This blog’s primary focus is Fukuoka and Kyushu, but the underlying theme has always been “travel.” I would be doing the rest of Japan a great injustice if I limited my travels and/or writing to Kyushu alone, so I will venture out beyond this island to the rest of the country, this time to the nearby, smaller island of Shikoku.
Kotohira-gu Shrine (金刀比羅宮), known locally as Konpirasan, is shrine complex located on the slopes of Mt. Zozu in Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture (Shikoku). The main shrine is located 785 steps up the mountain, and the climb to the inner shrine is 1,368 steps in total–it is a fairly steep ascent, with stone steps that are sometimes tall and difficult to navigate. In the end, I only went up to the main shrine, since that is the primary attraction and getting there was challenging enough.
This trip actually is one I made several years ago, in 2007. As a result, I don’t remember every detail of the journey, as this was before I did any travel writing or even bothered to document my journeys at all. What I do remember most are what I like to call the “vivid moments”: those moments, whether they seemed significant or not at the time, that are most strongly etched in my memory, the ones that have stuck with me for more than four and a half years. These vivid moments are what define anybody’s memory of a trip in the long term.
In 2007, I was working in a travel company in Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture, and I had developed an interest in visiting Shikoku through one of the tour plans I was helping to create at work, which centered primarily on Shikoku. Because I also wanted to visit Korakuen Garden on the Honshu side of the Seto-Ohashi Bridge, as well as Kurashiki, I decided to visit Konpirasan as well and planned my itinerary around these three destinations.
This was to be the first time I would cross the Seto-Ohashi Bridge, one of the three great bridges connecting Honshu and Shikoku, and the only one of the three that trains travel across. The total length is approximately 13.1 km (8.1 mi.), and it takes about 20 minutes to cross by train or car. Although the train tracks were encased in steel girders, there was still a fairly good view of the surrounding scenery, and the crossing felt more like flying at low altitude than riding a land-based vehicle as the route twisted between islands and soared over boats below so small they looked like bathtub toys. I have crossed this section of sea many times on the Seto-Ohashi Bridge by car and train since then, and this sense of flying remains strong each time.
After reaching the Shikoku side, the train wound its way through the smoking industrial jungle of Sakaide into the core of the city, where I changed trains for a more rural line that would take me into the mountains of Kagawa. The small train crawled south, cutting through tunnels and narrow valleys until it finally reached my destination, Kotohira. The small town of Kotohira itself is unremarkable, with few shops and even fewer things that can be called landmarks. In fact, the shrine is really the only reason to visit the town at all. A short trek through Kotohira put me at the base of the stone stairs, which seemed to stretch off into the sky as I gazed up the mountain slope, unable to glimpse any hint of a summit far above. There was only one thing left to do: put one foot in front of the other.
What had driven me to come to such an isolated town in the mountains of Shikoku? This was a question I asked myself as my shoes pounded the stone staircase and sweat dripped down my neck and back. Having seen a few images of the graceful old shrine buildings on top, having read about the massive staircase one must climb to get there, and having imagined what kind of rural Shikoku scenery would be visible from the top, I suppose I felt there must be a kind of special romance to a place like Konpirasan. There must be some reason that people take the time to climb such a ridiculously long staircase, and there must be some reason the shrine and staircase were built by believers in the first place. No matter what I read about Konpirasan, I felt there was no way I could truly understand these things in concrete terms unless I went there and climbed up in person.
I was in better shape than than I am now, so the climb was tiring but not completely exhausting until I began to near the top. I do remember clearly the feel of my feet becoming heavier and the sweat pouring faster the higher I got. I also remember there were, to my disbelief, runners going up and down the staircase, some of them appearing to be on the verge of passing out. There was a group of small children that came bouncing down the stairs at one point, and because Kotohira is a place where non-Japanese people rarely go, the big American guy coming up the stairs must have been a special treat for them–as if it were the first time they had ever tried using the words, almost all of them said “harro!” to me as they passed by, obviously overjoyed when I responded in kind.
There were a few shops along the climb, and about two-thirds of the way up I noticed a side path wrapping around to the back side of one shop. To give my legs a rest, I decided to walk on flat ground for a short time and see where this path took me. It was barely wide enough for me to navigate as it squeezed between old wooden buildings, rusty tin-walled shops and overgrown tufts of tall grass, and after walking for a bit it opened up a little and snaked around toward the far side of the mountain. There was a small house in the distance, although it appeared to be abandoned and overgrown–it’s not surprising that someone wouldn’t want to live 500 steps or so from the nearest town.
There was also a great metal propeller along the ascent, probably six meters high and mounted on what appeared to be a marble base. I don’t know why it was here, approximately 200 meters up a mountainside, but the marble base provided a good place to rest and catch my breath.
When the main shrine’s torii gate came into view, my legs suddenly turned to rubber, refusing to keep a steady pace. I zigzagged upward until I finally reached an open, flat area in front of a majestic shrine hall and wiped the sweat from my eyes. After throwing in some coins and paying my respects to the local deities, I climbed up another small staircase and took a seat at the viewpoint above. Before me was an expansive sheet of greens and yellows, checkered with rice paddies and other crop fields. Mountains and hills jutted gently upward, enclosing the fields as well as the town of Kotohira far below. There were clusters of house and shops scattered around various parts of the mountain slope.
It was at this point that I realized I had found what I had come looking for. This place was something different. Konpirasan had the “it” factor, that special ingredient that somehow makes one place stand out from the rest. The view from the top was impressive but not nearly the most impressive I had seen, and the shrine was nice but not something one would normally climb a mountain to visit. It was the entire experience, of climbing and pushing oneself and seeing something that most people didn’t bother to see, that made Konpirasan special.
In other words, the “it” factor was defined by the “vivid moments” I mentioned earlier, by the many small occurrences rather than a single huge, eye-opening experience, and these vivid moments would become the basis of my memories regarding this trip. Flying over a sea on a JR train, the sweat and pounding of soles on stone, the swarm of children, the nearly suicidal runners, the dilapidated house on the mountain slope, the large golden propeller. The rusty tin walls and mountain air, and legs that endured the ache of 785 steps before turning to rubber. The staircase that had no end.
This would come to be an importance experience for me, something that would shape my image of Shikoku, of Kagawa, and of Kotohira. It would also become a tiny but vital puzzle piece in my steadily forming image of Japan as a whole.