Knowing Tranquility Part IX: Shiraishijima 白石島
Edward J. Taylor
Shiraishijima in the Inland Sea is south west of Okayama and part of the municipality of Kasaoka on Honshu. The island is known for its fine beaches and laid-back lifestyle.
In his The Inland Sea, Donald Richie seems to have given Shiraishijima a miss, but I spent two days there to walk the island's 88-temple circuit. On a previous visit years ago, I'd met Amy Chavez, whose writings I had long known.
No one has done more than Amy in introducing the Shiraishijima temple pilgrimage to the English-speaking world. She is as passionate about the restoration and upkeep of the route (and the island in general) as she is about writing.
After a quick swim and a bath, I meet Amy at her Moooo! Bar, where we discuss logistics and admire the astounding colors of the sun setting into the petrochemical haze of the mainland.
I meet Amy at her house the following morning at 6 a.m., and after a quick caffeine fuel up, we march up a flight of stone steps toward the forest.
Temples 80-84 are pretty straightforward, but T1-17 required a bit more work. After ducking through a tunnel of overgrown bamboo we zigzag up and down the hillside in search of the telltale stone figures tucked away beneath the large stones that give the island its name.
I find the whole layout quite odd at first, until Amy mentions that the "temples" were placed where they were since they either marked a physical anomaly on the landscape, or had once stood beside homes.
The latter are long gone, though one hulk of tumbled timber lies rotting away where dreams once lived. Now and again we come to a remaining well, which serves as a way point of sorts, and eventually drop down onto the lovely gold crescent of a deserted beach. Despite its beauty, there is a certain taboo about swimming or development, due to a legend that states that the bodies of fleeing Heike warriors had washed up here. This belief led eventually to the Shiraishi O-dori, danced every August in order to appease the souls of these centuries-long dead.
Amy needs to open the bar to the day-trippers on this sunny Sunday morning, but not before pointing me on my way. Despite having a simple map, I immediately become lost, and in what would become a theme for the day, I find myself exploring many of the side trails, until finally figuring out the right path.
Maps are interesting tools in that they not only teach you the terrain, but also allow you some insight into the mindset of the mapmaker, in particular how they orient themselves to the landscape.
You will inevitably make a few mistakes, because the way that you see things is not always the way that the mapmaker does. Over time, I begin to understand why things are represented on paper as they are, and also in what types of places the stone Buddhas have been placed. Thus educated, I push on more quickly.
The trail leads upward. My greatest trouble is the overgrown paths, not yet cleared after an unusually long rainy season. Despite brandishing a stick before me like a sword, I am quickly covered with cobwebs and other debris.
I'm not usually squeamish about spiders, but there is no possible way to enjoy the feeling of a web breaking across your face. In some sections, bamboo grass spreads across like a curtain, and one leaf slices open the tip of my finger, which bleeds profusely and refuses to clot. The blood stops dripping when I reach T23, and I smile as I remember that the deity here is the Medicine Buddha.
A final short rope rappel drops me onto a small empty beach and T25 hiding on a cliff face. Looking across the water I see Kitagijima and the roads I'd bicycled the day before. I strip off my sweaty, cobweb-covered shirt to wash in the sea, then I splash my face and torso, before sitting awhile to dry.
I eventually walk the length of the beach twice, and even climb back up the hill a bit to find the trail but it alludes me. There is one section that might be it, but it is covered in vines as thick as wire. I am not too pleased about playing Robinson Crusoe, or in facing a long return the way I came. It is then that I see a motorboat drift quietly offshore.
"Oi!" I call, and the boat moves closer. Once in earshot, I ask if they can take me across the bay to the houses a 100 meters or so away. Prop raised, the boat comes closer in, and I help offload supplies, as the six people aboard had intended to spend the day here. Once unencumbered, I climb aboard and am whisked across to freedom.
Looking For T26
I attempt the approach to T26 from the opposite side, but the vegetation at the top is too thick, so retreat. My disappointment at this doesn't last, as my intention is to walk the pilgrimage route, and that doesn't necessarily mean I have to actually see the temples themselves.
