Kochi City 高知市
Temples: 31 Chikurin-ji (竹林寺), 32 Zenjibu-ji (禅師峰寺)
Weather: Cloudy with Sunny Parts
Travel Method: Walking
Distance: 17.1 km
My alarm goes off in the pitch-black room. I resent it with a passion I never felt when woken by sunshine and the cheerful birds after a sleepless nojuku night. In the fog of fatigue after a first good night’s rest, I drag myself out of the fluffy comforter and soft bed, change, and head downstairs for the complimentary breakfast.
My breakfast was waiting for me on a table by the window. It’s a full Japanese breakfast with salmon, tsukemono, side dishes, miso, and rice followed by a Western breakfast with omelette and toast. I eat it wistfully while listening to the two businessmen in the next table, watching the rain.
Just before bed last night, I confirmed an AirBnB place to stay close to the next temple, Chukurin-ji. I’ll stay two nights while walking to the temples around Kochi City. The weather forecasted rain today and tomorrow, so I used an AirBnB coupon that was about to expire.
I type up some brief notes about my walk yesterday while I sip my coffee. It’s going to be a chill day.
I leave the hotel close to 10am and head south to my new lodgings. The route runs along the canals that lead out to the bay. In the distance, the whispy sheets of clouds roll through the steel-blue mountains, as though they’re not quite ready to ascend to heaven.
It’s a quick 40-minute walk, but I almost double the time as I stretch the minutes observing the scenery. Even though I’m in the city, the buildings are low, taking up little space on the horizon with the distant hills and expansive sky.
My AirBnB host has left the door to the modern loft-house unlocked for me. Many rural places and small cities in Japan are still like that. Farm houses have open sliding doors; kitchen doors are left open for a draft. People leave parcels and baskets of vegetables at your door if you are out. People just say ‘Just go in’.
After quickly dropping my things off at the entrance, I take a grocery bag of prayer essentials and snacks. Even though having a place feels like vacation, I still need to do my daily duties of temple visiting.
Right beside the house is an stone marker with the words so worn they’re barely legible. Chukurin-ji, the next temple, is supposed to be up this hill, and this natural route seems more interesting than the car route spiraling up. I’ll take my chances.
The stairs eventually lead to wide dirt path surrounded by emerald trees glistening from the recent rain. The path takes me through old graves, some clustered and others solitary. Nature has already wrapped her roots around many.
The last flight of stairs has become a gurgling stream fed by yesterday’s rainwater. It’s captivating, an display of nature’s ability to reclaim even the most enduring of human accomplishments.
I take photos, trying to capture the moment, ignoring the mosquitos descending on my exposed legs, unprotected by mosquito repellent. Climbing the stream is a refreshing rinse for my feet, which are in Keen sandals, rather than my usual runners today.
At the top, there’s a final flight of stairs leading up to the Niōmon, the entrance gate to Chukurin-ji, the Temple of the Bamboo Groves.
According to legend, the Emperor Shomu ordered Gyōki to find a place similar to Godai-san (五台山) in China, and this was the chosen spot in the late 8th Century. The temple has extensive gardens from the Edo Period and various statues that date from the Heian through to the Muromachi Periods. Its moss-covered stones and tōrō, stone lanterns, speak to the grace of age. Nature has embraced this human outpost by growing a blanket of moss around the deciduous trees, and coaxing the tall cedars behind to protective heights. The young Japanese maples are shimmering in the hovering mist. The light rain hopscotches over the leaves. The grounds are humming silently.
I have time today, so I walk through the various gardens taking photos, noting mushrooms, checking each small shrine. I take a few photos with the Sigg water bottle the friends I dedicated this temple to gave me years ago. I’ll send it to them tonight.
The next best thing to having friends beside you is taking a part of them with you. They continue to help you move forward.
An hour later, I’m back in fields between the hills. Even though I am still in Kochi City, the river I’m walking along cuts through rice paddies. Only weeks ago, most rice stalks were still uniform patches of leafy grass, bending with the path of the wind. Now, they are beginning to droop. In the Fall, they will be harvested. I’m glad to have this natural course to Zenjibu-ji. Even a small city like Kochi is already too much concrete now.
Here, there are few cars, fewer people, and many henro stickers stuck on walls, lamposts and forks in the road. These red icons are the familiar little friends that assure me I’m going in the right direction.
Without my backpack today, I feel like a turtle without its shell. I twirl my staff and place it on my shoulders, dangling my arms ontop. Eventually, I trip over Kobo Daishi (*see tsue entry) and stumble a few steps forward. I grin. Some things don’t change, like being clumsy. Maybe I should just accept it. The 6th Patriarch of the Chan school of Buddhism, Huineng, implied that a person’s original state is pure (Read the text in the Referenced Literature Section).
Not all lessons have to be hard and painful.
The simple route on my guide book suggested that Zenjibu-ji would just appear behind houses like many other temples. In the end, I spent a good half-hour searching for the path that I knew was painfully close. It was around the other side of a lake, through a row of houses in a small village, past another temple, and up a hill on an unmaintained, slippery, mosquito-ridden path. They don’t make it easy. In a normal life, I’d have thrown up my arms and turned back ages ago, more out of frustration than physical hardship.
I arrive at the same time as a group of bus henro and the stairs up to the Main Hall have a momentary traffic jam of heaving white bodies with conical straw caps.
