Henro Day 16: July 6

Somewhere in Takaoka-gun (高岡郡)
Temples: None
Weather: Cloudy + Rain
Travel Method:  None!
Distance: 0

‘Stay’ is a charming word in a friend’s vocabulary.
– Louisa May Alcott 

‘Stay’ has enticed many a traveller to lay down roots, caused many a vagabond to lay down their wanders. Nomads have heard it from mystics and monks in deep jungles and remote mountains. Whether spoken by a life-long friend or a newfound connection, the word has equal power when the stars align. I’ve already encountered it three times in Shikoku. Is it temptation or an invitation?

I hear the faint thud of footsteps, take a brief glance at the time, and drift back into sleep. When I wake again, my host has already gone to work.

I roll off the futon onto the tatami, savouring the luxury of having nowhere in particular to go. The room is almost pitch black, wrapped in a sleepy silence. I check my ankle, which had a cooling patch that my host gave me for the swelling. I open the screen door to the sitting room, and then the one to the hallway. The glare is momentarily blinding.

The spacious closed veranda-hallway to my room.

I go down the hall to the kitchen, help myself to some cereal, yogurt and coffee before planting myself at the table.

I’m a bit stiff. Now that I’m not on adrenaline, the fatigue sets in. Today, I switch modes. Today, instead of the usual – packing, walking, sweating, looking for food, planning distances, thinking about friends, trying to wipe off a day’s grime with a towel, or setting up a tent – I will sit, drink tea, and work on my blog posts. It’s a physical and mental break. The accumulated exhaustion, rainy weather, and my period really call for a day off.

I set up my phone and wireless keyboard. I hope I can switch mental modes. My goal is to finish a blog post with tips on how to become a digital nomad my Couchsurfing host in Awa City, Masashi, inspired during our late night conversation. He dreamed of not only becoming a nomadic professional, but a nomadic family.

My workstation with a smartphone and keyboard.

I pull memories of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, where I was recently working out of a co-working space while taking short trips. Contract work in the social innovation sector kept me afloat and engaged with my interests while leaving time for my personal projects. A year ago, I worked out of an incredible farmhouse in rural Italy, which was also incredibly cold and under-serviced by Italian telecoms. Attempting to write, I can no longer recall the details or longer relate to my state of mind then. The old me and the current me seem to be simultaneously fused together and separated by a glass barrier. I’ve changed a lot, but I still feel like an accidental nomad. Despite my tendency to see the changes, I try to distill patterns and tips to help Masashi achieve his dream.

The whole morning goes by just typing, boiling water, pouring tea, and typing some more. Slowly, but surely, the pieces come together.

A few hours later, I hear the crunch of gravel on the driveway, followed by ecstatic barking. My host is back for lunch. It’s just as well because I snack all day and forget to eat when working, the the opposite of my henro tendency to always think about food.

‘How’s your morning been?’ She lets the dog in to see if he behaves. He runs around in circles, hyperactive, trying to get my attention. She recommended that I ignore him and we continue chatting while she warms up the leftover pasta.

A local natural cleaning agent.

I clear the table and she sits down to eat. One of the things we talk about is the habitat, the agricultural practices, and trying to negotiate between cleanliness and reducing environmental impact. All the dish water flushes straight out into the Kubokawa, which collects all the refuse water from homes and fields. Japan’s agricultural land is the most intensely farmed amongst the developed countries, and 85% of the 2.3 million farms plant rice annually. Rice paddies are drowned in pesticides because the rich soil is ripe with weeds daily. This valley is surrounded by rice paddies. All’s not well for the river underneath the superficially healthy surface. Nonetheless, my host somehow managed to find a few local, natural cleaning solutions for mould and shows me the bottle. The thought of so much hidden local knowledge makes every village and town worth exploring. I don’t wish I had more time, but it will be reason to return.

She’ll be heading out again around 2pm. Would I like her to drop me off somewhere? She can pick me up as well.

I hum and haw. Luxury is whatever you can’t get enough of. Days in one place are scarce for walking henro.

I continue working when she goes upstairs to nap. I’m still sitting in the same spot when she leaves. I finally call it a day when she comes back again in the evening.

We go to town to grocery shop for Chinese ingredients. I’m cooking tonight as a small gesture of thanks for her hosting me a much-needed extra day. We go around the different produce isles, surveying the options for inspiration before finally deciding. In the end, I decide on prawns cooked Chinese/Thai-style with ginger, green onions, chili flakes, Cantonese tomato-egg-stirfry, stir-fried veggies with ginger, and tofu-mushroom in oyster sauce.

Back at home I go to work in the kitchen with the two stoves to prepare the dishes. Part of me feels like a fraud when I have friends who could do these dishes with much more practiced efficiency. I rely on intuition from blurred memories, eyeball, and skip between chopping and chatting.

When the dishes are done, we amuse ourselves taking a photo of Du Fu, one of China’s 5 Great Master Poets, sitting serenely between the plates. Transplanting ‘foreign’ dishes suddenly requires explaining the ingredients, the cooking methods, and the resulting flavors, which I was fed before I could even speak. Beyond the processes, these dishes are reflections of (at least to me) fascinating traditions and accidents of history alike.

Sampling of Cantonese comfort foods.

The Thai and Chaozhou cuisines are heavily dependent on fish sauce that come from centuries of trade and cultural mingling; the Chinese wok-cooking creates an entirely different dish with tomato and eggs than the Japanese omu-rice (ketchup omelette rice). Because the ubiquitous Chinese wok never penetrated into Japan like Chinese Tang-style powdered tea (matcha to the world today), the Chinese dinner staple of flash-frying veggies with ginger and/or garlic is a foreign concept.

I hope my host is at least a little interested in the history. At least I could identify her figurine from the Chinese characters at the bottom and give it significance. Isn’t that what we all try to seek? Significance?

As we’re eating dinner, it feels like the day is done. Already I’m thinking again about tomorrow and mentally saying goodbye to this place. This is a lovely 100-year old house that’s well-kept by a lovely Australian who found a perfect fit in this random, middle-of-nowhere place in Japan.

We continue chatting long after we’re full. My host’s experiences in India’s ashrams and Japanese bureaucracy are eye-opening. I could listen for hours if I didn’t have to pack.

Suddenly she asks, ‘How’s your ankle?’

Actually I can’t tell. I’m sure it’s better, but she checks and declares the swelling has gone down significantly. That’s always reassuring. I wonder at how people notice these small changes.

It’s early, but I can’t keep my eyelids up anymore. My body has allowed itself to be tired today. I think the thousands of cells inside me have unanimously decided to focus today on mending and healing rather than keeping me energetic. I realise now that the energy I had despite a few hours of broken sleep when camping was my body holding itself in suspended animation, resolutely keeping all the problems at bay. It’s a miracle. Even though I have plenty of problems, like chronic lower back pain, bad knees, a repeatedly injured ankle, and now a torn shoulder, I’m grateful that somehow, it all works. I can take being weak as long a I can do the things I want to do.

Back in my room, I check if my clothes are dry and begin packing my stuff into bags to shove into my backpack tomorrow morning.

Even though I don’t stay anywhere more than two days, Shikoku is feeling more and more like home. When I finish, only time will tell if this inkling feeling is true. I feel like in so much of my life, things go around in circles. People you are meant to meet, you will eventually meet twice in life.

Matta, ne? Until next time.

Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant.

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