5:00am wake up. In about 10 minutes, my messy spread has disappeared into my backpack. It makes me wonder why I even have those things – even a backpack feels like an excess now.
Small moments like these get me. They make me pause, feeling like I’ve shed another shell, but don’t have clear enough vision to see what the old one was like. Things are changing so fast. The thought just leaps out of nowhere.
But never mind, it’s 5:30am and I’m supposed to have breakfast before leaving at 6:00. I wobble my way downstairs to the kitchen. The shock of the table spread nearly blasts me back out the entrance. Obaa-san is still not done cooking, though; she needs to finish simmering the meat. I fill a small rice bowl to go with the food. I don’t know how I’ll manage this.
In the end, I couldn’t get to the fruit, which is quite expensive in Japan. There’s some meat left over. I stuffed the rest down, and I’d gladly take the left-overs as bento. I don’t ask, as I’m unsure if it’s appropriate. But, she won’t let me leave without a byodo fruit the size of a football. Smothering countryside generosity, da ne? (Insert anime smile-with-sweat drop.)
I need to catch the 6:20 train down to where I last stopped to climb Yokomine-ji, the mountain temple that I’ve been avoiding.
Reluctantly, I say I should probably start walking to the station. It’s only about 5 minutes away, but I’d rather be early. She’ll have none of it – she’ll drive me. Once there, we pose for a photo. She’s ready with her back straight, hair perfect, dimples showing. She gives me a warm, parting hug. It’s funny how strangers sometimes have the tightest hugs.
From the train station, I follow a snaking gentle road along a river valley. It’s glorious post-typhoon weather, when the clouds are puffy, the sky beyond is a saturated blue, the air fresh, the temperature manageable. The early morning sunlight streams through the evergreen trees that grow denser as I slowly get higher. There was a shorter, direct route from the back of Temple 61, but mornings like this are better spent beside river clearings than under dense canopies.
I pass a henro hut and instinctively scope out whether it’s worthwhile to stay. In a world of infinite possibility branches, this alternative reality would probably have played out had I not met Tsuneto, Akiko, and Noriko.
Where the incline gets steeper, the trail of overflowing water begins to appear. Near the top, it fans out to cover the lane. It’s been a day since the typhoon. Is the flooding really that bad? At the end of the vehicle road, there’s a rest hut, uncleaned washroom stalls, and a waterfall gushing down a small cliff. There’s a minivan parked right in front of it, with a man loading 10+ Litre plastic containers as they fill up. His granddaughter and wife entertain themselves in the parking lot. When he leaves, another lady working at a cafe arrives to fill her containers. For anyone who cares about tea or coffee, water is key, and mountain water is best. I’d do the same if I lived here, so take some gulps and fill my bottle.
After a quick break, I take a second staff made from a solid, polished branch with stylized burn bands. There’s a stash beside the washroom with a sign saying, ‘Please help yourself.’ Two staves will keep me from rolling my left ankle again, hopefully. I’ve changed into sandals and walk up the stairs that have disappeared underneath a stream. Let’s see what this flooded trail is made of.
The hike up Yokomine-ji turns out to be the funnest trail I’ve been on so far. I avoided Yokomine-ji yesterday because I didn’t want to be slipping and tripping down a flooded mountain. Going up is much easier. The dirt path quickly disappears underneath gigantic boulders, swollen streams, and dismembered branches. The shadow of the winds lingers. Even without the wreckage, this natural path disappears often compared to other mountain temples. It’s a warm-up for actual trekkers, but on the henro scale, this qualifies as a nanshou, a difficult place that tests a walking henro’s mettle. This is like British Columbia’s West Coast. To me, it’s like going home.
At the top, the temple is still shrouded in a white halo of clouds, not quite mist, not direct light. Purgatory. It’s noticeably chillier at 700 metres.
I make my quick prayers and light incense just as a group of bus henro arrive and squeeze into the narrow walkway along the slope.
This temple is the gateway to Western Japan’s tallest mountain: Mount Ishizuchi (石鎚山), one of Japan’s 7 Holy Mountains (七霊山). That summit sits at 1,982 metres and has a cliff face so sheer there are a series of iron chains installed to climb up. The adventurous henro take an extra day to go here too, but I don’t have time.
This place reminds me of a conversation with a friend who took a picture thousands of feet above the Brazillian plateau after successfully scaling above the clouds. She laughs as she tells me how she had to figure her way up since her instructor had disappeared into the clouds and couldn’t hear her. The glorious view on top is nature’s reward for persevering through fear, doubt, and muscle aches.
As I sit on the bench eating the byodou I got this morning and gulping down an ice coffee, I look up the short slope that disappears into a curtain of clouds. There’s no view of Ishizuchi from here, but I feel the call of the mountain, that mountain.
