Anan City –> Katsuura –> Aratano –> Anan City
Temples: 20(Kakurin-ji 鶴林寺), 21(Tairyuu-ji 太龍寺), 22 (Byoudou-ji 平等寺)
Weather: Sunny + Cloudy
Travel Method: Car + Walking + Car
Distance: (+22) 17
Additional Resources: Map of Kamo-no-michi between Temples 21-23 (2016)

The morning glow gradually fills my room, but I can’t shake the sleepy haze. Slowly, I feel the tightness of my thighs, the tense shoulder muscles. Suddenly, I feel my whole body as one heavy mass. Through the closed door, Ayumi’s gentle coaxing voice does a tango with Kotaro’s sputtered wails.

In this room with a TV, surfboard, futons, and travel books, I feel so detached from the pilgrimage. I push myself up and head outside to play with Kotaro as Ayumi makes breakfast. It’s mostly me in awe of him bouncing up and down effortlessly on a yoga ball. Eventually, he loses balance when he jumps, and he laughs as he falls into Masashi’s arms. Kotaro seems to like the falling part most.

How I wish I could experience his perspective.

Before we learn fear.

Before we learn fear.

By 8am, breakfast is done, the table is cleaned, and we are ready to go. Ayumi’s car has a dangle of stuffed toys for Kotaro, but he falls asleep once we set off. Anan is a small city, and the shops thin out once we turn into the mountains. As we approach Katsuura, Ayumi explains that the town is famous for the summer hina matsuri. I wonder how many other small villages in the country carry on their annual traditions and modestly pack them away behind ordinary houses until the next year.

The final climb up to Kakurin-ji is a single-lane road. The road snakes up the side of the mountain between the cedars. I notice flagstones between them – an older, steeper path. It’s the henro-no-michi, the henro path; I’d read that this section is an especially well-kept part of the old routes. The flagstones are swept clean, the light moss radiant.

This is what I’ve missed out on.

This is what I’ve avoided, I correct myself.

‘I’m glad I don’t have to walk up this.’ I sigh. With my overweight backpack, it wouldn’t be just a romantic cedar forest stroll. I finally feel justified for accepting Ayumi’s generous offer to drive.

‘Yeah, you wouldn’t have made it with your bag,’ Ayumi responds with concern.

‘Did you cycle up this?!’ I ask her. She had cycled the Shikoku Pilgrimage a few years ago, and I was eager to get an pilgrim’s insight. ‘It’s so steep!’

‘No, no!’ She cries. ‘I gave up. I stopped somewhere here. I just walked up and back down. It was too hard.’

I feel the car heave around the turns and I wonder if I could cycle up. The image of me slowing down to a halt and toppling slowly is both sobering and comical.

‘How long did the whole pilgrimage take you?’

’17 days.’

‘What?!’

‘Yeah, I cycled about 100 kilometres every day. About 12 hours every day.’

But where was her bike?

‘Oh, I borrowed it from my cousin.’

A hundred kilometres is more than any of my long-distance cycling trips. I feel like I’d been lazy, congratulating myself for a mere 60 or 90 km ride on my light road bike. In contrast, she just took off with an ill-fitted, ordinary bike. I guess it’s good to be a little ignorant to get started as long as you have the determination to finish.

day4kakurinji

By 10 we’re up at the temple, helping Kotaro up the steep stone steps to the Hondo, the Main Hall. When he gets to the top, I light my incense and offer some to Ayumi. She can be a pilgrim again for a day, if she wants.

While historically the Ohenro had a time limit due to the Edo Period’s limitations on travelling, the spiritual Ohenro doesn’t. The only requirement for completion is that you visit all 88 Temples. In fact, it is this flexibility and openness that made this route appealing. Now, I realise it gives me the freedom to welcome others as well.

Kotaro is a pilgrim today, too. I wonder if he will ever visit all the temples like his mother. What will he become? Just the thought of all the possibilities, all the serendipitous moments that can direct his life, makes me smile. Isn’t life a bit like particle physics, with lives bouncing off each other, colliding, fusing, and separating?

The Muslims say inshallah, the Chinese, you yuan fen (有緣分), the Japanese, ichi-go, ichi-e. They all have slightly different emphases, but they point to the mystical combination of chance, fate, and letting things run their course. Isn’t there collective wisdom in these enduring languages?

Why have we become so obsessed with being the masters of our fates?

After we finish, Ayumi drives me down into a valley surrounded by forested mountains and blue skies. From the drop off point, I go through the shaded forest to Tariyuu-ji.

The trees grow thicker, and the shadows deeper. I reach a rest hut with a beam of sunlight hitting the moss-covered roof and sapling tree on top. It’s beside a shimmering, silver stream cutting through the shade. Despite the mosquitos, I am reluctant to leave this spot, this moment.

