The birds begin chirping just before night melts into navy blue. It’s not even 5:00. I peek over at the henro on the other side of the hut. He hasn’t stirred. Feeling justified, I pull up my covers again.
Next thing I know, there’s shuffling. I peak out of my covers and see the other henro squatting to rummage through his backpack. I slowly push myself upright and sit until my head has cleared. My bag is packed, since I didn’t change into anything clean last night before lying down on the seat cushions and using one of the provided blankets. Snacking takes three minutes. Stacking the cushions and blanket takes two.
I decide to continue the conversation we left off last night as my companion is squatting over the foot tap brushing his teeth.
‘So why are you doing this?’
He lost his job back in Tokyo and had time. He says it casually, but I don’t press further. It doesn’t really matter why he started. Being here is enough.
‘Do you plan to finish all the temples in one go?’ I venture in rudimentary Japanese.
He’ll go as far as he can. Stop whenever. He has no plans. He’s probably also realised that my Japanese is only good enough to ask questions, but not to understand the answers.
He checks his feet, wrapping up his toes with band aids. It seems he has blisters.
‘Does it hurt?’ I don’t know what else to say.
‘A bit. It’s what happens when you walk too fast,’ he says mildly.
I don’t have them yet. I wonder if it’s just because I haven’t walked enough yet. Many of my marathon friends get them. When they recount their runs, they seem to take it as part of the package. I’m glad I forgot to add them to the ‘cons’ list when deciding whether to do this.
After waiting a while, I don’t have much else to do, and I want to make the most of my morning energy. ‘Then, I’ll go ahead first.’
‘Go-yukkuri.’ He says. Take it easy.
It’s a short 5km walk to Temple 28, so I make a detour into a convenience store and hang around for an hour discretely charging my cell phone while having breakfast. I only leave after I see my henro companion go by.
The rest of the walk on the highway with roaring trucks and grey suburbia feels long. I’ll need to wade through this characterless, suburban sprawl before I can finally reach Kochi City, with all its promises of modern city convenience.
By the time I get to the foot of Dainichi-ji, my breakfast sends me shooting up the staircases to the temple in search of the toilet. I guess indigestion, however mild, probably gets to nojuku-henro at some point.
After the toilet, relieved and revived, I do my prayers. After, I sit and enjoy the morning stillness from a corner of the temple complex. In cities, empty temples always feel neglected, but on Shikoku, they seem to have a quiet dignity that deserves to be left alone. It’s a good opportunity to poke around and take photos.
I study the distinct temple architecture beginning with the slanted roof and eaves, which are supported by tokyō, a system of supporting blocks made entirely of wood. The supports are often decorated with dragons, clouds, and other imagery. This extended roof shrouds the inner shrine in a dim, mysterious atmosphere. Only the gold-leaf candle holders, pillars, and statue reflect outside light. It’s impossible to catch the detailed craftsmanship without a flash.
But even the sun-bleached ashen planks that make up the veranda have wonderfully textured grooves, sanded down and rounded by nature’s forces. The circular holes where branches once were fit a coin perfectly. I take a photo, engrossed in the moment.
Farmland: rows of rice stalks soaked in pools of water, rows of dirt mounds with shrubs yielding purple flowers (future eggplants), beans, cucumbers, and the like, rows of plastic wrapping arched metal frames.
A rusty tractor with a broken seat here, an orange and sand-coloured corrugated workshop there, a group flower-patterned ladies with farmers hats and mud-stained boots gathered along an irrigation channel. Everything has a dull lustre, a coat of … smog? Officially, this agricultural suburbia is a ‘city’ with barely 50,000 people. The past few days must have spoiled my eyes with nature’s unfiltered colours.
There’s no distraction from the pain in my left shoulder, which feels like it is steadily being severed from my twisted neck muscles. I’m about half-way to Gokubun-ji, Temple 29, which is a mere 9 kilometres from Temple 28. I’ve stopped several times already to roll my shoulder, stretch, and readjust. It’s not working, and it’s worrying.
There is good and bad pain. The pain of pushing yourself to get stronger, as athletes do, is highly addictive (endorphin kick). I was hoping this was good pain that would disappear as I adjusted to my bag. However, this shrill, tense strain can develop into a chronic problem that will nag at me years later. It isn’t immediately crippling, but it festers and warps your body that is trying to compensate. It feeds on your stubborness, sapping the life out of your limbs. I finally admit that the multi-day battle that began a week ago has been lost.
With a mind numb with fatigue, I try to find the shortest route to an onsen that is on the way to Temple 29. It feels like I’m letting myself off easy again by stopping in so soon, and especially when the temples are so close to each other.
Sometimes, you just have to take that step back to move forward. I hope this onsen is worth it.
Results usually take time, but when I pick up my bag again after two hours in the onsen, I can feel the immediate results. I have a fresh pair of feet and loosened upper neck muscles to last me through to evening.
As bonus, some laundry is done, some caffine ingested. This was definitely worth it.
I sail through the remaining commercial strip, across a bridge, and into Kokubun-ji, just as it begins to drizzle.
