Burning Mountain Temple

Burning Mountain Temple
Photo by localjapantimes (copied from Flickr)

Photo by localjapantimes (copied from Flickr)

Thirteen centuries ago the legendary Japanese monk Kobo Daishi climbed through a roaring inferno to Burning Mountain Temple, where he battled the dragon that had set the slopes alight. As an American pilgrim following in his footsteps in August, 2010, I have a hard time believing that story. There is no way this mountain could get any hotter.

Air ignites my lungs with each gasping breath and burns through my limbs. Each heartbeat pounds against my ribcage in a desperate attempt to escape and a rapidly depleting reservoir of sweat patters to the ground behind me. Given all this, it’s still a surprise when my legs buckle and the ground rushes to my face. Rolling to my side, mud seeps into my once-white pilgrim’s vest. My conical sedge hat wobbles beside my head.

When my eyes refocus I finally see how dangerously unprepared I am for this pilgrimage on Shikoku island. But after talking non-stop about the journey for the past year, I’m even less prepared to explain to everyone why I quit three days in. So I’ll continue despite the growing dehydration and my newly malfunctioning legs.

Eyes shut, I rise against the weight of my forty-pound pack and slam my walking staff into the soil.

C’mon man, I think, you ran a marathon and bicycled a century ride last year. You’re going to let a hike stop you?

Fifty steps later I’m back in the dirt, glaring jealously at the millipedes’ extra legs as they crawl past. My own two legs are no longer responding, which is confusing. This has never happened on any hike, bike, or run. However, when the fourth attempt to push myself back up fails, confusion is replaced by bright red panic alarms. A twenty-eight year old office worker miserable at his job, I came to this pilgrimage on Japan’s southeast island hoping to change my life, not end it. But I’m stuck in the middle of a mountain range far from any roads with no water. For the first time since a childhood prank ended with me getting chased down by a truck, I’m sure I’m going to die.

And I only have myself to blame.

And Global Warming.


Hours earlier I was praying at Wisteria Temple, tucked into a tree-shrouded valley floor. The eleventh of the eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the Shikoku Pilgrimage route, the shrine’s Buddha statue was a popular object of worship for protection, having survived numerous fires since its carving in 1148. Had I known what the day would hold I’d have prayed harder. Instead, I turned on wobbly legs, found the priest, and pointed to my empty water bottles.

“Atsui, Desu Ne?” (Hot, ain’t it?) he asked, the ubiquitous greeting in these humid summer months.

“Hai, Atsui” (Yes, hot) I gasped back, which was an understatement given the record-breaking summer heat. In the past two days I’d drained both water bottles on an hourly basis and still hadn’t peed while the sun was up. He pointed to the spigot. I lurched over and began chugging.

The weather was one of many things I didn’t have time to research before I left a full time job to come to Shikoku. Another was language, my vocabulary limited to “water”, “thank you” and expressing disbelief that a monster was attacking the city. The third was how to read the map book.

As the last twisting wisps of mist rose from the courtyard’s damp earth I glanced over the day’s route. Thirteen kilometres to the next temple, a meandering trip through the woods with elevations gained and lost in tinted colour gradients. Pondering whether this stroll would take two or three hours I hoisted my pack to my shoulders, stumbling under the weight. I’d hoped for a can of “Pocari Sweat” sports drink to bring along, but this was one of the few temples without a soda machine.

The gurgling brook running through the valley floor became fainter and fainter as I blindly headed into the forest towards Burning Mountain Temple, the first nansho (dangerous place) temple and the first henro-kogorashi (“when a pilgrim falls down”), carrying half the bottles of water I’d need. Lining the path were stone statues of Jizo, the monk-like guardian of travellers, their features weathered expressionless with time. Coins were scattered at their feet, offerings from previous pilgrims in return for protection on the arduous hike. Had I known what was coming, I’d have added a couple Yen to the pile.

The forest quickly warmed as the islands of Japan bowed further towards the rising sun. I hiked the slopes, my heart ramming into my chest and staff pounding into the ground hard enough to leave oil-wells in my wake. Past the first peak it only became hotter and harder until suddenly I found myself slumped into the dirt with my left and right legs on strike. I pushed myself up. When I collapsed again a minute later, I got scared.


The fifth or sixth time I sprawl in the dirt the panic alarms are flashing extra bright. When my stomach stops looking for something to throw up I can raise my head again. Hazy daylight filters through the oak and maple branches. I’m near the peak. Thank gods.

With long rests and short hikes I fall up the switchbacks until I flop at the foot of a stone staircase. Peering above the steps is the dark iron visage of Kobo Daishi, dragon-fighter, holy man, and engineer.  Behind the statue I hear a soda machine thrumming, the soft lap of pure water falling into washbasins. This has been a worthy contender for the “Worst Day of my Life” award, but I’ve reached the temple. In celebration I chug the last gulp of my water, which sieves through me to puddle onto the steps. I catch my breath between ragged coughs and charge to the top.

