The jet lag had me waking up early but I decided to stay in bed for an hour because, knowing myself, I’d be waking up early every day for the rest of my trip and this would be one of the few mornings I would be awake before my alarm clock. But alas, I was starting to get fidgety and I wanted to get the day started, so soon I was up and getting ready for the day.
Check-out was at 10am but considering I’d be out until noon, I folded up my futon as neatly as I could manage without waking anyone else up (the walls were very thin, and there was a couple in the room next door) and left my bag packed next to it. I had already warned the hostel that I’d be up early and would return to pick up my luggage later on.
My first stop of the day was Mt.Otokoyama right in front of my hostel and the shrine at the top of it’s 200 or so steps. Princess Sen from Himeji Castle used to pray to this shrine from a window in the Sen Tower of the castle, and from here there is a great view of the castle itself too.
So after a beautiful view to start the day and packed with my little backpack I made my way to the station to catch an early bus to Mt.Shosha. In Tokyo there were three convenience stores around every corner, but in Himeji there are only two along the main road between the castle and the station and none close to my hostel, so I made a stop along the way to buy some breakfast and lunch for while I was away.
Any remains from the night before were now all cleaned up (that’s definitely not how Spain works) and, hadn’t I been there myself at the time, I wouldn’t have believed that a festival had taken place only a few hours earlier.
Internet had told me that I should be taking bus number 8, but as I reached the station I realised that there were about twenty different bus stops and I had no idea which one the bus would be stopping at. I tried bus stop 8 because that seemed like the most logical answer, but 8am came and went and no buses stopped, so I knew it wasn’t the right one. As I crossed the road and walked around all the other bus stops trying to look for the kanji ‘山’ belonging to Mt.Shosha, I came across the bus information centre that had just opened. They spoke no English so I decided to practise my limited Japanese and they pointed me to bus stop 18. Buses numbers 41, 42, 43 and 45 stop here, all going to Mt.Shosha (no sign of bus 8), and I managed to make it to an empty seat of the 8:05am bus and set off for the 30min ride through Himeji as the city slowly began to wake up.
For those of you wondering what there is to see at Mt.Shosha, there is a temple called Engyo-ji known as the location for the movie ‘The Last Samurai’. I was reluctant to go since I hadn’t seen the movie and that seemed to be the feature that everyone remarked about this site but, and thanks to the recommendation of someotherguy, even for the less cinematically inclined like myself the temple is pretty stunning and definitely worth a visit if you have the time. And don’t worry, although the temple is at the top of the mountain, there is a ropeway for those who don’t want to walk up to it. Although the ropeway does still require a bit of a walk to reach the main building of the temple and the other buildings around it.
I was trying to save money wherever I could, so I opted to take the trail instead. I had been promised a 40min walk, but I definitely took a long hour to reach the maniden. Maybe I was very slow because my legs were hurting from all the sitting down and waiting around in lines from the day before, plus a breakfast break, but I still think 40min is a bit generous.
For me, the interesting thing to note about this place is that Benkei is said to have studied here, and the architecture is simply amazing.
At this time in the morning it was just me, myself and the spiders (and another man who walked past me as I took my onigiri break). I’d been watching a few videos of giant spiders before my trip and was pretty paranoid, but rest assured that the spiders I found probably weren’t too dangerous and seemed more interested in just sitting there than attacking me. I do think something may have bitten me though, because after this day I had a lump on the side of my foot that lasted for a week.
You have to pay an entrance fee of 500yen for the temple just after the ropeway station, and they gave me a map of the top of the mountain with all the sub temples’ locations and a bit of an explanation in English. The lady there said some form of the verb ‘arukimasu’ (walk), so I don’t really know if she was congratulating me for the walk I had done, or telling me that I still had 15min more in front of me.
Between Niomon and the ropeway the path is lined with statues of Kannon (I think there were 33 belonging to the different Saigoku pilgrimage sites). Some of them were very elaborate and they had even gone to the lengths of giving her a large number of arms, all holding different objects! Not quite the thousand arms Kannon is said to have, but easily up to thirty of them. In some cases people had tried to place coins on her open palms, so I tried my luck and left one there too.
After the Niomon gate the walk is somewhat downhill and easier than the rest of the trail had been. There is a ryokan here that also offers shojin ryori but I didn’t have the money for such an experience, so I made my way to the main temple complex, maniden, instead.
