The day started briskly with a quick breakfast and a bike ride in the rain to catch the 8:16 train. It didn’t seem a problem when I decided to go, but my morning commute from Kawata station in Awa City would take three hours to get to Bando, the stop closest to the first temple of the pilgrimage.
The station was a small one, reflecting the status of an outpost town. Nonetheless, the hospitable cushions in the waiting area and information bulletins for the pilgrimage confirmed the first temple was a short walk away. One other henro whom had gotten off at the same stop at me promptly marched off after studying the map and left me in the dust as I studied the flower arrangement in the corner and virtually everything else along the short walk to the main gate.
The first temple has a regal air that stands out at the traffic intersection it sits on. The wood on the gate is a dark sombre colour that’s stood the test of time, but nonetheless blends in with the dark green pines that rise in the garden behind and beside. Apart from the few visitors just exiting, it is virtually empty. The man sitting on the bridge beyond the gate feeds the pidgeons, adding a reassuring warmth. Behind him is a row of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that make up the Buddhist canon of the Shingon sect.
Beyond that is the main hall, open, dim, but lit with a ceiling of yellow-tinged lanterns. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Somehow I’d imagined rows of pilgrims chanting in a much grander, but simpler, setup like the ones I’d seen in Nara years ago.
There was the single backpack left on the bench outside and I was relieved the other henro had led the way in terms of temple etiquette that I’ve yet to internalize.
Since it’s the first temple, I figured I should put my best foot forward and drop a donation for a candle. All the words written were implying prayers for oneself, or one’s family and loved ones. Without one that had a general wish that could apply to everyone, I decided to to ask for safe travel on the road. I figured start with the basics.
Next, I went to the temple shop to pick up the henro essentials. The staff and hat are the minimum, (candles and insence if you want your message to reach the Buddhas). To those I added a bell, because I liked the idea of a being accompanied by a sound that always made me feel warm inside. The hat I wanted wasn’t available, so I’d have to try my luck elsewhere.
Before leaving the main hall, I light three incense sticks and send blessings for the future friends I have yet to meet. After realizing that I have nothing in particular to pray for myself, I’ve decided instead to dedicate each temple to another, in case prayers do get answered.
As I my way out, I noticed the staffs left behind by previous henro and began questioning my purchase. Why did I make a purchase when I could reuse? Was I being stingy for feeling tempted? However, as I picked up each of them, I realised none of them were quite what I wanted – my plain staff, tinkling bell, and green string. And just a few feet away, I found an abandoned henro hat (in much need of repair, but worth the attempt).
Near disappointment and an instant elation seem to come in pairs. Armed with bought staff and salvaged hat dangling from my backpack, I moved on to Temple 2.
In contrast to the contained first temple, this one feels open even when passing the gates. Instead, you notice the assortment of cups by the well offering a weary traveller a vessel, but the luxury of choice. After winding through the various areas of prayer mixed with a well manicured garden, you go up a flight of steep stairs to the main temple – standing solitary and secluded by dense trees.
Without a lighter, I borrow the flame of the single lit candle in the glass box, mumbling a reverent ‘shitsureishimasu’ / excuse me, to get my incense going. I asked for blessings for all the people I will never meet in this lifetime. I felt I should address them before moving on to usual requests for people I know and care about. As I place my insence stick – the only in the large metal urn – I notice a rosary someone had left behind on one of the holding stones I’d found the left staffs in previously. Somehow, these little gestures are touching; someone leaving an important piece of the pilgrimage behind, maybe for someone else who needed the beads to chant.
Before I head out, I go into the Temple shop to get a stamp (which I forgot to do at the first temple). I feel that knowing I arrived is enough, but figured that 300 Yen to ensure against future regret seemed pretty affordable. In any case, if I run out of cash, it is easier to just stop purchases!
Outside the shop, I check the left staffs out of curiosity for the characters they reveal. One of them – a sanded stick – catches my eye. Again, I’m met with a pang of regret; was my purchase too commercial? In fact, I am so taken by the stick I decide to take it with me to Temple 3.
The staff is supposed to represent Kobo Daishi, who accompanies you even if you are alone on your journey. Wanting two of him seems a bit greedy, and I feel self conscious as every car passes me on the main road that I am trekking down. Even for a layperson like me, such small things suddenly have so much significance.
Again, Temple 3 is nothing like the other two complexes. Its bright red newly painted gate almost radiates down the small lane that leads up to it. From the gate, you can see a matching coloured bridge, but not much else as there is a row of well-kept trees. In fact, walking in, I stumbled upon a team of gardeners trimming all the plants in the small garden. When I bowed and placed my incense, I thought of my parents and siblings, whom I don’t think of often enough compared to friends.
When I return to the washing station to get my staffs, I notice that someone has left a few remaining candles in a plastic bag. I help myself to the anonymous gift with gratitude because I had someone in mind to light the candle for: my grandmother.
Finished my rounds, I get another stamp and happily place the sanded branch in with all the other left staffs. I thoroughly enjoyed holding it during the walk here. When knowing you have a whole month of walking ahead of you, suddenly time has a different significance. It is abundantly available for ruminating. I wondered about all my possible regrets over the staff, most notably whether I should have made one in Keihoku when there was a workshop available, and where I felt so at home with the cedars. Related to it was whether I should have waited and found a staff en route that was personal to me. I was a bit uneasy that my staff was just one of many. Yet, as I walked with both in hand and able to compare, I noted the qualities that had made me select it in the first place (its weight, colour, shape, carve) and still hold true. It made me think of people: one can find the most unique and suitable individuals to befriend, or more patiently develop relationships with people who seem ordinary, with mild qualities on the surface. The well-shaped beam I was holding, although not first class, was not poorly made either, and its colour, shape and weight will change with every mile gained. By the time I hopped on the train home, I felt I made the right decision, if not the natural one for me.
All in all, I only took 2 hours to walk between the three temples at a leisurely pace. In contrast to my impatience with the ‘uninteresting’ landscape while cycling to my first two temples before, I didn’t mind walking alongside a major road through mostly empty and uninteresting buildings. The gentle rhythm of walking makes the environment seem alright because I have my thoughts for company, and a tinkling bell to chime in.
Next, fate has granted me two kind hosts, but that means skipping over some temples to reach them on time! Will keep you posted! If you liked this post, please share! Thanks for reading.