Today is a series of unfortunate events, but it starts off beautifully.
I get up early to enjoy breakfast before leaving my Airbnb loft house. This is my chance to eat a full spread unlike the usual onigiri and snacks that I have on the go. I go all out with almond butter toast, banana and maple syrup, soy milk, coffee, and the last of yesterday’s hearty miso soup.
With a full belly, I hop on a bus back to where I finished yesterday. I’m eager to continue down Kochi’s solitary coastline. I’ve appreciated the comforts of this urban centre, but I am already beginning to feel trapped and restless. Today’s route will be a good to walk along the sea, with just my thoughts for walking company.
When I get off the bus an hour out of the city, I’m back in flatland checked by houses and field plots, neither entirely rural nor urban. The houses have small bridges above the gurgling open irrigation channels.
A car runs slowly beside me then stops a block ahead. Out skips a guy who rummages through his trunk. As I approach, he fishes a 1000 Yen bill out of his wallet, apologizing for not having any snacks on hand.
It’s easy to accept snacks and drinks as osettai, but accepting money just seems … different. But I know I can’t refuse so I just thank him, a bit flustered and forget to give him an osamefuda, a nameslip, before he drives off.
When I turn onto the main route heading out of the town, the houses are reduced to the occasional sentinel along the road. The next town of Usa is on the other side of the hills and along the coast. I’m only 12 kilometres away from Shōryū-ji, the last temple in this cluster of short walks. I want to get it over with quickly so that I can take the ferry across the inlet after before sunset.
My body has recovered after two days of shoulder rest and a soft bed, and makes light work crossing the hills. I’ve grown used to the perpetual beads of sweat that accumulate above my lips and forehead. Wiping every few minutes has become reflexive.
I make my way cautiously down the mountain, using my staff to ease the weight from my terrible knees. I’m also terrified of rolling my ankles on the uneven slope.
I’m making good time and pass the forest, the fields, and the houses laid out on a grid before reaching the sea wall. My shoulder is aching again, and the masses of concrete offer no worthwhile distraction. Just then, I see a Family Mart down the road, and use it as motivation to keep going. I grit my teeth, frustrated that my shoulder has already broken down again.
Once inside the Family Mart, I get my food, plant myself at the eating area and bask in the AC. I have time to sit. Walking 20 kilometres every day no longer seems like much, but in actual practice it is still a daily negotiation between what my feet want to do (walk far, fast), and what my shoulders can handle (go slow, with frequent breaks).
Reluctantly, I get up an hour later. All that’s left is crossing the harbour bridge and following the peninsula bend to Temple 36. It should be about an hour if all goes well.
Everything goes badly only minutes later. I’m sitting on the curb. Pain. Left ankle. Blood on my knees. I’ve rolled my ankle crossing the road – and the culprit is the single rock I didn’t see.
The cars don’t even slow down as they drive around me. Really? What happened to friendly Shikoku people? And I’m an obvious henro, with hat, staff, heavy bag and all!
I roll my ankle tentatively, ignoring the fresh, dull ache and checking the damage. I just got out of the Family Mart. Should I limp back and get ice? Now, it looks so far.
I’m really pissed. Pissed at my carelessness, at the stupidity.
I sit on the curb, sitting out the anger and regret, knowing it’s no use, knowing that things happen when I let my guard down. Knowing these facts don’t dampen the fury. So I sit, letting the emotion run its course in order to continue.
After about 10 minutes, I tentatively stand up to test my foot. Just a numb and tense feeling. That’s a good start.
The bridge over the bay has transformed from a 10-minute speed walk into a monolith. I’m grateful for my staff as I heave my way up, thrusting my left weight on it. I wonder if I’ll even make it back, if I’ll regret not icing it. Still, something draws me on. Or maybe it’s just a perverse penance for stupidity.
The inlet is grey today, grey as the block buildings scattered around the shoreline, grey as the chipped and scratchy concrete.
