the trail

I waved goodbye to Nakayama-san with promises to send him updates on my progress. He would pick me up around temple 12, or before if I got into trouble. Although this section follows a hiking trail through the mountains, it intersects with a couple of roads that double as escape routes. I wasn’t really concerned about running out of energy, but an injury or sudden bad weather can never be ruled out. So it was with peace of mind that I started out on my pilgrimage.

At 9:40, I was off

Recovering at Chodo-an

There were great views along the first part

The path climbed steadily, slowly winding its way up, getting higher and higher. Close to the temple, there were many reminders of the spiritual aspect of this journey: statuettes and mini-shrines could be seen on both sides of the path. The stone railing on the left was covered in green spongy moss. Small signs saying “henro-michi” (へんろ道) meaning “pilgrimage trail”, were periodically attached to tree branches, preventing all but the most absent-minded of pilgrims from straying from the path.

Helpful signs showing the way

After crossing a small road, I reached the first viewpoint at exactly 10 o’clock. I could see the valley created by the Yoshino River, the second largest river in Shikoku (194 km), and one of the 3 great rivers of Japan. Beyond was a range of low mountains stretching East to West across Tokushima Prefecture. It seemed like an excellent spot for a late breakfast. A man in full pilgrim attire walked by. His pace was so slow that I thought I could easily overtake him later on, but I never saw him again, as if he had vanished into thin air!

Great view of the Yoshino river basin

After setting off again, I soon reached a rest spot with another view and a small sheltered sitting area. There were large patches of blue sky overhead, but the sun was still lurking behind the clouds. Here and there, attached to tree branches, were short Buddhist sayings. I didn’t stop to decipher them but I imagined that they were meant to encourage the weary traveller. The trail was covered in a layer of dead leaves, and alternated steep and gently sloped sections. This year’s winter was relatively mild throughout Japan, and so I was lucky (again) not to have any snow on the trail.

A typical section of the hike

I eventually reached a pleasant flat section. Initially I thought I had reached the pass, but I was only moving around the side of the mountain into the fold of a deep valley. Around this time, the sun finally came out. I had seen no one else apart from the phantom pilgrim from earlier. The noises from the valley below had become muffled. This was probably the most enjoyable section of the hike, and the tough ups and downs that lay ahead were, for now, completely forgotten!

A pleasant stroll in the sun

All good things come to an end, and once I reached the end of the valley, the path climbed steeply. A few minutes later, I reached Chodo-an (長戸庵), a tiny Buddhist temple surrounded by trees at the top of the ridge. It was just past 11 o’clock and I was 3.2 km from Fujii-dera. I sent a quick message to Nakayama-san that “I just arrived at Chodo-an” or “chodo chodo-an tsukimashita” (“chodo” means “just” and “tsukimashita” means “arrived”).

Chodo-an, a tiny temple at the first stop on the trail

According to the legend, Kobo Daishi was taking a break here, when an old man came by with pain in his leg. Kobo Daishi healed the pain by chanting a Buddhist mantra. Afterwards, the old man built the temple as a token of thanks. The characters in the temple’s name stand for “long” and “entrance”, and it’s said that the name refers to a place to take a break and recover. However, I wasn’t feeling tired yet, so I decided to pass up this chance for a break, and push on.

The trail beyond Chodo-an

Having a Drink at Ryusui-an

The path now followed a forested ridge, and was mostly level, with some short up and down sections. There were occasional glimpses of the mountains on the Kamiyama side. The sun had retreated behind the clouds. It felt cold, and a bit lonely. Suddenly, I emerged from the trees, and had an outstanding view of the Yoshino river valley. There was a sheltered bench and it seemed like the perfect place for lunch. However, it was still early so I decided to keep fasting a little longer.

View from just after Chodo-an, from an altitude of 500m

The path turned Southwards, away from the Yoshino valley, and towards the Kamiyama area, and soon re-entered the forest. There were frequent signs, including the distance and walking time to the next small temple on the way. I never had to wonder where I was, and the lack of a map didn’t seem to be such a big disadvantage after all.

Only another 1.5 km or 30 min to the next temple

After reaching an elevation of 600 meters, the path descended quickly, and I soon arrived at another, larger, Buddhist temple called Ryusui-an (柳水庵), 6.6km from my starting point. The first two characters stand for “willow” and “water”. When Kobo Daishi arrived here, he wanted to drink some water but there was none. So he used a mantra on a willow branch, which led him to an underground spring. Nowadays, the spring is called “yanagi no mizu”, meaning the willow’s water. Fortunately, I had my own supply of water, so I had a good long drink and moved on.

Trail just before the descent to Ryusui-an

As I was walking past the temple buildings, I finally came across another person. I asked him if he was hiking the trail, or maybe a monk looking after the temple. He replied that he was doing some sightseeing, and pointed at his car, parked on a road behind. I had arrived at the first of the escape routes along the trail. I had been walking for two hours and a half, and was halfway to temple 12. There was a small rest house a few minutes away on a bend on the road, but I still wasn’t tired or hungry, so I crossed the road and continued along what was now a wide forest road.

Interesting statuette seen along the trail

Dreaming of Buddha at Ipponsugi

From this point on there were fewer signposts and religious symbols along the way. The forest road went straight through the forest, and it soon joined up with another forest road. While I was trying to figure out whether I had to go left or right, I noticed that the hiking path had reappeared on the other side, marked by a small sign. I started to climb up the side of the mountain through a dark forest of tall cedar trees. Above, I could see some rocky cliffs, and I was hoping the path wouldn’t take me there!