Finally, I get up to descend.
Not this time. Not yet. I will be back.
For Ishizuchi, for Shikoku.
Mountains are extreme in their temperatures, moody in their weather, breathtaking in their views, and terrifying in their heights. All mountains reflect the harsh, yet glorious realities of life. They are not conquered, only visisted. They are the oldest shrines of humanity – the places where ascetics, hermits, philosophers, even commoners (fanren 凡人), go to seek enlightenment. Surviving a mountain, dwelling in a mountain, is to dwell in Truth.
Even as I turn my back, I can feel the mountain beckoning even as it settles in to wait. It’s watched aeons go by.
I’ve been so overwhelmed with experiences recently I haven’t had the chance to takes notes until walking down. I haven’t written because there have been no words to express the things that I’ve felt the past few days. The things I notice are so personal, so negligible to others. There’s no way to express it.
I’ve grown quiet. Instead, I take photos, hoping they will fill in for others the thousand words I feel no need to summon.
Today, I finally attempt to write what I think – without explanation, without worrying about the inadequacies of language, without being discouraged that the people I want to share with won’t relate.
I’ve always been interested in what people believe and why they believe it. That’s why I did the henro. And what people believe brings such great generosity. Like the sticks before the henro korogashi.
The most profound learnings are written in a sentence because we never walked in a sage’s shoes.
These past few weeks made me realize why sages never wrote much. Their little snippets – sometimes sound flaky, sometimes sound like truisms – are…true, although to further elaborate would be to dismember them with the specificity of language. Knowing how frail language is, they often use the most fleeting of medium, speech, where words are powerful in their relevance to context. It is thanks to the insight of others, who have enough faith to listen and take note, even before comprehension, that we can continue to interpret centuries later. It makes me think of something else:
Wisdom is felt.
In the same way art is felt, words are felt. Felt in all its meanings, literal and metaphorical. I guess that’s why this doesn’t ‘make sense’.
I follow the paved down. It’s the long way, looping behind the mountain. It’s harder on the feet compared to soil, but there are clearings and bends that reveal valleys and lakes below. I saw the streams close-up already; I want to take in the view from this height.
This continues on for a good two hours. Finally, there is a thin strip of houses and shacks at a fork. One of them is an open, rundown, restaurant and gift shop. There are some puppies playing here and two of them bound after me, chasing after my staff.
I ignore them, not wanting to encourage anything. The owner shouts after them to come back, but they ignore her and follow me. Their mom eases herself from the shade and follows too. I round a few bends, and they’re still following. So, now for today my pilgrimage includes three dogs for company. They stop whenever I stop, run ahead and wait for me, tumbling over each other as they go.
When I finally turn around a bend close to town and they don’t reappear I know they’ve decided to go back. It’s a long way back, almost 5 kilometres.
My thoughts return to the French henro I’ve still not seen. I wonder where she is now. I feel like my generosity is being tested. Another henro said she needed help, but my empathy for her isolation and instinct to help runs up against my desire to be alone. Also, I’m particularly wary of helping when I sense desperation. Is that selfish?
Once you start helping, it’s hard to stop. Sometimes it’s more damaging to stop half way, after being completely drained yourself, than to not help at all. When struggling, most people are too absorbed to notice their drain on others and ration their asks. I’m not prepared to be travel buddy, emotional support, and cultural bridge for the remainder of the Ohenro. Translating for a day is one thing; translating every day is quite another.
The rest of the route is a gradual transition back into the concrete towns along the coast. It’s almost 3:00 and really hot. From Iyo-Himi station, it’s a short train ride back to Imabari.
First thing is to visit the onsen. I also buy some apples to make apple crumble for Akiko and her family tonight. They’re having their weekly family dinner, and invited me without hesitation. I’m glad to be able to make a little something in return.
When I arrive, Akiko is in the midst of cooking for more than 10 people, all her kids and grandkids. The older boys mill around, quiet, eat and then head home. Actually, it’s like what we used to do as kids. As an outsider, I finally see how cold it seems after all the effort.
After dinner, I prepare the apple crumble with Akiko’s granddaughter and we realise the tray doesn’t fit in the oven after everything’s been placed. It’s a bit of a disaster, but Akiko’s daughter drives over with another tray, and I transfer it anyway. Akiko is enthusiastic, despite the effort to cook. Plus, her granddaughter wants dessert, so we wait for it to finish baking past 10:30pm. It’s not ideal. It’s a typical mistake, not checking everything beforehand and having a final detail send everything out of whack.
Next time, I’ll come back and make something better. Kanarazu.
They all dig in anyway, exclaiming oishii, it’s tasty! Fore