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Six temples, 60 km and countless bowls of Sanuki udon in Kagawa

by Amy Chavez

Contributing Writer

The Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage is a 1,200-kilometer route the Buddhist priest Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi) walked over 1,000 years ago. Eighty-eight temples make up the ancient path that is still walked today by the faithful and the curious. But one of the joys of the Shikoku pilgrimage is the local food found along the way, and in Kagawa Prefecture in particular, that means the Japanese favorite: Sanuki udon (thick white noodles).

This week I take you via foot, taxi and train, through wind, clouds and rain, as I slurp my way from one hot bowl of chewy noodles to another while visiting temples along the Shikoku pilgrimage.

I started this three-day section of the pilgrimage at Takamatsu Station, with the goal of doing the last six temples of the 88-temple route, covering a distance of approximately 60 km.

Wearing my white pilgrim vest, a coned sedge hat and carrying a walking stick, the relentless pelting rain convinced me to board the Kotoden Railway train for the 20-minute ride to Temple No. 83, Ichinomiyaji.

At Ichinomiyaji, I encountered my first delicacy of the journey: a piece of home-made boiled sweet potato the lady in the temple souvenir shop handed me as o-settai (gifts given to pilgrims). Next door, while having my new temple book stamped with the Ichinomiyaji seal, the calligrapher proffered me a small packet of temple candy, an offering to the Buddha that is later distributed to followers.

Back on the Kotoden, my plan was to walk from Kotoden Yashima Station, up to No. 84, Yashimaji Temple, on top of the mountain. It’s a nansho temple (meaning it requires more than the usual effort to get to), but according to my udon clock, it was past time to stop for lunch. So just as I started walking up the hill, I ducked into Waraya, a restaurant in an Edo-Period (1603-1868) building that serves piping hot kamaage udon in wooden tubs.

The trick to eating these noodles is, rather than pulling them up to your mouth with your chopsticks as you normally would, you pull them over the side of the tub, helping them to slither over into a smaller bowl filled with the restaurant’s special soy-based sauce, doled out from a large ceramic vessel. Garnishing these noodles with copious mounds of fresh ginger and shallots proved the perfect introduction to the udon trail!

The waiter advised me to stay at the Bokaiso Hotel at the top of the mountain next to Yashimaji Temple. From my room on the top floor, overlooking the city of Takamatsu below was like looking down into a sky full of winking stars.

Yashima is known for its views of the Seto Inland Sea, and as the battleground of the Genji and Heike clans during the Genpei Wars in 1185. In the morning, the lovely Seto Inland Sea was full of mist, history and intrigue as little islands poked their heads out of the clouds below and warrior ghosts still jostled for control of Japan.

After breakfast, I walked next door to Yashimaji, paid my respects to the Tasaburo badger statue for good luck, and walked the path leading to No. 85. Yakuriji, another nansho on the next peak over.

The forest, green and gleaming from the rain, shielded me from the wind. I was further pacified by the moss-cloaked stone Jizo (deity of travelers) statues along the way. But once back in the concrete jungle, I grabbed a taxi the rest of the way.

From 85, I was back on the Kotoden to Temple 86, Shidoji. By now my udon clock was setting off alarms. With no viable noodle options nearby, I went off-trail to seek what was rumored to be the best udon in all of Kagawa.

Near Kawaramachi Station, Ippuku is a self-serve noodle restaurant with a clamorous but welcoming “Irasshaimase! Dōzo!” from the staff. You can watch them make the noodles through the window that faces onto the shopping street. I ordered the bukake udon (choose big or small, hot or cold) and added my own tempura ingredients (burdock and egg) from the food bar. It was the tastiest udon I’ve ever had!

On the third day I walked 7 km from Temple 86 to 87, Nagaoji Temple, past vegetable gardens, orchards and amber rice fields begging to be harvested. For lunch I hopped onto one of the infrequent buses to Temple 88, where I would end my pilgrimage with a recommendation from my friend Yuko: Yasoba-an, located at the bottom of Okuboji Temple.

“Irasshaimase! Dōzo, dōzo!” bellowed the staff. I sat on a zabuton cushion on the tatami mat and in minutes my uchikomi udon was set down in front of me: a scorching metal pot on a plank of wood. By now I knew how to pull the noodles over into the smaller bowl, and to use the wooden spoon to scoop out the rich pork broth with carrot, daikon radish, sweet potato, burdock and white miso.

Finished with my dual udon trail and temple pilgrimage, I headed back home in the rain with a full Sanuki udon belly.

This is the fourth in a six-part monthly series exploring the cuisine found along Japan’s famous hiking routes. The next part will appear in the last week of November.