It’s my first real day! I’m up before my alarm at dawn and get up to prepare breakfast with Shou-san. It’s my last full meal at Ono Farm before catching a ride with my WWOOFing host out to Tokushima City.
With the organic breads that Masako-san’s friends brought yesterday, the sumomo (sour peach) jam we made recently, a mix of harvested greens, and natto, we have a breakfast feast. I dig in with gusto: when will I have another breakfast like this again?
As I’m waiting for Masako-san to head out, I take photos of the small jar of red sumomo jam. These sumomo represent my stay on Ono Farm. My first task on this farm was to pick them from the tree in the garden. A few nights later, I was stirring them in stock pots with sugar and a splash of yuzu juice, beside Masako-san and Shou-san. The following days, we compared this new batch to some remaining jars from last year. I never got enough of them.
Even though it’s barely been a week, I feel like a different person now. My mind has already boxed away my farming life, making mental space to soak in these coming weeks.
I hear Masako-san call from outside. It’s time to go! I grab my walking stick and toss it in the trunk.
I’m sitting on the train to Komatsushima, the closest stop to Temple 18, Onzan-ji. It’s a quiet local route, with plenty of space between all the individual passengers. I laugh inwardly when I imagine how I look now with a staff leaning on the side, a bag of food dangling, a bulging backpack, and a weathered sedge hat tied on top. My entire getup has already put me in a parallel world to the ‘normal’ looking commuters with straight cut shirts and bags on lap across from me. I think about Grace’s henro diary: she describes feeling a belonging in the white-garbed henro she sees when walking during Spring, pilgrimage high season. There are none on my train, but it doesn’t bother me. I wonder if I’ll grow to feel a belonging amongst these other pilgrims as time goes on.
If it wasn’t for two kind ojii-san (grandpas) who had stopped to direct and guide me, I’d probably have gotten lost in the short walk from the train station to the temple. Their friendliness gave life to the otherwise monotonous streets flanked by rice paddies and houses. They made it feel like Shikoku was ready to help at every turn, nudging me to keep going even though I’d barely started.
I stopped to write: The world conspires to help you succeed, even if it doesn’t get easier.
However, even with the light walk, my back is drenched when I arrive at the temple at 11:30am. I improvise my way through the rituals of lighting incense.
Normally, one prays for something big at all 88 temples, or for their family. Instead, I’ve resolved to dedicate temples to others. I wonder if this was the right temple for the two friends I chose. They have a Kannon statue at home, and go to their temple every week back in Hong Kong. Would waiting until Kannon-ji, a temple later in the pilgrimage route, have been better? Every temple along the route has its own history, story, and reported powers, and it seems like I should find the right match. Yet, these friends had done so many things they’ve done for me throughout the years, including introducing me someone else who became an influential mentor and friend. By Chinese custom, you honour by order of importance, and after my family, I am most indebted to them. Then again, it probably doesn’t matter to anyone except me. I’m reading too much into things, as usual.
I snack on wasabi peas and procrastinate on picking up my bag again. It’s hot, and I’m frustrated at my uncertainty despite having a map. I can feel my left shoulder aching, and I’m bothered that I kept checking the distance and time. Why am I so impatient? Is this a sign that it’s too much of an undertaking? What will the real long walks of Kochi be like? I hope I’ll get into the groove. Actually, I must if I’m to continue.
I watch the two other pilgrims that have walked into temple office to get their nokyocho (temple stamps). The two elderly men are driving pilgrims who get their white cloth bags carrying all the temple necessities out of the trunk at every stop. I’m amazed pilgrims can keep their tunics so white. I am already feeling grimy.
About an hour later, I’m sitting down again, already. It’s a comfortable little patch of grass by the side of the road, shaded by trees, and perfect for a nap. It’s too early for a nap, but the sun is making me sleepy.
After leaving Onzan-ji, I followed the henro path pointing past the cow barns into the bamboo forest. It matched my henro guide book, which took me through a little hill as a short-cut. The little red stickers with an arrow and a little figure have guided me all the way here so far. Some were hand drawn, dangling from the trees and bamboo along the pastoral path behind the cow farm. It was like a taste of walking back in time, to the romance of medieval Japan, with sunlight flickering under the towering green bamboo stalks, the path strewn with dried yellow leaves.
Everything was so fresh, even though so ordinary. I take notes on my digital journal, my Journey App:
The Pilgrimage winds behind people’s backyards, follows highways, through forests, and rice paddies. It seems to take you through life, right in the thick of it in a way you never would when too busy living your own life. As you walk by, with marvel, repulsion, boredom, it really hits home it’s just all in your mind.
The paved concrete roads aren’t particularly romantic. The houses and backyards I pass have hanging laundry and bonzai pots spilling over benches. They’re open about their laundry despite the pilgrim traffic. It’s not like the historic tourist towns. I like it.
Eventually, I heave myself up from the grass, and the ants and oddly shaped insects milling around. In the city, seeing them always made me wonder if I left food out for an invasion. Here, they’re at home industriously climbing amongst the grasses and hardy weeds. A giant hand could crush them, but it doesn’t disturb their efficiency. With that, I finally muster the resolve to work as hard as they do and pick up my bag.
The last bit to Tatsue-ji is a quick breeze into a sleepy town. What a difference this temple is from the last: right in the middle of what was probably once a lively town, with an elegant ceremonial bridge to cross into the temple grounds, an expansive main hall and two-storey prayer rooms, willows blowing in the courtyard, fences here and there to block nosy wandering visitors from causing pedestrian traffic chaos or disruptions to the chants. That’s what I imagine anyway, for the courtyard is serenely empty.
