Thousands of droplets slowly wash away the haze of sleep. There’s something soothing about waking to the sound of rain. It was too hot to sleep well last night, and I eventually, I dozed off as the sky turned steel. It was my first time doing nojuku (‘camping’ out) in the disabled toilet at the Hiwasa Michi-no-Eki. Even as I lay awake, sweating in my sleeping bag, I was grateful to have a bed in a clean, private space. I’m grateful that I didn’t have too many of the mosquitos hovering around my ear even though hundreds of them lined the walls.
I clean up quickly, pack up and unlock the washroom door at 6:30. It unveils a grand downpour outside.
This rain: should I persist and walk? I didn’t want to…I already let the weather the decide. I’m at a train station. I just have to hop on.
I sit on the bench outside and eat my onigiri from last night for breakfast, watching the rain splinter like liquid diamonds on the pavement. On the wall behind me, there’s a sticker saying free WiFi. What? Score!
My wait for the 7:21am train flies by as I upload a photo of my sleeping quarters from last night onto Facebook and reconnect with friends, with my fully charged phone thanks to last night’s outlet. It’s a great morning so far.
I’m at home in the rain, and it’s refreshing in the summer heat. I could walk in this if only I had a warm shelter and a hot drink at the end of the day. Hiwasa is the last ‘city’ on the pilgrimage until Kochi City, which is over two hundred kilometres away. The next temple is 75 kilometres away at Cape Muroto and many pilgrims describe this as a desolate coastline. I try to figure out a reasonable place to stop tonight. There are rest huts, bus stops, tsunami shelters, and a Daishido in the tiny towns of Kaifu, Toyo, and Sakibama along the coast. Will I be able to find them, or will it be like last night, where I failed to find my bus tsuyado?
In this rain, my Gore-tex rain jacket and umbrella won’t keep me dry. My backpack doesn’t have a waterproof cover. Also, the sole of my left runner is coming off. Part of me still wants to walk, despite the stacked odds.
I smile, amused thinking the expression ‘when it rains, it pours’ is literal. Although I am still officially in Tokushima Prefecture, the Dojo of Awakening ended yesterday at Temple 23. From here, the Dojo of Discipline begins the long, arduous, forsaken road to Temple 24.
Ayumi had described it as scary and lonely. ‘It has nothing!’ She exclaimed emphatically. To her, it was even worse than the 80 kilometres between Temples 37 and 38, which is the longest distance in the entire pilgrimage.
I try to find accommodation on AirBnB in the towns ahead. There aren’t many in my budget for emergency lodgings. It’s not ideal, but I book one instant booking anyway, hoping that once I get to the town of Shishikui, I’ll find Wifi again to receive a confirmation.
For now, onwards. The first train of the day will soon be here.
The train comes on the other side of the tracks, and I’m drenched just climbing the overpass to get to the platform. Still, I’m happy because I have a plan. I feel lucky to have seen the sticker, to have woken up naturally to catch the first train, to be able to look out the window at the landscape outside.
I feel lucky for feeling lucky in this ‘horrible’ weather.
There’s a cafe on the side of the Route 55 that looks like one of those drive-bys or outpost shops back from the settler days of the New World. It looks like a good shelter for a watery Armageddon. At 8:30am, there is already the warm glow of yellow lamps and a small gathering of patrons lined at the bar.
I came to Shishikui for this cafe because it’s been mentioned in several henro lists. When the lady inside saw me peeking in through the foggy windows, she raced outside to the entrance to greet me.
Cafe Hikousen provides coffee o-settai, for henro. A henro should not refuse, as the offer is in part to Kobo Daishi, who is believed to accompany all henro. Even though I’d kill for a cup of coffee right now, it felt awkward requesting a complimentary gift.
‘O-henro-san!’ The lady calls from the covered entrance. ‘Please come in!’ She shouts to make sure I hear her over the rain.
I’m relieved and follow her in. Immediately, the aroma of coffee blankets me. I can’t shed my dripping jacket fast enough, and place it in the corner with my backpack. They form a pool at the door in minutes. The lady asks if I’m OK with it being at the entrance, mindful that I might be worried about my belongings.
Japan’s one of the safest countries I’ve been in, and many of my hosts never even locked their doors. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to take my drenched belongings. ‘It’s fine,’ I cheerfully respond. They beckon me to the bar counter and comment about the rain, and how taihen (dreadful) it is.
