I set my alarm for 5 and it’s barely twilight by the time I get out from the covers.
Instantly, I regret laying out my dry clothes last night to dry more; the humidity has tampered with them. Never mind. I pack and eat breakfast, finishing the rest of the mugicha, cold barley tea, from last night. I still have time so I slip outside to take photos of dawn before leaving.
The couple are waiting for me by the time I get to the entrance just after 6.
The ojii-san has a bag of onigiri o-settai prepared for me. They’re humongous, and I’m grateful for any food today. He tells me I should loosen my laces and remove them near the front to give my feet breathing room. It’s a good idea, but I want to get going, so I thank him and tell him I’ll do it later.
The goal today is to get to Cape Ashizuri early so that I can enjoy a celebratory onsen soak over the sea with the option to head back up to Nakamura via bus. This afternoon, I’ll finish my first, longest, milestone, from cape to cape.
It feels like ages since I’ve started. Kochi’s worked its way deep into me, gotten under my skin, been as rough as people warned, and showered me with generosity and lucky breaks. I’ve enjoyed the challenge, but I’m looking forward to the other side of Shikoku in the more densely populated Ehime and Kagawa Prefectures. I’m looking forward to civilisation.
Not long after setting off, I see small henro with a conical sedge hat and hakui, the traditional white vest, covering athletic-wear. The gait looks oddly familiar. I tail at a distance, giving myself time to turn on a social mode. I’m not used to seeing henro walk.
She stops ahead at a bridge and starts taking photos. I come up, take a look, and take a few shots too. I turn to introduce myself.
Why, it’s Yumi-san! Why is she here? Where is her large backpack? I assumed that she was ahead of me, setting a pace comparable to the other female henro I met two days ago at the michi-no-eki.
She also stayed in Shimonokae last night, at a lodge with a special henro rate. She’s left her backpack there and will be walking down to Cape Ashizuri an back today. If only I’d met her last night! But better late than never.
‘It’s over 40km round trip!’ I exclaim.
Without a backpack the 40km walk today will be manageable, is her cheerful reply. I don’t have the heart to tell her that it’s actually 24 kilometers one way, making her round trip closer to 50 kilometers.
But I’m glad I’ve met her. Time passes quickly with her around. Her English is great and it’s my chance to learn more about Kochi from a local.
We follow the road along the jagged coast, comparing our respective English and Japanese print, Android and iPhone maps. Before long we’re at the beach at Kaiyu. Yumi doesn’t have sandals, so we skip on walking through the sand. I wanted coffee, but skip on a cafe to try finding one in the small town. We get to the other end without another option. By then, we’re both tired, so we take a break and exchange snacks at a spot where kites circling in the sky.
We keep on the lookout for the henro stickers. They’re few and far between, so we have to ask for directions. Eventually we make it to Iburi Port, where there’s a large, covered rest area. Someone camping on one end. We choose another section and spread our snacks, peel off our socks, reapply sunscreen and hang around. With conversation, it doesn’t feel like a waste of time. Yumi chats with a lady on the other end and we learn that there’s no food to Cape Ashizuri. Maybe a restaurant in Kobotsu.
I notice Yumi replacing a bandaid. She shrugs it off. She might look like a city-girl, but she’s taken the scrapes and injuries in stride. I dig up the surgical tape, which is a better option, and pass it to her.
We decide to take the beach route out of Iburi. It’s depressingly covered in trash. From there, we follow the henro-no-michi into the forest with a muddy path to connect back to the vehicle road. With Yumi, it feels more like exploring than another inconvenient, muddy route.
Yumi’s wearing light cloth sneakers, which don’t look ideal. It’s rainy season and the slightly sunken paths are the last to dry. She says they’re extremely comfortable and dry fast. Really?! Really.
When we reach Kubotsu we gulp our purchased drinks in front of the vending machine. The sun is back and it’s a race against time to reach vending machine check points before dehydration. Yumi takes a nap behind a warehouse and I go searching for food.
There’s only a sit down restaurant with lunch sets. The heat’s killed our appetite, and it’s early, so we’ll just ration our snacks. We use the complimentary henro washroom and reapply sunscreen again.
I ask Yumi what the bronze-coloured lotion (1 of 3) she’s applying is. She says it’s sunscreen. Then she laughs, ‘I look horrible. But I don’t care! I don’t want my face to get dark.’
We both look horrible. We laugh over these little commonalities. The little things that were a burden when alone are the common experiences connecting us. I can finally share experiences with someone who’ll understand.
Yumi takes my plastic food bag and says, ‘I’ll carry this the rest of the way. It’s my o-settai.’ Even we aruki henro, usually the receivers, give what we can. What we can is usually what someone else needs.
Noon is fast approaching, and the sun is intense. We’ve both been walking 6 hours, but having company urges us onward. We see two henro with walking poles and huge backpacks, and they pass advice to Yumi before continuing on. She’s seen them before; they’re Koreans who speak fluent Japanese and she says they walk extremely fast.
We list other walking henro we’ve encountered. I’m beginning to feel the invisible community. It’s an invisible thread, this circle around Shikoku that we all journey on.
