I woke up in the middle of the night only once, which is an accomplishment. I wake again in the dark before 5:00 because I had originally wanted to climb to the peak and see sunrise. Finally, my alarm goes off again at 6:00, and I’m behind schedule. I told the temple office lady I’d leave by around this time.
I pack up and sweep the tatami mats, but after that, I wait another 10 minutes my laundry to dry a little more, another 5 minutes for my phone to charge a bit more. It’s a priceless morning that only walking henro who stay over in the tsuyado earn. Rather than just move on, which is the ‘right’ henro thing to do, I want to at least enjoy the places I’m passing through, and the moments that will never come again.
The temple lady comes in to check on me and chides me saying I should get going in order to reach Temple 28 today, which is 40 kilometres away.
I didn’t intend to walk that distance, but she’s right, I should get going!
An hour later, I’m near the base of the mountain and retracing my steps for the second time. In the span of 15 minutes, I’ve dropped the Furoro owl charm tied to my staff twice. I take deliberate steps up the road, scanning every inch of concrete that I’d just charged past only minutes before without a second thought.
It would’ve been easier to just forget about it. The Buddhist teachings say we should have non-attachment to material things, people, and concepts. I don’t think it’s a good excuse for abandoning something I dropped out of carelessness. I don’t feel much about posessing or losing it. Rather, I want to honour the maker and the elderly lady who gave me o-settai snacks yesterday. Acts of generosity should not be lightly discarded.
Thankfully, I find it the second time too in the blinding white concrete. Suddenly, I remember John Wooden’s quote, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” I think another way to describe character is just what each person can live with.
I feel like there are 5 Kochis: the historical one, the beach and surf one, the seafood one, the pilgrimage one, and the forgotten one.
Kochi is the homeland of Chōsokabe Motochika, the man who united Shikoku before surrendering to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, as well as Sakamoto Ryōma, one of the prominent figures to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate and the feudal system. It also is a hidden gem for surfers, with many locals closing shop to cross the road and ride the waves. Many others know Kochi for its katsuo, the fish used for bonito flakes to make dashi stock, and katsuotataki, a smokey grilled sashimi. To henro, this is the Dojo of Ascetic Training, the place where their determination is tested through the longest leg, with the fewest temples. Kochi only has 16 temples, but takes up 500km of the total 1200 km. It is an expanse looms in a henro’s psyche as days with nothing but road, sea, and sky.
Just as harsh landscapes have an inexplicable allure, Kochi too is has a raw, force-of-nature. I pass the early morning, and high noon, afternoon, and evening meditating on the pull of this place. The route through Kochi traces a thin line of civilisation that’s as weathered, stunted, yet deeply rooted, as trees eaking out an existance over a stunning cliff face. Indeed, where are the people?
The first town of the day is tiny Ioki, significant because I it is where I discover Lawson, the convenience store chain, has free WiFi. I spend two hours uploading photos and catching up with friends. Wi-Fi distracts me from the gathering heat reaching its noon climax.
My Facebook newsfeed reminds me that the Pride Parade happened while I was sleeping up in Konomine-ji.
What a perfect coincidence that I discover internet just in time to make Pride! I flip through the photos, commenting, and sending greetings to friends in Toronto, knowing many of them are still partying into the night. It’s only 10pm over there. I smile imagining a cinematic juxtaposition of the pitch black mountain I slept on and Lady Gaga blasting from the floats and stages to the crowds in Toronto’s concrete jungle.
I tell the friend I’d prayed for at Konomine-ji about the view there. He has already achieved professional heights few of his contemporaries would dream of, but those are almost after thoughts as he aims for his his personal summits. He cycles in the snow and rents a one-bedroom apartment when he could have bought a house because his wealth goes to his friends, surgery funds for others, and support for refugees and marginalised groups. As I heaved up the mountain yesterday, careful to keep a steady pace lest I get winded, I was glad to have him.
Some time later, I’m at a bend where I can look back at the series of points jutting out into the sea. The furthest one is just a dark felt-marker line above the water. I’m just past Ananai station and there are only two buildings here perched at the edge of the cliff with this stunning view. Ahead of me, the road slides down into the next town of Akano, with its balmy spread of beach lined with a tropical treeline separating it from the strip of settlement creeping up into the hills.
It’s the first time I see the distance I’ve covered. The miles are adding up. Every time I look back, I know I’ve covered the entire distance to the horizon. I’m a bit mind blown.
Also, a bit exhausted. And a bit hungry.
I pick up a mochi from the outpost shop, I finish it and continue. I’ve covered about 20 kilometres and it’s fast approaching 3pm. If I want, I can stop in about 5 more kilometres at the other end of the beach and call it a day.
