Last night was meh. That one word synthesises a relatively comfortable spot (under a table), feeling comfortable (mostly not too hot or cold), a full belly (from snacks), general feeling of safety (could see incoming traffic), and a decent 8 hours of sleep (broken).
After forcing myself to sleep despite the sheen of sweat on my forehead, I drifted awake when the cool air sank in. The two hours before dawn are chilliest. The blackness and cold have reached their maturity. It’s often only when the horizon materialises that I drift back to sleep for another hour or so.
All too soon, I hear foot steps, voices, and the scrape of metal along the pavement. I see feet and hands setting up the shop. Shaking off a foggy haze, I crawl out from under my table at 6:00am feeling like I’m late.
The concrete surrounding me is dark, soaked from last night’s rain. The bench I’d originally tried to sleep on is wet too. I’m glad I used my size to my advantage last night.
I snack on the genpi I’d bought yesterday for breakfast. I’ll have to get a proper breakfast later. It’s already 7:00am, so I get going.
The route has a steady procession of houses and shops. The steady traffic is squeezed into two lanes. Whatever you’re carrying, truck deliveries, yourself, your produce, your kids, you go down the same path laid out between the temperamental sea and the rugged hills.
I stop at the first convenience store along the the way for a second breakfast and check for weather and status updates. You take what you get when you get it in Kochi. Sure enough, soon after leaving it the hills fold tighter until only the road is left following a river gathering morning mist.
I follow the bends, thinking, not thinking. An outpost of wooden houses appears. The first one reminds me of the settler houses in the New World. The sign outside reads ‘home-roasted coffee’ in Japanese.
I’m intruiged. It’s 9am, and I should be hurrying into Nakamura to clean up in an onsen and stock up on food. Coffee is a frivolous distraction, and I’ve been taking lots of little breaks already. Yet, this little bastion of coffee culture warrants investigation.
A bell tinkers as I push open the door into a pristine logger’s cabin with well oiled boards and beams. The woman behind it greets me with the usual welcome, ‘Irrashai-imase.’
I take a table at the counter facing a wall-shelf of neatly arranged cups ranging from tea porcelain down to pilsners. Finally, I settle on the roast I want, and the woman gets a man from the back to make it for me. He pours his beans and water with a meditative care, far removed from the settlers who would be huddling over a fire in cabins like this one two centuries ago.
I ask him when he opened the shop, and he thinks a bit before saying, “About twelve years.”
The roasting machine by the window is the one they use to create the 12+ roasts in large glass jars. They are all clearly labelelled with their origin countries and flavours.
I take a sip of mine and the layers of sour, savoury, and sweet flavours surface one by one. It’s a bit pricy, but definitely more complex than the solid 100 Yen coffees I get at convenience stores. After lingering around waiting for my phone to charge and soaking in atmosphere of unhurried conversation, it’s time to get moving.
At some point, the road widens and the pavement looks maintained. Nakamura, recently merged into Shimanto City, has its own dialect instead of Tosa-ben. Perhaps it’s because Nakamura was once a castle town, known as the little Kyoto of Tosa (小京都中村), after the Kyoto aristocrat Norifusa Ichijo fled there during the Ōnin War (応仁の乱) between 1467-1477.
I stop often, beaten by heat, and my feet, and my sweat. It seems the worst time to soak in a hotspring, but it will help my muscles. I buy a ticket at an onsen just on the edge of town. Once inside, I rotate nonstop between the jets (for the muscles), the mineral pool (relaxation), and the cold pools (because it’s hot!). I never used to understand why people would would go at all. Now, I never get out until after an hour.
I also love how no-one takes a third look at me in onsens. My regrowing hair on my head might have a few heads turned, but they quickly return to conversation after ‘confirming’ my gender. Ironically, Japan’s highly gendered norms works in my favour here because I’m not read based on the clothes I wear. Unlike my trans friends, I don’t mind which gender I’m read as so long as people don’t make a fuss or stare. It’s a small detail, but our lives are made up of small, personal, repeated details.
After getting my money’s worth and even doing my laundry, I head across the street to the supermarket for lunch. It’s a feast with a bento box and even a yogurt dessert. Clean and fed, I feel like I can go forever if the sun never set.
But there’s no sun, which makes it feel late. I decide to skip Nakamura’s town centre and go along the Shimanto River heading south. Walking past the suburban houses in a small city is somehow depressing, like skirting civilisation and missing out on its comforts. Maybe the rain is getting to me. Maybe the clouds always hanging overhead have finally worn me down.
The magic of the onsen has already worn off.
I give into lethargy and stop at another Lawson just before the bridge crossing the river. The covered bench and Wi-Fi combination keeps me for an hour, rechecking my route, rechecking the weather, and messaging friends. It was a bad decision. I know it when the rain begins again. Now I want to leave even less, but I know I have to.