Behind the statue is an empty clearing. No temple, no water faucet, no soda machine. A lady pilgrim rests on a bench fanning the light perspiration beading on her plump face. She must have passed by me unnoticed on one of my frequent trips to the ground. Of the 500,000 pilgrims travelling annually by bus, bike or car, she and I are two of the few hundred devout and masochistic choosing to walk the 750-mile trail. But this is where the similarities cease. With no pack weighing her down, she’s probably staying at the many small hotels dotting the path instead of camping out each night.

In broken Japanese I ask where there is water. She shrugs. I ask if I can take a sip of her water. Smiling apologetically, she shakes her head. I ask where to find the temple. She points further down the path. I turn to the statue.

“You lied to me Daishi!” I yell, getting partway through “lied” before my vision goes to static and I crumple at his feet. The panic alarms are joined by a klaxon blaring through my skull. My Japanese is non-existent and I’m unable to pantomime “Emergency Medical Evacuation” to the pilgrim on the bench, so I collect myself and think. After struggling under my backpack for two days and six unbearable hours, the urge to leave it behind leads to wild rationalizations

Do you really need the tent, sleeping bag, and all the clothes? After all, isn’t a sleeping bag just a tent without scaffolding? And aren’t pants just a thinner sleeping bag with legs? And who really needs pants, when you think about it?

Sadly, the only thing keeping the tent and sleeping bag from tumbling down the mountainside is how much I paid for both.

I look back at her. She smiles and points down the dirt path leading away from the clearing to my destination at some uncertain point ahead.

You can make it to the temple, no problem. I tell myself, sweat cascading off my chin. It’ll be easy, especially without all this extra liquid weighing us down.

But I know what’s ahead. With no sense of time or place or progress, I’ll collapse in the dirt, rise with the ache deep in my muscles, make it another hundred steps, and fall again with my lungs burning. Each time it’ll become more painful until I either reach the temple, get rescued incapacitated, or die somewhere in the woods. My stomach curdles and a breeze of no comfort rustles the branches.

And, staring down the path into an awful future, I accept it. I’ve committed myself to this journey. If weakness, fear, and pain are now a part of it, then I’ll live with them in the present moment. I came here to change my life, why should it be easy, or not life threatening? With one step into the forest, then another, my pack thudding down on my bruised and blistered soles, I ascend towards Burning Mountain Temple.

And the hours are as bad as I predicted. Curled in the dirt I beg for water from passing hikers in their sweat-wicking technical shirts, aluminium hiking poles, and tiny backpacks, out for a rousing stroll up a mountain. Some give me what they have left, others politely decline, needing it on such a scorching day. I can’t fault their foresight as I lay on my side, trying to convince myself you can’t die of dehydration in ten hours and never really buying it. Back on my feet, electric crackling fills my skin. With each step towards the temple I promise myself there will be a soda machine with “Pocari Sweat” sports drink; or, if I don’t make it, in heaven, if God wasn’t paying strict attention to my life.

Finally, cresting another peak, the path changes. The overhanging branches recede from the blue sky and gravel crunches beneath my shoes, curving between stone lanterns and the sheer drop of the mountainside. A line of Buddhas meditating atop lotus thrones leads to the main gate of Burning Mountain Temple. In the courtyard I pass beneath towering columns of mossy red cedars rising from the pristine white grave, drop my pack, and throw myself up the stairs. Beside a cosy restaurant stands a soda machine, the refrigerator motor humming an angels’ chorus. With no ceremony, three “Pocari Sweat” sports drinks evaporate in my throat.

Inside the restaurant my head slumps onto the roughly hewn table. When a waitress with red-dyed hair appears over me I point in the menu’s direction until she understands “food.” Motionless, I wait for my first meal all day as the energized table of hikers beside me chatters cheerfully, their small packs filled with whatever they need between here and their car.

I down the noodles and salty soy broth she brings the moment it’s on the table then return to the courtyard to complete the ritual before the temple closes. After swinging the log clapper into the iron bell to wake the spirits, I fall to my knees and recite the sutras to the enshrined Buddha. Behind the temple lies the cave where Kobo Daishi trapped the dragon, protected from the inferno by Buddha’s grace. At the same spot a dozen centuries later, I only feel more vulnerable to the heat.

There’s no place to stay at the temple, so I refill my water bottles, grab my pack, and follow the sun’s path down the mountain to the valley below.

As night falls over a small village ringed with sharp peaks I lay in my tent, violent cramps running through my legs and arms. As far as I know, tomorrow will be another day like this. I’m terrified, but I’ll still rejoin the path and accept whatever that day brings. I’ve committed to completing this pilgrimage in the hopes of changing my life, something worth far more than momentary pain.

But I’m buying more water bottles.

Paul Barach is a stand up comedian and writer who has performed in top venues all over the West Coast, including Seattle's Comedy Underground, Portland's Bagdad Theater, and Rooster T Feathers in San Francisco. Graduating with a BA from Carleton College in Minnesota, Paul Barach has earned his Black Belt in Kyokushin Karate, taught English in South Korea, undertaken the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan, and most recently bicycled across the United States. A frequent contributor to the Moth Storyslams, he’s currently completed his first travel memoir “Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains: Misadventures on a Japanese Pilgrimage.”

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