Tatsue-ji is supposed to be a sekisho temple, spiritual checkpoint, where the intentions of the pilgrim are tested. If found to be impure, they cannot move on. In these grounds, with a two storey veranda for me to explore and take in the view of the gold-leafed pagoda, the giant Kobo Daishi statue, and bell-tower, I began to feel a temptation to stay forever.
I shake it off and quickly light incense for both the Main Hall and Daishi-hall, this time for my maternal aunt and uncle, who are different in all things except strong characters, huge tempers, and unwavering generosity to friends. In the end, the years of Chinese cultural soaking means defaulting to family first.
In between the two halls, there is a little shop selling the usual things for pilgrims: osamefuda (nameslips), incense, the stamp book, and a host of charms. The ojii-san waves me over and hands me a stack of osamefuda. Thinking he wanted to make a sale, I smile and shake my head politely. Instead, I hand him a purple charm I’m getting for my aunt, and the payment. When he hands me my change and the charm, the stack of white osamefuda is on top. He didn’t charge.
I bow, and can only say thank you. This large stack of osamefuda will last me a while, as I drop names of all the people I’m going to pray for into the temple boxes. Hopefully, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will hear them. It feels like I’ve been given a voice up to the heavens.
I write down my uncle’s name on the osamefuda, with date and where he is currently living and place it with the rest. The stack of white osamefuda was only 100 Yen, but I resisted the urge to buy more items and spend more resources for the sake of ritual. Now that I have them in my hand, they feel so much more significant.
I walk out of the temple with another lesson: no matter the value of a gift, if it is something you wouldn’t have paid for, it’s priceless.
[In retrospect, this was my first o-settai, gifts given to pilgrims, which should not be rejected as they are also thought to be gifts indirectly given to Kobo Daishi (who accompanies the pilgrims in the spirit of the tsue, staff).]
I hop on a train to the nearby city of Anan and arrive by 4:00. I’m an hour ahead of my scheduled arrival at my Couchsurfing hosts’ place, so I kill time at a bookstore, looking up udon restaurants in a city somewhere in Shikoku. I take photos of the book anyway, reminding myself to look them up later.
I am looking forward to a proper shower.
My Couchsurfing hosts are a young couple, with a baby son with fantastic reviews. They seemed so interesting that I decided to skip from Temple 3 (where I’d left off the previous week) to Onzan-ji, which is Temple 18 just to match their availability.
After picking me up at the nearby convenience store, I played with Kotaro while Ayumi whipped up a multi-dish dinner. Their 18-month old could already stand on a yoga ball and ran around the tatami mats playing with his various toys. As we passed the ball back and forth, it felt like I’d put away my henro-self for the day.
With the hissing sound of cooking and frying in the kitchen in the background, I chat with Masashi about their travels and ask him about the various pictures on the wall. They’ve hosted over 40 people in the past few years. The two effortlessly recount the stories as Masashi follows Ayumi’s cooking instructions to speed up the preparation.
‘Ayumi’s a great cook,’ Masashi explains after he shows her the bowl he’s been mixing. ‘Like this?’ he asks her tentatively.
She takes a peak and says, ‘A bit more.’
‘So where did you learn to cook?’ I ask her.
‘From my mom.’
‘She cooks all sorts of things though.’ Masashi pitches in.
‘So who cooks when you visit home?’ I ask.
‘Usually my mom.’
‘Is it because she never thinks you’re good enough?’ I ask because my mom says I turn her kitchen into a war zone every time I go back.
There’s a slight pause. ‘Actually, I’m better than my mom.’ I’m in luck then!
Soon, dinner is ready, and I fill my bowl with rice, fried fish, and veggies. When we sit down, I put my hands together: ‘Ittadakimasu!’ and dig in. I have two more refills before I’m satisfied. The food’s too good!
Soon, they ask me what I plan to do the next day since I only asked to stay one night.
‘I’ll take the train back to Tatsue-ji and then walk to the next temple.’
‘All the way? They’re in the mountains with nothing!’ They cried.
I hesitate. I’m worried too. I’ve been thinking about this the entire week. Temples 20 and 21 are both on mountains, and I expected to be doing nojuku (camping) in between the two. ‘There’s supposed to be an abandoned school and a hut after Kakurinji.’ I respond.
‘Is it safe in the mountains?’
To my knowledge, Japanese mountains are as safe as you get, but it would also be my first time camping alone since family trips in elementary school. I didn’t like the thought of being in the dark all night. On a trip to Nepal a few years back, I’d gotten lost in Kathmandu during sunset in a local area without any lights or traffic, and since then I’ve never liked complete darkness.
‘Why don’t you stay one more night? I can drive you to the next temple tomorrow and pick you up wherever you stop,’ Ayumi offered.
It took all my willpower not to jump for joy. I couldn’t quite believe it. It seemed like a huge favour given that she had to take care of her son. ‘Hontou ni? Really? Don’t you have other things you need to do?’
She waved off my worries, ‘Really. Kotaro seems to like you. Plus, I don’t have anything to do and it would be nice to chat more. We could do Kakurinji together, and then you can walk to the next temples. We’ll have dinner together after.’
Masashi nodded. ‘Plus, you can speak English to him.’
‘Yes, you’re doing an important service for me! No, don’t clean up! Please keep playing with him!’ Ayumi says cheerily as she clears the table.
I am floored. My entire week of anxiety was washed away in a single offer. All I can do is accept and do my best to immerse Kotaro with as much English as possible to repay their hospitality.
Masashi and I continue to chat while playing with Kotaro and the toys he brings us. By 10pm we’re all showered, and I retire for bed in the spare room.
I still can’t believe my luck. Following my intuition and skipping ahead to meet Ayumi and Masashi far exceeded anything I could have imagined. I hope my gut continues to guide me well. I fall asleep soundly knowing that tomorrow, I’ll return to these warm four walls, a shower, a hearty meal, and lovely company.