The Skies and Seas of KagawaCulture Travel History
One of my taxi drivers said, “You haven’t really been to Kagawa if you don’t visit Konpirasan,” so I decided to leave the prefectural capital of Takamatsu for Kotohiragū shrine—Konpirasan, as the locals call it—in the distant town of Kotohira.
I took an hour ride on a two-car local train from Takamatsu to Kotoden-Kotohira Station. As soon as I left the building, I saw a stone torii gate towering over the road and could not help but feel an immediate sense of sanctity. The wide street was clear of cars and pedestrians alike, and there were hardly any tall buildings to speak of. It was the very picture of an idyllic small town. I passed under the torii and, after following the occasional road sign, soon reached the path to Kotohiragū. I never even looked at a map.
Kotohiragū is found partway up Mount Zōzu (meaning “elephant head,” supposedly because of its shape), and the stone stairs stretching out of sight up to it give a hint of the journey ahead. The climb to the main hall is 785 steps, while the okusha (back shrine) needs 1,368. If you figure that a single story in a building takes 20 steps, it is almost a 40-story climb just to get to the main hall. That is not the easiest task for a frail writer-type like me. When I was a student and we went on trips to Mount Takao and Nikkō Tōshōgū shrine, all the energetic bodies around me practically skipped to the top of Mount Takao, or raced up the 207 steps to Nikkō Tōshōgū's okusha, while I gasped my way to the top, biting back the pain and playing catchup the whole time. The lasting trauma has kept me from visiting either place ever again. To avoid the same experience on this trip, I decided to set a reasonable pace for myself.
Since I was traveling alone, I had all the time I wanted. Shops selling colorful souvenirs lined the steps up to the main shrine, and when I got tired, I could stop for a rest and look over the merchandise. I never bought anything, though. The only other climbers were high school students on trips, and I found myself pointedly ignoring the healthy teen bodies dashing up past me. There were several shops renting out canes for ¥100, and I could see a few other people using them. There were also rickshaws that would take people up to the main hall. Keeping it slow meant I certainly did not need a cane, and I avoided the rickshaws due to worries about the coronavirus. They were also too expensive.
It ended up taking me three hours to reach the main shrine and come back down again (on the way I did have a light lunch at a restaurant in the shrine precincts). It seems most pilgrims make the trip in two.
I climbed the 40 floors worth of stairs, walked through the main gate, and passed by the sacred hand-washing basin that was closed due to the pandemic. I finally arrived at the main shrine, which was a somberly colored wooden building in an architectural style that is apparently unique to this shrine. The shrine venerates the deity Ōmononushi-no-kami and the emperor Sutoku.
A Crocodile God
According to the official website, the shrine was originally called Kotohira Shrine, but the name was changed to Konpira Daigongen because of the honji suijaku theory, which says that Shintō deities are actually Japanese incarnations of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Ōmononushi no Kami was syncretized with the Buddhist Konpira (Kumbhira). Then, when the Meiji government took over in 1868, it introduced shinbutsu bunrirei, an order to reseparate Shintō deities from Buddhas, so the location was renamed Kotohira Shrine again and then Konpiragū. Since the original Buddhist Konpira was a crocodile god living on the Ganges River, the deity of Japan’s Konpira Daigongen and Konpiragū has been and still is considered a guardian of seafarers and shipping.
I descended the stone steps, and decided to take a longer walk to JR Kotohira Station rather than return to Kotoden-Kotohira Station. Kotohira Station is a dashing white Western-style building with a red roof. According to a nearby information sign, the town of Kotohira has a friendship agreement with Ruifang District in New Taipei City, Taiwan.
I rode one stop from Kotohira Station to Zentsūji Station. This is the birthplace of the famous monk Kūkai (774-835), also known as Kōbō Daishi, and the temple that gives the town its name is the seventy-fifth station on the Shikoku pilgrimage. I left the station and walked for twenty minutes through a quiet residential area until I found the temple’s red gate.
Li Bao’s Grief for Abe no Nakamaro
Kūkai was the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, and he studied in China for two years during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) as a scholarly monk. He brought many Chinese literary classics and Buddhist scriptures to Japan. I always get a sense of the romantic when I think about the history of exchange between China and Japan of a millennium ago. Some other figures that connected the two are the poet Abe no Nakamaro (698-770), who recalled Japan in a poem written in China, “Looking up at the vast fields of stars—perhaps it’s the same moon that rose above Nara’s Mount Mikasa,” and the Chinese monk Jianzhen (688-763), who spread the teachings of Buddhism in Japan.
Abe no Nakamaro went to China in 717, and took the Chinese name Chao Heng. He served under Emperor Xuanzong of Tang after passing the civil-service exam. Naturally, that test was based on Chinese literature and poetry. Apart from any language barriers, it is amazing that he could compete with the Chinese intellectuals on such an exam. He must truly have been a talented, learned man. I was further amazed considering that modern Japan does not allow non-citizens to take the civil service exam, but China a thousand years ago opened the path to government work to a foreigner. Abe no Nakamaro was also a close friend of Li Bai (701-762) and Wang Wei (699-761), two of China’s most famous poets, and left behind many waka poems. In modern terms, he would have been a major figure of the borderless literature world. As he worked in both Japanese waka and Chinese poetry and literature, he was also a bilingual author. When Li Bai learned that Abe no Nakamaro had been caught in a storm on his way back to Japan, he mistakenly believed the poet had died, and composed a grief poem Weeping for The Death of Nakamaro, which is still famous today.