Adult and child pilgrim sign marking the entrance to the hiking path

Just after 1pm, I reached a staircase at the top of which was a statue of Kobo Daishi. Behind, I was amazed to see a massive thirty-meter high cedar tree, called “Souchi-no-ipponsugi” (左右内の一本杉) or “ipponsugi” for short. “Souchi” stands for “left-right-inside”, “ippon” means “one” and “sugi” is the word for “cedar”. Although at the base it was just one tree, it quickly formed several trunks that spread out in all directions. I was better able to appreciate it by walking past, and seeing it from the other side. It was also a good time to send another update to Nakayama-san. I told him “I passed Ipponsugi” or “Ippon-sugi sugimashita” (“sugimashita” in Japanese means “passed”).

The statue of Kobo Daishi at the top of the staircase

At 745 meters, this was the highest point of the section between temples 11 and 12. There was a bench, so I sat down and had a quick lunch. According to the legend, Kobo Daishi took a nap using the roots of the tree as a pillow, and as he slept he saw the Buddha in his dreams. Although I was tired from the climb, it was really cold, so I thought it would be better to skip the post-lunch nap, and hurry along my way!

The many branches of Ipponsugi

The path down was less steep than on the way up, so I started to run down. I wasn’t behind schedule, but it was an excellent way to warm myself up. I soon popped out of the forest into a cultivated area near a small village. There was a wide view of a valley to the North, at the end of which was Kamiyama Town. However, before I could get there, I needed to climb one more mountain!

In the distance, my final destination, Kamiyama

Putting out Fires on Shosan-ji

Main building at Shosan-ji

Just outside the village, I noticed a house with a pointed metallic roof, like a pyramid. Afterwards, I asked Nakayama-san about it, and he told me that it was a protective aluminium cover and underneath was a thatched roof, also known as “kayabuki”. In the past the roof was uncovered and exposed to the elements, but as the number of roof-thatchers dwindled, it became very difficult and expensive to repair these types of roofs, so these metal tops were introduced.

A short detour through a village

I was now walking along a road, the other escape route on today’s hike. The hiking trail continued shortly after the road crossed a bridge over a rushing river. The final climb took me from the bottom of the valley up to a temple on the side of Mt Shosan. At 700m, it was the second highest temple on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. The path was steep and a bit rocky at times. At 3pm I reached the temple parking lot, where I was rewarded with a good view, looking back across the valley at the ridge with the spreading cedar tree. It took me less than 90 minutes to cross, the length of a good nap!

Final approach to Shosan-ji Temple

It took me ten more minutes along a wide flat gravel path round the side of the mountain to reach the main temple area, at the top of a staircase and past the entrance gate. There were many interesting-looking statues along the way and within Shosan-ji, but my little knowledge of Buddhism meant that I couldn’t really appreciate their significance. Within the temple grounds, there were many tall cedar trees. Apparently, some of them were over 500 years old!

Mischievous child behind the purification basin

Shosan-ji Temple, meaning “Burnt Mountain” Temple, was founded over a thousand years ago. According to the legend, a dragon used to live there occasionally setting the mountain on fire, till Kobo Daishi came along and imprisoned it in a cave. I found out afterwards that there was a trail leading to this cave, which then continued to the top of the mountain (938m). Since I completely missed it, I have a burning desire to return and complete this part of the hike!

Cheeky monkey stealing offerings

Asking for Forgiveness at Joshin-an

At Joshin-an with the statue of Kobo Daishi and Emon on the left

Since it was still early, I decided to walk down, adding a couple of kilometers to the hike. The main road descended through a series of switchbacks, but the trail went straight, and cut across it several times. Just before 4pm, I reached the small Buddhist temple of Joshin-an 杖杉庵. The legend associated with this place is more heart-wrenching than the previous ones. Emon Saburo was once the richest man in Shikoku. One day, he chased a pilgrim away from his house. Unbeknownst to him, the pilgrim was Kobo Daishi. After Emon’s eight sons all fell sick and died, he realised his terrible mistake. He walked the Shikoku pilgrimage 20 times looking for Kobo Daishi to ask for forgiveness. In the end he collapsed with exhaustion. However, he was visited by Kobo Daishi before he died and was forgiven. The statue next to the temple shows this last scene, and one can’t but feel a bit moved after knowing the story.

End of the pilgrimage, for now

Joshin-an was my rendez-vous point with Nakayama-san, and he turned up with his car a few minutes later. I was looking forward to getting to my hotel at Kamiyama Onsen and enjoying a relaxing hot spring bath, to wash away the weariness of the pilgrim’s trail. The path hadn’t knocked me down but my muscles felt knocked about!

The road goes on…

Read more about Kamiyama and Tokushima on the Tadaima Japan website:

A Walk in a Magical Forest in Kamiyama

Experience the “Slow Life” of the Japanese Countryside in Kamiyama

Three Days in Kamiyama, Tokushima: A Rural Revitalization Success Story

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AUTHOR

David

David

Writer / Translator

I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years although it feels shorter because I am constantly discovering new things and new places. Sometimes it can be hard to get the full Japanese experience because of cultural differences and linguistic barriers. For that reason, I want to share what I have learned in order to enhance your experience in Japan. Having said that, figuring out stuff on your own can also be fun. In any case, I hope you can find here whatever you need in order to make your stay a success.