By Deborah Howell

After breakfast at the hotel–a mix of Japanese and western-/including shrimp tempura, green smoothies, raw fish, seaweed and salad–we head out on foot.

Photos: 800 Steps and Udon Soup Kotohira City

Kompira Shrine is at the top of over 800 impressive stone steps and is dedicated to fishermen. After all, without fish, where would this country be? It’s enjoyed morning, noon and night here and it would be unthinkable to go a day without sushi or sashimi. The hotel gives us each a hand towel, offers us a straw hat, and we each pick out walking sticks for the short walk through town to the bottom of the steps.

The stone steps to the top we expected. What we didn’t expect is that on this hike, you can shop the whole way to the top! There are tons of cute gift stores, eateries, vending machines with cold Asahi beers and more enticements on the way up. Never been able to pop open a cool one on any other hike in my life. Bonus! There’s even some stables with a white horse and her brunette companion relaxing in the shade. With all of these fun distractions, before we knew it we had only 100 steps left to go. At the top is, of course, a massive shrine structure with a thatched roof and gorgeous lines. Another architectural wonder. Do they ever cease? We watch the monks in full robes and ceremonial headpieces go about their day, sweeping and chanting and studying the kyo. (Their equivalent to the Bible or the Koran.) Back in the Mitsubishi Outlander hybrid heading higher up into the mountain, with a quick stop at a roadside sushi spot where the sushi and other dishes roll past on small conveyor belts. All you do is grab what looks good to you. Each plate is a dollar, and at the end of the meal when you’re ready to pay, the server comes and measures how high the stack of plates is and charges per inch. Or centimeter. Whatever!

We ate and ate and ate and it was still less than 12 dollars per person.

We’re given salty candy at the top of the 800 steps and Yuki tells us the significance of the white horse. There are white horses near each important shrine and they are thought to be messengers from God. Let’s hope their message for the world is a good one.

Back down the 800 stairs we stomp, passing sake bars and countless udon shops. Kotohira region is famous for its incredible udon soup and hand crafted udon noodles for purchase. Even the taxis have big udon bowls on their tops.

We stop inside a small sake museum to see how it’s made. Let’s just say it makes the stomping of grapes look like child’s play.

Now we head even higher into the mountains, and things get serious. We are gong to climb the steep side of the mountain to shrine #45–the very holiest of all. Glad we didn’t know up front what we were in for or we might have chickened out.

The first part is relatively easy–a steep path but paved. We reach the first shrine and keep climbing. It gets steeper and the path is now damp earth, moss and tree slippery tree roots. On we climb. Then Yuki stops at a wooden shack and asks for a key to a sacred gate. This is getting more like Indiana Jones every minute.

We reach the second, third, and fourth shrines, ring the sacred bells and continue upward. Now the oath is tiny and we can’t believe it keeps going, but it does. We reach an ancient place that looks like Merlin’s treehouse. Yuki somehow finds a hidden gate and opens it with the old key.

“This part is very, very dangerous, so be extremely careful.” No kidding. We climb into a steep vertical slot in the mountain that’s so narrow we have to squeeze through single file, holding on for dear life with both hands and feet. One misstep here would not be pretty.

It’s nearly impossible to find a place to put your feet where there’s also a rock to use as a hand hold. Our sneakers slip and slide on the moss and we also have to compete for those hand holds with enormous frogs! It takes us awhile, but we get up and through the slot.

But wait–there’s more. “That’s just the first part,” warns Yuki. “Now it gets tougher.” Oh, my. We are so high up on this mountain that if any of us were to slip and get injured, I have no idea how we’d get them down to civilization.

Yuki points to upward to the most vertical “path” I’ve ever seen in my life. On the ground are two heavy chains that Yuki shows us how to use to climb straight up slick rocks where there are no hand holds or foot paths. This is mountaineering–not hiking. Oh boy.

I make it about halfway up the chain before my wrists give out. (I broke both wrists a year ago at Taste of Soul, and also broke my ankle

6 months ago when I slipped on wet tiles) so I’m not up to full strength .) I hear Yuki and Blake in above me, but the chains are just too heavy.

They reach the top of the chain and then climb a gigantic ladder to the final summit. So, so scary. Do not look down, whatever you do.