It only takes a few minutes to complete the routine now. I now write my osamefuda, nameslips, in the mornings before setting off. As I am packing my prayer incense, a group of bus henro come in. As they begin chanting, I head to the temple office, eager to beat the nokyoucho rush. Once inside, the clatter of raindrops becomes a cascade. With my nokyoucho in hand, I wait for the ink to dry and my phone to charge as I look out the open door at the deluge.
This temple is walled in by tall cedars, and has an interesting selection of trees throughout its grounds. This place turned out to be perfect for my two academic friends who work on environmental sciences and have their own cozy magazine-worthy garden hidden away in downtown Toronto. It is uncanny how suitable the temples have been for the people I’ve dedicated them to so far. I hope this keeps up.
From here, I have two choices: to take a country road and call it a day at the henro hut called Kamohara, which looks nice from the photos I saw, or race through a highway to get to Temple 30 before it closes and figure out accommodation after that. It’s close almost 3:00pm.
I can’t decide, so I revert to an old habit: hedge until the last-minute. I get out my umbrella and start walking, heading for the fork in the road where I’ll need to decide.
After I make my decision, it’s an hour fraught with tension and anxiety.
I choose the straight highway route to improve my chances of reaching Temple 30. As uncomfortable as it is, being splashed by trucks on a sidewalk won’t slow me down the way a muddy path will. Since I’m aiming for Temple 30, then I will get there at all cost. Failure to do so will mean no temple stamp, doubling back along the muddy road to the henro hut and spending the night soaked. That’s unacceptable: I’m still a city kid, after all.
About half way there, I discover a large Family Mart and decide to make time for an early dinner. I haven’t eaten a proper meal since 6:00am. It also has a dining area, complete with plugs. I settle in for my microwaved meal and check the weather report with their free Wi-Fi. I also find out on Google Maps that I still have another 4 kilometres.
Shit. I scarf down the rice, use the washroom, and am off again.
Soon, the rain clouds finally unleash their downpour. All I can do is strategically hold my umbrella so that my runners don’t get too wet. It requires a lot of concentration.
I finally give in: I run.
I jog in fits and starts, hoping that the minutes I shave every time will add up to a meaningful amount.
At 4:30pm, I cross a hill and see Kochi City shrouded in clouds. Civilisation. Almost there. And, I see the henro stickers again, stuck on the sign posts and along the fences, pointing me in the right direction. Thank god. I continue running, from one henro sticker to the next.
All my pain has disappeared.
After entering the temple gate, I race to the stamp office, asking the staff if they’d mind me lighting the incense, doing things the proper way, before getting a nokyocho.
The small lady with wavy hair looks at me, soaked, gasping for breath, in mild shock. No, of course not. She asks me to take my time.
Reassured, I go back out to cleanse my hands and dedicate my prayers at the Main Hall. Today was for family in Toronto, and this last one goes to an aunt who’s more like a good friend that I went around Toronto with on the hunt for good coffee and Eggs Benedict.
Today’s prayers at the Daishi Hall were all dedicated to a group of girls in a shelter in Cambodia after being taken out of the brothels or abusive homes. Their center had an overnight funding withdrawal due to an international media scandal. Despite all their efforts to move past their traumatic pasts, to improve their future prospects through education and work, they are just invisible casualties in a global arena. It is a sobering reality, and depressing truth that I could do little for them. All I can do in this moment is pray. I hope there really are higher beings that can set right humanity’s countless wrongs.
It’s just after six when I walk into the hotel lobby leaving a trail of puddles. The staff at reception greet me with unwavering politeness and patience as I put my soaked bag down and rummage for my passport.
The temple office helped me make a phone reservation earlier. The reception lady offers whatever she can, an o-settai breakfast, a drink coupon, and even a complimentary shoe dryer for my soaked runners. As I head to my room, the lady tells me about their onsen. Even though I avoid hotels as a shoestring backpacker, it already feels worth it.
After I’ve peeled off my dripping clothes, I go down to the restaurant for dinner. Normally, I’d have gone to a convenient store, but there are none close by. Besides, after walking the extra three kilometres through the city, in the rain, I should probably treat myself.
Desperate times calls for desperate expenditures. After three days of nojuku, and being drenched, peace of mind, a warm room, and a good night’s sleep feel priceless. I’m glad I have savings for times like these.
As I have my second onsen soak of the day, I think back to how I got here.
Before Zenraku-ji locked the doors, the woman who first greeted me sent me off with an o-mamori, a charm.
‘For good luck,’ she said.
Meeting her and her colleague was already enough luck for me. Her charm will forever be a reminder of this day with all its highs and lows.
Even the three-kilometre walk here felt nice. I waddled my way into Kochi City with my thin cotton Thai trousers clinging to my legs. My runners were soggy sponges with a bed of needles, but it didn’t dampen my spirits. I took my time. I took photos. I was soaked already: it couldn’t get worse!
I arrived at the hotel with a beaming smile, probably the cheeriest soaked guest they’d ever had.