Kompira-san or Kotohira-gu is a large Shinto temple halfway up a mountainside in the Kagawa prefecture on the Japanese Island of Shikoku. What you’ll find at the base of the mountain after a leisurely stroll from either of the town’s train stations is that stereotypical 70’s era martial-arts-movie-forever-ascending staircase, or, to be more accurate, a forever ascending series of staircases. Tourists from all over come throughout the year to climb the steps through a myriad arcade of trinket shops, udon eateries, and vending machines (both literal and metaphorical), and although there are several events during the year that attract more visitors than average, nothing attracts a more curious crowd (local and tourists, young and old, men and women) than Shogatsu, or the first day of the new year.
2013 started out with droves of climbing umbrellas and ended up with descending sunglasses. Be you religious or not, the act of paying a visit to Kompira-san is worth it alone if you’re into large swaths of people gathering in one place for a sole purpose (in this case, thankfully a light hearted and peaceful one). It’s not a cake walk up to the temple, but there were plenty of opportunities to stop along the way to catch your breath, have a drink, or a bite to eat. For those who aren’t able to make the climb by themselves there’s even a carrier service where you can be comfortably stuffed into an old school combination stretcher/coach and hauled to the temple’s front gates by two no doubt physically fit carriers. Participation in the traditional Shinto practices isn’t mandatory once you trudge your way up the hill (that’s right, you’ve still got to climb more steps once you enter the temple grounds and I didn’t see and carrier services once I got past the opening gate), but there’s no shortage of things to do besides praying to the gods for a good year. There’s the ancient architecture and paintings. There’s the good old fashioned Omikuji fortune telling paper where you choose a random stick with a number on it and draw your fortune paper from the drawer matching the number on the stick. It’s not dissimilar to reading you horoscope except that with Omikuji you actually have the chance to get mediocre if not bad news. If your fortune isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, you tie your fortune paper to a wire or a tree branch in the hope that the wind will blow said fortune away. If prognostication isn’t exactly you thing, you could try to float a ¥1 coin on the surface of a huge water-filled pot. The saying goes that if you do it, you’ll have luck on your side.
All other attractions aside, it was the electric throngs of people that caught and held my attention most. The main path leading up to the temple coincidentally resembled the snake in which whose new year we happen to be in with its long winding groups of people writhing their way up and back down the hill. There were street vendors selling octopus, squid, fried chicken, noodles, and sweets of all sorts.
There was one group of people that left the most lasting impression, and that would be the very old. While they were the most frequent customers of the above mentioned carrier service, there were plenty that chose to go it all on their own. One in particular caught my eye shortly before I reached the top. If asked to describe the man in one word I’d choose ‘crumpled.’ Permanently hunched over with one arm grasping the stairway rail and the other clutching a cane, the pain oozed off of him with every step he took. Yet, I got the feeling that if I would have asked if he needed help, I’d receive a rebuke and possibly a mild rapping from his cane. I’m not sure if he made it the entire way by himself, nor did I stick around to see just how he planned to get himself down the mountain again, but one thing was certain, he wasn’t letting his crippled body keep him from going where he wanted to go.
I started my ascent sometime shortly after 11:00am and found myself back at the bottom sometime roughly around 2:30pm. On both occasions there was no shortage of people streaming in either direction. With the exception of few small children complaining for various reasons along the way neither was there a shortage of good cheer (or at the least a calm resolve). For myself, I would say the experience wasn’t mystical or spiritual, although I’m fairly certain that others felt differently. I took it simply for what it was; the communal chance to celebrate a new beginning in a new year, and, for me, in a new way.