Kūkai, who arrived in Tang about a century later in 804, was also skilled in Chinese learning and befriended several Chinese poets. The 2018 film Kūkai -Ku-kai- utsukushiki ōhi no nazo (Legend of the Demon Cat), a Chinese-Japanese coproduction, is so full of eye-rolling scenes that I cannot call it a good movie as such, but I find the way it depicts the relationship between the poet Bai Juyi (772-846) and Kūkai fascinating, and it gets the imagination working. Unfortunately, there is no evidence in poem or song that Kūkai and Bai Juyi were actually friends.
Incidentally, I learned in junior high school history class that Kūkai created hiragana, but when I checked it, I found out that this was yet another legend and not historical fact. Although I knew that fact is often less exciting than legend, I was still a little disappointed. So many things we hold as basic truths from childhood collapse as we grow older, and our understanding of the world grows. Eventually, we may have to question even what we thought was common knowledge. Perhaps this is what it means to grow up.
Realizing that many of the things you held to be simple truths as a child—like for me, that Cangjie invented Chinese characters, or the Empress Dowager Cixi was an evil traitor—were actually just legends, illusions, or even outright prejudiced lies created by some random person, can make you doubt everything. What actually is true? I feel it most clearly when I look around and see a world swept up in conspiracy theories, where any single event can be wrapped in countless conflicting explanations—a world people claim is now “post-truth.” In a sense, I am envious of those who can maintain their beliefs and follow the “common knowledge” they are given without question. I almost find myself tempted to perpetuate a prejudice or two myself.
The Zentsūji temple is divided into Tōin and Seiin—the eastern and western sections. It is said that Kūkai designed the Tōin to imitate Qinglong Temple in Chang’an, where he studied under the monk Huiguo (746-805). Seiin was built in 1249, and its main building, the Mieidō, stands on the site of the mansion where Kūkai was born. As such, it is sometimes called Tanjōin—the Birthplace Temple.
As I wandered around the temple grounds, I saw a group of pilgrims clad in white. They chanted sutras in unison to the statue of Yakushi Nyōrai and to the Mieidō, and I stood and listened from a distance. I knew that chokudoku—reading texts written in Chinese using not the Chinese pronunciation, but the Japanese—is still used for reading sutras, but I had never actually heard it before. It was quite interesting. It is a kind of Japanese that is not Japanese, and perhaps offers a sense of old-fashioned sanctity and mystery to Japanese speakers.
Outside Mieidō, there is an automated information sign reading “Guidance offered in a gentle voice,” and I immediately pushed the button, thinking I would love to hear what kind of gentle voice it housed. Nothing happened. The owner of that gentle voice must have been out at the moment.
The Skies and Seas of Shikoku
The sun was setting, so I left Zentsūji and headed back toward the station. I took the train to Takuma, and then a taxi to Chichibugahama beach. The beach there has been selected as one of Japan’s Top 100 Sunset Spots, and recently it has earned some fame for the chance to take Instagram-worthy photos like those of the salt flats at Uyuni, Bolivia, called the Mirror of the Sky. This has made the city a tourist destination. The “Chichibu” part of the beach name uses characters meaning “father and mother.” The story behind it goes that a couple were searching for their missing child near here when they were attacked by bandits. They were then saved by their child, who had become a Jizō bosatsu.
Chichibugahama is a shallow sand beach facing west, and when the tide goes out it leaves a wide tidal flat with many tide pools spread across the surface. When the wind is calm, the pools are perfectly flat and reflect the sky like a mirror. The phenomenon is even more beautiful at sunset. When I was there, the sky was clear and the wind calm, making it a perfect time to watch the sunset. The silhouettes of the islands of the Seto Inland Sea were scattered along the horizon, and the rays of the sun left trails of flames across the surface of the water as it slowly sank behind them and they faded into the darkness. I stood watching in silence until the sight ended. That was the final sunset of my journey.
Vivid red merged into a deep purple, and then into darkness, and a single dazzling star appeared in the southwestern night sky. From the time of year and the direction, it appears to have been Jupiter. I realized it had been a long time since I had gazed on the starry sky.
Kūkai practiced asceticism and attained enlightenment when he was living in Mikurodo cave in Kōchi Prefecture. The legend says that all he could see from that cave was the sky and the sea, and so he took the characters for them to make his adopted name of Kūkai (空海). The sky and sea of Shikoku truly made Kūkai into Kūkai.
I looked back outward. All I could see was the sky, and the sea. The silhouettes of those islands that had been so faintly visible had melded with the dark sky and black sea. The tourists who had been wandering the beach had all disappeared. I finished my first Shikoku trip standing between Kagawa’s sky and sea, at one at last.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner Photo: Chichibugahama beach, Japan’s “Mirror of the Sky.” All photos courtesy Li Kotomi.)