Imabari City (今治市)
Temples: 57 Eifuku-ji (栄福寺), 58 Senyū-ji (仙遊寺), 59 Iyo Kokubun-ji (伊予国分寺)
Weather: Rain + Typhoon
Travel Method: Walking + Train return to Imabari
Typhoon day! It’s forecasted to make landfall tonight, so I still have the morning to visit the temples clustered around Imabari. My hosts, having walked the Ohenro themselves, urge me to get up earlier.
I crawl out of bed at 6:30 for breakfast as I’d promised Akiko. She’s humming away, asking if I want coffee, and tells me to eat first. She gets a warmed up dinner roll and a tray of condiments. Orange juice too. Who makes this sort of stuff?! They should just open up Minshuku Tokunaga.
“That’s all we have, ne. 365-days a year. Because Tsuneto likes bread.” Akiko’s voice is apologetic, but also quite content with the breakfast she’s perfected over the years.
Instead of worrying about a soaked bag and a night out in the storm, I’m coming back tonight. It makes me wonder if I’m going to use up my lifetime good luck in this pilgrimage.
I head out by 7am in the light drizzle. But by the time I’ve crossed the interstate highway, it begins to pour. The wind sweeps the sheets of rain horizontal. After a few attempts to persist a few feet I take shelter and stock.
No wonder people hole-up during typhoons. This is only the auxiliary force too. Who am I to fight with nature?
I resume again and follow the vehicle road up to Temple 57 rather than take the muddy path that wraps around the hill. Unsurprisingly, the temple is empty. I lay out my soaked belongings, take off my shoes, peel off my socks and try to warm my feet. I have all morning to wait. Just the morning, that is.
Another henro shows up. Then, an elderly henro couple. We strike up conversation, curious as to why the other is out on a day like this.
They leave. The ojii-san is walking to the next temple and bids me farewell. I light my incense and get the nokyocho. The young man at the office puts down his baby daughter to write it, apologising when she wails at his neglect. We chat a bit and his wife comes in to keep him company. I guess a job like this is quite fulfilling if you have a family and a calling. I can’t help but think of a hiring tag line: Family-Friendly Buddhist Temple Hiring Staff.
In many places, Buddhist monks are to abstain from sexual intercourse, but Japanese Buddhism accommodates marriages for monks and nuns. This idea is said to be introduced by Saichō, the founder of the Tendai school, and exemplified by Shinran, founder of the Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land School). In the Meiji Restoration, the government passed the Nikujiku Saitai Law was passed allowing monks or priests of any Buddhist sect to seek wives.
The walk to Temple 58 takes me through three small winding hills. I catch up to the ojii-san who’s stopped for a quick breath. It seemed like a gentle incline on a paved road, but it becomes apparent he’s really winded. I decide to hang around and keep him company, since we’re basically at the gate.
He urges me several times to go ahead, aware that daylight is most important to all walking henro. If I wanted to go fast, I would go alone. But I’ve been going alone for a while now. Today, I’d rather go far, together.
It takes a long time for us to ascend the stairs past the gate into the mists shrouding the Temple of the Faeries. He heaves by a small shrine to the water spirits. It gives me time to look around. Alone, I’d have just charged up the stairs, maybe never even noticing the bamboo forest. Eventually, the shadow of a torii materialises. Shades materialise into emerald leaves with shining droplets. The mist shuffles off to reveal the temple buildings.
The ojii-san and I do our rounds separately. The stamp office is on the right of the Main Hall, and this time the mother of a quiet baby lying on the floor writes my nokyocho. Temple 58 not only has a tsuyado, but a bath and onsen. If I didn’t have a place to stay, I’d have stopped here tonight rather than risk going further. Thanks to my hosts, and to this ojii-san I can go to two more temples today.
Nakamura-san is walking the Ohenro between his business trips in Japan and the greater South-East Asian areas. His wife drives off to wait for him at the next temple, taking care of all the logistics. As we go down the hill, I ask him about his clean energy company and its patented technology. After doing his time as a salary-man, he teamed up with an old friend who was sitting on the patent. He seems reluctant to discuss the topic, skeptical that I’d understand with my basic Japanese. Instead he asks me about my work, which was basically investing in companies like his at an earlier stage. We suddenly have common terms like ‘incubator’, ‘accelerator’, ‘startup’, ‘angel investor’. That’s when his voice changes. When he continues about his company, the sentence where his pride shines through is, ‘We bring electrification to rural areas in poor countries. We help people get electricity, without harming the environment.’
The one man I stop and wait for during this solitary month gets excited about rural electrification and sustainable energy. Why? How?!
I ask him why he started the Ohenro. He says he likes walking. Then, he sighs in a resigned-contented way, ‘Saa…honto ni musukashii…‘ Man, it’s difficult. He’s referring to the wisdom in the texts. It’s difficult to have a Buddhist heart. But he nonetheless chants at the temples, following the scripture book at his own pace.
