Henro Day 7: June 27

Shishikui 宍喰Kiragawa 吉良川
Temples: 24 Hotsumisaki-ji (最御崎寺), 25 Shinshō-ji (津照寺), 26 Kongōchō-ji (金剛頂寺)
Weather: Cloudy + Rain
Travel Method: Bus + Walking
Distance: (+40) 27

Morning. Fold futon. Curtains. Sunshine. It rained. Pack. Food.

I move around as quietly as I can. Aurelie is still sleeping, and I enjoy extending the quiet as long as possible after crawling out of bed. 

At some point, something clatters, and I hear Aurelie wake. Still, it doesn’t break my contented silence. That this may be rude drifts into my thoughts. I let the idea drift off the same way I have from society. I prepare a light breakfast of leftover mashed potato from yesterday. I may as well have coffee and tea and sit by the window watching the golden slight flicker as it travels higher up in the trees. Who knows when I will have such a luxury again. Having just started, I’m keenly aware of every comfort I’m losing along the way.

Aurelie has a smoke, and after waiting as I linger over breakfast, she eventually she asks gently, ‘Do you mind if I go ahead?’ There was the implicit assumption that we were going to head out together, but I am glad for the chance to say goodbye to this place alone.

After she goes, I unwrap my feelings. I want to cocoon here. This place makes me feel like there’s something that I’m missing, something from the West Coast and my childhood that I’ve forgotten. Since coming to Asia, I’ve had an increasing ache for the British Columbia’s temperate rainforest. This place across the Pacific is so much like home.

I have to move on to meet Aurelie next week at Temple 35, as we agreed. I’m glad we made that promise, otherwise I might be lulled to stay. I can’t stay. I’ve only just started.

The tea cup I bring on my travels. Enjoying the morning before departing.
The tea cup I bring on my travels. Enjoying the morning before departing.

Time slips by too quickly. Before I know it, I’m rushing to write down a thank-you card for the Tanakas, a postcard for Aurelie, and an osamefuda, nameslip, which henros give when they receive o-settai. I prepare one for Cafe Hikousen that I can drop off on the way out of town.

With everything tidied up, I rush out the and through Shishikui. I stop outside Cafe Hikousen to check some WiFi updates before going in to give them the osamefuda, but the owner from yesterday races out to offer another coffee. I apologize for not being able to stay, as I have to rush to catch the bus in the next town at Kannoura. That bus will take me down the coast to Cape Muroto. I have time for coffee, but not to chat, and don’t want to impose more on their generosity. Next time!

So instead, the owner sends me off with a big hug. Not being used to them, it took me a second before reciprocating her tight embrace. The warmth conveyed by those arms say more than any words we could ever muster. Who said the Japanese were cold?

I think of Aurelie. She said yesterday that she felt so isolated at times, without company, unable to communicate in a foreign country, and missing the warm hugs she had back home. I want to tell her: ‘When you start again, stop by Hikousen for a hug!’, but it’ll have to wait for later. I didn’t realise it then, but her departure from this town could never be like mine; it would be the opposite.

Shishikui looks like many other towns in Shikoku, laid out beside a river.
Shishikui looks like many other towns in Shikoku, laid out beside a river.

Relief. I arrive at Kannoura Bus Station with 15 minutes to spare. I feel a bit silly for jogging some parts and worrying when I got lost in the tiny town. Then again, you never know how far something really is until you’ve done the route. In rural areas like this, missing a bus can mean a several-hour wait, and I’m itching for a good walk today after I get off the bus (which I am taking because none of the places to camp are in feasible distances).

Why am I still doing this? The sky is grey. I have the full rainy season and scorching summer ahead. I’m not Buddhist. I’m a borderline cynic. But you have to believe in something to put yourself through this ridiculousness. I don’t know what it is, but I do know that there is something bigger than my list of reasons. I know I wanted to do it.

“To suffer for your own sake is a fine thing…Go on suffering after this, too.” — Eat Sleep Sit by Kaoru Nonomura

A thought from yesterday returns to me: 

Whatever you believe, you must believe in something to do the Ohenro.

Maybe someday, I’ll figure out what it is.

