Ever upward

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8 August 1999

Kotohira-gu enshrines Kompira, the sailors’ god who has expanded his business to include all travelers. On this long trip, it seemed foolish not to go invoke his good favor. So we woke early to catch the train that would take us about an hour west of Takamatsu.

Morning is not Tod’s best time of day but he normally manages to make it through with the help of a few cups of coffee but Japanese breakfasts don’t include coffee, just green tea. And while green tea has enough caffeine to get me going, Tod would have to drink several pots before he was awake. So I led the way that morning. After our breakfast we walked to the tram station at the other end of the street and were on our way,

When we arrived in Kotohira, we walked along a river to the main street. The main street turns into a staircase leading up to the shrine. A staircase that has 785 stairs! We knew because the guidebooks said so. And to confirm their accuracy Tod counted every one of them as we went up.

As we started out, the stairs were lined on either side by shops selling t-shirts, wooden statues, things to offer to Kompira, drinks, masks, all manner of souvenirs. Green and blue tarps strung over the stairs from the tops of the low buildings furnished some shade to walk in.

As we reached stair 50 or so, Tod realized this was going to be a very hot climb and he bought himself a red paper fan. This 100 yen investment turned out to be very useful on the next 735 steps and beyond.

About a third of the way up, the shops ended and the steps were lined with tall stone pillars inscribed with dates and the names of patrons of the shrine. Then came stone lanterns. When we reached a broad plaza with shady trees, and a giant golden ship’s screw near the first gate to the shrine, we were perplexed by a dog statue wearing a yellow cloth bib. People stopped to have their photos taken near it. Never did figure it out, but we had a good rest while we tried.

Even more perplexing was the nearby stable of horses. Real horse in a real stable eating real hay and making real horse noises. Halfway up a 785 step staircase! It wasn’t until later that I remembered that horses are often depicted as messengers to the gods. So here were some real live messengers. Japan’s a quirky place!

Rested a little bit, but not enough for Tod, we continued upwards. Overachieving eight year olds ran circles around us, calling back to their struggling parents “Hayaku! Hayaku!” which means ‘quickly’ or in more vernacular terms “Hurry up!”

We finally reached the main shrine. Exactly 785 steps from the start--though there was some confusion over whether to count the occasional step down in the flatter areas as a negative step, a positive step or nothing at all. I don’t remember how we tallied it, but in the end we had 785 steps to the top so we must have counted the same way as everyone else.

The first business at hand was to pay respects to Kompira-san. I tossed my small denomination change into the wooden offering box and clapped, asked a favor for a safe trip and came away to make room for the next pilgrim. Tod just stood by too tired to make the three step ascent to the altar.

There was a little tent off to one side of the shrine where two urns of water and an urn of green tea were available. Freshly rinsed plastic tea bowls were stacked up at one end of the table and at the other end, the used tea bowls were stacked almost as neatly waiting for one of the shrine’s acolytes to takes them to be washed.

We had our ration of water, admired the view and explored the precincts of the shrine. Beyond the water tent were two open galleries of offerings to Kompira. Many of them were photographs or paintings of ships. Some were quite old and weathered. Others were new. All had been carried up the steps by people wishing to get Kompira’s blessing. Several of the ships depicted in large, ornately framed oil paintings were commercial cargo vessels. On the other end of the scale were snapshots of people’s rowboats and pleasure craft.

Not all of the offerings were two dimensional. There was a 5 meter long, solar powered, one-man craft that looked like it had been either an experiment or in a race--the entire thing was there. Maybe it was a post-event offering

Someone else brought up a beautiful wooden model of his three mast sailing ship. One ship model was made of lucky 5 yen coins (which have a hole in them) strung together with copper wire in the most ingenious way.

Although ships dominated the galleries, they weren’t the only things there. There was a large bronze statue of an elephant signifying Mt. Zousa, “Elephant Mountain,” which we’d just climbed. Japan’s first astronaut was captured in a painting. Monkeys seemed to be a minor theme, too. And the bib-wearing dog appeared a few more times in various media.

Fascinating as the galleries were, they only held our attention long enough for us to move on to the next discovery---more stairs! A map showed a 1.2 km route to another shrine further up the mountain. I was game and Tod came along. It was a lot more stairs. I think by the time we reached the summit we had climbed at least a million steps. Maybe as many as a million and a half.

But the view from the top was spectacular. And we saw a number of interesting fauna on the way including a butterfly that glided rather than flapping its wings like regular butterflies. It doesn’t sound like much now, but when you’re climbing a million stairs on a very hot day, anything that captures your attention is good.

We were also distracted by the electrical lines running up the mountain along with the stairs. In Japan where there is electricity there is a machine vending drinks. We buoyed ourselves on the hope that at the top we could find a shady spot and have a rest and a drink.

But Kotohira is the only place in Japan where electricity does not equal vending machine. Poor Tod. His legs, now well conditioned from biking to work, are not happy when climbing or descending stairs. By the time we reached the bottom he was dehydrated and very achy. We had more water at the main shrine, but even three bowls of it didn’t slake Tod’s thirst.

It wasn’t until he’d had a bowl of handmade udon noodles that he started to feel better. The Kompira udon was topped with vegetables, fish cake, meat and mushrooms. It was delicious.

Thus revived we wandered out into the town and came across a surprise. A giant bottle attracted my attention. After a moment of puzzling over what it was, we figured out that we’d found a sake museum. Inside was the history of Kinryo Sake company and very detailed descriptions of the process of sake brewing. Side by side photos compared the ancient techniques and today’s modern methods. Dioramas and films described each step.

At the end of the self-paced tour, three vending machines doled out samples of different types of sake. We took our tiny cups of sake out into the courtyard and sat in the shade of an 800 year old camphor tree and contemplated the art of sake.

The sake kicked my brain into gear and I remembered that there was one more thing I wanted to see in Kotohira. Kanamaru-za is Japan’s oldest extant theater. I had only a vague idea of where it was, so after we wandered around without finding it, we asked someone who not only pointed us in the right direction, but drew our attention by clapping briskly when we almost missed the turn we needed.

Live kabuki is performed at Kanamaru-za only once a year and the shows are sold out well in advance. For those of us attending on non-performance days, there is a great videotape that reveals on-stage and off-stage action. The theater was built in 1835 and underwent a number of changes (including being used as a movie theater) until its restoration 25 years ago.

Of course the theater obliged our day’s theme of “uphill” and was at the top of another set of stairs but it was worth the climb. It was the most beautiful theater I’ve ever been in. It wasn’t angels-on-the-ceiling-ornate like beautiful theaters in America. This theater had white painted walls with exposed beams and tatami mats on the floor for seating in front of the stage. The wood and the rice straw made the theater smell so sweet. From the ceiling hung ranks of paper lanterns painted with the red circled-shaped bird crest of the theater. The stage was lighted with footlights and with daylight that filtered through screens in the wings.

Backstage, narrow ladders led to second story, communal dressing rooms for the cast. The stars were assigned private dressing rooms at stage level. The technical crew had rooms on the second story wings with bamboo blinded windows that commanded a view of the stage and audience.

Best of all was the area under the stage. The stage revolves under the power of four young men who are strapped into thick harnesses and strain against stone footholds embedded in the floor like the marks on a compass. Two trap doors allow the actors and scenery to be lifted to and lowered from the stage. Those strong young men power the lifting as well as the rotating. Actors can run along a narrow corridor to the back of the audience where another trap door lets them pop out for a grand entrance as they walk along a stage-level walkway to the front.

We made our exit along this walkway and headed back to Takamatsu for a quiet evening before another fun-filled day.

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