This justification allows me a way out for the temple I subsequently miss, even if I know that they lie somewhere nearby, unseen in the thick of jungle. Rather than beads on a necklace strung out in a logical line, many of the temples are up short paths spurring off the car road that circles the island.
The trick is to find the entrances, hidden by growth. I find the dirt road leading to T34-36, but somehow miss them. Likewise, I miss T42 but this time I'm not looking too hard, as I've run out of water and the heat is rising.
Luckily there is a house nearby, and the man inside allows me to fill up. He surprises me in not knowing the location of T42, which can be no more than 20 meters from his house.
I give up and continue to follow the road.
This southern edge of the island is heavily quarried, and has few houses. It takes me a while to find the trail upward, and after finding T43-44, the brush forces me back down again.
It is simply too high, too thick. I am comforted by the fact that there are no vipers on Shiraishi, but the vegetation is tearing me apart, legs cuts and scratched, arms bleeding, feet stinking from open sores. I am usually careful in what I wear while hiking, but the concept of "island" fooled me into wearing shorts and sandals. Even if I had been properly dressed, the novelty of bashing through the jungle is wearing thin.
I follow the road again to the next trail entrance, and attempt to backtrack toward T45. I do find T50-51, but from there the brush remains impenetrable, turning me back once again. There is only one more short section before I return to the island's main beach, now busy with day-trippers. I rest in my room for about 30 minutes to recharge my phone and myself. Then set back out.
The final sections are much easier going, though I do accidentally follow a well-groomed hiking trail up the ridgeline that is the island's summit, over and around large boulders, overlooking the waters that had covered them millennia ago.
The Buddha statues are more closely placed up here, easier to find. I do allow myself a diversion down to an actual temple, Kairyu-ji, which still serves the spiritual needs of the people here. Likewise, the Benzaiten shrine on an island just offshore.
This I reach not long afterward, to find a prayer ceremony going on, marking the lowest tide of the year, which allows the worshippers to walk across the rocky seabed. One woman slaps dead an ant on her leg in the midst of chanting. I turn to find Amy here too, and she leads me to the path up to my final temple of the day, T71, handing me off to Sanchan, who is a bit of a legend due to his popular bar sitting just below the Buddha's gaze.
I would have liked to talk more with Sanchan but I am too beaten and worn out for chitchat. I've done over 24 km over tough terrain on a very hot day. Instead I have a quick swim, though it isn't as pleasant due to the low waters and the weeds, and I've had quite enough of the feel of vegetation on my skin.
Afterward, I have a beer with Amy, giving her some feedback on the map and the trail conditions. We agree that it is currently a two-day route, but once cleaned up, could be done in a day. She is intending not only to improve on the existing map, but is also sponsoring a trail race in order to raise funds for signage and trail cleanup. But I am pleased with myself for my toils, especially when she tells me that I'm one of the first non-islanders to have done the whole route.
But not just yet. I once again meet Amy at 6 a.m. for another coffee, then we return to the bamboo tunnel to visit T85-88. It is a bit of bashing back through the growth before we pop out of the jungle at the port. It has been a pleasant couple of days, discussing many elements of island life, namely population growth and disappearing traditions, and the frustrations of island political decision making being made in an office on the mainland.It is toward there I'll head next. I have yet another swim, and shake the crabs from my sandals one last time.
Access - Getting To Shiraishijima
Ferries to Shiraishijima depart from Kasuoka, a short walk from JR Kasaoka on the Sanyo Main Line, which can be reached by local train in 45 minutes from Okayama Station.
There are a number of accommodation options on Shiraishijima. (www.kasaoka-kankou.jp)
Moooo! Bar also offers simple lodging for pilgrims. (www.moooobar.com)
See here for a full listing of hotels and guest houses on Shikoku.
About the Author
Based in Kyoto, Edward's work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. Co-editor of the Deep Kyoto Walk anthology, he is currently at work on a series of books about walking Japan's ancient highways. Edward is the author of the blog notesfromthenog.blogspot.jp