Today is a late day because Noriko-san, the Couchsurfing friend I’d met yesterday, is driving me up to Temples 44 and 45. Even though I was looking forward to a mountain trail between the two temples, a car is a much more realistic solution.
I wake up late-ish, have breakfast, and repack all the things I’ve spread out over three beds my empty-shared room. The smell of mosquito incense is reassuringly thick, which means my tent will properly absorb it and keep the mosquitos away tonight. It was one of those accidental discoveries when the concerned obaa-san and ojii-san woke me up and gave me mosquito incense at the Susaki henro hut back in Kochi. I’d kept it inside my tent that night, and the lingering smell worked several days afterwards. Mosquitos zipping around my ear is the number one bane of my henro existence.
I put on the new runners that Noriko helped me buy yesterday, in all their neon shining glory. My old Mizunos hung miraculously with the help of repeated super-glue applications. When I flip them over, I see the patches are worn white – no black grip left to glue. After stepping on European, Asian, and North American soil, surviving wind, rain, snow, and stroke-inducing heat, they earned retirement. I can’t afford to carry them, and their endearing place in my heart makes them no less unappetising in a box with the other things I’m mailing off. And, what am I going to do after I mail them – bring them everywhere I go as an anti-thievery charm? I take photos for memory’s sake; the photo taped to my backpack is worth a thousand translations: shoestring whack, take at your own risk.
I catch the train from Matsuyama station after 9am to meet Noriko at a train station closer to her house. She had a bento for her husband before joining me.
Noriko is decked out in full athletic gear, with the long leggings that stop muscles from spasming. I think it’s even more valued in East Asia because prevents tanning. She also has a bag of water, snacks, and lots of mosquito spray. It seems she hates them as much as I do.
First, she drives me to the nearby post office to mail 1kg off to a farm in Tokushima, where I’ll return when I finish the Ohenro to pick up another parcel anyway.
Then, we sail up the winding mountain paths that reveal a vista of the mountain range that stretches the heart of Shikoku. It’s only 30 kilometers away – about a day’s walk, and barely an hour’s ride. Noriko is game to try the henro-no-michi rather than drive directly onto the temple grounds so we walk about 15 minutes up. We arrive at the Niōmon, the Front Gate, of Temple 44 at 10:50am. This gate is famous for its O-waraji, the humongous straw slippers meant to ward off evil spirits. Driving henro miss them on the paved road. These straw slippers are remade every 100 years, hanging under the dark wooden roof, between the imposing the Niō (仁王) or Kongōrikishi (金剛力士) half hidden in the shade. Small pedestrians have the benefit of being awed.
Once at the Main Hall, we light incense and toss coins into the box. Even though Noriko has memories from childhood, she’s unconfident about the exact procedure. I explain the rituals and chanting that we watch beside us – things that I’ve come to take for granted. Even though cultural education is deeply embedded in Japan, the Ohenro rituals are more niche than I thought. However, I ask her if it’s Japanese custom to light incense and bow once, almost as a finishing touch. She confirms this. The Chinese way, with three bows, still comes more naturally to me.
When we get to the stamp office, I ask for a small nokyocho paper rather than providing the usual book to write in. The obaa-san rummages the shelves and pulls out the old medicine cabinets, mumbling that they probably don’t have any. Eventually, she finds one and writes it for me. It’s wobbly, but one of the things I like about nokyochos is that each is unique, revealing a bit of the person who wrote it. A steady stroke, a flashy flourish, a messy scribble, a rushed trail all belie character.
Once outside, I want to use the washroom, so I ask if Noriko needs to go. ‘Is it clean?’ she asks doubtfully. Hard to say; my standards aren’t hers. She pokes her head in and exclaims, “It’s clean!” I smile. It’s a simple squat toilet, but has clearly been mopped and wiped daily. Toilets, I think, also reveal something about the places that keep them. Every time, I wonder if the rural or Buddhist stereotypes prevail.
After that, it’s a quick drive through the mountains to Temple 45. If I had walked, I’d have had to go through the rugged hills and inclines. Part of me misses following routes made by humans who knew they were merely guests of the forest, where the paths are drawn thinly by feet that tread lightly. The other part is just grateful for a ride and a chance to enjoy temples with company rather than next-stop logistics.
Temple 45 is arguably the most remote temple. From the parking lot, even driving henro must walk at least one kilometre. As we climb the stone steps, a stream of white-clad elderly bus henro are wobbling down. This place is an unavoidable nansho. Noriko-san couldn’t have chosen a better representative temple.
When we’re almost at the top we pass a big tall, Caucasian, nojuku henro listening to an elderly Japanese man. I can tell from his enormous backpack and dangling mosquito incense. What on earth brought him across the world at a time like this? I want to ask him, but since I’m not alone, I keep my curiosity to myself. Instead, I point him out to Noriko so she has another nojuku henro reference.
Iwaya-ji is probably the most distinct temple I’ve visited so far. Carved into the massive rock face, the buildings are low, cramped, and jagged to accommodate the rock. Mountains are solitary by nature, but what inspired anyone into a wilderness so deep even by modern standards? The dark, barren cliff looks god-forsaken. Only… it’s not. It is precisely the barreness that makes me feel a tug, a faint echo that must have led the female recluse Hokke-sennin here, and later Kukai here to received the grounds from her. This is the origin for this mountain.
