My alarm goes off and I reluctantly unzip my tent flap, poke my head out, and sit upright on the bench.
Cleaning up, packing, having breakfast, chugging half of the two-litre bottle to offload weight fill up an hour. I never stray far from the hour mark whether I rush or take my time.
With that, we set off. Me, myself, and my thoughts.
I have a lot on my mind as I walk into town.
The most immediate is how far to walk today. My original plan was to stop at Kageno station last night after 30 kilometres of walking. Since I took the train, I didn’t walk that much and passed it already. Instead of arriving at Iwamoto-ji, Temple 37, by noon today, I’ll be there by 9am latest. I have a happy problem. I’m caught between waiting 5 hours for my host to pick me up or walking to the next station.
Just after leaving the michi-no-eki, an oncoming truck roars over a pool of water beside me. I’m more taken aback by how inconsiderate it is than being drenched (again, already). But I keep walking and return to my other thoughts.
If I have time, why not continue walking? I weigh the choices. Practically speaking, it shaves 10 out of 80-odd kilometres to Temple 38 and spaces out my daily camping spots better. From a principles perspective, I should just walk my 20-kilometre quota. Another compelling personal reason is that it reflects discipline, which is the key to improvement. This is the Dojo of Ascetic Training, after all.
By now the sleepy, grey drizzle is getting earnest, and I unfold my umbrella, glancing up regularly to get a sense of the road.
Points against would be that I still have a swollen ankle, that I should rest, that it’s raining today, and that, philosophically, there is no rush.
I guess the decision rests on my motives, which I now realise adversity is transforming into meaning, whether I’d intended it or not. I started the Ohenro because it checked all the boxes: being in Japan, in a rural area, with exercise and physical training, going from place to place, cheaply, safely, without planning necessary, with a simple and flexible route, no talking necessary, something different (and discovering my responses). Nothing more, nothing less. Everything else I discovered was bonus. Because it checked off all the boxes, I didn’t have to prioritise.
When we have to make decisions, we prioritise. Now, I have about two hours to work that out. Our actions reflect priorities, which in turn are manifestations of principles. I’m afraid of what stopping early would reveal about me. Yet, I’m also unconvinced that walking further would ‘prove’ anything either. Our principles are manifested in every next action. They are the cause, and also the result – by-product even.
I also know it doesn’t matter to anyone. It just happens to matter to me.
The winding main road has entered parallel streets. I’m on the edge of town. I pull out my phone to figure out the fastest route to the train station. Once there, I look through the printed train schedule. Principles aside, I need to make sure it’s logistically possible to walk further and train back.
It’s a downpour by the time I’m done. The temple is only a few blocks away, so I try to persist down the main street. Within minutes, the entire town disappears behind a cascade, so I take cover at a corner shop.
I listen to the rain, which has always had a soothing effect. If it weren’t for wet shoes, summer rain is quite romantic. Raindrops splinter like crystals and mellow symphonies are created from the notes on corrugated metal roofs, broad leaves, and concrete roads.
‘Hey!’ A voice shouts from behind. I turn around to find a scruffy grandfather henro covered by a clear poncho. I smile, here’s another crazy one. We shout over the rain beside each other. He tries to offer me the poncho, which I would have killed for, but I can’t conscience leaving him without one. Eventually, our conversation peters out and he heads off despite the weather. He’ll be fine.
When the heavy rain lightens, I head down the final few blocks.
Iwamoto-ji was founded by Gyoki, but is now a collection of six temples after Kukai added five temples with a deity each. It’s the first temple that I’ve seen with an open community centre in a modern building. At the entrance, there are posters and notices for classes and events. The Main Hall’s ceiling seems more like a community mural with 575 paintings of varying styles and skill levels. Looking at the images, I imagine the kids having a great time painting from ladders and raised platform. I can hear their laughter as the paint drips from their brushes and splatters on someone below.
Up until a few decades ago, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were the community hubs, always occupied by playing kids, socialising adults, and community events. The temples today seem to have serenely donned new sombre characters as their courtyards have emptied. I’m glad to see this one is an exception.
Another happy coincidence. The friend that messaged me last night, the one I was considering for this temple, likes kids and has a silly side.
I said considering, and I guess at this point it’s worth explaining. Usually, pilgrims set out on the Ohenro to pray for themselves or their family. Usually, it’s something significant, to be worth the time, financial, and physical investment. I didn’t have anything to wish for, so I decided early on to dedicate each temple to someone, just in case prayers get answered.
The first few temples were straight forward because they went to family, seniors, and people I was indebted to. Order reflects priorities, at least in my Chinese mind. The next set were the friends that came to mind, unambiguously. Reflex also reflects importance. Then, I hit Kochi, where the temples thinned out and so did the straight-forward, friendships. Few meaningful relationships of any sort are straight-forward. They usually have many goods combined with some significant bads. Simply put, there are many people I’m grateful to, but am ambivalent about. Walking gives me time to sort that out and let things go.
