On just the third day of my Shikoku pilgrimage, I ended up at Temple 12 Shosanji in the Tokushima prefecture of Shikoku island. It is situated at the top of the Mt Shosanji and is more than 800m above sea level.
I started from Temple 11, covering a distance of 12km to T12. Plus 9km in the morning from my previous guesthouse (around T8) to T11 on flat land. So a total of 21km of walking from 6am in the morning to 6pm in the evening, with a total elevation gain of 2823 ft. I took the old Henro pilgrimage path(Henro-no-michi) that the erstwhile Buddhist monk Kobodaishi took along his 88 temple pilgrimage.
I started my day early around 5.30am in the morning from my guesthouse near temple 8 Kumadanji. The plan was to walk with my backpack all the way from T8 to T11 on flat ground and then head back to a major city Tokushima to call it a night. I started my day with some konbini (convenience food) breakfast (soft boiled eggs, one banana and one cafe latte!)—
And started my long walk to the train station enroute T11, where I could leave my big backpack (unattended! because Japan is safe like that 🤷♀️) and continue with a smaller daypack to T11. My early morning walk was the most wholesome along misty country roads, full of dewy green rice fields, farmer’s houses in the distance, albeit with a strong muggy heat to boot as the sun started peaking its head from the clouds.
Upon covering a distance of ~9kms to the Kamojima train station, I finally unloaded my backpack from my sore aching shoulders (and hips) somewhere out of visibility near the train station, and confidently continued on my way to T11.
On the way, I also encountered a pilgrim resting shelter (called a settai-sho) near T11 with free drinks, snacks and lots of pilgrim information, run by Masuda-San, a long time henro and someone passionate about the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage.
I saw some bright orange gold fish splashing about their day in earthen pots outside this shelter, rested awhile drinking some juice, and then went about my way to temple 11, Fujii-dera.
Fujii-dera was quiet and serene at this early morning hour (~9am), and I took my time to eat some Ongiri rice ball and some snacks to satiate my appetite.
However, I also noticed a small trail leading somewhere above the mountains, and my curiosity was piqued. I assumed there’s a small shrine further up-top and I can quickly visit it, before heading back to the train station, and hence to the city as originally planned.
But I quickly realized that this is the old henro-no-michi trail that leads from T11 to T12, and is actually a 6–7 hour long hike through an arduous mountain trail. Upon rechecking the information on Google, I quickly retracted my steps, came down to T11, with some adventurous (and risky!) thoughts swirling in my head. It was still pretty early in the day (~930am), and if (big IF!) I pivoted my plans, did this long hike today to T12, I can then potentially head to the city tomorrow instead of today, and avoid wasting a full day just resting in the city.
As these thoughts swirled in my conscience, I started making my way to the pilgrim shelter I had encountered on my way to this temple. I hoped I could meet this man who runs the shelter so I can ask him for some advice on if I can/should attempt this hike today. I reached the shelter just as Masuda-San was pulling into the property in his station wagon. We introduced ourselves, and I quickly communicated my predicament to him in English and some hand gestures. I tentatively asked him if I should attempt T12 today even though it was not in my original plan and it seems too rushed as I’m ill prepared to attempt it today. My bag was also lying at Kamojima station unattended as well. Without batting an eyelid, Masuda-San said let’s go pickup your bag, and even called a guesthouse (Sudachi-an) near T12 to arrange my stay for that night. The arrangement was that the owner of the guesthouse would pick up my large backpack from Masuda-San sometime in the day, whilst I attempt the long hike. In the late evening, I’ll re-unite with my pack after I reach the guesthouse on the other side of the mountain (post my successful T12 hike). Forever grateful!
We went in his rickety wagon (with some questionable driving, but I was too exhausted and elated about my upcoming hike to care about dying from careless driving in an unknown town in Japan), picked up my bag (which was lying intact obviously just the way I had left it in the morning), went to the conbini to restock my snacks (power gels, onigiris, red bean paste filled pastries and more!) in my tote bag for the long trek ahead, and off we drove to his shelter once more.
Finally after all the delicate logistics were taken care of, I was on my way to T12 along the old Henro-no-michi path.
