Morning. Fold futon. Curtains. Sunshine. It rained. Pack. Food.
I move around as quietly as I can. Aurelie is still sleeping, and I love preserving 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 rouse me out of my contented silence. I prepare a light breakfast of leftover mashed potato from yesterday, coffee, and tea and sit by the window watching the golden slight flicker as it travels higher up in the trees.
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 actually prefer having my own space to say goodbye to this place.
I feel a tug to cocoon here. I 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 Pacific West Coast, and maybe I’ll find a solution to that in the coming month.
But I won’t stay. I’ll move on, and meet Aurelie next week at Temple 35, as we agreed.
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 too so I can drop off on the way out of town.
With everything tidied up, I rush out the and through the town. 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, warm hug. Not being used to hugs, I’m surprised. Who said the Japanese were cold?
I think of Aurelie. She said yesterday that she felt so isolated at times, unable to communicate in a foreign country, without company, 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.
Relief. I am at Kannoura Bus Station after getting a bit lost with 15 minutes to spare. I feel a bit silly for worrying and jogging some parts. 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 comprehensive list of reasons. All I know is that I wanted to do it.
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, a reality check on my physical limitations and less-than-ideal weather, I feel like I’ve gotten off easy. Three of my four days so far have been in comfortable homes, with real food, not the pilgrimage I’d expected. Although, the ‘real’ parts have proven pretty tough.
Perhaps if I’d prepared better, 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, I will start afresh from Cape Muroto and walk the length of Kochi, the next prefecture. If I can’t do it all properly, then I am going to do the most difficult length. 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 want this formidable reputation as a yardstick. I’m looking forward to the challenge, to the opportunity to prove I’m not a city-wimp.
The bus comes, and whisks us down along the sea. I look out the window at the dark, 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 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.
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 persistent 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.
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.
The two capes have significance to a walking henro because they are both lonely multi-day walks. It’s one thing to walk 80+ kilometres for yourself. It’s quite another to walk for someone else. When she found out about the torrential rains, she told me to be pragmatic, not without knowing then that I was doing this leg for her and her husband.
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 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 a refreshing blast of the wind to keep the heat away.
The rest of the walk to Temple 25 is an uneventful strip of houses along the coast. These are the most common feature, it seems, of Shikoku. There are ubituitous tsunami warning signs with a number for the wave height and the direction of the closest shelter. The heigh, it seems, varies several metres every few blocks. This coast is truly the buffer against the Pacific for the inland areas like Hiroshima.
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.
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 characters at different ends of the city play back one after another. These are the friends I’m dedicating the next two temples to.
Shinshou-ji is a compact temple stacked on terraces separated by narrow, steep stairs. It’s got a cramped, but cozy vibe, not somewhat like the flats in London. 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 restaurant area, which is probably packed in Spring and Fall, during 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 outlet thrown in!
Still, I can’t wait until my phone’s charged and I need to get going. The last temple for today is only 4 kilometers 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 when I finally head out of the town and into 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, even as they protect me from the rain. Plus… there are mosquitos. I race on, stabbing my staff through the mud, trying to escape their buzzing around my ear.
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, left neatly beside the complimentary lighters.
No way! I open it, and it even has some sticks left 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. These people really take non-attachment to heart when they 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 (roasted barley tea) and a snack. There are no comfortable covered areas to pitch a tent, and I reluctantly move on through the the town of Kiragawa, always on the lookout for shops and a rest spot. Despite my map marking stores, most places are closed.
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, make up a macro-level problem all over Japan. The abstracts of rural depopulation and an ageing society as nebulous textbook concepts have visible scars here. It’s a sombre, sobering thought.
Eventually I finally reach my camping spot for the night. 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, the clusters of buildings fall away, and I find the cemetery I’m looking for. Past that, at the triangular intersection, is my hut. It’s a simple, broad square wooden platform for for me to sleep on and will perfectly supports my tent size. I drop my anxieties along with my bag.
I finally get to use my tent!
I’ve been both apprehensive and eager to camp. I’d bought my tent for this trip, and it’s making up at least 10% my 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 ocean and blanket of rain clouds. I grab my digicam and phone camera and cross the street. It feels like a gift, life’s priceless gift to the weary that still remember to lift their heads.
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, 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 in the midst of a month of 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.