I feel like I’ve walked into the Jazz Era, with the all the interiors solid wood. The booth tables under the windows have stained-glass Tiffany Lamps. The bar has seating for about 5-6 people. Jazz music floats in the background, above the din at the bar. There’s a stocky lady with an unreadable expression chatting with guests as she brews their coffees.
They ask me if I’d like a coffee, and then ask me to pick from the array of cups behind them. Then, they ask me if I’ve had breakfast yet. The onigiri is almost fully digested, so I hesitantly say, ‘A little, earlier.’
‘Can you eat another?’ The thin lady forms a plate with her hands. ‘It’s quite big…’
‘It’s fine.’ (As in, yes, I think I can handle it.) I apologise and thank them, ‘Sumimasen.’
There’s something in that simple ‘Excuse me’ and bow that reflects how I feel when receiving favours. An English ‘Thank you’ doesn’t do it, and even the two Cantonese thank-yous (general, and for gifts) doesn’t convey the emotive intonation.
The coffee comes first. Then, a slice of watermelon and two kai, the fresh local sea snails come on a plate. Then, they place an omelette, a salad, and potatoes slightly to my side. Then, three thick slices of toast with butter and red-bean paste. At first I don’t dare to presume it’s for me and leave the spread. The o-settai was supposed to be just coffee, and I already got the kai. Eventually, I ask, ‘Is this really for me?’
‘Yes, please eat!’
I do my best not to devour it. I savour every item, asking about it, how it’s made, and the history of the place in my broken Japanese. The gentleman beside me strikes up conversation, and soon everything I say travels down the bar, seat by seat.
It turns out, the cup I’m drinking from is made by the silver-bearded gentleman on the other end of the bar. I read the catalogues about his work, which has an English description, and am impressed by his philosophical approach to his products. Suddenly, the cup I’m drinking from has so much more significance, and I appreciate the technique behind the handle so much better. The master artist, Umeda Junichi, who has regular displays across the country, comes over to have a chat.
It’s a surreal feeling, as though this little cafe has space for all the world to come. What other world-class things does this little town keep hidden?
If it wasn’t pouring, I wouldn’t have met all these people.
I ask for another coffee, hoping to make a small purchase in return for their generosity. I’m looking forward to staying for a few more hours, maybe even get a blog post in, until my AirBnB host confirms my stay.
That plan soon goes out the window. A group of people come in, and there’s a flurry of greetings. I spot a Caucasian lady with a shaved head. She seems really happy to see me, so I instinctively say, ‘Hey!’ and we hug each other on the spot, like long-lost friends.
I think it’s the first time I’ve ever done that with a stranger.
Instantly, we start chatting. It turns out that Aurelie has come from France to walk the ohenro, even though she had little solo travel experience. She tells me about how she made it to Temple 29 in Kochi before the incessant rain drove her to return to Shishikui, where she’d met a good friend. She’s been here for three weeks. She then tells me about this town’s warmth, of the surfing, the music gigs, of WWOOFing at the Tanakas’, the young couple that came in with her. We share experiences on the road, laugh at shared preoccupations, obsessions, and despairs.
Eventually, she says, ‘I think I’m ready to start again.’
Before long, another plate of toast is placed between us, this time with herbed bread and melted cheese. I can’t finish. It’s really too much. Then, another full bowl of kai, is slipped in. Why are people so generous?
Somewhere in between, Umeta-san takes his leave and pointing to us, cries to the owner, ‘O-settai!’ He probably has a regular tab with them. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Maybe this is just the pilgrimage microcosm: the world turned upside down in a too-good-to-believe way.
Then, Aurelie offers me a place to stay. She asks the Tanakas whether I can stay one night. They happily agree, and I cancel my still-unconfirmed AirBnB booking, take a group photo with my new friends and the cafe owner, we all head out to the car.
I quickly type a note:
There are so many reasons to love the rain. It makes the world so warm.
By 2pm, I’m hanging out in a house handmade by a carpenter. The place smells like the cabins in my outdoor-school trip in Grade 7 on Canada’s West Coast. It’s a distinctly smoky cedar smell. The wooden logs are perfectly sanded. The kitchen area has a round opening cut out through the log wall. A few sets of cups and plates reflecting the tastes of the owner are neatly displayed in the back shelf. The table in the common area is simple, solid hardwood. Logs make up chairs looking out the windows.
