After a few years in Japan or even a few weeks for that matter, it’s easy to get temple fatigue. Once you learn about the differences between a temple and a shrine, and some of the history of Kobodaishi, they can start to blend together. Recently, however, I literally stumbled across one that brought back that feeling of wonder one gets when visiting for the first time. If you’re passing through Hiroshima, be sure to stop off in Onomichi, and take some time to explore Senkoji and the temple walk.
Heading left from the station, signs clearly point the way to one of Onomichi’s main attractions: the temple walk. A 2.5-kilometer path traverses the narrow alleys of the mountain behind the station, weaving together a route through just over two dozen temples. The distance can be covered on foot comfortably in an hour or so, but for visitors who want to stop at each temple and listen to the historical narration booths (recordings in English, as well as other languages), it could take the better part of a day.
The hillside is quaint Japan at its best. Vine covered cafes lurk behind every turn while here and there abandoned abodes quietly carry on with their crumbling unnoticed. On one street stands an old roof tile workshop, now in need of the service it once provided. A tall stone outside one home could be a temple relic or a bird bath. A set of plastic tubs are painstakingly decorated with plants, toys, and an oxygen pump, but there are no fish or turtles to be seen. Ornaments made all the more intriguing by their impenetrability abound. All the houses share a view overlooking what resembles a river but is really a thin ribbon of ocean separating Onomichi from a nearby island.
The path eventually winds its way up to Senkoji, the highlight, via a series of long staircases. A lookout offers the opportunity to catch your breath while enjoying the view of the water, and perhaps a very bitter grapefruit if it’s springtime when trees bear fruit. Senkoji has all the features you would expect of a temple, including omikuji papers that tell your fortune, charms and prayers for purchase, and calligraphy seals for your nokyocho stamp book. It also has a few you might not expect, for example, a string threaded through heavy wooden beads that make a satisfying clacking sound as they cascade over the top of the pulley, respectfully pulled by worshippers. Making my way to the left side of the complex, I came across something I’d never seen at any other temple or shrine. Then again, this was the first temple I’d seen built into the side of a mountain.
A series of heavy chains hang from the rock above a white sign, warning not to attempt the climb to the top in poor weather, or let children ascend unaccompanied by an adult. Difficulty-wise, the climb falls somewhere between your standard ladder, and indoor rock climbing wall aimed at beginners. The linked loops make for good handholds and footholds, and their surprising weight keeps the chains from sliding around too much. That being said, they do twist a bit, so travelers would be wise to watch their step. Railings are built where possible, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with a fear of heights. On top is a small place to pray, but the real star is the ocean view.
After making your way down from the boulders, head left to connect with the trail running under the cable car. This path also happens to be the tail end of the Path of Literature, a walk strewn with famous quotes from Japanese books connected with Onomichi. For most foreigners it probably wouldn’t be interesting enough to merit tracking down each and every last one, but for the ones you do pass the stone inscriptions are quite beautiful. The road leads to the top of the mountain, where a round building houses a restaurant and observation deck. After a long walk on a hot day, enjoying the 360-degree panoramic view with a fruit ice cream in hand really hits the spot. But no jump shots please, a warning sign insists.
Senkoji and the temple walk are a great way to spend a morning or afternoon in Onomichi. Even if you’re not a rock climber, the temple is easily accessible from the ropeway. Round trip tickets are available for a few hundred yen, or you can climb up one way and rest on the ride back down. Even if you don’t achieve enlightenment, at least you’ll be rewarded with a good workout.