When I finally make it down the rampart, it feels like an hour’s passed. And…the sole of my shoe is coming off again. By now, I’ve resigned to a numbness and open my backpack for the super glue. It isn’t there. It’s surprising how easily the little pile of things-gone-wrong can mount up. I just spread my belongings systematically onto the pavement, checking the small bags for the orange stick. None.
After repacking, I check the top compartment again, just in case. And it’s there. Sigh of relief. Another 15 minute set-back, but I’m just grateful I can continue walking.
I hurry on to Temple 36. I thought it was facing the sea, but every turn without a temple shakes my confidence. There isn’t time for getting lost. I speed walk on, map in one hand and staff in the other as my replacement leg.
Eventually, I pass a hot spring hotel on the map. I’m close, I think. I enter the small alley behind and ask two elderly ladies for directions. I speed off in the direction they point in and shout my thanks.
Finally, hidden behind the folds of the hills, I see it, I think. Actually, the Main Hall is hidden above a steep flight of stone stairs, so steep I wonder if shorter people from prior centuries had to crawl up. Perhaps that was the intention.
Up at the top, I make quick prayers and rush back down for the nokyocho. As I struggle to put my backpack back on in a comfortable position, the lady sitting on the far bench gets up to help me. This small gesture feels like a reprieve from the past hour of mishaps. I’m glad to have something good to dwell on.
I head back, around the bends, over the bridge, and into the shuttered town. It feels drained, of life, of purpose. The buildings have gutted doors and windows, the streets invaded by small weeds, the intact houses are shuttered tight. The shipyards are empty. I see visions of ghosts of ships cutting through the calm waters, docking, off-loading their catches, the gruff shouts and banter of people no longer here. I was originally going to overnight here, but I’m glad to move on.
A middle-aged man points behind an unmarked processing warehouse to me: that’s the ferry port. It’s the dock under a cut-out in the tsunami barricade.
I’m early. I can stretch and nap… but I can’t get food. I wish I’d gotten something extra at the Family Mart or gone back for ice. I fight off the temptation to catalogue my regrets today. There are too many in the past hours. So instead, I stretch, try to nap, use the washroom, and massage my shoulders while waiting.
When the boat arrives, I’m the only passenger. After I climb in, I notice the outlet and ask the driver if I can charge my phone, which is dying. He says go ahead, I log the small victory, and soon doze off as he zig-zags across the inlet from port to port along Uranouchi Bay.
Half way through the ride, I realise my cell phone wasn’t charging because the cable was loose. After pushing it back in, I try to stay awake to watch the sombre hills for the remainder of the ride. I look overboard at the lines we’re carving out in the dark water. On the shore, single houses mushroom here and there. I try not to dwell on the fact that I only have about 20 minutes to charge.
I ask the driver to take me to Sakauchi, the last port. He asks me if I meant Yokonami, the second last stop where all the henro get off.
Screw what the other henro do. I just want to call it a day, and start again tomorrow. I confirm my request, despite his concerned look.
‘There’s nothing there,’ he tries again.
‘There is a camping ground!’ I say cheerfully, even though I don’t want to be setting up a tent in an open, exposed, lonely clearing.
We arrive at the port on time. There’s only a locked community building. This wasn’t the camping site I’d hoped for, and I reluctantly head up the hill. On the map, I realise the Yokonammi and Sakauchi are actually the same distance from the henro hut I’m going to, and it would have been better to get off in town. Another mistake in the bucket.
I’m exhausted, and the thought of no dinner is even more exhausting. The dark houses and boarded up shops that keep emerging and falling away continually dangle me on the faint hope of food. Even the single open gas station didn’t have any. I wish I could sulk, but here it wouldn’t bring people, or help, or comfort.
Sulking only works with people, in society. No wonder hermits are so serene.
Instead, I muster everything I have to keep going, whatever takes my mind off my throbbing left foot, the needles in my right, the tight calves, the caving shoulder, the sweat-drowned back and butt. Sometimes I focus on the henro hut as a beacon, other times I use my anger at myself to keep going. All flames are good flames for survival until tomorrow.
