I really wish I had enough sleep. But, I also wouldn’t trade the apple crumble we made for another two hours.
6:30am breakfast is so late for a henro and too early for a nomad who wants to nest temporarily. It’s Akiko’s 365-Day Breakfast Special, in her own words. Special every day, methinks.
Just as I’m finishing up, Tsuneto comes with a severe face. ‘Aa-chan, you’ll be late for your train!’ Aa-chan is the Japanese nickname a friend gave me back in June, and one that I’ve adopted for all new Japanese acquaintances. He’s worried I’ll be delayed another hour if I miss this one. Akiko hands me carefully bagged onigiri as I rush to get my stuff and hop into Tsuneto’s car so he can drive me down to the station.
Just in time. I hop off, grab my bag, and thank him once more before watching him drive off. After that, I buy my ticket and wait for the train on the platform.
I get off at Ishizuchiyama station, where I’d left off at Temple 64 two days ago before doubling back to Temple 60, Yokomine-ji on the mountain.
Today, I just follow one main road to Iyo-Doi and overnight at the station or the nearby Daishi-do. It’s under 30 kilometres, and I’ve been well-fed and shoulders rested after a few days without a backpack the previous days. It should be manageable.
I’m lulled into a leisurely pace, taking notice of all the little things around me from the curb to the family shops cropping up here and there. Saijo City’s spring water, known as uchinuki-no-mizu, is famously sweet, so there are fountains scattered around for us to try. I take a sip from one, and notice another just outside another rest hut. I stop at Family Marts and Lawsons to use WiFi, taking every opportunity as though it were my last today. I think Kochi’s scarcity has left a deep impression on me.
At one point, I see a towering M sign by the side of the strip and am in awe that there is a McDonalds. It’s the first I’ve seen in almost two months – fast food as harbingers of civilization….well, more accurately an area’s consumption capacity, and therefore availability of resources and services.
Around lunch, I stop at another Family Mart where the traffic has grown denser, but the shops are thinning out. I finish the two onigiri that Akiko made, and discover a 500 Yen coin hidden in an envelope. How on earth am I ever going to repay their generosity? I can’t even get them a stamp; they’ve completed their nokyocho book. I just sit outside taking bites of the rice balls and notice how each grain of rice is that much more distinct, the flavours more subtle, than the ones in the convenience stores (already quite yummy).
I’m soaked from head to toe, and in no mood to start walking again. The road was straightforward enough, but the concrete has proved to be harder on my feet than I thought. My feet are feeling swollen again, and the temperature now is becoming insufferable.
Finished lunch, I debate on which route to take at a fork. They’re about the same distance, and I’m a bit behind. If I keep my current pace, I should just make 5pm, to ask the Daishi-do if I can stay before it closes. The simpler choice is to follow the main road which is more drab concrete and traffic, while the alternative seems more complicated but quiet. I decide on a change of scene.
Within an hour I regret it. I’ve wandered into a massive golf course and the sun is getting low. At this rate, I’m not making it. How it end up like this? It was so straight forward, impossible to screw up.
The setting sun seems sinister this evening, even though it’s not yet 4:00. I force my way out of the golf course by opening a rusted back gate and go through a quiet village before getting back on the same main road. I’m on a hill, looking down at the single route going along the coast with solitary buildings here and there. It’s an empty expanse, made more empty by the dismal human settlement; unfettered wilderness wouldn’t have seemed so lonely. Even the pink and purple sunset, smothered by dark clouds, seems unnatural, polluted. Valley of Smog.
I try to rush on, but my calf feels torn. How am I going to make it to Iyo-Doi? I drop my bag in front of a shuttered white wooden house with flaking paint. I’ll sit out the rain under the half-dead tree. I wish I could just pull off my drenched shirt and at least feel the light flow of air. Robbed of that freedom, I take off my shoes and let my feet breathe.
I watch the ants crawl up my bag. They work so hard, and yet are helpless if I shake them off or squish them. I lift my bag and shake it, brushing off the few straddlers. They don’t skip a beat, just change directions reflexively. I wish I could be like them – without the burden of thoughts, as motivated every second of the day without needing to even understand what larger system I’m contributing to: just settle into being small to contribute to something great.
Maybe I’ve just been spoiled for too many days. I’m pouting like a brat.
It’s hard to describe pain on my feet. Sometimes it’s needles. Sometimes it feels roasted, caged. Now it feels that with every step I’m squashing them into oblivion; every step is a flattening, sagging, and rebound. But because of my tight calves, my step is becoming more of a march, propped up by two staves.
I can’t help but feel I’ve lost a mental battle, of which these physical pains are only a manifestation. What haven’t I learned yet? What am I missing?
When I finally make it into the edge of town, I see a sign for stop-by showers in a hotel that’s barely holding together. I’d pay for that, except it’s closed.
A bit further is a Lawson with a bench. I note the sleeping option. At this time of day, no matter what my eye sees, my brain only processes ‘sleeping spot’, ‘showers’ or ‘other’.
Then, I see the supermarket Marunaka, which is open 24 hrs. I’ve slept in a parking lot before. I can do it again if I can find a private corner.
I lock myself in the handicap washroom, which always has a massive sink, and wash off the sheet of stickiness from my face. I wash my shaved head in the basin and wipe my legs. This is a close shower replacement.
Next, dinner is picked from the endless isles. I sit down in the lounge area to eat, which are common in supermarkets in Japan. There’s an outlet under my spot. After eating, I put my head on my arms and plan to sleep until 11pm, when the eating area closes. I prefer the bright lights and slight chill of AC to the sticky darkness outside.
Just then, the evening sun blasts through the dark storm clouds. Oh yeah, it’s barely 7pm. Now that I’m full and finished walking, it feels like the day is still young. If I was at home, I could watch a movie and work on something on the side. But I think I will remember the defiant sunsets of Shikoku’s summer better in years to come.
A few hours later, a bit groggy from the sleeping and the chilly air conditioning, I go back out into the sultry night. It’s the first time I’m walking in the darkness without a headlight or street lights. It makes me realise how bright twilight is, where squinting can help me make out the details that could trip me over: small pebbles, cracks, uneaven pavement. I just walk slower and rely on the cars that race by to illuminate the next few steps for me. Thankfully Iyo-Doi’s station is close by and I find it fairly quickly.
It’s a spacious station and the benches are long wooden planks that are perfect for sleeping. It even has a filled bookshelf.
I set up a sleeping spot on a corner bench, with mosquito incense on either side, lie down, with my conical hat to block out the light and hide my face. I’m facing the entrance area so I can see the streams of people going by with every train arrival. It goes from 10 people down to the remaining one or two by the last train. An old man who wandered through earlier wanders back in with company and chats for a while. I keep half an eye on them from under my hat and see him glance at me here and there as well. In Shikoku, this hat and the staff are protective charms enough.
After the last train, I let go, knowing there won’t be any more traffic.