Finally, at last–victory. I watch from 100 meters below as Yuki and Blake reach the very tip top and make an offering to the small Buddha in the shrine. They’ve earned their ninja stripes today! I couldn’t watch while they were descending that gigantic slippery ladder. Oh.

My. God.

But they made it, and somehow we slithered down that narrow slot canyon and got back down the mountain–just as it began to rain. This could have turned out way differently had the rain starts when we were climbing up ladders and slots.

A quick shopping stop to buy Blake a birthday polo shirt and belt and then back to our the Hotel Dogokan. Dinner in private room at hotel. Amazing as always. I’ll always prefer

30 little bowls of different things to taste then a huge piece of meat with one side. Then we clomped down the streets of Matsuyama in our sandals and kimonos to the public baths. This town is 300 years old and the baths have been here forever, visited by the emperors (who have their own private entrance and baths) and the general public like us. The unwashed masses. Lol These onmen (baths) are actually hot springs and are thought to cure all ills. Plus, it’s just a nice social thing to do. After we take our baths we check out the outdoor shopping center, all lit up like Christmas with neon and other creative lighting. We buy gifts for our cat sitters (cat and Samurai toe socks) and enjoy the sights and sounds. This seems like the safest spot I earth to me as we roam around. I ask Yuki about the crime rate. “Almost zero.” As we expected.

After breakfast the next morning, we head to an important cultural property and the top of high Katsuyama hill in the middle of the Dogo plain. Today we take the easy way up–an efficient gondola whisks us to the top in about 5 minutes. We’re in samurai territory now, where the history pages are filled with feudal lords, tycoons, emperors and samurai warriors.

The founder of this castle, Yoshiaki Katoh, made his fortune (counted in bales of rice) as one of the seven spears men in Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s forces. He was born in 1563 and in 1603 he orders the site prepared. The castle was finished 24 years later.

Imagine huge stones and smaller ones getting to this site on the hill.

Women who were fish peddlers used to carry basins (otata) on their heads are said the have carried gravel in the same basins all the way up the hill, from Masaki to Matsuyama. The wife of the castle owner rewarded these women for their incredibly hard work with rice balls shaped by hand.

How did the roof tiles get to the top of the mountain? Local farmers mobilized to make a human chain in three directions, and the tiles were handed from person to person down the line. The entire lot was transferred to the castle in this way in one night, to the castle owner’s great surprise and delight.

When Matsudaira became Lord of the castle, he faced a great decision during the civil war between supporters of the Shogun and the Emperor.

The Matsuyama lord was labeled Scan enemy and the castle was set to be attacked. Should he surrender or stand and fight?

Lord Matsudaira made the wise decision to submit. He allowed Tosa soldiers from the new government to enter the castle, showing that he had no intention of fighting the Emperor, and he himself took refuge at the Josinji Temple in Matsuysma, showing his penitence. Ha sincerity was accepted by the new government, and thus Matsuyama Castle was saved from the fire of war. In 1923 the castle was given to Matsuysma City.

After our tour of this magnificent place (even trying on some Shogun armor) we come back down the mountain via single chair chairlift. It’s wonderful to feel the breeze on our faces as we swing down the hill.

Luckily we’re in this cheery frame of mind because as Yuki backs out of the tight parking lot, he doesn’t see a car roll up on the street behind him and they collide. Worst sound in the world.

Now we get to see the Japanese police system up close. And it couldn’t be more cordial if it were a reception for a princess. The woman who was driving the Mercedes was extremely kind and understanding about the mishap. Not a stern glance or word was issued as information was exchanged. Instead, she calmly accepts our apologies and returns our bows.

Within 5 minutes one female cop snd one male cop arrive on the scene.

Hiroko fills out a form, they ask for our passports with big smiles and lots of bows. It’s all taken care of inside 15 minutes.

Which reminds me. In the 8 days we’ve been in Japan, we haven’t heard a single honk of a horn, a nasty sentence uttered, nary a curse word, rude gesture or even a frown. Maybe that’s why I feel so utterly happy and peaceful here. It certainly is refreshing, and I’ll cherish these days forever as precious time spent inside this gentle nation.

See more of my adventures through Japan here.


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