July 12, 2015

Day 22 - July 12

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Matsuyama City (松山市)
Temples: 50 Hanta-ji (繁多寺), 49 Jōdo-ji (浄土寺), 48 Sairin-ji (西林寺), 47 Yasaka-ji (八坂寺), 46 Jōruri-ji (浄瑠璃寺)
Weather: Sunny with Clouds
Travel Method:  Walking + Bus return to Matsuyama
**Distance: 13.5 km **

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Holiday! Today, I’m going to Dogo Onsen, which was mentioned in Japan’s earliest collection of poetry, the Man’yōshū, and reportedly the inspiration behind Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. Even the semi-legendary Prince Shotoku, credited with sponsoring Japanese Buddhism and authoring its first text, once graced these waters. But, not before I do a bit of walking. It’ll be an easy breeze through 5 temples that are about 12 km apart. It’ll make the onsen soak even better.

Breakfast is the manju made from Dogo’s onsen water. Mmmm. Satisfaction.

I pack up because tonight, I’ll stay at Fujiya after walking backwards today from Temple 51 to Temple 46. Yesterday, I’d taken the train from I’d skipped from Temple 43 to 51 because it means I can stay in Matsuyama a few days while visiting the temples around. My three days in Kochi City taught me the benefits of staying put.

First up is Temple 50, Hanta-ji. Like Ishite-ji, it strikes me with a metropolitan sophistication and polish. The pillars are smooth, the modern office building is city-sized, the tokyō more embellished, the trees purposely placed. I light incense for a photographer and travel writer friend who loves coffee shops and cultural sophistication.

The next temple is just down the hill is more compact and worn but Jōdo-ji also has significant artworks and historical relics to boast of. It has a statue carved by an esoteric artist, thought to be one of the first of its kind in an age where sculpture was a craft. Then a drizzle comes, so I wait while listening to a middle aged woman and young man having a deep life discussion.

Next up, is Sairin-ji, which is striking in how new its walls and gardens, and sitting area is. But best of all, it has kids laughing outside the side entrance: it’s some sort of community day with games and food stalls. It makes me think of someone. I don’t know why, just trust my instincts.

Next up, is… food. It’s just past 11:00 and already my third food stop of the morning. No worries about getting enough nutrition today. The major hardship will be resisting gobbling up everything in sight. Actually, what do I mean resist? I can gobble everything in sight.

The debate is over. I start with my udon craving. Outside Temple 48, I cross the street to the shop conveniently across the street. Cities are littered with conveniences.

I take a seat at the bar and finally go all out with the seasonal udon on the chalkboard menu. Normally, a simple udon costs 300-400 Yen in these parts. The 790-Yen special comes as a full set and an inverted bowl of grated grated daikon and cucumber that I watched the kitchen just prepare. Throw in the deep fried age, onions, and burdock root and I’m in heaven.  

Even though I’m in one of Shikoku’s largest cities, I’ve been threading through quiet residential areas since the morning.  Now, I’m hitting field-suburbia. The eight kilometres to Yasaka-ji would have been peanuts in Kochi, but now registers as many konbini-less fields away.

Just as I’m thinking that, someone shouts, ‘Ohenro-San!’ A woman on a bike thrusts a bottle of milk tea at me. It looks like her afternoon tea run, but she waves it off and turns away towards the quiet houses.

I continue along the fields. Suburbia is that space between rural one-way roads and ubiquitous city signs. With the maps not entirely complete, it’s an easy to take the wrong turn. I walk past two stone steles, one almost worn smooth beside another with precisely cut words and a pointing to Temple 48. I wonder how old the path underneath the smooth concrete is.

I walk past a nice-looking daishido, another listed nojuku spot. More fields. More well-kept country houses. The residents of Mastusyama seem to fare better than their Kochi neighbours.

I arrive at Yasaka-ji via the back door, one of the supposedly eight routes into the complex. I do my prayers and get the nokyocho. The stamp office has a basket of snacks marked as o-settai, perhaps the only detail I will remember in future years. The adorable kittens hiding in a shelter beside the doorway are the other detail. There’s a sign for their adoption. Their mom presides over the main entrance at the bridge.