The bus comes and whisks me forty kilometres down the desolate, still grey and rugged, coast that I decided not to walk. I’m writing off this first section. Even though I’ve had some challenges since starting, I feel like I’ve gotten off easy. Three of my four days so far have been in comfortable homes, with real food, nothing like the pilgrimage I’d expected. Maybe they’re meant to ease me into the weight of walking and the inconveniences of the weather

Perhaps if I’d prepared better, had more time, come the right reason, I’d have managed it all walking. Next time I do this, I’ll do better. Typical, I think detachedly. I rarely get things right the first time; I always need a second chance. *Mental shrug.*

This time, though, I will walk the full length of Kochi. If I can’t do it all properly, then I am going to do the most difficult prefecture. Kochi, formerly the Kingdom of Tosa, stretches over 250 kilometres from Cape Muroto in the Northeast to Cape Ashizuri in the Southwest. It is a rugged place, where the dark, fierce sea and the ragged mountains still govern human lives, not the other way around. I’ve read that here, henro are exposed to the weather, relentless sun and torrential rain. I will use this formidable reputation as a yardstick. I’m looking forward to the challenge, to the opportunity to prove I’m not a city-wimp.

My bus comes and whisks us down along the sea. I look out the window at the severe, jagged rocks and ferocious waves raging at them set against the backdrop of a sombre sky. I am struck by how insane, trivial, futile, egotistical, myopic, delusional, and yet, human, this seems. I type on my charged(!) phone:

What crazy people think that by walking thousands of miles away from home could bring good will to those who need it? Such is the mystery and logic of humanity.

I smile and shake my head at myself. I’ve joined the crazies. 

Hotsumisaki-ji complex
Hotsumisaki-ji complex

The one kilometre climb from the bus stop up to Hotsumisaki-ji is an easy one. The plants here are subtropical, leafy and curvy, a contrast from the tall evergreen forests of Tokushima. The mosquitoes remain the same.

This temple has great significance to henro as the place where Kobo Daishi came to do ascetic training at the age of 19, and returned to at the age of 33 to establish the temple. This cape has other areas of interests too, such as the geological formations from 100 million years ago, the cave Kobo Daishi meditated at, and a lighthouse.

I don’t have time for the first two, but after performing the rituals, I head to the lighthouse to take a photo for the friend I’d dedicated the temple to.

Lighthouse at Cape Muroto
Lighthouse at Cape Muroto

I wish she could see it for herself. She loves the sea, and there are only a handful of temples on the route that are beside the coast. 

Kochi’s two capes have significance to a walking henro because they are both lonely, multi-day walks. It’s one thing to walk 80+ kilometres to pray for yourself. It’s quite another to walk for someone else. When my friend found out about the torrential rains, she told me to be pragmatic. But friendships aren’t built on pragmatism, often quite the opposite. And they are cemented appreciation and reciprocation of the same. 

How different this walk would have been even a few years ago, before smartphones and Wi-Fi were ubiquitous. Even though I spend hours or days without connecting, the dribble of close friends like her every now and then is a warm lifeline.

The Kochi coastline.
The Kochi coastline.

The road snaking down from Temple 24 gives a stunning vista of the upcoming Kochi prefecture. I keep stopping at every bend to take more photos. It’s a glorious walking day, with clouds blocking the wrath of the sun, and refreshing blasts of the wind warding off the heat.

The rest of the walk to Temple 25 is an uneventful strip of houses along the coast. These are common throughout Shikoku. Tsunami warning signs with a number for the wave height and the direction of the closest shelter are also common here, which faces the mighty Pacific. The tsunami height, it seems, varies several metres every few blocks.

As it begins to drizzle, I take shelter at a shuttered shop and have a hardboiled egg and peanuts as lunch on-the-go. I haven’t passed any convenience store, so the eggs as whole food feel like a luxury. Luxury foods are light, filling, transportable, and tasty (to me). I can’t tell if I’m just easily pleased, or if self-imposed poverty has completely rewired my brain.

Feast redefined.
Feast redefined.

I’ve been thinking about the friends that have been there to help me through life’s metaphorical storms over the years, and the ones that come to mind are often from my Masters degree in London. As I walk, London’s summer parks appear in my mind’s eye. The places I’ve stayed in my short time and the successive cooking sessions with generous and laid back company at different ends of the city play back in succession. These are the friends I’m dedicating the next two temples to.

Next, Shinshou-ji is a compact temple stacked on terraces separated by narrow, steep stairs. It’s got a cramped, around the corner vibe. I light my incense, say my prayers, get the temple stamp, and am back out as the raindrops begin to stain the stone stone steps.

