My alarm goes off and I reluctantly unzip my tent flap, poke my head out, and sit up on the bench.
Cleaning up, packing, having breakfast, chugging half of the two-litre bottle to offload weight fill up my first hour. Whether I rush or take my time, I’ve discovered don’t stray far from this hour mark.
With the routine complete, 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’ve gotten further by doing less. Instead of arriving at Iwamoto-ji, Temple 37, by noon today, I’ll be there by 9am latest. It should be a happy problem, but the point of all this was the walking. I’m caught between waiting 5 hours for my host to pick me up or walking some more.
Just after leaving the michi-no-eki, an oncoming truck roars over a pool of water beside me. I’m taken aback by how inconsiderate it is. Being drenched, again, already, has become a routine inconvenience. But I keep walking and return to my 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 today as well. This reflects discipline, which is the key to improvement. I am in 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. I started the Ohenro because it checked all the boxes: being in Japan, in a rural area, with plenty of exercise, going from place to place, cheaply, safely, without excessive planning, with a simple and flexible route, not needing to talk, and a new experience to experiment on myself. Nothing more, nothing less. Everything else I would discover was just bonus. Meaning was a bonus. Because it checked off all the boxes at the time, I didn’t have to prioritise.
When we have to make decisions, we prioritise. Now, I have about two hours to work out my priorities. 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, the result, and even the by-product. They give what we do meaning, whether we take responsibility for that or not.
I also know this decision doesn’t matter to anyone. It just happens to matter to me.
By now, the winding main road has entered parallel streets. I’m at 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 are a good start, but logistics make things happen. I need to make sure I can train back if I walk further.
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 the notes on corrugated metal roofs, broad leaves, and concrete roads form mellow symphonies.
‘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 stand almost shoulder to shoulder and shout over the rain. 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. His solitary form is outlined by a silver mantle, his plastic sheet serving as adamantium against the rain.
When the heavy rain lightens, I head down the final 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 one that has a community centre in a modern building. Posters and notices for classes and events are at the entrance. The Main Hall’s ceiling also has community mural with 575 paintings of varying styles and skill levels. Looking at the images, I imagine kids must have contributed, maybe from ladders and a 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 community hubs, occupied by playing kids, socialising adults, and community events. The temples today have donned new sombre characters as their courtyards have emptied along with the towns they serve. I’m glad to see this one is an exception.
The friend who messaged me last night was the one I was considering for this temple, and she loves kids. I’m struck by this coincidence. It is one of many, and I wonder at what subliminal cues had lead to this.
I said considering, and 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 are straight-forward. They usually have many goods combined with some significant bads. There are many people I’m grateful to, but am ambivalent about. Walking gives me time to sort that out and let things go.
By now, I’d seen enough temples to know they had distinct characters and stories that suited specific individuals. Based on a mixture of research and instinct, I earmarked some and left the rest to circumstance. The dedication 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 light the incense.
Here at Iwamoto-ji I realise 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. 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, I nap, snack, lay out my wet belongings. Time ambles along, too slowly.
Only an hour later do I realise I forgot to switch on the power outlet, and my phone didn’t charge. I left annoyance on the road somewhere the past few days and simply switch it on and head back out to wait until 9:45, the latest before I cannot set out again. Then, I leave my bag at the office to follow the poncho henro further down the coast.
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 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 stretch before the train pulls in to the single-track platform.
Back in Kubokawa, I have time for a quick lunch and go to one of the only two open restaurants. 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. A handful of patrons in spectacles and cardigans are taking the mic in turns, heaving themselves onto a raised lounge area and singing to a small colour television. Eventually, they ask me questions and my answers travel down the row. I finish my fried rice by the window as they cheer and clap for each other.
When I finish, I head back to Iwamoto-ji and it isn’t long before my Airbnb host finds me at the rest area. We click instantly and I take her around the complex, sharing my rudimentary knowledge. 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, with 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 tatami mats, and how smooth the sliding doors are (sign of 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 after a decade of disuse. Rural Japan is abound with traditional houses. Many are weathered, their beams dry and raw, the attics full of cobwebs, and the toilets still outhouse 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!
By dusk, I’m perched at the edge of a steaming pool above the Matsuba River, dizzy with exhaustion and replaying the incredible turn of events. I’m so glad I booked the place, but already regret not staying longer. We chat in the pool 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 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 the poor state of dog adoption in Japan.
We have shared topics such as India and our appreciation for how self-reliant many Japanese farmers and elderly are. Of course, she asks about me as well. The topics of blogging and Instagram come up, and I offer to show her cross-promoting between platforms. That’s when I realise that work tools I’d taken for granted 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.