A clatter of voices and footsteps outside my door wakes me up. After it dies down, I roll over and push myself up groggily. I pack my bag and put the futon back onto a stack in the corner. There are only the items I’m mailing left out on the floor, and the nokyocho that I’m leaving for the Mizutanis. It’s the only small gesture of thanks I can give.
I go to the kitchen to find it empty. Oh no, I the noise that woke me was Masashi heading to work. I missed saying goodbye by a few minutes.
I can’t take that back. Then, another immediate concern pops up: feeding my stomach, which usually starves me awake. After I’ve snacked a bit, Ayumi emerges from the bedroom and asks me if I’ve eaten breakfast. She gets me more food before sitting down to do her Spanish homework. Kotaro is napping, so it is unusually quiet: one of those precious moments of alone time for her.
We chat as I wait for the post office to open to mail off some extra items to Tokyo. Ayumi tells me stories behind all the Couchsurfing photos on wall, since they’ve hosted 40 guests within a year. She also shows me the remaining photos of her trip to South America with Masashi.When they had three months between university graduation and their secured jobs, they wanted to take the opportunity to travel, to go where they would have no chance to go again after joining the Japanese workforce.
The early morning passes quickly until I head out to the post office. It’s a quick walk down the street, and I pay the 1000 Yen to mail the box up to Tokyo. I wish I had more things to fit in apart from a water bottle, my maps from yesterday, and a jacket I realise I won’t need in the summer heat. None of those items weigh much, but I’ve realised I need to shave even 500 grams, and I don’t want to throw anything out. It’s an investment to help me see this pilgrimage through.
I head back down the street to grab a coffee and already feel lighter, mentally, for shedding a bit more. When I arrive back in the flat, I rush to grab my stuff to catch the 10:30am train. Ayumi and Kotaro head out with me and I anxiously say goodbye as we turn different directions.
If I miss this train to Awa-Fukui, I’ll have to wait two hours, or might as well walk. It’s only a few stops away, but it makes up for the lost hours waiting for the post office to open.
When I arrive at the platform with a few minutes to spare, I feel bad about rushing off and not saying a better goodbye. I’m always so awkward with goodbyes. So instead, I watch the group of young students in matching hats on the platform with three teachers shepherding them. Their bubbly energy is infectious, and I can’t help but smile as I get into the train after them.
It’s my first long walk through the middle of nowhere. Within minutes of getting off the train, I’m following the only road going south to Hiwasa City and Temple 23. There’s only mountain, blue sky, and tunnels. I keep checking the map, but it only confirms how slow I am. I try to walk faster, especially with the weight of my backpack still bothering me.
I hate speed walking. It tenses my muscles unnaturally as I try to urge them faster. If I didn’t have a backpack, I’d just start jogging.
The past two days have really dented my confidence in how much I can walk. My feet are already hurting by the second hour. How do people regularly average 30km a day? Maybe I’m just naturally weak, and I just need to accept it.
However, these thoughts don’t dampen my good mood. It’s refreshing to be in these little mountains again. I like the hollow thud of my staff, especially in the tunnels, where the sound reverberates with a declarative note. I love the bell I’ve tied to the staff, which has a predictable jiggle based on how I move. I love how I have time to notice all these things.
I love how I have time to think, or rather, to let my thoughts float. I think again about Ayumi, who finished the ohenro in just over two weeks without prior cycling training. Despite her amazing accomplishment, she was concerned about me camping in the mountains as I did Kakurin-ji and Tairyuu-ji in a day. I wonder if I’ll ever have the same genuine concern for another henro, or offer them the comfort that the Mizutanis offered me in place of a lonely ordeal in the forest mountains.
I wonder again if there’s still any meaning in this after I’ve taken so many rides. I can’t say I walked the entire pilgrimage. Perhaps I give up too easily. I had no reason to take a train today, other than wanting to guarantee that I could make it to the next temple before 5pm.
My thoughts continue circling. Eventually, I think about other people: high school friends, university friends, Hong Kong friends, employers, team members, family. My thoughts latch on to the people I haven’t seen, haven’t talked to, don’t want to talk to, or am unsure if I want to see. They’re the people I wish I was closer to. I wonder how they are. I wonder what they’re like now.