The path was very steep and winding with various degrees of elevation gain. Lots of mossy forest, tropical ferns, shrines and small statues of local deities along the way.
The path between Temples 11 and 12 is known as henro korogashi — where pilgrims fall down — and is considered to be one of the toughest trails along this pilgrimage route. There are many stories of pilgrims giving up along this path and ending their pilgrimage there.
I soon realized that this is going to be a long laborious uphill battle, and the sickly heat and humidity were already gnawing at my body. Overwhelmed just in the first half an hour, with all my clothes and bags soaking wet with my sweat, I felt the first signs of fear and uncertainty. I was hiking alone (as compared to all my previous hikes in Washington with groups of people or some friends), and it felt as if I’m all alone on this mountain with only birds, bugs and critters keeping me company. I only met two Japanese elders on the trail who were going the other way — one of them a retired Japanese man who used to work at Mitsubishi as an engineer.
Thankfully there were 3–4 pilgrim rest-stops/shrines along the way with some fresh mountain water and place to sit down and rest.
As the day progressed, the trail became steeper and I was losing momentum, stopping multiple times to catch my breath — sometimes even sitting flat out on the ground gasping, to completely slow down my heartbeat and to eat some quick bites of snacks to infuse some energy in my tired body.
There was a section of the trail as I inched closer to the highest point of the first mountain (a little less than 800m), where I thought I should completely give up given my depleting energy levels combined with the heat wafting from my body. I remember sitting on a rock up a slope surrounded by mossy deciduous forest for around 15–20 min just recuperating, calming myself down and thinking of all possible scenarios of how I can get out of this situation as soon as possible 🥲
However, obviously I gathered some courage, pestled these scary thoughts and continued on my way up, and finally (!!) reached the highest point of the hike — a dilapidated temple ground with a giant statue of Kobo Daishi, some benches and a locked up temple shelter. I sat myself down, ate a plum onigiri rice ball— sour mixed with the starchiness of the sticky Japanese rice — drank copious amounts of water and had some grape gel.
That plum onigiri might have literally saved my day, because I felt immediately energized and electrified to continue my hike. Also fortunately the trail was all downhill from there for the next hour or so, and I took this opportunity to pick up my pace and almost run down the trail, which brought me to a small village of sorts right before the next mountain climb started.
As I started ascending the second (albeit smaller than the first) mountain, I finally came across two eccentric French people, a man traveling with his mother (or older relative, I didn’t ask!) who were also staying at the same guesthouse that night. Sensing that the temple was within reach, and knowing that there’re at least two other people on the mountain with me, I continued with my trek with a bit more gusto, albeit with frequent rest stops along the way.
Finally the first vestiges of the temple began surfacing and I took heart in the scenic mountain expanse that was opening up before me.
The temple at the top of the second mountain, temple 12 Shoshanji, was beatific, with expansive vistas across the surrounding mountains, valleys, and massive tall Japanese cedar trees on the temple grounds. Good reward after a long arduous hike no doubt!
Once reaching the temple proper, I dumped all my gear on the ground and just lay on a flat rock for a good 10 minutes in a mindless stupor, looking the soft sunlight trickling down the tree leaves above me, mesmerized at the enchanting beauty of Mother Earth.
After performing my rituals at the temple for about half an hour, it was finally time to head towards my accommodation for the night, which was still a good 1 hour walk away. But it was all downhill from there, was a relatively shorter distance to traverse and daylight was still in my favor.
Upon reaching the guesthouse around ~6.15pm with the biggest sense of relief, I was shown to my room and given some delectable dinner of sashimi, pickled veggies, Japanese curry rice (not pictured) and some orange juice.
I had the best sleep that night after a hot shower, reliving every moment of that insane adventure. My room was messy, but I knew I had conquered my biggest fears and had lived to tell the tale, so packing for the next day could wait. The next morning, breakfast was light — boiled eggs, Japanese maple toast with butter, cold slaw, yogurt and coffee. I packed my bags and was dropped off to a nearby bus stop to finally make my way to the city.
All in all, I was glad to be back to civilization (and on flat ground!). Suffice to say I died like three times that day, but I wouldn’t have it any other way 😅