Why am I doing this again? The novelty has worn off. This is normal now. Normal, and uncomfortable. Like every other normal life I’ve tried and dropped, I don’t have a good answer. But unlike the other times, this feels right. Even today, even the list of mistakes, somehow, feels right. Underneath the fatigue and anger, I sense a fragile, but deep, peace.
Just past 6:00, I emerge into a small enclave of houses as the valley begins to widen. A severe-looking obaa-san (grandmother) greets me as she walks by, speaking in thick dialect. Eventually, I understand she’s asking me where I’m stopping tonight and I tell her I’ll be doing nojuku at the henro hut.
Her initial surprise turns to weathered disapproval. ‘There are lots of insects!!’
I almost want to laugh. That’s the last of my worries.
‘Mosquitos! Do you have mosquito incense?’
‘No, but I have spray.’ I gesture it. ‘Daijoubu.’ I’ll be fine.
She makes a face, tells me it’s not far and reminds me to greet the neighbours upon arrival.
A few minutes later, it’s the hut itself. There’s a large square platform enough to fit three to four people. Just as I’d read, there is an outlet and light. There’s a weathered 2015 calendar, a sign that says we can use the portable toilet on the driveway of the house and the outside sink.
As I wash my hands, legs and face with a towel, a silver-haired man comes out to the garden to water the plants. He takes a glance at me and continues watering the plants and placing bread in the bird feeders. It’s like walking into a hobbit garden left to the wilds.
‘Excuse me! I’ll be staying in the henro hut tonight. Yoroshikuonegaishimasu!’ In this case, it means ‘I’m indebt to you.’
He grunts and gives me a nod. ‘Dozo.’ Go ahead.
Blunt, matter-of-fact generosity. I actually like it. After walking all day, I’m relieved to have my own space.
Back at the henro hut, I set up the tent and mosquito net. I need to do it fast as the grey skies brings dusk an hour early. After that, I scavenge my remaining snacks for dinner. I needs to last until tomorrow’s breakfast. Thankfully, I’m not that hungry.
I peel off my socks, and do one more walk to the sink to wash my tired feet. It’s been a day. A very, long day, but I got through it, as we get through every day.
I write scribbles in my notebook. I walk faster now. I’m pleased with that.
Every step is your step. There is no gaining anything in walking. Whatever you go up, you must come down.
Walking is so different from cycling. Climbing hills are harder on bikes, sometimes impossible, but the thought of sailing down makes the struggle up worthwhile. Some hills are too steep to tackle on a bike without training. Not so with walking. Untrained, you could walk anywhere less than 90-degree inclines; it’s just a matter of time. But, with walking, there’s no cruising. There’s only forward.
Exposure to weather. Heat. Stuffiness. Rain. Cold draft. Everything.
But already I’m TOO TIRED TO WRITE. Every night. Cleaning. Dirty. Need to sleep.
With that, I crawl into my tent. Through the tent flap, the night is a shifting curtain of black, red, and white as cars swish by. This is a luxury hut, but even so, the wooden boards, the stiff position to keep pressure off my twisted left ankle, the car noise, the silence, the scratching noises in the darkness, keep my mind alert. I drift with my eyes closed, thoughts floating, scattering with every new sound.
Noise. Human voices. I ignore it, thinking it’s the neighbours talking. Then, I realise they’re calling me, so I fumble outside. Two floating faces are lit against the darkness. It’s the obaa-san from earlier, and the ojii-san from the house. They gush a slew of sentences.
I can’t process. I see the familiar green coils and a metal disk container. Oh, godsend mosquito incense! I accept their offer and light two: one at the edge of the platform and one I stick inside my tent. The risk of burning a hole is worth it to keep the mosquitos away from my ears.
The rest of the night, I sleep lightly, half in a smoke-induce daze, and half waiting for something to come at me from the bushes behind the hut walls.