Tired of trying to sleep, I get up at 4:30am.
I spent the past four hours lying on the hard plastic chairs – the ones that curve up into ridges – on the platform waiting room at Hirata station. I learned that the lights stay on for about an hour after the last train. The 3am and dawn were chilly. Outside it’s just a uniform darkness sprinkled with a handful of street lamps outlining angular contours.
I walk down the block to the Lawson to cure a thorn of chill lodged in my chest. The humid summer night at street level, without the cool winds, are warm against my hands. I need a warm coffee. Praise decent convenience store 100-Yen coffees. Praise their 24-hour service. Praise their Wi-Fi. What would the Ohenro be like without them?!
Inside, I pick up an onigiri to replenish my salt levels after sweating all day yesterday. I haven’t tired of onigiri even though I usually pick the same flavour. Affordable, compact, easy to eat, relatively healthy. My eating habits are pared down to calculations of overall water, salt, and carbohydrate intake. Light snacks are usually sweet, like genpi, the sweet fried-yam sticks. Efficient salty snacks are chips because the calories from oil will keep me going. Both make you thirsty, so better to eat them when a vending machine is around. That’s how I try to make my 2000 calorie target. Many supermarkets and convenience stores label the calorie amount in their food, and that’s sometimes been a deciding factor. I have my breakfast onigiri and coffee on the bench outside, happy I balanced things out. It’s my first real meal since yesterday’s lunch onigiri. Last night I nibbled at a yuzu pound cake at the station out of laziness.
After breakfast, I convince the shopkeeper to let me leave my bag in the corner while I walk to Temple 40. He frowns reluctantly as he says he can’t watch it for me. That’s okay, it’s my risk. Still, he feels responsible and wants me to come back before his shift ends at 7. I’m confident no-one will take a dirty bag with a collapsing sedge hat on top.
I walk down the quiet street with my staff and henro essentials. I love dawn. I love the mysterious, melancholy twilight just before too. The shades of black, blue, purple, magenta are so subtle, so transient, it’s changed before you’ve registered them. It seems to flip back and forth, as if night and day are in before in negotiations about how today should be. It feels like trespassing, with all the thrills and unique perspectives. Every house I’m passing probably has someone sprawled over a futon without covers.
Temple 40 is only 45 minutes walk, and I arrive before 6:00. It’s early enough to catch the morning chants and see a lit Main Hall, normally dark by 7am when the office opens.
I sit on the wide wooden steps and stare back out at the stone courtyard and the trees behind. Only the thin whisp of incense sways upwards in this scene. It’s barely past 6:15.
My grandmother, if she were still alive, would probably be up moving about in the kitchen. That’s what I imagine, since I’ve never stayed with her. I think she probably had time to sit and stare out into the garden before my uncles got up. She was very good at that – spacing out into serenity, thinking maybe not thinking, and returning when you called her.
I think one of my uncles is probably a night owl. We’ve probably just managed 100 words over the years. But even as a kid, I loved his basement most. In contrast to the comfortable but mild upstairs, the basement was a collection of bold furniture, sculptures, art, and utilitarian clutter from his optical shop. The aroma of smoke infused into his black leather lounge chair and warm, soft white rug for winter just added to the flavour of artistic mystery.
I move to a bench facing the wooden passageway connecting the Main Hall and a multi-story dorm building. Between us is a small, intentionally kept garden. Another henro comes and goes and we exchange quick greetings.
I’ll wait. 6:45 will come. I’m hoping someone will be setting up in the office for me to knock and ask for a stamp early. Japanese timeliness (15 minutes early) would make this likely. Buddhist discipline of things done just so would mean not before 7:00.
I wonder if my grandmother would like this garden. She likes Japanese dainty sizes. The elegant, multi-course kaiseki dinner she had in Kyoto, with my parents and me when I hadn’t learned to sit, was probably her most reminisced meal. I smile imagining the face she’d make if she saw my dishevelled state. Dementia wouldn’t have stopped her. She lost her memories throughout the years, but preserved a sense of style and propriety until the morning she never woke up again.
The stamp office is still empty at 6:45. What’s a nokyocho worth? It’s a piece of paper with ink on it, having as much value as we give it. There’s no guarantee it’ll be of value to my uncle, but treating everyone the same is of value to me. There’s no guarantee the Lawson shopkeeper will remember my bag, but I should keep the promise anyway. Making decisions with imperfect information is what we do every day. There’s a great TED Talk by Ruth Chang on how to make hard choices.
I choose to make my 7:00 commitment and see the man behind the counter serving the morning rush. By the time I get my bag, he’s already disappeared.
I walk back to Hirata station to catch the train and bus to the next temple. With Cape Ashizuri done, I’m getting myself to Matsuyama, some 200 km away, as fast as possible. There are too many mountain paths for my discintegrating shoe and sprained ankle to sustain for another week.
