Unpenji (雲辺寺) is the 66th temple of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, built on top of Unpenji Mountain in Shikoku, Japan. It lies atop a mountain range right along the border between Tokushima Prefecture and Kagawa Prefecture. At an elevation of about 900 meters (~2,950 ft), it is the highest point of the entire pilgrimage. It is also called the “Koya of Shikoku” – a place where monks in the past can study the landscape from a high panoramic point of view.
Unpenji is surrounded by nature that changes throughout the seasons of the year. No matter when you visit, the scenery is equally impressive and picture-worthy. In the spring, flowers and lush bushes crowd up against the pathways leading to the gates. Hydrangea is a common but eye-catching species that grows in the area. In the summer, a luscious blanket of green takes over the woods, and misty clouds shroud the wooden temple structures in a haze of mystery. In Autumn, gradients of yellow, orange, and red paint over leaves on the tall and straight trees. In the winter, the stillness and calmness of snow coupled with less foot traffic will put anyone’s mind at ease and make you feel at peace with the surrounding nature.
The hike up Unpenji is steep with winding and narrow paths at times. It is challenging yet rewarding once you reach your destination. For those who are just aiming to see the temple grounds and enjoy some beautiful nature along the way, there is a ropeway (cable car) that starts all the way from the foot of the mountain. Running at 10 meters per second, it is the fastest ropeway in Japan. Once you arrive at the station, it is a 10-minute walk to Unpenji. At the summit, the Shikoku Cable company operates Snow Park Unpenji, a ski resort, and Wind Park Unpenji, a paragliding field.
The shear size of the temple grounds can take up at least half a day for those who want to explore and soak it all in. Avid photographers should make sure their cameras have adequate memory space to capture all Upenji has to offer. At its altitude, the temple is often buried in fog, especially during humid and rainy seasons. If you are blessed with clear skies when you visit, you will be able to see far into the distance and capture a panoramic view of the Seto Inland Sea and the Sanuki Plains. You might even be able to see parts of Ehime and Kochi Prefectures even further in the distance.
The most impressive display at Unpenji is no doubt the 500 Arhats stone statues. According to Buddhist legends, Arhats are saints who gathered for the Councils when Buddha reached Nirvana. The are lined up tidily along a path around the temple grounds. Each status has its own unique physical features, emotional expressions, and pose. Some of them are dancing happily, some are still and stoic, and some are angry.
Numerous other Buddhist shrines and statues are placed on temple grounds. Jizo, the protector of travelers, pregnant women, and children, is one of them and can be found near the stamp office (nokyosho). A stone gate (torii) sits before stone steps leading to a small shrine worshipping Gosha Daigongen, the Great Avatar of the five shrines, who serves as the protector of Unpenji. The temple features many symbolic properties around eliminating bad fortune, as well as goods at the temple shop that can help you ward off evil spirits. If you visit, be sure to take it slowly as Unpenji is a true treasure of Shikoku that you may only encounter once in a lifetime.
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