The day starts early, too unjustly early for a departure. This is a good life, a good home, a good river outside, with good hills.
We have breakfast and I pack the last items into my backpack as my host starts the car. Where did the morning go?
My host and I have our last good chat on the way to Kubokawa station, where she’ll drop me off on the way to work. The conversation ebbs and flows after we’ve covered so much the past two days. The fleeting nature of travel encounters usually means you discover more than you would with people you see every week, people whom you think you have time to get to know.
At the station, I really want a selfie, which is contrary to my character. I’ve always been more interested in taking photos so people looking at them can feel as though they’re there, rather than just looking at me happy to be there. I never quite understood why people would want to see other people smiling, or why people would stare at the camera for a posed shot. I’ve recently changed my mind. I want to see a reference to a me that I know is changing and disappearing every moment, and read in that younger face the memories and perspectives that may not be what I relate to now, but were true to someone then. Last year we took a photo with my grandma, my mom, and my siblings and me. The elders had severe, awkward faces uncertain as to whether to show how pleased they were. We kids had broad grins and deep dimples. That’s the first time I remember the three of us with genuine grins for a posed family photo. It captured a side of us I don’t mind looking at more often.
Recently, I’ve wanted to take these photos because I want to recall the details of the people who smiled with me. When we finish a few, she drives off to work while I wait for the train to take me back to my last spot, Kaina station.
After getting off the train, I follow the road that wraps around the low hills snaking towards the coast. Already, the day is hot and humid, even without the sun. The various bends, slight inclines, and handful of rivers have different hues and characters. The train track follows the hills on the other side of the river. A town takes at least 15 minutes to walk through before the buildings beside the road are completely replaced by dense trees. The landscape changes constantly, but keeps a similar theme of quiet houses, evergreen trees, cars here and there, the regular beat of my staff followed by the jiggle of the bell.
I have an early lunch at 11am at a michi-no-eki just before I reach the coast again. After examining every item in the shop, I pick out a youkan (red bean sweet stick), bento box, and the usual sticks of genpi that I now love. Here, most items have a familiar samurai mascot, and I find out it is Chōsokabe Motochika, the only person who has ever unified Shikoku. I sit down at the spacious eating area, which only has one or two at a time.
Once done, I follow the coast, tempted constantly by the train tracks just across the street. It’s a magic carpet that could whizz me to the next town. It’s even more tempting when the tracks turn inward to take a shortcut through the hills into town and I’m stuck following the hills.
Any space without human habitation seems a bit unsettling, a place without any Plan B. The cars are like hovering Lego blocks just above the sea wall soon after they pass me on my right. On my left is the blue-black sea clawing against the jagged rocks and cement layers. The air is sticky with salt.
Looking back behind me, I wonder if those hills are just Misakiyama or Temple #36, where I’d rolled my ankle. How far it alls is seems. How far I’ve come.
I keep stopping with every rest hut along the way, taking my time. Today feels simultaneously like a short and long walk and it makes me lethargic. Flat concrete road may be easy on the muscles, but it is hard on the feet and knees after a few hours. I’m back in the daily grind of the walking henro life, but my body is still adjusting.
But it’s in these long stretches of ‘nothing’ that we learn to notice things around us, that we learn to notice ourselves and how we respond to ‘nothing’. Despite the discomfort, I find it soothing. My mind has gone silent now.
After what seems like ages, I pass the Ida Tunnel, which is supposed to have a Kanon-ji listed on the nojuku henro list. With this list, which is usually a word and a phrase if you’re lucky, you never know quite what to look for. You just hope it’ll be apparent. Thankfully, the small, well-kept temple with it’s garden is obvious. I head onto the grounds to get a drink from the spring and peak inside at the swept tatami floor with a fan and knick-knacks in the corner. I could stop here today. It looks like a first-class nojuku-spot.
But it’s barely 2pm and feels too early to stop, so I just sit at the steps and chill, enjoying the little garden.
