Thursday, 3 January 2008

Temples No.5 Chōkōji, 1 Shimabu-ji + 2 Shimpuku-ji (20.2 kms)

Cycling has its share of small pleasures (not common to driving) like catching the scenery, feeling the sun in winter, smelling the pasture and incense of temples, watching out for patches of still-frozen puddle in the afternoon and noticing little intrigues. In Japan, the manhole covers are usually decorated in some topical or locally appropriate manner. In the valley of the Yokozegawa River, where Temple No.2 is situated, this was the humming bird. The man standing on the roof is pruning the pine tree. The small shrine was on the street corner while I stopped to wait for traffic lights. Spirituality, ancient buildings and gardens completely integrated in suburbia. On the right is my modified version of the white pilgrimage regalia (adjusted for winter cycling conditions, that require down, fleece, gloves and beanie). E-store for the full set of pilgrimage regalia for the lazy pilgrim and any wallet: eitikai (in Japanese, all the things you need on a pilgrimage, from the stamp book to the white clothes, little amulets, bag for your belongings, staff and hat, slips of prayer paper). The image on the left shows the proper white pilgrimage dress in spring.

Temple No.5 Chōkōji seems to be out in the middle of fields and farms. Somewhat unusually, the gate and Kannon Hall (encapsulating the deity statue) stands some distance away from the temple proper. To the left of the parking sign and my bike, the temple can be seen at the bottom of the hill. With 8 more temples to complete the Shikoku circuit and just 24 days left in Japan, I am branching out to some of the more remote or far-afield temples. I have read that chronology is not important (fortunately). Apparently this neighbourhood (according to Enbutsu's book) is famed for its puppetry, Yokoze ningyō, a style of ballad older than kabuki and bunraku. The temple itself was clearly the domain of someone garden-conscious who placed rows of flowering plants at the feet of the Jizo statues and an elegant single pine bough sweeps across the entry-way.

Temple No.1 Shimabu-ji is nestled into a tree and jizo statue-covered hillside with a gate to the roadway and large bell. Being the first of the pilgrimage temples, it has the kits, stamp books and necessary accessories for the journey. Its name means 'forty-thousand volumes' and refers to the story of a mediaeval monk who allegedly read that number of sutras here at the behest of a legendary Chichibu pilgrimage pioneer. The old buildings are covered in senja-fuda (pilgrims' votive stickers) and a large population of statues adorn the grounds, hillside and courtyard. Like the Coca Cola garbage bin, drink vending machine, the kid's shirt, all the bibs on the Jizo statues and the temple banners were bright crimson! It was a funny scene of coincidence. The Kannon Hall dates from the late Seventeenth Century, modified in the following by an Edo craftsman, bearing ornate decorations and carved wooden girders. In August, it is the scene of an important mass called segaki.

Temple No.2 Shimpuku-ji. To follow the authentic pilgrimage route, according to Enbutsu, assuming you do it sequentially, the ascent to Temple No.2 will be an initiation into the discipline of pilgrimage! From my perspective, non-sequential and cycling, it was another Chichibu killer hill of unfathomable proportions. Still-frozen pools of ice lay on the road in the afternoon under the dense canopy of exceedingly tall, straight cyprus trees lining the skinny, sometimes rough road to the top. Every turn around a U-bend when you imagine it might be the last before the summit: another! Basically (deduced from Google Earth) it's a 33-45% gradient for continuous 2kms upwards from the farms at the bottom of the valley: that gets your heart beating. The descending pilgrims I passed on my way bid me 'Gambatte!' (something like 'persevere!/press on!'). On the hilltop, Temple No.2 Shimpuku-ji is surrounded by farmland, forests of bamboo and cyprus overlooking the surrounding mountains from its unique plateau. The view is superb, if chilly in the afternoon glow and long winter shadows cast in high contrast. I park my bike under the single light pink winter-flowering cherry to a backdrop of vertical woods with gleaming lime bamboo leaves in the sun shining through. An artist with zero-degree fingers was sitting at the temple sketching. The Kannon is in Sixteenth Century style but is hidden inside an inner shrine. Even by 15:00 shady areas maintained frost.

"Study the teachings of the pine tree, the bamboo, and the plum blossom. The pine is evergreen, firmly rooted, and venerable. The bamboo is strong, resilient, unbreakable. The plum blossom is hardy, fragrant, and elegant." - Morihei Ueshiba