Hiking Around Matsuyama
Matt promised me all week that he would take me out on his walking tour of some historic and important places around Matsuyama. So, we headed out on foot from Sen for a few hours to explore. The tour was one that Matt has been recommending to several of his guests. All have apparently loved it, and I did too.
Nearly every temple or shrine in Japan is perched up on a mountain, and since our hike started with Isaniwa shrine, I knew there would be many steps in my future. (An aside: wear comfortable shoes when walking around Japan. I love my Tom’s, but they really didn’t cut it when we hiked up a sort of rocky mountain.).
We stopped a second at the top of the stairs to admire the view back down to Matsuyama (and catch our breath). The shrine was beautiful – brilliant vermillion and intricately carved and painted trims throughout the buildings.
After exploring the shrine, we took a detour through a bamboo forest. The towering trees whispered through the light breeze. We didn’t fully explore the forest, but I imagine Matt will soon have a well-mapped extended detour through the forest for Sen guests willing to take on a bit more adventure.
As we neared our next stop, we paused to admire a huge statue of Kobo Dashi atop a hill, the Buddhist monk who originated the 88 Temple Tour. His image seemed to guide the way for today’s pilgrims and told us we were on the right path.
Our next stop was a Buddhist mandala. The enormous spherical structure, guarded by some intricately carved dogs, was one of the weirdest places we visited. There were no other people there, but there were tons of cats all around us.
Inside, we climbed the stairs to the widest part of the dome. Lit only by high, small windows trimmed with long brass chains, the dim interior was filled with tattered velvet theatre seats inhabited by wooden sculptures. It was as if we had entered a council of gods deliberating — surreal. I couldn’t stay in there too long. I alternatively felt like I was being judged or interrupting something far more important than my own tour of the mandala.
The gardens, full of crumbling statues, contributed even more to the ambiance. It was as if we entered a place where old statues went to crumble into oblivion. Even the mystery of those statues couldn’t compare to the creepiness that followed.
Nori warned me that this next part was a little scary. This is where we officially joined the 88 Temple pilgrimage trail.
To reach Ishiteji, Temple 51, we had to walk behind stone sculptures and through a damp and dark cave. Matt conveniently “forgot” to bring a flashlight. There were sculptures throughout, making it feel as if we were being watched as we passed through. I suppose a lone pilgrim could in a strange way feel comforted by the statues throughout — you certainly never feel alone and you always feel like there is someone (or something) watching you.
After exiting the caves, we spent some time walking through the temple grounds. The grounds were filled with relics, statues and structures from all over the world. Nori has met the head monk, who is interested and open to all types of religion and has incorporated them into this huge temple complex.
We also watched dozens of O-Henro (pilgrims) chanting and paying their respects to Kobo Dashi. I bought a book so I could mark my visit to the first of the 88 Temples with a calligraphy stamp. At some point (and with Matt and Nori’s advice), I hope to complete the entire circuit.
Though Ishiteji was the highlight of this hike, our route back to Sen was also beautiful. We walked through a residential part of town before reaching an oasis in the big city — Dogo Park.