Well, as you can see, there are a LOT of steps up Konpira-san. "San" not only means "Mr." or "Mrs." in Japanese, it also means mountain (Mt. Fuji is called Fuji-san...which confused me greatly the first time I heard it. Mr. Fuji?!?). Konpira-san is a famous mountain near Zenstuji that has many Shinto shrines and a large Buddhist temple.
Though I was too out of breath to actually count the number of steps, I do know it's over 700 to the Buddhist temple. The first 300 or so steps are lined on either side by tourist shops selling souvenirs, which include the usual wood carvings, handkerchiefs, and snack foods. Many shops also had bamboo staffs outside their shops for people to use freely, in the hope that on the way back down the tourist returning the bamboo staff will buy souvenirs from the shop.
The Japanese man I went with, along with his wife and a friend of his from work, all ate at an udon shop first. Udon is the signature dish of Kagawa Prefecture, it's thick, pale noodles with just about any topping you could imagine. I especially like curry udon, but that day I had tenpura udon, along with Masa's wife. Masa had Sanuki udon (Sanuki is the old word for Kagawa prefecture). His friend had soba, which are grayish colored noodles about the same size as spagetti. Our table was a huge old slab of wood...it looks like they just chopped a foot thick piece of wood out from the middle of a tree trunk and used that for a table top. There were intricate carvings all over the shop, and the walls, floor and furniture were all very dark wood. For some reason this gave it a very exotic feel for me. Masa told me it was a very old and very famous udon shop. Since Konpira-san is a well known mountain with many famous shrines and temples, it's a famous tourist stop for Japanese people, so many of the oldest and longest lasting buisnesses in the area are based there. The shop was owned by another friend of Masa's, and on our way out Masa's wife took a bamboo stick from their bucket outside and handed one to me for the forthcoming climb up the mountain.
Here we are a bit further up the mountain. You can see the scenery down below us a little. Here there are still some tourist shops and buildings along the sides of the path up the mountain. Soon after the tourist shops peter out the sides of the path are lined with tall slabs of stone with Japanese writing on them. They were about 7 feet tall (about 210 cm) and maybe 8 inches (12 cm) thick. I was told that the names of contributors to the temple, along with the date of their contribution and the amount they contributed were written on these stone slabs. There were also many stone lanterns lining the stone paved walkway. There is a festival on Konpira-san once a year, and that night all the lanterns are lit up for some sort of procession up the mountain.
We eventually reached the top. We had to rest for a bit and drink some water to catch our breath. The largest building was the Buddhist temple. It had a copper roof that was covered with verdegris, so it was a beautiful pale green. You can see that roof shining through the trees from quite a distance away. There was a whole complex of buildings around the temple, and a large graveled courtyard where you could look out over the town.
The carvings on the temple were unbelievable! I love traditional Japanese roofs anyway, but this roof was simply amazing. The carvings were detailed and beautiful. The temple was build about three hundred fifty years ago, so sometime around 1650. When we arrived we were very lucky...we happened to be there for the annual rice planting ceremony. Many Buddhist priests inside the temple had some sort of praying ceremony, where they carried baskets into a back room and prayed, then came back out at sat on the tatami while the other priests prayed. Another group of Japanese people were outside...some men that may have been priests, and some miko! They weren't wearing their traditional white kimono and red hakama, however, they were wearing blue hakama and many layers of white, red, and pink kimono.
Behind my squinty face (sorry, Masa feels compelled to have the foreigner in each picture) you can see the men waiting for the ceremony to start. The women are on the far side, unfortunately, so you can't see them. There were people playing Japanese flutes and drums, and the people stood there for about half an hour...we got bored an wandered off, and by the time we got back they were gone, so I didn't see the actual ceremony, but I heard from nearby tour guides that it was some sort of traditional rice planting dance. I was really pleased to see some real miko, though, and took the opportunity to study the different costume of Buddhist priests.
The Buddhist shrine is only about halfway up the moutain. We followed the path behind the temple and continued to climb. There were numerous small shrines and little tiny shrines on stilts (they looked like squirrel-sized shrines...I don't know what they're for...) the rest of the way up the mountain. For the larger shrines there were places to wash your hands before you prayed. The highest shrine was rather large. Rather than having a tiled or copper roof, like all the lower shrines had, this shrine had a roof made of bark packed tightly together. It was painted a brilliant orange (the Japanese call this color "shuiro").
By the way, this is the first actual picture of Masa, the kind grey-haired gentleman that took me on this trip. Don't let his grey hair fool you, he does hikes and treks like this constantly. It's often a struggle to keep up with him!
There were two stone faces carved into the mountainside above the Shinto shrine at the top of the mountain. They're some sort of mythical messengers of the gods. Masa wasn't to clear himself on what they were, but it was amazing to imagine how someone could climb up there to even begin carving them!
Instead of going back down the stone stairs to the bottom of the mountain, we took a trail down through the woods. Going downhill is surprisingly difficult, I thought going up would be the hardest, but I was very worried about falling on the way down. The trail was a bit rough and narrow at some points, and at others it widened into a dirt road that cars could travel on. This was the only time I used the bamboo stick I was given, to check the ground in front of me and keep me from pitching forward! The wood scenery was beautiful, though, and I greatly enjoyed being among trees again...that the one thing I miss most in Japan, other than on unsettled mountain sides, trees are far and few between here.