Sponsored by KOTOHIRA BUS
Those of us who are well-travelled will know that as time goes by, one has to search longer and harder in order to find those truly unique, special, “off the beaten path”-type travel experiences. For some of us, it is not enough to visit Meiji-jingu or Asakusa; it is necessary to look deeply into the depths of Japan’s beautiful landscapes to discover local gems where one can experience something that likely few tourists have before. After all, isn’t this one of the most special things about travelling to places like Japan? Located in Kotohira-cho, one of Japan’s most culturally rich towns, “Konpirasan Meguri” offers pilgrims a chance to experience local history, Japanese culture and nature while making a 1368-step journey towards the sky.
How to get there
To get to Kotohira from Tokyo, you can take the overnight Kotobus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal, on the south side of Shinjuku JR Station (about an 11-hour bus ride). If coming from Takamatsu, you can catch the local Dentetsu train from Takamatsu Chikko Station to Kotoden-Kotohira Station, which only takes about an hour.
Upon arriving at Kotohira station, you can visit either the inside of the station or the bus terminal next door to collect a map to help navigate your way up the trail. Beginning at Kotohira station, make your way down toward Kotoden-Kotohira Station, where you will see Takadoro, a 27-metre-tall lantern constructed in 1860, which happens to be the tallest of its kind in Japan. Take a left here and follow the river for a little while. When you reach a bridge with grey stone pillars instead of red ones, take a right. This strip is home to a variety of shops and restaurants for visitors and locals alike, and includes a sake brewery, established in 1658, along with a museum, which is free to enter.
After checking out the sake brewery, continue to head up the street, which soon becomes a series of steep, inclining sets of stairs. On my visit I was lucky enough that it rained continuously throughout the day, but none of the views were spoiled by the weather.
Some points to check along the climb
At around 365 steps, you will see the Omon (大門, or “Big Gate”), which is the gate of Kotohira-gu (金刀比羅宮). Beyond here there are no more shops, except for five candy shops (飴屋, “ame-ya”), selling something called Kamiyo-ame (加美代飴). Each stall is under a big white umbrella, all of which are known to locals as “Gonin Hyakusho” (五人百姓). These few stalls are the only businesses allowed in this area or precinct, also known as Keidai (境内).
After making your way through the big gate, follow the long path ahead, and after climbing a small set of steps, head left to check out a beautiful white horse in a stable. There is usually a second horse there too, and the two of them are believed to be ridden by the gods, so they are referred to as “Kamiuma” (神馬, “God Horse”). Around this area are some unique statues and some gorgeous trees so make sure to stop for a few minutes to check it all out.
Continue upward and you will soon reach the 500-step point, an open area with a beautiful view of green trees surrounding you. In this area is Kami Tsubaki, a café run by Shinsendo. They do a variety of dishes, drinks and desserts, so kick back and take a short break to rest your legs and take in the views from inside.
Following the café is a steep set of stairs that will take you to 628 steps, a point with a structure known as Asahi Sha (旭社), the roof of which is made from thin bronze, referred to as Douban Buki (銅板葺). Around this building is a variety of different and stunning ornamental creations, from lanterns to sake barrels.
To the right and behind Asahi Sha is a staircase leading up to the goal for this journey, Konpira Gohongu (金比羅御本宮). At 785 steps, this is actually only just over half of the total number of steps one can climb on the mountain, but this is the premium spot to enjoy the view of Kotohira. At the time of my visit, the shrine building was actually hosting a Japanese wedding, which many of the local visitors had stopped to watch. Being the first time I had witnessed such an event, I made sure to stop and take it in. To the right of the main building is the best spot to take in Kotohira. Even though it was a grey, rainy day, it was still a sight to behold!
After taking in the views, it was time to head back down the steep, slippery steps. If you visit during inclement weather, please be careful! For travellers looking for a true Japanese experience, something which is enjoyed almost exclusively by locals, look no further than Konpirasan in Kotohira. Enjoy!