The thought that I can end early today and still have an entire evening ahead spurs me on. Soon, I’m down by the water, letting the waves wash past my knees. My legs are happy, but my upper half is still roasting. No wonder there’s not a soul here. Soon, I retreat to the leafy recreational path behind the beach.
It is here that I find the invisible, forgotten Kochi, the one made up of people’s lives. On the recreational path, I see people who strolling, walking their dogs, cycle to and from school. In gardens, there are colourful hand-cut pinwheels and small rows of vegetables. It’s easy to think of Kochi as abandoned, desolate, lonely, unless you look for these small, human moments.
By 4:45, I reach the zenkonyado that was on my nojuku henro guide list. The neat row of shacks are run by a Hagamori-san, who has left a contact number on a board. Inside the metal sheet walls are futons, kitchenware, cookstoves. There’s at least one ragged henro enjoying the quarters.
I reached my goal. I could stop.
I haven’t been sleeping enough ever since I started, and I think I’ll sleep soundly here. When I do nojuku, every sound wakes me up. It’s only between 4-6am, when the sky gets bright, that I finally get a good chunk of rest. When I’ve stayed with other people, I sleep well, but not enough. Somehow, my body’s adjusted, but it doesn’t have time to heal my shoulder and neck.
Yet, the sun still so high up. My mind is still energetic, and wants to spend the daylight hours walking.
I could just treat myself to a restaurant meal. But food has lost its appeal. Now, it’s just something to keep me going because I don’t want to eat into walking time. I love onigiri, so breakfast, lunch and dinner are always equally tasty. I just no longer have cravings for anything in particular.
When did I become like this? I’ve only just started, but I’m changing so fast I catch myself.
Another reason I’m reluctant to finish here today is because Aurelie told me that the beach on the other side of this one that is gorgeous. I really want to see a sunset over the distant sea. If I’m not longer indulging in mouth-watering food, I’m going to indulge in beautiful moments.
Alright, it’s decided. I’m moving on. Before that, I’ll treat myself to a quick nap on the raised boards here first.
Looking back at the map, I walked six extra kilometres, not three. But it was a great lie. It got me to Ya Sea Park. I made it in time to watch the sheets of sunlight ripple and fade away, like apparitions in the distant storm clouds. Purple and blue hues of the distant hills across the bay continually shift with the pale evening sun.
My left collar bone feels like it’s been smashed, and the muscles from my back to my neck and chin are so tight I’m worried they’ll pop. If it weren’t for my staff to hold up me up, I’d have deflated under the weight of my bag half way here.
Still, sitting on the steps leading down to the sandy beach, I wouldn’t trade it. I’ve washed my feet in the public fountains, stretched my toes on cool, moist grass. I’m really done for today. I could sleep here. There are plenty of quiet corners and terraces just behind me. I have a walking henro luxury: time, and something to enjoy it with.
But I really need food. It feels like ages ago since I had that calorically insufficient soba for lunch. So as darkness sets in, I follow my map to the closest convenience store another kilometre or so away to get bento dinner and brush my teeth. Convenience store toilets are so clean. There is a henro rest hut listed just behind it, too.
After dinner, when it’s dark, I have trouble navigating the dark residential streets. Eventually, I see an angular sillouette against the blue-darkness of the sky. As I approach, I see another henro already preparing to tuck in. It’s the one who blew past me yesterday! Why is he still here?!
I think I’ll sleep better with someone else close by. And, this henro hut has futons – weather-stained, but it’s padding!
As I make space to lie down on the bench, I exchange stories with the other henro. We missed each other at Yokomine-ji because he had camped at the foot of the foot of the mountain, not knowing there was a tsuyado after visiting the temple. Secretly, I’m glad. He was able to clock more miles, and I got a good night’s lodging.
I see him light mosquito incense under his bench. Damn. I need to get that. The incense was essentials when I volunteered on farms, but I haven’t picked up any at the convenience stores yet. They’re much more effective than the spray I’ve been dousing myself with.
‘Do you have it?’ He asks.
‘Nope, but I have mosquito spray.’
He already spraying his clothes with a heavy-duty can. ‘Would you like some?’
Sure! He has plenty more to spare than me.
With not much else to do, it’s a good time to call it a day. My body relaxes and lets the fatigue wash in. I cover my face and ears, knowing at some point, the mosquitos gathering will wake me up hovering around my ear.
‘What if I’m a killer?’ My companion ventures in the darkness.
Killers don’t torture themselves camping out for days in hopes of finding another solo henro to kill at a hut. He’s been working a few years, but it sounds like a high school-type joke.
‘I hope not!’ I say in English. I think he’ll understand. More importantly, I look Chinese. Thanks to colonialism, English, and its associated countries of the US, Canada, and the UK, still inspire an unjustified respect in many places in the world. For tonight, I’ll use what it’s worth as an added layer of protection so I can sleep better. In the end, I am just a solo-female camper.
He chuckles, and we both say goodnight.