At the top, I am bask in the momentary sunshine, from a lookout point. Two ladies with covered heads and sunglasses also pause here while the others mill around the courtyard.
‘It’s beautiful isn’t it?’ They murmur to each other.
‘Indeed,’ I respond uninvited. It feels like a view best shared, even if between strangers.
‘And it’s so nice it ended up being sunny!’ One continues.
‘Indeed, indeed,’ the other adds in.
Then they turn to me. ‘Did you walk here?’
‘How are you going around?’
‘Walking the entire thing.’
Then one of them hesitates and asks if I’m a girl. My shaved head, bandana and unflattering sportswear look male, but my voice gives me away. I confirm that I am. Female aruki-henro are rare, and it’s unfathomable to Japanese that they would do nojuku alone.
They continue the questions. Where do I stay? What?! Nojuku?! Why am I doing this? Oh, from Canada? Chinese? They thought I was a Japanese Nisei.
It’s flattering, and helpful. Being mistaken for Japanese will get more friendly responses than being read as Chinese given the current political tensions between Japan and China.
Eventually, their tour guide rounds them up to begin prayers and they excuse themselves, saying the customary, ‘O-kiosukete.’
I let the entire group finish their chants and collect their staves left at the wooden box stands. With the herd gone, I can light my incense for my family friends in peace and quiet. They are from the same hometown as my dad, although they are my maternal aunt’s friends. Ever since I’d met them, they’ve treated me like family, the way Chaozhou / Shantou people do for each other. Their homemade Chow-Shan dishes, following traditional ingredients and methods to the last detail, are better than the ubiquitous restaurants in Hong Kong that cut corners to make a profit. Chow-Shan people are also notoriously picky about their seafood, being from a rugged coastal region fortified by mountains; my friends would have loved Kochi’s katsuotataki.
Next is the routine visit to the temple office for a stamp. There’s a monk and lady manning the small shop entrance. They radiate a sense of gentle cheerfulness, patiently waiting as I try to decide whether to get some postcards drawn by a local artist. Outside is a small, homey garden with potted plants everywhere. In contrast, the detached house just beside the office is clean, but sagging with age and accumulated items.
After sitting for a bit in the garden, I set off to the ferry port, where I take I can take a free ferry to Temple 33 on the other side of Urado Bay. I still have time. Maybe.
By four, my ankles are dying from the lack of arch support and I ditch racing to Temple 33. Besides, there’s a supermarket and I still need lunch! I do a shopping binge and buy daifuku, genpi (my local favourite), bananas and a pre-made burdock root dish. With the spoils of supermarket wandering, I go to the dining area and dig in.
The daifuku is only 200 JPY for 5 and freshly made, with a chewy texture and distinct yomogi flavour. Such honest prices! I love rural Japan.
When I finish, I do a quick walk down to the ferry port, so that I know what it looks like tomorrow morning. From there, I can catch a direct bus home.
It’s an open lot, with a shack on one side as a bus stop, and a shack by the retaining wall for the ferry passengers. There’s a young boy with a bike talking to a gentleman in a suit. They see me milling around, and come over to have a chat. The boy is actually university-age and working. He and the salary-man commute across the bay to work.
I talked my quota today up at Temple 32, so I don’t have much to say. I’m more interested in the young man’s road bike and their original conversation.
Eventually, the salary-man asks what I’d like to drink. I politely decline.
‘I have money, yo!’ He says.
I wouldn’t mind a drink but it still feels odd because he hasn’t offered it as o-settai, in the way supporters typically do upfront. Here, I can’t quite tell if there’s any added implication.
The salary-man gives up and looks at the young man, who swiftly accepts with, ‘Sumimasen!’ I let out a sight of relief as they march in solidarity across the lot to the vending machine.
A few minutes later, they’re back. The gentleman hands me a half-sized yellow yuzu drink. This time, I gratefully accept. I’ve wanted try this for a while! I need to remind myself to open up a little to people’s generosity.
Eventually, a mast floats closer and closer above the sea barricades. When it’s stopped, the gate is drawn up, and a handful of people pedal and drive off. Then, the small crowd that’s gathered in the lot file into the ferry. My companions take their leave too.
Unlike Tokyo, however, the gate doesn’t close even though it’s past departure time. I hear the roar of a motorcycle, and it flies through the lot straight into the ferry. No-one flinches. Maybe they’re expecting him. I feel privileged to see this small little human touch that defies city stereotypes.
After catching the bus back home, I have time to enjoy a second snack. My AirBnB host has arranged a sampling of teas, snacks, and tomatoes on the counter for me. In addition, she said guests could help themselves to the vegetables in the fridge if they cook. I certainly will!
I have so many things to fill my evening with! I put on some French music, scan her wall of books, put together ingredients for miso soup and go upstairs to check out the golden sunset highlighted with magenta and violet clouds. All these little things make me feel like I have a home again, that I can put away the vagabond identity and bring out another self for the two days that I’m here.
After dark, my host comes over to explain how to use the laundry machine, since I couldn’t figure it out. She tells me her former husband designed this gorgeous loft-house, which explains the blend of aesthetics and utility in the details like lighting, washroom materials, tiling, etc. She’s a French teacher, which explains her wall bookshelf. I’m glad to put a face to a name for my host.
I finish making dinner, have a shower, and pluck a French-Japanese version of the The Little Prince off the shelves to read before going to bed.
It’s been a very, very good day.