After two days of carefree walking on the flat, Kōbō Daishi puts us to the test once more.
A mere five minutes after leaving our ryokan, Kaneko-ya, the climb begins. One more heart-pounding near-vertical ascent, this time 500 metres up to Temple 20, Kakurinji. Of course, it is a beautiful forest path with plenty of scenic overlooks on the valley we have left behind. Places to pause and catch our breath before pushing on for a few more minutes.
Half way up, we pass an unusually sophisticated rest stop. While there are many huts along the Henro route, typically they are designed to be simple shelters, places to rest for a few minutes out of the rain or blistering sun. Occasionally they offer osettai as well – a cool glass of water, some hot tea, a small snack.
This one is meant as an overnight stop. With its panoramic view and tidy washrooms, it would have made a pleasant, free place to spend the night. After all, we are carrying sleeping bags and mattresses, our pre-trip contingency plan for those nights where no ryokans or hotels are available. However, booking accommodations has not been a problem. And, as charming as this rest stop might be, there is no kitchen, no nearby restaurant or store…no soaking tub! So we find ourselves burdened under the weight of equipment we do not need or – so it seems – want to use.
Our path suddenly levels as we reach the gateway to Temple 20. Kōbō Daishi first visited this place in 798 where he saw two white cranes flanking a statue of the temple’s main deity, Jisō Bosatsu. Today, two large-scale bronze birds greet us as we approach the main hall.
It’s back down an equally grueling 500 metres to the Naka River valley only to climb once more to an equally high Temple 21, Tairyūji. The trail up the wooded slope parallels the Wakasu Gitami Stream. As we silently ascend, its waters descend in a loud chatter over a course of rock waterfalls. It’s a sublimely beautiful journey that transcends the physical ordeal of the climb, as spiritual as the temple we approach.
Tairyūji Temple is nestled in a thick grove of tall conifers, a peaceful setting wisely chosen by Kōbō Daishi. Today, it is easily accessible by ropeway (cable car) from the valley below. We are tempted to make use of it but, in the end, we choose to continue with the pedestrian flow of our journey and walk down the slope. Soon, we’re back on flat ground and looking forward to our well-earned night’s rest at Sazanka, a ryokan near Temple 22.
But Kōbō Daishi decides to throw us one more challenge, a final 200-metre high hilltop before finally returning us to the valley. There is no charming temple to greet us at the top, just a dispiriting workout for two tired pilgrims.
It’s been a hard 21-kilometre day but it ends well enough with a long hot bath and a fine Japanese meal.