1368 steps

After the days spent on Setouchi islands, my next stop was Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands. All I really knew about Shikoku was that it’s home to the popular 88-temple pilgrimage and that it’s connected to the main island of Honshuu via Shimanami kaido, a road that’s supposed to be one of the nicest cycling routes in Japan. I decided to save the Shimanami kaido for a time when I could do it together with someone, instead exploring the towns of Takamatsu and Matsuyama this time.

I took the last ferry of the day from Naoshima to the port city of Takamatsu, arriving at around 9pm on a rainy night. I only had the energy to get some konbini dinner that evening, but the next morning, I woke up feeling very energetic and decided to go visit Kotohira-guu, or Konpira-san, as it is more commonly called.

Konpira-san, located on a mountainside not far from Takamatsu, is one of the most famous temples on the 88-temple pilgrimage. It’s known for its steps: there are 785 steps to the main shrine, and 1368 steps overall to climb up to the inner shrine. It’s a popular spiritual ‘power spot’, but I was mainly just interested in the views and the climb itself. Getting to the town of Kotohira took about an hour on a local train.

The train station and its surroundings were very quiet, but as I reached the foot of the steps, I found myself surrounded by a crowd of middle-school students having some kind of a sports day and groups of elderly people climbing up at a determined pace. On both sides of the steps were shops selling snacks and souvenirs. The steps started out gently, and after climbing for just a few minutes, I was rewarded with pretty nice views over the town.

A lot of people only climb up to the main shrine, but the climb hadn’t really taken that long and I wanted to push myself a bit more, so I decided to continue up to the inner shrine. After passing the main shrine, the crowds thinned out a lot, and I found myself walking on quiet forest paths. The last few sets of steps felt tough, but getting to the inner shrine was definitely worth it. I spent a while catching my breath and admiring the views out to the hills and the inland sea. I also bought an omikuji from a friendly priest who read it to me out loud (I got the daikichi!) and pointed out some stone tenguu on the cliffside I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

On the way back, I felt very happy and refreshed. Maybe the inner shrine really is a ‘power spot’. I also felt hungry, and decided to go have udon in a place recommended by Go-san, the manager of the hostel I was staying at. I had so much udon while travelling around Western Japan, and especially Kagawa prefecture (where Takamatsu is located). It’s known as the birthplace of sanuki udon and has Japan’s highest number of udon restaurants per inhabitant. I wasn’t always a big fan of udon, but the freshly handmade noodles here have a really nice texture. Trying the local speciality always tends to be a good idea.

After having my udon, I headed back to Takamatsu. I walked to the nearest train station on the local Kotoden line, and it turned out to be very rural - just one unmanned platform in the middle of fields, equipped with a ticket vending machine. I’m pretty sure this was the most quiet train station I’ve used in Japan.

I hopped off the Kotoden line at Ritsurin garden station. Located south of Takamatsu’s center, this garden is considered the top sightseeing spot in the city. It’s considered to be one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens, along with places such as Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en (which I visited earlier on this trip and really enjoyed) and Okayama’s Kourakuen. I was initially struck by how vast it is: there are two recommended courses for walking in the garden (north and south), and both of them last for about an hour, not even taking in all of its nooks and crannies.

I picked the southern course and walked along, taking in immaculately shaped pine trees, blooming wisterias and herons grooming themselves perched on branches, pretty ponds adorned with bridges, artificial waterfalls created centuries ago, and the seamless use of borrowed landscapes from the surrounding hills.. Although it was beautiful, I have to say I prefer walking in natural landscapes more than tended gardens. Maybe it was because I had been very impressed by Konpira-san earlier that day, or because it wasn’t the first famed garden of this trip, but I didn’t really feel that awed by Ritsurin. In any case, it was a nice place to spend the mid-afternoon hours.

After getting back to the city centre of Takamatsu, I spent a few hours working and then just walking around the city. With a population of over 400,000, Takamatsu isn’t that small, but it definitely felt more like a town than a city - there wasn’t really much going on.

In the evening, I spent some time drinking and talking with Go-san, the manager of the hostel I was staying at. It turned out a local TV crew was coming to film a segment about the hostel the next morning, and as Go-san had found out I spoke Japanese, I ended up being interviewed as well. I felt really nervous, and I don’t know whether or not I want to ever see the footage (I felt like my Japanese ability just deteriorated when faced with the camera). It also felt pretty intensely awkward trying to eat breakfast while being filmed.

After getting through this experience, I headed to the train station and continued to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku. At Takamatsu train station, a cute mascot waved me off with a koinobori.