Waiting 20 minutes on the platform feels so significant. I had time to get my uncle’s nokyocho. It’s also 15 minutes extra sleep for the groggy students fanning out onto the single platform for both directions. There’s nothing to do except watch the morning colours play out on the hills and shifting clouds.
The train whisks me some 10 kilometers down to the city of Sukumo. I wait at the bus stop, and about an hour later get off at the entrance of Temple 40, the first temple for Ehime Prefecture.
Even though today was my earliest start, it feels late after all the waiting and sitting. It seems the rainy season is ending, and summer is in full swing. It’s hellishly hot after sitting in train and bus AC. My legs still haven’t walked enough to wake up. The magic of transportation I once took for granted now has a disorienting effect.
Never mind. I walk down the block, light my incense, wish a friend who is starting her PhD well, and get her nokyocho. This office is right in the Main Hall in the corner. The lady who writes my nokyocho is eager to practice her English when she hears my accented Japanese. When the small talk runs out, I comment on the heat.
‘Ah, summer has come,’ she says with certainty. ‘The cicadas are calling. They never stop.’
Oh yes, that’s the whirling cascade from the tree outside. I’d already tuned it out, since it’s a common occurrence in other East Asian countries. A typical summer day indeed.
I excuse myself. She says, ‘Sayōnara.’ It means good-bye with an implied finality, and therefore rarely used. But as far as she knows, I’ll never return.
I have time before the same bus comes again to take me up to Uwajima City. I’m tempted by the delicate cakes in the bakery at the corner. I wonder how many customers from neighbouring towns come to sustain this little shop. Surely this small town doesn’t have enough to clear the display every day. In the end, I just sit in the post office across the street from my bus stop for the AC and hidden outlet I find behind a display case. About 10 minutes before, I head back out to wait for the bus.
I doze on the ride north, and get off a few stops before the stop for the onsen I want to visit. In this heat trapped between the hills, the 2 kilometres takes much longer. None of my previous walks prepared me for this. In the end, with no onsen in sight, I stumble into an udon shop for lunch, air conditioning and an outlet. The shop a simple, white tandalone building with a wide parking lot in front of it. Inside is spacious, with high rafters and beams, raised wooden seating areas, bar tables, and regular tables – anything a customer could want. There are TVs in the corners, and fans for guests that haven’t been turned on. I randomly order a vegetarian udon, and settle in to charge my phone. I haven’t walked much today, but I’m starving. I’m also loving the ice cold water they serve me.
When I finish lunch, I continue up the road. If I don’t find the place soon, I’ll just get on the bus again.
The onsen is in a michi-no-eki about 300 metres off the main road. It has an L-shape with a grocery market selling the local produce farmers drop off every morning, small shops, a cultural centre, restaurant, hotel, and of course the onsen. It even has a free outdoor footbath. Its bright lounge areas and array of offerings could keep weary travellers entertained all day. I deposit my shoes at the entrance, check into the onsen, and end up staying for two hours. It has a spacious outdoor area with covered pools and benches. The sun is also hot enough to dry my clothes in half an hour, so I do some light laundry too so I feel more productive when napping. Oh, this is good.
Every onsen has a scale, but I keep forgetting to check my backpack’s weight. I finally find out it’s 10kg, but this is without food and after I sent two boxes of stuff away. The recommended weight for women is 4-6kg. Ooops. What can you do? I’ve been wrapping my shirts around my unpadded shoulder straps successfully for a while now. It’s a good enough solution.
When I’m finally ready to reemerge, I catch a bus up to Uwajima, Ehime’s first city. It has a castle and some local dishes, but I’m eager to camp close to the next temple tonight. From Uwajima, I take a train up to Mima Station. It’s only two stops, but a long ride through the hilly interior.
When I finally get off, evening is approaching. It’s about time for dinner, and I hope there’s something at the Michi -no-Eki Mima. Surprisingly, everything is closed. That means no proper dinner, as I’m a bit lazy to walk back out to the convenience store.
But, on the plus side this place is new, well-designed, with clean washrooms. It also has picnic benches hidden around the side with more privacy. I think about sleeping on top of the table tonight. After snacking, I notice the shop stall in the middle of the parking lot. The boards cover the inside, and it’s walled in with corrugated plastic. When you climb in and lie against the board wall, you’ll seem like a pile of things. This is the best bed yet!
I move all my stuff over, ecstatic at my good luck for tonight’s bed. Now all I need to do is wait for sunset. And it’s a brilliant one.
It’s been a lazy, but eventful day. It reminds me of our human limitations, and our boundless potential to innovate solutions. Transportation has brought me back to modernity. I’ve covered a week’s worth of walking in the past 24 hours since Cape Ashizuri. I’ve crossed from Kochi to Ehime Prefecture. The Dojo of Ascetic Training is over. I’m spending my first night in the Dojo of Enlightenment. I think Enlightenment also means letting go of dogma. You take what you get. You do what you need to do. From here on, I’ll do whatever it takes to finish by August 1.