I’m not the type of person to have favorites. Whether they are movies, places, people, authors or anything else. My tastes and my boredom levels change too quickly to push any one place above another. But when I was asked by the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival to write about my favorite place in the world, I knew immediately where it was, the back side of Iwayaji Temple on Shikoku Japan.
A Little Background
Iwayaji Temple is the 45th temple on the Pilgrimage to the 88 Buddhist Temples of Shikoku, located in Ehime Prefecture. The pilgrimage, covering 1,200-1,400 kilometers depending on who you believe, is Japan’s most famous and visited pilgrimage. Still going strong after more than 1,000 years, legend attributes the pilgrimage to the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi who was born and gained enlightenment on the Island of Shikoku. Not satisfied with just enlightenment, he also created the Japanese kana writing system, visited China, and hobnobbed with royalty. Trust me, that’s a lot back in the 8th Century.
The real development of the pilgrimage is more complicated as it evolved after Kobo Daishi’s death and his followers tried to retrace in his physical and mental footstep. More traditional localized holy sites, complete with mountain ascetics (yamabushi) and Shinto shamans, where incorporated into the larger pilgrimage that rings the island of Shikoku and passes though 4 of the most remote and untouched prefectures in Japan.
Legend says the location was donated to Kobo Daishi by a mysterious female recluse named Hokke-Sennin. He built the temple on the mountain, considered a holy place by those seeking enlightenment in the cliff’s caves, and carved and enshrined a Buddha image deep in a cave so that the whole mountain would be worshiped.
Still with me? Here’s why…
Shikoku (and the pilgrimage) is one of my favorite places in the world, but its the path behind the Iwayaji Temple that holds the coveted number 1 in my heart. Every year about 150,000 people make the pilgrimage and probably countless more visit Iwayaji as a stand alone temple. However, most of those making the journey to this remote mountain temple built into a spectacular cliff arrive by car, bus or bike. They park their cars and walk the steep stone steps to the front cliff and main temple along a beautiful river. What they don’t usually see is the beauty that lies behind the temple.
There is a second way to approach the temple along the ancient walking pilgrim route that crests the mountain behind the temple. The trail delivers the walker from a pristine wooded ridge line path into an ancient moss green forest with enormous cypress trees and age worn shrines and religious carvings. The forest is dark, damp and its enormity and silence creates an atmosphere were a Buddha or Shinto god could easily pop out from behind the next corner. It is also along this path that I came to a sudden realization about my life, where I want to be and what I love to do. This journey, my second walking pilgrimage around Shikoku, is the topic of my current book project on the Shikoku Pilgrimage and how my current lifestyle began (feel free to spread the word) .
Not a week goes by that I don’t think about the path leading to Temple 45 and the effect it’s had on my life. I dream of going back, if for nothing more than to spend some time in that magical forest empty of humanity but full of gods, demons, enlightenment and bright green moss.
What is your favorite place? Describe what you love about it and let us know how to get there!
This post is part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Travel Blog Carnival hosted this time by Sophie over at Sophies’s World. The Carnival is hosted every two weeks by a BlogSherpa member. The topic this time is Your Favorite Place. I hosted one here earlier on Todd’s Wanderings about Travel Safety.