Crossing a small bridge I entered a cloud of mist that surrounded only the maniden, making it look even more imposing and mysterious than it already was by itself. We don’t get much mist here at home so it isn’t something I see often.
There were few people out and about at the time I arrived, mostly only people who worked there and a couple other visitors, but one of the workers ran up to me as soon as he saw a foreigner and excitedly asked where I was from and how I had heard about this place.
I decided to visit the maniden now that the serenity and silence of the morning was still in place, and was blown away by the complexity of the architecture! I didn’t see any nails, it seemed like most of the pieces were cut to fit together, and this was used to enhance the beauty of the temple rather than any added on decorations. There were a few wood carvings and very detailed latticework added in, but since they were made out of the same material and colour it only managed to fit in naturally.
The inside of the maniden sells all the pertinent omikuji, omamori, good luck charms and related objects. Particularly, Mt.Shosha sells two beautiful shuinchô, temple stamp books, one with a flower pattern (available in blue and pink) and another with the maniden of the temple pictured in red between many trees. The priest or miko stationed at the counter will stamp the book for you with the temple or shrine’s seal —usually in red—, plus write down the name of the place and the date you visited in elegant calligraphy. It’s definitely interesting to see the stamp being drawn in front of you, since each one is unique and different, and now that my trip is over seeing them all in a line (you can unfold all the pages of the book like an accordion to see them all) is truly a better memory than any souvenir I bought.
I guess descriptions aren’t really my forte, so a photo will do more than any of my explanations could.
You do have to pay for the stamps though, all of which cost me 300yen each. I read that sometimes the temple you buy your shuinchô at gives you the first temple stamp for free, but Engyo-ji doesn’t.
As I showed the stamp book I wanted to buy to the priest, he started talking to me in Japanese while he signed it. I understood nothing.
He also gave me a small piece of paper shaped somewhat like a leaf with black ink writing on it because Engyo-ji is a temple along the Saigoku Pilgrimage. I guess I would collect these if I were to do the pilgrimage, but this is the only one belonging to the route I went to.
With as much time as I wanted in front of me, I set off to discover the sub temples and the surrounding area.
While the maniden may be the most impressive of them all, it wouldn’t be fair not to mention the incredible wood work of the other buildings. Some even covered in moss, others short enough for me to be able to observe the roof tiling and the crests, I spent almost three hours just walking around and looking at everything I could.
One of the buildings, called Jikido, allows access to both floors of the building. Built all the way back in 1174 it used to be both a priest’s training centre and a boarding house; now it has different treasures on display and an area for visitors to sit and copy sutras. The sutra copying unfortunately wasn’t available at the time since I was the only visitor there, but the second floor small museum was interesting as it showed tiles, old beams of the temple, statues and Benkei’s desk!
Walking around I came across a pile of old roof tiles that had been thrown away and probably forgotten, I tried picking one up to see how much it weighed… it was so heavy! Needing both my hands to pick it up and place it back down, it’s incredible to think how much weight these structures have to hold up just for the roof itself, and yet they still manage to look so graceful and beautiful while doing so!
Only my first day and yet I feel like I’ve ran out of synonyms for ‘beautiful’. But Japan is truly a beautiful country, so I hope you will be so kind as to ignore my word repetition!
The Honda family graves are also in the area. I don’t know much about Japanese history, but I’ve heard of their name and know that the Honda family was very important, so I felt honoured to be standing right in front of their tombs. To think that where I was standing has so much history behind it!
I spotted a small Inari shrine hidden between the leaves, and who am I to ignore an Inari Shrine given how charming they always seem to be, and as I was busy trying to avoid the spider hanging from the short torii gate a deer suddenly jumped out from behind the shrine and ran away.
After all the walking I had done during the morning my legs were in need of a sit-down, so I decided to take the ropeway down instead. Next to me sat the man who had earlier been excited to see a foreigner, he offered me a ride back to Himeji Station since he was going in that direction. Who am I to refuse a free ride? He was a very hardworking man who worked as a schoolteacher during the week and at the temple on Saturdays. We talked about Don Quijote, Momotaro, rice fields and the internet, his English was very good, and I was left at the station much quicker than the bus had brought me to the mountain earlier in the morning.