The last temple is just on the other side of the hill. Jōruri-ji feels like it’s grown out of the jungle. It’s almost over-run with tropical broadleaves and dangling blossoms. It’s fun, hippie-like. My cell is dying, but I take a picture of the small Japanese maples underneath the towering canopy. It reminds me of an elementary friend who used to believe there was a giant tarantula in her overrun backyard – also jungle-looking. It also reminds me of more recent friends who arrange flowers and retreat to the hills to brew tea.

When I go to the stamp office and the lady who writes the nokyocho asks if I have time to wait for refreshments. After a few minutes, she brings a tray of cold orange juice and a snack. She has a radiant tranquility about her, saying ‘Go-yukuri, yukuri.’ I try to exercise control over the food: not too fast as to be unappreciative, but not too slow to keep her waiting.

I’m done for the day, so it feels late at 1:00pm. I exit out the main entrance with its natural archway of trees and wait in the shade for the bus. After two changes, I’m close to where I started this morning. Through the bus, I appreciate how ‘far’ I’ve walked in city terms as the farmland becomes residential, then commercial, then downtown city offices. So much is packed into 13 kilometres.

Dogo Onsen is conveniently located at the end of a tram line. Here, in the carefully preserved century-old architecture, I become part of the tourist crowd that bustle around the shopping arcade, the public foot bath, and the small side streets behind. Many are walking around in traditional yukata rented from the onsens.

Henro itch satisfied, I put on my tourist hat. First thing is to try one of their local senpei from the arcade. While chewing on that, I try to figure out the three prices to Dogo Onsen. There’s the 300 Yen bathhouse, which is a steal for the historic experience. Then there are the private rooms.

I’ve been looking forward to this all trip. Dogo Onsen is probably one of the only things even Japanese know about Shikoku. I pay and am led to the third floor, where I am given my own room. Every room has a balcony, and mine has a view of the party room and the hill where people walk up. 

When I’m done changing into the provided yukata, a traditional Japanese summer robe, an attendant brings me back to the second floor, where there is a general lounge and museum display. The attendant begins with all keigo, formal Japanese, to introduce the various parts of the onsen, but I can’t follow. Exasperated, he directs me to the bath the private bath for second and third floor floor guests. It’s a small, austere, stone bath with with about six seats to wash on wooden slab benches. It’s the first onsen that I’ve ever seen provide basic bar soap. After scrubbing yourself off, you enter the tiny square pool in the corner.

After I’m done, I return to my room for tea and snack. I get a stick of tri-coloured Botchan dango, the famous food item here. My highlight is sitting and enjoying the atmosphere: the minimalist room, the flower arrangement in the corner, the breeze blowing through the open deck, the steam rising if you look around the odd corners of the building. I get out my notebook and write. That’s what Japan’s literary master Natsume Soseki did when he was teaching here.

It’s a two hour limit, and I’ve just changed when the attendant comes to gently remind me. I’m invited down the hall to Soseki’s favourite room overlooking the throng at the entrance below.

Tummy, feet, and soul satisfied, I head to the Fujiya Guest House. A street down from the onsen, the clamour disappears. I lose my direction in the uniform grid of houses. Eventually, a petite woman sees me and smiles, ‘Fujiya?’ She asks.

Yes.

She points down the street and gives me the directions. I’m glad my bare henro necessities – the hat and the staff – have served me well.

I let myself into a house with peeling paint through the unlocked door. A girl with an expressionless face about my age shows me my room and puts my payment in her waist pouch. My bunk room is empty, and she tells me there’ll be no other guests, which means I basically get a private room. Plus, this place has a homey kitchen and dining area. Perfect. I drop my stuff off and head out to the nearby supermarket and do a grocery run.

About an hour later, I’m back with two armloads of breakfast, cooking stock, veggies, snacks, drinks, and even mosquito incense.

I cook and chill in the living room. Two other henro come in and pop open beers at the table, exchanging stories. This is one of those henro beacons, drawing us in from all directions, lest we feel lonely amid the city masses. Though strangers, we can feel grounded by the understanding nods of those who share similar experiences.

But the city has its merits. Tomorrow, I’m getting a much needed head-shave, meeting up with a Couchsurfing host, and picking up a new pair of runners. I crawl into bed early. I don’t need to sacrifice sleep to savour the moment. More to come tomorrow. I asked the obaa-san shopkeeper for permission to take these cute quotes and got an o-settai after hearing her henro stories!

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