December 25th, 2012
I leave my hotel near Hakata Station and walk towards the temple that marks the start of the pilgrimage route that I am going to follow around the island of Kyushu.
It's Christmas Day, but that means little in Japan where it is just another workday and already the roads and sidewalks are busy with cars, buses, taxis, cyclists, and pedestrians on their way to work. Its dark and raining heavily, not an auspicious beginning, the only bright point being that today I don't have to carry a heavy pack as my walk will circle around the city so I can hop a train back to the hotel this evening.
Tochoji is a large undistinguished concrete complex. According to legend it was founded by Kobo Daishi in the early 9th century after he returned here from China. A couple of years ago a new, vermillion pagoda was built. In the main hall a solitary woman is praying.
From here I head towards the Naka River which I will follow south towards the next temple in the suburbs. I stop in briefly at the Kushida Shrine, the most famous of Fukuoka city's shrines. The main hall has a collection of very long nosed tengu masks that I hope to photograph but without a tripod its still too dark and overcast to get any shots.
I follow the river as far as Takamiya and then head up into some low hills to find the second temple. Navigating Japanese streets is rarely easy at the best of times, and when meandering over hills the lanes and alleys can be well nigh on impenetrable.
Several times I ask passers-by for help but, as is common when asking directions in Japan, nobody knew where the temple was. I find it on top of the hill with a view over a great sea of concrete and roofs that is Japanese urban sprawl. The temple itself is also concrete and featureless. Inside a solitary woman sits as the shaven-headed priest drums and chants. Outside a brightly painted statue of Fudo Myo add a splash of color to the drab, monotone environment.
The rain eases.
Back down the hill and for a few kilometers I follow the Nishitetsu rail line. At Zasshonokuna I veer off and head directly east towards a line of low hills.
Crossing the Mikasa River the rain has stopped and to the north the sky is brightening. I remember reading that a major battle took place here many centuries ago but no sign of it now exists. The road heads up through a narrow valley and at the top, passing under the expressway, I can see the mountains across the valley where I expect to be walking tomorrow. Now draped with cloud and rain, I hope that the weather will be nicer tomorrow.
I find the next temple easily, and like the second there is little to distinguish it. Most of the temples on this pilgrimage route are minor, but as any walking pilgrim will tell you, its not the temples themselves which are important but the journey between them.
I start my way north up the valley. On my left the hills that separate it from the airport and downtown Fukuoka, on my right the much higher group of mountains I will be climbing up tomorrow, and then I have my first surprise of the walk...
Umi Hachimangu. The shrine is fairly big, but it is dwarfed by and enclosed within a grove of massive, gnarly trees. Kada's Forest, as it is known, is a grove of giant camphor trees, and the shrine marks the site of a major story from Japan's ancient founding myths, the story of Empress Jingu who, after carrying him in her womb for three years, gave birth here to the man who would be known as Emperor Ojin.
When I was researching my planned route I saw no mention of Umi or Umi Hachimangu so I found it energizing to have "discovered" it. I carried on north for another hour or so to Sue before catching a train back into Hakata.
Inside Track Japan For Kindle