Walking henro are all respected. Nojuku henro earn admiration. Summer nojuku henro raise eyebrows. Walking in the middle of tsuyu, rainy season, and high summer means risking heat stroke and having fewer henro and support services around for help. But the henro you counter are more excited, concerned, and willing to share. I’d glad give up my sanity to experience summer henro solidarity.
Soon after, we arrive at the legendary Tsuro zenkonyado that the guys mentioned. It’s a large shack with benches, a hot pot table, a room with a bed and futon, a toilet, and even a laundry machine (although power’s out now). It’s henro luxury. Its walls, ceilings, and pillars are plastered with neat rows of osamefuda.
This is evidence of the thousands, of nojuku henro whom have come before us. Amongst the white ones, there are many red, green, silver, gold, and even 2 brocade ones. This means nojuku henro whom have completed 5, 10, 20, 50, and over 100 rounds. It’s our own niche history.
In silent agreement, we sit down for lunch. We ask another henro walking past to join us. It turns out he’s the Japanese studying in Vancouver that Yumi was telling me about earlier. When we finish, we add our slips to the table too.
It feels good to be connected to everyone who has sheltered here, to feel the same gratitude they did when they arrived in rain or shine, night or day. It feels good to have a way to acknowledge the owner’s generosity. I want to build a henro hut.
When we leave, I drop the conversation and pick up the pace. It’s past 1pm and our relaxed pace is costing us. I sense Yumi is tired. I’m tired too. My feet are swollen from the heat. But we need to arrive at 2pm, and I don’t mind if she thinks I’m mercurial. At our pace, she will take 8 hours to get back to Shimonokae at 10pm. If we arrive at 2pm and she returns in 6 hours, she’ll be walking in the dark. I should make the 3:38pm bus back up to Nakamura.
After pushing, we arrive at Kongofuku-ji at 2:24. I take a picture for evidence.
It didn’t matter that there were crowds of tourists, coming for the Cape and/or the temple. It almost didn’t matter that the temple seemed a bit gaudy. We made it. We take photos, wash our hands at the entrance, and drop our bags in the shade. Thank God. Thank Buddha. Thank anything.
I want to sprawl on the ground with satisfaction. But, no matter what you’ve accomplished, there’s the next thing to do. That’s another lesson on the henro-no-michi.
Next, the prayers. We go by ourselves. I want to have this moment alone, and maybe she does too. I light my incense at the Main Hall, and again at the Daishi Hall where a group of white-vested bus pilgrim are gathered. This is for a friend who founded a company to ‘explore and protect the oceans’ and is tenaciously building that dream. He knows how it feels to sleep on rooftops and on the street, and is still a dreamer, an optimist, a believer in people.
I think about his long and arduous moments and how they’ve never dampened his smile as I walk around the grounds, through the various shrines, gardens, statues, artificial ponds. Then, I get his nokyocho.
After that, there’s nothing more to do. We go outside to the row of gift shops and restaurants looking for food. I ask Yumi she’d like anything, hoping to treat her, but she says no. Nothing appeals to me, either.
I hand Yumi the surgical tape from earlier today. ‘O-settai.’ I say. I have another roll. She needs it more.
‘Are you still going to the onsen?’ She asks. She’s been to the one I wanted to go to, which is up the hill with a view of the sea. ‘It’s just really big,’ is the only compliment she finds.
It’s dull clouds again, and at least 30 mins walk uphill. It doesn’t feel like a celebratory soak if I’m rushing to catch a bus. I don’t want to stay. I’ll take the bus.
She should get going. She didn’t want to bus, and I admire her resolve. I watch her retrace our steps from an hour ago. I asked her to message me after arriving, concerned about her walking at night. If I were her, the walk back would feel lonely. She’s doing the longer, harder half. I’m happy to know she has an o-settai dinner and a warm bath waiting. It’s well deserved.
The bus takes me, the only passenger, up the Cape in the other direction, giving me a full view of the town. The hotels and ryokans crowding the hills are unappealing. I look the other way at the ocean that I couldn’t see from the temple. The azure waves break against the cliffs, creating layers of white foam. At one bend, the driver stops and says, ‘Here’s a good spot for a photo.’
In shock, I ask, ‘Really?’
‘Well, a minute or two will be okay.’
I don’t need a second invite. I rush out and take a few shots. This is breathtaking, priceless – celebration enough.
I thank him and sit back down, trying to take in the landscape through heavy eyelids. I nap up to Nakamura station, occasionally looking outside, noticing how the water on this side is a royal blue instead of black, and how the houses are layered into the hills.
By the time I arrive at Nakamura, it’s almost dark and raining again. I only passed here a day ago. By now I’m too tired to find the henro hut in the town centre. I’ll just nap in this new station until midnight, hop on the last train and sleep at the closest station to the next temple.
I didn’t expect to end the first chapter of my Ohenro without much fanfare. I thought I needed celebration. This is just another nojuku night. I’m not disappointed. I finished. I finally had company. A nojuku-English-speaking-Japanese-local-girl. Someone to share the moment of arrival with. We often get what we wanted, just not the way we expected.