Henro Day 12: July 2

Kochi City 高知市
Temples: 33 Sekkei-ji (雪蹊寺), 34 Tanemaji (種間寺), 35 Kiyotaki-ji (清滝寺)
Weather: Sunny
Travel Method:  Walking (Train + Bus to and from last walking point)
Distance: 20.7 km

While the coffee is brewing I drop a slice sumomo, sour peach, in my mouth. In the bowl beside the red juicy cuts are yellow ones from the Tosa Buntan, a local pomelo-like fruit. My host brought them over from her parents’ house next door. Her drooping fruit trees had more than she could finish and her eyes lit up when I recognised the fruits.

It strikes me how even a single fruit tree can so easily create generosity in people.

It’s 4pm, and I’m back from a full day of walking. Sitting in the sunlit living room with its two-storey glass wall, I settle in for a treat: time to write.

Afternoon coffee with fresh fruits from the garden.

[Earlier That Day]

I’m up at twilight to enjoy a full breakfast before catching the first bus down to the ferry port, where I finished walking yesterday. The ferry is free for henro to cross the harbour to Temple 33.

In the grey light of early morning, I let my thoughts flow with the opaque waters of the harbour as the ferry backs away from the dock.

I start to think I’m a bit crazy. Why does someone who doesn’t believe put so much effort into such trouble? 

Not poetry, but I keep going. I wonder why as a non-believer, I bother following the rituals at all. It somehow feels important. Or rather, my desire to follow them makes them significant. What significance it has, I don’t know.

The stream of consciousness turns sharply; I notice how relaxed I am, how I let the morning sleepiness linger. Today, I don’t need to be alert and thinking about the next food or sleeping spot. I don’t even have a backpack. It never occurred to me how relaxing just changing one factor, a place to return to, could be. It’s as if I discarded the memory of paid, ‘civilized’, lodgings along with my excess items in the past week or so. 

So much has changed since I crossed into Kochi Prefecture, since I left Shishikui and the other henro, Aurelie. Today, I’m supposed to meet up with her and overnight at Temple 35’s tsuyado. This promise overcame my temptation to stay an extra day in my AirBnB flat to read, cook, and chill.

We get to the other shore in no time, and the commuters disappear quickly down the road. I take my time as Sekkei-ji’s temple office won’t be open before 7am.

Afternoon coffee with fresh fruits from the garden.

When I arrive, the sun has just climbed above the temple walls. It’s still cool, and the grounds serenely quiet. This is a Zen temple, one of the only three among the Shikoku 88 Temples, which are of the Shingon Sect. Although it was founded by Kukai, it was switched in the late 16th Century when a monk named Geppo took over as abbot. 

I search for differences in the altar, but don’t know enough to pick any out. What I do know is that Zen and Shingon are in entirely different branches of Buddhism. Shingon is one of the only surviving branches of Vajrayana, Esoteric or Tantric, Buddhism, in East Asia. It shares roots with Tibetan Buddhism. This type of Buddhism is passed down orally by monks and is mysterious even to its followers.

Zen/Chan Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, which dominates East Asia. Chan originated out of China in the Tang Dynasty and spread to Japan around the same time as Shingon. Zen has since rooted itself deeply into Kyoto culture, and was further popularised by the ruling samurai class during the recent shogunate eras.

Theravada Buddhism, the oldest branch, is found in South-East Asian countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia.

The story behind this temple seems to reflects a historical refrain. Places of significance are not the unyielding bastions of tradition, but rather the sites for adaptation and appropriation. Why did the abbot switch sects? Or why was he elected despite being from a different sect? Did faith, politics, or perhaps community need, factor in? Who decided that it was still worth including in this Pilgrimage? Even if the reasons are obscured in history, I’d like to think that including a temple from a different Buddhist branch reflects an openness in religious institutions.

I get a nokyocho for a Buddhist magazine back in Hong Kong. In addition to prominent Buddhist thought leaders, they feature inspiring community people from all religious and non-religious backgrounds in their profiles. Symbolically, it seems fitting. 

After this, the last pockets of urbanity fall away as I follow a road between two foothills. Right where the bend becomes single-lane, a lady stops her pickup truck beside me and thrusts a packaged bun through the open window.

O-settai! For breakfast!’ She says cheerily in a thick accent, her leather face wrinkling with a smile. Then, she hurries along to not block the traffic.

It was timely, and the tuna bun I’d never normally buy tastes delicious on a growling stomach. I munch away while trying to locate the henro-no-michi (the henro’s path). The trusty henro stickers usually stuck on sign posts and walls are spaced out today and I frequently have to reconsult my maps.

The henro stickers all over Shikoku guiding walking pilgrims.

Still, it’s only 9am by the time I light my incense at Tanema-ji

Even as I go through the ritual motions and scan the newly renovated hall, my mind’s eye sees the breakfasts I had in undergraduate residence and fill with all my memories of the friend I’m dedicating the temple to. During the long, solitary days, memories of people keep me company. They play so vividly I forget myself. I’ve just become a walking collection of memories.

It’s a good place to dwell.

I hear a smooth, childlike laugh but in an adult’s voice, a line of retort. More laughter. This repeats as I float mentally from dining halls, to our dorm rooms, to the house she now lives in and the car she drives to pick me up. I hear her laugh. 

Before I go to the office to get a nokyocho for her, I leave the incense holder that I’d picked up at Temple 26 for someone else. Everything in life is borrowed. When we accept that, it becomes much easier to give things away.

After getting the nokyocho, I ask the monk at the counter whether a French girl has gone by. He hasn’t, so I write a message and ask him to pass it on.