I flip between my mental landscape and the landscape around me all day. The scenery changes in 15-minute intervals: rest huts, streams, insects, birds chirping, the bamboo water wheel fountain that someone has set up.
Even though it’s only 2pm by the time I begin seeing a splatter of shops going into Hiwasa, my feet are beginning to ache. It’s a good walking day, but it’s still hot.
I reach a Lawson at the edge of town at 3:30pm and have a belated lunch out on the parking lot, gulping down a full yogurt drink and devouring a pineapple bun. Even though my feet have been suffocated in my running shoes, I get up again eagerly to get to Yakuo-ji, just another 15 minutes away.
By four, I am standing at the highest point of the Temple 23 complex, surveying the city of Hiwasa that touches the Pacific, and the cute island-rock just off the shore. The breeze, thick with the salt of the sea, wipes the sweat off my face and soaked back.
I wait for this moment of satisfaction, of stillness after finishing for the day, to pass. I think about a family friend I grew up with. He came to our family dinners so often he is an adopted cousin. Plus, being the closest in age to me, he entertained all my insistent ideas and games. He still wears the same smile he did two decades ago, despite a challenging past two years. I don’t know what goes on in his head. I never have, even though we grew up together. He doesn’t really get me either, but that’s what family is for isn’t it? There’s comfort knowing that some people have been with you your entire life, and will still be there years from now, just because.
Yakuou-ji is for him and his mother.
What’s there to do in a small city after the temple visitation is done? Clean up! Seeing an onsen just outside, I suddenly realise it’s a chance at a bath, since I will be doing nojuku, camping out, for the first time. A good scrub, warm jets for weary muscles, and clean clothes (there’s a coin laundry!) is too much to resist.
I end up spending close to two hours here, waiting for my clothes, napping, and charging my phone. I’m also reluctant to leave this sanctuary and venture back out into the hot and humid night. I couldn’t find the legendary refurbished-bus zenkonyado that’s reportedly 1-2km outside the temple. Zenkonyado are of free/cheap henro accommodations maintained by individuals supporting walking henro and this one supposedly has futons!
The bus was my real destination today. The temple was a checkpoint. Temple or no, I still need to find a place to sleep every day, and tonight I’ve failed. What should I do now that night has set in?
As I reluctantly put on my shoes to head out, two chatting ojii-san (grandpas) ask me the usual questions. Where am I from, how long am I walking for, am I really alone?
Eventually, they ask, ‘So where are you staying tonight?’
‘Nojuku.’ I answer. Camping.
They’re shocked, then concerned. One of them hangs around to continue chatting, although I can barely understand his thick accent.
We stand at the parking lot outside the onsen trying to make sense of each other. He says it’s abunai (dangerous), and that he’s shinpai (worried). I get snippets about his son, who has a house and a family, and someone (him? his son?) has a spare room.
I politely decline, saying I’m fine to stay at the Michi-no-Eki (roadside station) just down the road. We debate further. Eventually, he tells me that he can drive me where I want. Not wanting to reject his earnestness, I relent.
When I open his car door, I see the heap of cans (and other things) that spilled from the back seats into the front passenger seat. And the smell! He quickly reaches over to clear space for me, but I’m tempted to just walk away.
Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I finally get in after insisting that he take me down the block. He’s visibly disappointed and doesn’t stop after looping through the dark Michi-no-Eki parking lot with the single remaining shop open. Instead, he drives further down the road and shows me another spot behind a white building that he says is better because the traffic cannot see me.
No thanks. I ask him to drive me back, and get out as fast as possible, thanking him nonetheless for the ride. Maybe he really was well meaning, but the car really creeped me out.
When he’s gone, I go across the street to get onigiri (rice balls) at the convenience store. I’m not hungry, but I should eat.
When I finish, I go back to the Michi-no-Eki and look for the a place to sleep. The benches look comfortable, but as the ojii-san said, a bit too exposed. Instead, I walk into the handicap toilet, because the floor is spacious enough to sleep on. The thing about Japanese toilets is they’re usually very clean, and this one is no exception. In fact, it even has a pull-out bed! There’s even an outlet. Score!
The only minus is the mosquitos lining the walls. I do a mental shrug. Oh well, you take what you get.
It feels early, only 8pm, but I might as well tuck in. Henro have early days and nights.
I lock the door and make this my room for the night.