There’s a grocery store right beside the temple, and I jump on the chance for a proper, balanced meal. I pick up a bento and sit in the empty eating area. I imagine it being packed during Spring and Fall, peak pilgrimage seasons. Then, I notice wall plugs and charge my phone while I pick away at my rice and side dishes. A great value meal, especially with an outlet thrown in!

But I can’t wait until my phone’s charged and I need to get going. The last temple for today is only 4 kilometres away, so I have no excuse to miss it. It feels like I’ve had a full day, but it’s barely past 2:30pm when I leave the mini supermarket.

It begins to rain again when I leave the town and enter the woods that insulate Kongouchou-ji from the rest of the world. The path is dug out between the trees, with a Brother’s Grimm forest atmosphere. The trees protect me from the rain, but also keep the path moist and a muddy heaven for mosquitos. I race on, stabbing my staff through the mud, trying to escape the buzzing around my ear.

Forests out of a fairy tale.
Forests out of a fairy tale.

I reach the temple just before 4pm, as the rain continues in earnest. I drop my bag on a covered bench and do my first round of prayers at the Main Hall. Looking at my damp bag, I wonder if I should get a plastic incense case that I’ve seen other henro carry.

Nevermind. I’ll worry about that after I’m done the prayers at the Daishi Hall. As I’m lighting my incense at the urn, I notice a round case placed intentionally beside the complimentary lighters.

No way! I open it, and it even has some sticks inside. I light one, and offer a quiet thanks to whomever left it. It’s not the first time I’ve seen people leave things in temples. I’ve seen candles, incense, staves, cups, and even candy. I’m moved by how pilgrims leave such useful, personal things behind for others whom they’ll never meet. When my time comes, I’ll put this pass this case forward too.


On the way down from Temple 26, I stop at a Michi-no-Eki hoping to find dinner and a place to camp. There aren’t bentos, so I make do with a 2L bottle of mugicha and a snack. There are no comfortable covered areas to pitch a tent, so I reluctantly move on through the the town of Kiragawa. I’m focused on spotting shops and a camping spot. Despite my map marking stores, I pass the entire town without finding a single open convenience store or restaurant.

It’s my first taste of Kochi’s isolation and rural attrition.

I look ruefully at the empty, weathered shops and stained houses. Dying communities like these, apparent to even a foreigner like me, are all over Japan. The abstracts of rural depopulation and an ageing society as nebulous textbook concepts have visible scars here. It’s a sobering thought during this sombre, overcast evening.

I’ve been pampered the past few nights with rides, homes, and beds and found this last stretch after Temple 26 a dragged-out pain. Why can’t I just call it a day?!

Hut after hut, I stop to check if it’s the one I’ve marked on the map. Every time I wonder if I should just stop, even though it’s not the one. Impatience, boredom, and fatigue are a heavy mix.

Eventually, I find the cemetery I’m looking for. Past that, at the triangular intersection, is my hut. It’s bare, square wooden platform to sleep on and perfectly supports my tent size. I drop my anxieties along with my bag. 

This is the first night I’ll use my tent!

I’ve been both apprehensive and eager to camp. I’d bought my tent for this trip, and it makes up 10% of my luggage weight. My determination to get my money’s worth wins over my fear of being exposed and alone.

After setting it up, I rinse the sheet of sweat from my arms and legs with the massive wash basin outside the toilet. I can even shampoo my shaved head. The washroom is immaculate, with three vases and a flower each at the sink, squat toilet and urinal. 

Once cleaned up, I notice the flaming golden horizon just across the street. It rips through the dark blanket of rain clouds. I grab my digicam and phone camera and cross the street. It feels like a gift, a small encouragement for the weary who remember to lift their heads.

Unedited sunset.
Unedited sunset.

Once done, I crawl into my tent and call it a night. I lie there in the heat, with the cool ocean breeze fluttering under my tent flap. In a tent alone, every sensation feels new, the most prominent one being the individual weathered logs against my back (I didn’t bring a mat).

Suddenly, I remember the recent Facebook newsfeeds with summer photos in Toronto, rainbows, events, and invitations. This is a the last Saturday of June. Exactly this time a year ago, I was enjoying Toronto’s World Pride events. I grab my phone to type these final words before tucking in:

Today is probably the Pride Parade in Toronto. And I’m sleeping on a bench beside the sea. While the floats are being decorated, I’ve pissed in a urinal to avoid a gigantic spider. And today is the first time I’ve pitched my tent.

First time I slept out was in a toilet two days ago. This is better.

Kochi’s already making an impact. How sparse and gruff my words have have become.

Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant.

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