Jpeg

So instead, I scamper down the bank and perch along the rocks, thrusting my empty water bottle into the cool water. I take a sample gulp and taste the sweetness of the chilled mountain stream.

My squatting view is a fallen tree hovering above the rushing water, with two mushrooms. The white one looks like it’s glowing in the darkness. I lean in and take photos, engrossed.

Suddenly, time catches up. The grip of the forest loosens. I need to go. I climb back up the bank and pick up my tsue, staff with attached bell, and near-empty daypack.

Barely five minutes later, I’m distracted again. Is that a crab?! A flat red creature crawls up the road. There’s another. Another one ambles down to the stream. What are they doing here? I look around me, at the emerald broadleaves and deep green fir trees: so much like the forests on the other side of the Pacific, yet no doubt different.

Jpeg

The rest of the path takes me through a temple ruin, and a camp ground / squatter area. Would I have passed the night here? I imagine accidentally burning the entire forest down. I walk on, entertained by my overactive imagination, and relieved that I won’t be building a fire tonight.

A bit further on, it’s a steady climb up log stairs. I pause every now and then, slightly out of breath, thoroughly soaked in sweat, wondering how far I am.

I wonder how tall the Grouse Grind in Vancouver is. A fit person, by the city’s estimate, should take 45 minutes to finish. Most take longer due to the sharp elevation gain. It’s my yard stick for mountains and these steps are much more gentle. I’m really out of shape. How on earth would I have done this with a full backpack?

By 12:00 I arrive at Tairyuu-ji, which spans the entire mountain top. This complex is as grand as its name – a temple for the mightiest dragon – and has special status as a place where Kukai did his ascetic training.

I had earmarked Tairyuu-ji for one of my two mentors whom have made a huge difference in my life. Both of them are sleep-deprived, overachieving women who somehow manage to give time and significant investments in the people around them. One of them is chill and childlike (in her words), and the other is professional, but accommodating. As I walk through the grounds to the Main Hall, I know it will live up to the standards of the latter.

After finishing my prayers at the Main Hall, I look down the stone steps from the cable car station, hoping to see how high I am.

Instead, there’s a group of white-garbed henro heaving their way up the stairs. It’s a flurry of incense lighting, the light clatter of pennies deposited in the box, and murmurs of casual conversation. They have guide, who in a clear, theatrical voice explains the history behind the temple. Then, the hum of chanting fills the space, the guide’s voice confidently reciting the words at a rapid, but regular, rhythm.

By the time they finish, a lanky middle-aged man in lycra appears at the stone steps. A cycling henro! He gets his camera and searches for an angle to capture the imposing main hall. It’s impossible, so I offer to take one with him in it. His eyes widen and he says ‘sumimasen’. I smile and we briefly exchange where we come from and our plans before I head to the Daishi hall.

The Daishi hall is on the other end, separated by bridges, pavilions, and a row of lanterns. I feel conscious of the collective generations of solitary, focused, work that created this complex. How on earth did they manage to get all the materials up this mountain? Where did they poop? What did they eat?

The woodwork at Tairyuu-ji's Daishi Hall.

The woodwork at Tairyuu-ji’s Daishi Hall.

Such a remarkable achievement is on an secluded hill, regal, yet open to people from all walks of life. Perhaps I’ve overloaded it with significance to try to explain the awe and peace I feel here.

As I head down to get a nokyocho, a handwritten temple stamp, I pass a massive 600-year old cedar with a shimenawa (注連縄) rope around it. Despite its size, it is firmly rooted upright on the steep slope. It’s comforting to see such elegant old-growth trees so respected here in the same way they are where I grew up in the West Coast of Canada.

A group of cheerful silver-haired ladies pass by me coming up the path, chattering away in pairs. We exchange smiles and greetings, and I resist asking about their stories. I need to get going. I wonder if our generation will ever have such long-awaited trips with friends.

Jibun wo shinji, jishin ni naru / Your faith in yourself will become your self confidence.

Jibun wo shinji, jishin ni naru / Your faith in yourself will become your self confidence.

The walk from Tairyuu-ji down to Byoudou-ji is a gentle and scenic downhill. I cross rice paddies, seniors in wheelchairs out for sunshine, and shuttered shops. The forests here are not as wild as the Canadian West Coast, manageable, or perhaps well-managed.

I’ve decided I want to do a tōshi-uchi, to finish all 88 temples in one go. Originally, I planned to stop in Matsuyama, about half way, because I have one month as a time constraint. It doesn’t feel right to leave things unfinished with all the help I’m getting now.