Within minutes, the droplets come hurling down in earnest. As I cross the massive bridge, I’m drowned in the deluge. There’s nothing to do but persist until I find shelter on the other side. Finally, a new building with a veranda appears, and I scurry underneath. I remove my jacket and soaked runners, anchor my umbrella so it won’t be blown away by the wind and leave my backpack to drip against the wall.
I give in. I settle down to nap until the rain stops, if it will. If it doesn’t, then this is where I’ll stay tonight. The Muslim phrase inshallah, God willing, takes on a new significance. I’ll leave it to the Heavens.
A car drives up and an elderly man comes over. I stand up and apologize for effectively squatting at the entrance of the community office. He waves it off and says I can stay as long as I want. After he unlocks the door, he asks if I wouldn’t want to come in instead?
I decline. I’m still hoping the rain will stop and I can continue. I’d rather camp outside than give up hope.
After napping some and sitting some, the rain thins into a drizzle. I pack to continue on to my original target stop, a rest hut about 8 km away past a 2km tunnel.
The road is the same meandering one south. Leaving the last town with a train station, it feels like I’m sailing out into open ocean after getting roughed up along the coast. I’d have less trepidation if I had no experience, no references for things gone wrong. But I do, and it makes this dark afternoon road seem even more ominous. It makes me want to run into the udon shop at a junction and comfort myself with a bowl of warm noodles. There are even benches and huts close by. Shouldn’t I just stop here for tonight? Maybe I should wait for better weather.
But being wet spurs me on. I want to at least walk myself dry so that I can start dry tomorrow.
The valley narrows and I follow the road uphill, finishing another snack along the way. I’m counting on a restaurant beside the hut for dinner. I’ll just hang out there until they close. I’m going to have a feast tonight to reward myself. Seems I needed a lot of rewards today. Oh well.
Finally, I enter the long tunnel cutting deeper into the hills. It’s almost the end.
When I exit, the restaurant isn’t in sight. Instead, I see a telephone booth with a sign for henro lodging, a phone number, and 12 kilometers to the next town. The marketing strategy is spot on for a tired henro like me, except I don’t want to pay.
When I finally arrive, I’m too tired to be disappointed. It’s a drive-through with a row of vending machines. Behind them are two restaurants either to be swallowed by rust or squashed by dilapidation. Neither are open. Dinner will not be served.
I check the washrooms and rest hut, which is on the slope above the road. Two figures are sitting in the shadows. Henro? I wouldn’t mind company in the mountains. Then, I see the two piles towering over them. Those can’t fit in backpacks.
I retreat to the toilets, which have clean, inviting benches in the sitting area. I can easily fit on one of these. I sit and consider my options.
Feet. Calves. Shoulders. Back. Eyes. Stomach. Wet. Stiff. Aching. Strained. Sore. Will be hungry.
I see a poster on the wall. I think it says ‘There are many lodging options around here. Please use them.’
That’s it. I turn on my roaming and phone a ryokan that’s on my henro guide another 5 kilometers down at Shimonokae. I book a night without meals and tell the lady where I am.
‘It’ll take you about 45 minutes,’ she says. ‘We’re behind the Lawson. Please be careful.’
I immediately perk up at the Lawson. Dinner and internet. I thank her and put my wet runners back on.
The squatting couple wave to me as I walk past. I nod back with mixed feelings. Their horde unsettled me more than their homelessness.
I ignore the soles of my feet, flattened and suffocated. My shoulders I can’t ignore and I drop my bag here and there. My limbs fall in line knowing that salvation is near. I can’t stop the pain, but my body works in unison to suppress it for as long as it takes for me get to Shimonokae.
I arrive at the Lawson close to the predicted time soon after 6. However, I take my time to check messages again. Small treats like these mean so much. I buy onigiri and bananas and head over to the bridge to see if there are signs to a zenkonyado as my guide said, out of curiosity. I don’t see any and feel better about making the booking.
The lady I spoke to sees me and runs to the door. ‘We were worried! Your shoes are wet aren’t they? Please go around the side, over there.’
I do as she says and climb a flight of stairs to the side entrance. Her husband is there to greet me and teaches me to stuff my shoes with newspaper to dry faster. I can’t understand his accent, but he continues dispersing other tips.
Then he leads me to the end of the hall, where I have a small entrance to put my wet bags down outside my room. After that, I head into the shower. When I peel off the clothes, I feel cold my skin underneath. I blast the shower and sit in the tub for a long time after that. Once clean and dry, I do my laundry in the machines, which most ryokans have. By the time I’m done these errands and eating, it’s time to pass out.
Replaying the places I’d passed today evokes a series of ups and downs that already feel so distant. These places may only be kilometers apart but made me feel so different they may as well have been different prefectures. Covering such short distances compared to modern transportation expands the distance we cover internally. We need to fill our days, and we have nothing to fill them with except ourselves. Internal conversations that normally unfold over entire years are covered in mere days. As someone who could not stop thinking, I’ve finally reached long stretches of contented silence.
I hit the sack pleased that I’ve overshot my goal. Tomorrow, I will finally reach my destination.
It feels like the end is near. Kochi, you’ve been rough, but you’ve been good.