The town just after it is oddly quiet. There isn’t a soul in sight, even though the billboards, which I haven’t seen in many other towns, suggests that it has some commerce. Oh yes, I’m walking alone, like yesterday, and the day before that. This is henro low-season. Even though I’m accustomed to be being the only pedestrian, I’m always surprised when I remember.
When the houses are squeezed out by the hill jutting out into the sea, I see another new henro hut on stilts beside a washroom. I keep going, aiming for a Daishido another kilometre or two down the road. I want to stop there tonight and pick up food at the michi-no-eki another kilometre down.
I haven’t walked much today, but my shoulder and feet are nagging as usual. I put down my backpack regularly. Even though I’m not sure about the ‘ultimate’ cause amongst the various factors (inappropriate bag, weak body, overweight bag, heat), I’ve just accepted that I need to accommodate it.
Just before 4pm, I drop my bag onto a bench at the michi-no-eki, greeting a middle-aged female walking henro with an equally large backpack. Seeing her is encouraging. After I pick up food from the shop, we introduce ourselves and I ask her where she’s stopping today.
‘Nakamura.’ She replies casually. The town is still another 15 kilometres away, and she walked from Kubokawa, the station my host dropped me off at. I’m astounded. All in all, she’s doing 40 kilometres today.
She explains that she’s a week-henro, flying in from Tokyo during her vacations to walk a leg. She’s making the most of her trip by going as fast as she can. This time, she wants to reach Cape Ashizuri before returning home.
That means another 40 kilometre walk tomorrow. She shrugs it off as a fact of life. There isn’t a trace of smugness or complaint in her mild voice.
She will be barely warmed up by the time she finishes, but is almost doubling my daily average. I’m embarrassed. I’m sure she feels all the pains I feel, but it hasn’t gotten to her.
Her response is, ‘Ma, yukuri, yukuri.’ Take it slowly. Take it easy. After a while, she gets up to continue to her business hotel in Nakamura. She has a few hours extra because she can arrive after nightfall. Maybe that’s another benefit of having a hotel every night.
After she leaves, I go inside to the community centre to charge my phone. My brain automatically thinks about outlets when I stop now, and I don’t know if the Daishido has one.
Just before 5pm, I retrace a kilometre back to the listed Daishido. I ask the post office across the street whom I should pay my greetings to, but the lady there says it’s not open anymore. I’m disappointed, and I make it obvious. The staff offer to help me book a ryokan instead, but I don’t want to pay again. A younger staff helps me talk to the neighbours and makes a few phone calls asking for the person in charge – everyone seems to know him in this small village. But no luck, he’s not hosting anymore.
That’s a huge blow. I’ve wasted two kilometers walking back and forth.
I have no choice but to trek back to the michi-no-eki and sit at the beach, watching the surfers swim out and ride the waves. It’s nice to have my shoes off and let my eyes follow the small moving figures bob between the waves. I smile at a whimsical Instagram caption: What do you do when you have no room? Chill at the beach, of course. Luxury and/or poverty, interpreted however you will.
When the wind picks up I head to the showers in hope for a quick clean up. Again, I don’t want to pay for a coin shower and soak my already damp clothes while turning it on. So instead, I head back to the michi-no-eki building to figure out where to sleep.
There’s another female walking-henro. They’re such a rare breed, two in an afternoon is like a jackpot. Within a few minutes our conversations tilts into English. She’s closer to my age and waiting for her ride to her ryokan tonight. But she has also done nojuku before. I’m impressed, as the Japanese usually don’t believe that local women would ever do such a thing. When her ride comes, we bid each other goodbye, and the closed michi-no-eki begins to feel a little lonely.
They say in Japanese, Ichi-go, ichi-e. Every encounter is unique. Take them as they come. Let them go when they end. I’m glad it happened. Maybe this isn’t the end, but I’ll let it go for now.
I try in vain to set up my tent against a wall, just covering the bench beside it, but the concrete floor offers nowhere to put my spikes. Eventually, I just crawl under a table and sleep with the mosquito net and the tent as a blanket. Simple solution. It’s warm enough anyway.
You take what you get. I’m lucky to fit.