A new building is further out, in a bright clearing with a view of the neighbouring hills. It has just been completed, a feat of modern engineering for a place with no roads and barely any surface to put machines on.
We move on to the Halls. Again, I give Noriko-san incense to pray while I climb up a gigantic ladder up to a crevice in the rock. It is strewn with coins, left for good-luck beside the Jizo statue.
Noriko’s afraid of heights, but curiosity gets the best of her. After a few minutes, she can see for herself the gentle waves of forested hills.
When we head down to the stamp office, Noriko reads a sign in front of another cave. It is another Jizo for women who have had miscarriages. She says it’s meant for her and goes in to have a look. It’s an uncanny coincidence. I hang around the entrance to give her privacy.
She returns and says there’s another tunnel inside. Oh? Then I’m interested. It’s a dark, damp tunnel, lined with planks up a slope. Then, it’s just rock worn smooth. In parts, it’s pitch black save for a candle at the far end. Before long, we’re in front of another statue also surrounded by coins and wishes. It feels eerie. The surrounding darkness and the dampness fill the place with … I don’t know. Hope? Sadness? It’s heavy, but not frightening. It’s too big to be contained in words.
When we get back out, I get a nokyocho and we head back the way we came.
After walking back to the car, Noriko drives into Kuma Kogen for lunch. She wants to treat me to a famous soba place in town. Since it’s closed, she phones her friend, who suggests an udon place. It’s in an unassuming barn-like building with a sign saying kama-age (釜揚げ) udon. We go in, seat ourselves, and consider the only 3 options on the menu. Summer is zaru-udon, cold udon, season, but we go with what the locals order: kama-age udon served with a mysterious clay urn.
When it arrives, we pour the special broth into our dipping bowl and self-serve our age, spring onions, and ginger. We break into sweat from the effort of eating a hot food, with ginger(!), but it’s worth every bite. Our massive medium was a mere 400 Yen.
Yours truly is easily seduced by incredible food at honest prices.
Next, Noriko’s friend’s place for a quick visit. She’s just picked up her younger daughter from school, and we chat over coffee and cake. Her friend’s husband is a policeman, so they have to move every few years. It must be hard on her kids, who hang around politely. The little one tries hard to ‘behave’, but can’t help an occasional outbursts and sharing. It’s so cozy to just pay a random visit and have coffee catch-up at home, an increasingly rare occurrence in big cities. All too soon, it’s time for Noriko to go teach, so we head out.
We only make it down the block when Noriko receives a call because I forgot my bandana, and within minutes her friend drops it off for us. Then, we’re off, back to the Matsuyama. Back to our daily routines – Noriko teaching, me obsessing about the next nojuku spot. I struggle to stay awake as the car weaves gently through the hills – despite Noriko’s company and the sunbeams pouring through the rain clouds down where the hills unfold into the plains.
When Noriko drops me off, I leave her the nokyocho from Iwaya-ji. A good memory of a day her curiosity conquered her fear, one of many fears she’s conquered, and probably not her last. As a poor nojuku henro, it’s all I can give to repay her kindness.
I’m too late to go to Temple 52, but too early to sleep. I hang out at Matsuyama station and finish work using the station Wi-Fi. Two hours of my digital nomad, consulting, hat on.
When I get off the train at a stop closer to Temple 52 and 53, I discover it’s suburbia, without much. A few days in Matsuyama and I’ve forgotten this basic fact. I’m a bit late for sleep-spot hunting. Night descends quickly, and the clouds of mosquitos thicken. I’d forgotten this basic reality too – the illuminated cities are night-immune.
The Taishogun Shrine, which was listed on my nojuku guide, is against a hill, raised, and secluded from the street below. I don’t like sleeping in complete darkness, or being directly under lamplight, so I pass and retrace my steps.
I stop in a school and use the washroom. I’m tempted to hide somewhere until they locked up. In the end, I give in to propriety and ask. It’s a flat no, despite my feet dragging. They phone a nearby ryokan, but I don’t want to pay for lodgings, again. Eventually, the woman at the back, the most adamant ‘no’, asks if I’ve eaten dinner. Then, she deposits a bag of cherry tomatoes. What am I going to do with that many?! But I can’t refuse and thank them.
In the end, I sleep at a nearby park on a bench until 11pm, when the park lights turn off. Then, I pack up again and zombie- walk to a nearby konbini. It’s just one of those string-of-bad-choices days. It’d have been easier to sleep at the unattended train station I got off at.
A bunch of guys finishing drinks see me and ask me to join them. No thanks, I’m awake on adrenaline, but not lucid enough to socialise. They see me again when I arrive at the Family Mart. The last one out hands me a 1000 yen and says simply, ‘Good luck.’ Very anime, but also very touching.
I stand reading magazines for two hours while charging my phone underneath the racks. Time passes by the minute. Eventually, I walk back out to sleep at the back of the parking lot. I lay my tarp out over the concrete and put my sedge hat over my face. Swarms of gnats surround the Family Mart glass and street light above.