Around this time, I’d seen enough temples to know they had distinct characters and stories that were probably suitable for each individual. Based on a mixture of research and instinct, I earmarked some and left the rest to chance. They could be chosen for the route, the view, the history, the ambience, and the timing. Most importantly, I have to be in the right frame of mind to wish that person well.
By the time I’ve lit the incense, I’ve realised something else: I might never work it out, but I can still let go and wish someone well. Letting go is easier with understanding, but it’s not necessary. Understanding in and of itself is a good, and should be pursued. But letting go is just a choice. Compassion doesn’t require understanding.
After that, I get the nokyocho and charge my phone in the office.
Temple 37 is done. Temple 38 is calling from the end of Shikoku, 82 kilometres down the coast.
I’ve been waiting for an hour at Iwamoto-ji and the rain isn’t letting up.
The sofas in the community centre were perfect for discrete napping, but one of the monks suggested I go back outside. Sometimes it’s better to beg forgiveness than permission. Sitting at the covered waiting area with soaked feet and clothes isn’t an ideal for passing the time. I nap, snack, lay out my wet belongings. Time ambles along.
My phone wasn’t charging earlier because I forgot to switch on the plug, so I wait longer because I will need it to track my pace. I let it charge until 9:45, the latest I can possibly wait. Then, I leave my bag at the office and head out again, following the footsteps of the poncho henro.
My phone dies an hour later, just when I realise I’m slower than I thought. I should turn back to be safe. But I hate leaving things unfinished.
I walk-jog-run the rest of the way down the plateau, spiralling down the hills, trying not to slip on the water overflowing from the drains.
At the base, I see the poncho henro sitting in a hut taking a smoke. He waves and we have a quick catch up before I ask him the time and excuse myself.
Another half-hour and I arrive at Kuboshi-no-Sato onsen sweating, gasping for breath. I ask the reception for the washroom and after that for directions to Kaina Station.
It’s not just behind the onsen as it seemed on the map, so I’m running again through a river valley and farmland. At least, the rain has stopped.
I finally arrive with 10 minutes to spare. Relief. My legs are shaking. I need to stretch.
I’d only meant to have a quick lunch in Kubokawa and poked my head in one of the only two open restaurants. A handful of ladies with spectacles and a few gentlemen in cardigans are taking the mic in turns, heaving themselves onto a raised lounge area and singing to a small colour television in front of me. This family-run cafe-bar is of hobbit proportions, just like the silver-haired lady perched on a stool, managing the antique metal karaoke machine. I eat the fried rice by the window as they cheer and clap for each other. Eventually, they ask me questions and my answers travel down the row. I’m thoroughly entertained by the bit of cultural immersion.
Shortly after arriving back at Iwamoto-ji, my Airbnb host finds me at the rest area. We click instantly and before leaving the temple I take her around the complex, sharing the rudimentary knowledge I have. The Ohenro appealed because it is open on how people can participate, and early on, I decided mine would be inclusive to old friends and strangers alike. After my host lights her incense, says her prayers, writes her nameslips, and tosses her coins, we head out.
First, it’s a quick grocery trip to pick up breakfast and dinner. Then, we follow the meandering Kubokawa (kawa means river) to her house, the green fields and dark hills floating by outside my window.
Her house. Her incredible house. Her incredibly old, well-kept, traditional, house. It takes me a while to get over the quality of the wood, the screen doors, the tatami mats, the overall craftsmanship. The enclosed veranda-walkway is wide, with solid, oiled planks; my sleeping area has a bedroom and sitting area with the family shrine, keepsakes and tea. The kitchen appliances I’m told were working when my host moved in, even though no-one lived there for over a decade. Rural Japan is abound with traditional houses, but many are weathered, the wood dry and raw, the attics full of cobwebs, the toilets are attachments or pits. I’d expected any or all of the above, not this.
After settling in, my host, suggests we go to her favourite onsen at Matsubakawa. An onsen over a river? I’m in!
So by dusk, I’m perched at the edge of a steaming pool above the Matsuba River. I am dizzy processing this incredible turn of events. I’m so glad I booked the place, but already regret not staying longer. We linger in the pool chatting as other groups of women come in and out. Eventually, we remember dinner and get up.
The conversation continues all the way home into the kitchen, where my host whips up a seafood and vegetable pasta – a treat since Shikoku’s wonderful food is limited to local, regional dishes.
By now, we’ve covered a range of topics. I learn how she ended up in Japan, and then in this little town without speaking much Japanese. I am fascinated with her experiences on everything from setting up WiFi to the English teachers who come and go. She tells me of how she found her ‘crazy’ dog, Barie, and I learn about the poor state of dog adoption here.
We have shared topics such as India and our appreciation for how self-reliant many farmers and elderly people are here. Of course, she asks about me as well. The topics of blogging and Instagram come up, and I offer to show her how to cross-promote between platforms. That’s when I realise things I’d taken for granted as work tools can be useful to people.
After dinner, as we’re figuring out when to leave tomorrow, I finally take up a casual offer she made earlier: can I stay one more night?
In Shikoku, it can be that simple.