There is Buddhism as a philosophy and Buddhism as a religion. Most people know the religion, which has 3 main branches and a multitude of sects. The Shikoku Pilgrimage’s Shingon Sect is one of the only Vajrayana – Esoteric or Tantric – Buddhism lineages in East Asia. Tantric Buddhism focuses on the rituals and meditative practices that lead to enlightenment. Enlightenment is not a distant, reality after many lives, but a possibility within this lifetime, based on the spiritual potential of every living being that, if cultivated, will manifest as innate wisdom. Through proper training of the Sanmitsu, the Three Mysteries, of the body, speech, and mind, we can reclaim Enlightenment for ourselves and to help others. One of the essential pilgrim rituals, therefore, is chanting the Heart Sutra, even if its meaning is still elusive.
It reminds me of a Canadian-Indian-Muslim friend who once told me that Islam means ‘voluntary submission to God’; understanding isn’t required for salvation, just that you submit and follow the rituals. The Chinese philosopher, Confucius, also cites ritual (li 禮) as one of the five pillars of human ethics central to Confucianism (The other four are humaneness, justice, ritual, wisdom, trust). It’s a fascinating cultural parallel, from the point of view of an observer. Ritual has a grounding and reflective effect, from my experience as a lay-pilgrim.
We follow the henro-no-michi down the forest, a pretty path I’d have avoided on my own because of the mud. Then, we go through fields.
Finally, we hit a Lawson, just in time for a coffee break. The other henro from the first temple this morning is also snacking outside on the bench. Over coffee and donuts, we find out he’s from Osaka and doing a one-week segment. He rushes off before we finish. Kugiri-uchi henro are usually superhuman – walking 40 kilometres a day no matter the weather, and despite painful blisters and injuries. The brief walking window imbues them with a spurt of endurance Tōshi-uchi henro, must ration out to complete the pilgrimage in one go.
When we finish, we continue along the small town routes into Temple 59, to Kokubun-ji, the barrier temple for old Iyo Province. His wife is waiting in the parking lot when we arrive, so we do our rounds efficiently. Nakamura-san is done for today and off to his hotel, so he offers to drive me somewhere. I feel like I need to walk a little more. After Kochi, walking less than 20 kilometres feels strange.
From Iyo-Sakurai, it’s a quick train ride back into town and lunch on the go. Walking makes me obsessed with food, but never as hungry as I expect to be. After that, it’s back to my hosts’ house, a warm bath.
Refreshed, I sit in the kitchen and keep Akiko company. Unwittingly, we drift into henro talk. Soon, Akiko and I lay out our respective henro maps with single-word notes. We calculate the distances and recall tangible places as our fingers trace the lines on the page. I’m worried about climbing the mountain paths of Yokomine-ji, Temple 60, which will surely be flooded. But I have to do it before moving on. In addition, I’ve made plans to stay with Noriko-san’s, friend’s mother since it is closer to Temples 60-64 and I don’t want to cancel after they went out of their way to arrange things. It also forces me to walk tomorrow, right after the typhoon. We finally agree that tomorrow I should just do 61 to 64 and do Yokomine-ji on its own the day after. I’ll leave my stuff and come back in two days.
Reassured, I excuse myself for a nap. When I wake up, the other guests have finally made it. They caught the last train from Matsuyama before they shut down. The entire island is bracing for this slow-moving giant windstorm. The family of three had flown in, and still managed to visit Dogo Onsen before arriving. Impressive efficiency.
For tonight, Akiko has prepared a sampling of sushi, a light daikon soup, edamame, tofu, sweet corn, and home-made tempura. Even the husband, a chef, is impressed. His young daughter is, understandably after a day of travel, more excited to play with the toys in front of the TV.
We exchange backgrounds and stories over the feast. I’ve become the de facto translator between the two families who are equally curious about each other and determined to communicate despite the language barriers. The guests are quatralingual Iranian-Germans, flipping between German, Persian, and English with their daughter (who’s picked up some Japanese too). The husband owns two restaurants in Berlin, and his wife is doing PhD work in Kyushu. I’m particularly excited to reminisce about the Persian dishes my friends’ mothers cooked back in high school – nothing has compared since.
This family has especially come to meet Tsuneto and Akiko because of their reviews. Since Tsuneto and Akiko began hosting a year ago, they’ve hosted over 70 guests from 30 different countries. The fee they charge is donated to MSF.
Our hosts show us the folders of the guests they’ve had. Beside the photos, I see the informal form I’d filled out when I first arrived. Beside the information the guests wrote, Tsuneto and Akiko have written their own annotations in Japanese. They effortlessly elaborate on every photo we ask about, filling in for each other.
In Chinese, there’s a term 緣分 yuanfen, which translates roughly into English as fate. Two people’s lives are threaded together, bound to meet whether by serendipity or grand design. Their threads are intertwined for as long long as this yuanfen lasts, and when they’ve spent their yuanfen, and they can drift apart.
Yuanfen captures the delights of serendipity and significance of miracle. Today, it introduced me to a clean-tech businessman even though my odds of finding any environmental or social businesses in Japan were about 0.01%. Tonight, it’s brought me back to meet this family, reconnect with childhood memories while learning about German life with an Iranian twist.
Outside, the wind is already beating against the windows.