A quick calculation tells me that if Aurelie is not ahead, then she’s likely not left Shishikui at all. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve grown used to walking alone and enjoy the exchanges with locals as a daily dose of socialising and language practice.

Outside the gate, I finish the yomogi daifuku I bought yesterday under a shady bench. The heat keeps me perpetually on the verge of hunger, but unable to eat large amounts. With a lighter grocery bag, I set off for my final temple of the day, my enthusiasm fuelling a brisk pace. It’s 9:30 and my day is going to end before noon if I keep this up!

Niyodo River outside Tosa City

However, by the time I cross the Niyodo River to enter Tosa City, the heat has evaporated my energy. There’s no cover in this flatland. You could bake a pizza on the concrete road. The heat has gotten to the soles of my runners, which were coming off for the nth time.

For now, a quick superglue application fixes the problem, but I need to find a new pair soon. Please, just make it to Matsuyama (the next big city after 200+ km). Walking like this makes you talk to your belongings a lot.

I take refuge in a Lawson on the edge of town and have an early lunch before climbing up the hill to Kyotaki-ji. It’s a good opportunity to check up on my bus times to go back to Kochi using the Japanese app Yahoo!乗換案内.

After refueling and ample procrastinating, I muster the will to venture back out into the heat. It never gets easier does it? I ask myself wryly. On the one day I don’t have a backpack, there’s insane heat. Or rather, thankfully I don’t have a backpack in this weather.

I make my way for the complex nestled in the foothills just outside the settlements around the river basin. The houses and two-story buildings retreat as I cross the highway into the fields. Those give way to country houses as the road curves up.

Just as I head into the shade of the trees for the climb, I hear a motorbike and someone shouting. A guy with a scooter stops beside me and asks if I’m going up to Kiyotaki-ji.

Yes, I am.

‘It’s really hot!’ He seems breathless from the effort of speaking.

‘Ah, well I have no choice!’

He dangles a swinging plastic bag at me. ‘You’ll need this!’

I finished an entire bottle in two gulps earlier and didn’t think to buy another in my overheated stupor. The earlier bottle has already gone straight out my pores. 

He doesn’t leave, so I ask, ‘Are you going up to Kiyotaki-ji too?’

He fishes in his pocket and finally produces a 500 Yen coin. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have food for you too! There aren’t many henro during the time of year so I wasn’t prepared.’ Despite my initial refusals, he hands me the coin and goes back down the slope. I feel the hard touch of ice through the plastic bag; it seems he came up just to deliver this.

Touched, I pocket the coin. I’ve begun to write down every o-settai I receive. It feels like an accumulating group effort. I want to remember every person’s contribution. Giving o-settai to a pilgrim is equal to giving to Kobo Daishi, who accompanies every pilgrim on the journey. Economically, the people of Shikoku don’t have much to give, but they give what they can. What they give is usually exactly what I need.

The main gate, which only walking pilgrims see.

By the time I reach the temple and open the Aquarius bottle, it’s half and the perfect temperature. The bottle is worth only a few minutes work on salary, but purchasing power can never buy this feeling of deep gratitude for every frigid gulp.

How little we value the food that we eat. How much do we pay for services instead?

If I were in the city, I’d be scandalised if a carrot jumped from 30 to 60 cents, or if this bottle were 180 instead of 120 Yen. Yet, I wouldn’t give a second thought to paying for delivery for convenience, a new app for my phone, or a plummer to unclog the drain. Now, with a life stripped down to walking, eating, and sleeping, I can feel the full effect of the things that go into my body to keep it going: water and food, especially the local, fresh, tasty, nutritious produce. I wish the world rewarded those who produced good, honest, produce better.

Rehydrated, I survey the courtyard of Kiyotaki-ji, which has noticeable quirks. There is a Western clock in the middle of the courtyard and the line-up of the Main Hall, Daishi Hall, and an additional hall side by side. There is also a huge statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha, in the courtyard. The entire assortment seems accidental, but works in its own funky way.

Kiyotaki-Ji (Temple 35) Go inside the cave under the statue!

I perform the rituals for a friend who is working tenaciously to become a practicing lawyer in the United Kingdom. We met at a dinner right after he moved to London and before I moved out and instantly clicked over our nomadic lives. Our chance encounter quickly became a friendship surviving across continents.

He’d enjoy today’s little adventure. I almost wish I’d taken my stuff to stay at this temples’ overnight tsuyado and watch tomorrow’s sunrise. But, I have a house tonight back in Kochi City, so I let go of the scene and walk past the serene temple garden to get the nokyocho. The lady who writes it for me is pleased as I list off the things I’m enjoying about this prefecture. Like the temple before, I ask her if she’s seen a French henro, and get a negative. Instead, she hands me caramel popcorn and a local CD collection to take away. I feel like I’ve overloaded on o-settai for the day.

View of the Tosa City Plain, covered in one morning.

With today’s temples finished, I head back into town to catch the bus back to Kochi City. I fall asleep and clumsily rush out when the driver calls me from the front. Once off, the trams going past, the covered arcade behind me, the department store, and steady stream of cars take me aback. It’s a small city, but has a vitality and variety that contrasts with the ghostly villages I’ve been passing all week. I take full advantage and pick up some coffee before hopping back on another bus home.

Once back, it feels like I’m starting the day again. Six hours before sleeping is plenty to chill, make dinner, take a bath, do laundry, and even read.

I go to sleep feeling like it’s the start of a new chapter tomorrow. Kochi City is behind me, and ahead lies the long road to the southern tip of Shikoku: Cape Ashizuri and Temple 38.

Tomatoes in balsamic vinegar dressing, miso soup, garlic cucumbers. Italian, Japanese and Chinese respectively.
Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant.

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