To think that such gorgeous places just exist, without being intentionally designed for commercial tourism purposes…
The carpenter who built this place died while making the house, and his wife after years of grief walked the Shikoku Pilgrimage and returned a changed person. The Tanakas, who found this place for Aurelie to stay, are helping convert it into a community building. The husband, Munetoyo, is an ex-professional surfer and customer surfboard maker. In addition, he and his wife, Miko, just began accepting volunteers to help on their organic gardens.
After leaving Cafe Hikousen, Miko made us a hearty udon lunch, insisting that I just chat with Aurelie. Miko cannot speak English, and Aurlie knows single Japanese words, so they have gotten by using gestures.
Miko repeated something Aurelie said earlier at the cafe: Your eyes communicate your feeling. Her eyes welled up when she said it.
After lunch, she made us fresh scones as an afternoon snack. Hoping to burn some energy and repay her generosity, I ask if she needs any help in the garden, but she rejects my suggestions saying we should rest. Eventually, I accept the imposed holiday, even though I haven’t worked much since setting out three days ago.
At the carpenter’s house, I spread out my belongings which are damp from the morning rain. When you have so few possessions to get you from day to day, you make sure everything will be in order for the next day’s walking. In this case, it means drying them.
Aurelie has the Japanese list of free henro lodging that I had lost the day before. We trade tips, since she had walked to Temple 29 and has lodging recommendations. I translate the Japanese words for her. We compare the same Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide Book, hers marked up with notes like a diary, mine with phone numbers and sleeping options.
She feels ready to start again, maybe by next Monday. Wouldn’t it be great to go together? I think so as well. Having one extra person will be more relaxing, especially at night. It’ll be perfect for the final stretch to Cape Ashizuri and Temple 37, the furthest temple.
After a bit more chatting and a smoke, Aurelie takes a nap and I use the precious hours to type up notes. It’s the perfect writer’s room, facing the trees outside. In about two hours, we’ll go to the onsen.
The notes begin with a list:
6:00am wake up— wow there’s wifi!!
8:23 arrive in shishikui
8:57 get first food in hikousen – watermelon and a local sea snail
massive breakfast with salad, omelette, toast
10 – more toast – with cheese and herbs
11:30 leave with the tanakas
12:20 lunch udon
13:50 hang out at cabin with scones
They will serve as triggers in the future when I want to relive these moments and feelings. Some of it I’d written since the morning, on my Journey app.
However you choose to get through it, all you need to do is complete it. How you do the pilgrimage is a reflection of your life – how you get help from others, how you ask, how you don’t, how far you go.
Eventually, I stop even narrating and just write down the solitary declarations.
Sometimes, the more profound the learnings the less you have to say. You’ve soaked it in to be a part of you. How do you isolate and describe that?
I won’t try today.
With that, I stop, and go outside to clean up the Tanakas’ bike, which they’ve kept for memory’s sake. Munetoyo had borrowed it from Miko through a friend, and the rest is history. With such significance behind this weathered iron horse, it makes my hobby of bike-chain cleaning twice as rewarding.
When Aurelie wakes up, we walk out to the Shishikui Onsen, which is actually in a hotel facing the sea. The storm has passed, but the sky is still unfolding in broad brushstrokes of metallic silver, grey, and searing white. The sea sunsets after a storm are always particularly vigorous.
We pass about two hours at the onsen, soaking in the pools and lounging in the rest areas, me using the Wifi to check up on weather updates and bus times. By the time we exit, it’s dark, and I can feel the curtain coming down on an effortlessly eventful day. Aurelie makes dinner for us, yet another simple but delicious feast. After, we finalise our meet up date and location, at Temple 37 just outside Kochi City and before the routes split to go down to Temple 38 at Cape Ashizuri.
Part of me doesn’t want to go. I want to continue relishing this cabin. I don’t feel done here.
‘I don’t really want to leave tomorrow. I don’t feel I’m done here,’ I sigh, not for the first time today.
‘Then stay,’ Aurelie says simply. It’s true, it’s just two simple choices.
It could easily be complicated with many other factors and considerations, but even then I knew it boiled down to two principles: whether I would make it a leisure trip and enjoy everything until I was ready to move on, or whether it was a journey about continually moving on and enjoying things as they came and went. As hard as it was, I wanted to move on. If it’s meant to be, I will be back.
The last thing I do before passing out is type 22:00 – sleep.