As I hit the first – only – intersection on the road, I see a vending machine by the gas station. Thank all the gods and Buddhas for vending machines, found in even the smallest hamlets.

I need the highest calorie one to make up for lunch. Sugary ice milk coffee it is! I gulp it down and slide the can into the bin conveniently beside. Next!

I cross the road and follow the henro arrows on into some shabby looking houses with vegetable gardens. Soon I head into another forest that cuts through a small hill. It’s a perfect weekend strolling route. Part of me regrets having to rush through the tall bamboo with their rustling waves.

The forest paths of the henro-no-michi.

The forest paths of the henro-no-michi.

I re-emerge into more farmland, impatient after being chased by mosquitos. I need to get to the temple before five. Where’s the town? I keep going past irrigation channels, rice paddies, vegetable plots and houses.

Then, Byoudo-ji just appears. It’s at the foot of a small hill facing a parking lot and restaurant. It’s so ordinary, so understated. I almost charged passed.

Inside, I run into the cyclist henro again at the Main Hall and offer to take another picture for him. He’s breaking up his trip into four parts and will do Kochi in the Fall. Despite my poor Japanese and his basic English, he leaves me his number and asks me to call if I ever need anything and also inviting me to visit when I’m in Tokyo. It feels like a gesture of henro solidarity.

Cyclist henro friend.

Cyclist henro friend.

When he leaves, I quickly light incense for my other mentor. The name for this temple, Byoudou (平等), in this case means calm and balanced. Given my first mentor’s ability to pack so much of life into her 24 hours, it seems like a good mantra to remind her to keep time for herself too.

In the stamp office, I browse the few items in the corner, since all temples sell charms and incense. I’m beginning to feel that the shops reflect the characters of the temples. Some only have prayer essentials while others have full-blown gift shops. This one has a stylized henro map with temple descriptions. When I see it’s a mere 100-Yen, half the price at Tairyuu-ji, decide to pick it up. When will I be back again, anyway?

The priest sweeping the grounds outside runs cheerfully back in to write my stamp, apologizing for the wait. As he goes back to raking the stones on the temple grounds, I sit beside the stone basin where I washed my hands earlier. The leaves and blossoms in the water basin add a simple, warm touch.

I’m glad to have a bit of time to just enjoy sitting here, savouring the evening, as I wait for Ayumi.

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It’s barely 6:00, but I’m starving. For tonight, Ayumi’s got that taken care of. Her only request is that I play with Kotaro and continue speaking to him in English. She and Masashi have a refreshingly international perspective; English to most kids is another exam subject, rather than a real, practical, conversational skill.

She picks me up at the temple, and after I’m showered, I settle on the tatami floor and play with whatever toys he offers. I keep repeating ‘more?’ before I do anything to re-enforce his vocbulary. Kotaro learns quickly to nod every time.

Dinner tonight is okra, mashed squash, and vinegar-marinated onion mackerel made in the local Tokushima style. Ayumi works efficiently in the small kitchen while Masashi and I continue chatting, while Kotaro runs between us.

Then, Kotaro squeaks: ‘Standing’.

We stop. Was it my imagination? Ayumi was taking a video, and we quickly consult her iPhone. ‘Standing’ slips out of the speaker.

Ayumi and Masashi are thrilled. ‘I’m going to show his grandparents this weekend!’ She declares.

I’m also touched. This is his fifth word – and first in a second language! – and I’ve had the privilege of witnessing it. If it wasn’t me, it would be another Couchsurfing guest some point down the road coaxing him in Spanish, or French, or Chinese.

It feels personal, and not at the same time: personal because of circumstance. It’s humbling.

Before long, dinner is served. I dig in wholeheartedly, going for three refills before I feel satiated. Kotaro runs into my lap and joins me eating. He seems to like being asked ‘more’ before accepting the next spoonful.

‘He really likes you,’ Masashi repeats again.

I look down at him as he looks up at me with a broad grin. I guess he does.

Dinner feast at Casa Del Mizutani!

Dinner feast at Casa Del Mizutani!

By the time Kotaro is bathing, Masashi and I settle into deep conversation about how amazing it would be to travel as your kids are growing up. Even as the henro side of me thinks I should be getting some sleep, my traveller’s side wants to continue making the most of our time together.

In the end, Masashi’s questions inspire me to write a short post about becoming a digital nomad. Even as my eyes droop, and I’m stifling yawns, my mind is excited by this spark of inspiration.

Reluctantly, we promise to say a proper goodbye tomorrow morning, before Masashi goes to work. I’m still processing the surreal good fortune of meeting the Mizutanis, knowing how different things could have been. I guess some parts of the Ohenro are meant to feel like a dream.

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