The fool will spend his money on worthless things. The wise will spend his money to better himself. A man’s worth can be measured by how he spends his money.
– Silverspoon (2013)
I wake up with the sound of footsteps outside. The station has a pale golden glow just before sunrise.
Well, I might as well get up to air out the sweat on my back and face from sleeping. I didn’t have a blanket, but the mosquito net that I cocooned myself in traps heat.
I eat the remaining mandarin oranges and head outside to discard the peels by the bushes. The grass is damp, and the air cool with a slight breeze. The bikes parked in front of the station are still wearing the glistening droplets. That’s when I see the double rainbow.
Moments like these are worth getting up for. What the henro doesn’t have in material goods, we make up with plenty of moments, beautiful for their transience.
I poke around the station to see what other views of dawn there are. There are the golden tracks that cut through the silhouette of the platform and the town. There’s the blue sky on the Western side, gleaming turquoise and cerulean.
Today, I will reach Shikokuchuo City and Sankaku-ji, Temple 65 and the gateway to another test, Unpenji – the highest temple of the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
It’s a short walk – 13 kilometres – to either Shikokuchuo City or Sankaku-ji. The traditional henro path goes from Sankaku-ji up to Unpenji. In total, it would about 30 kilometres and Unpenji has a tsuyado that I can overnight in. Thirteen kilometres is too short, thirty up mountain paths is too long, and I don’t want to pay for the only ryokan in between.
Anyhow, I start walking while I mull over the options. In the end, I use the same solution as I had for Yokomine-ji: shoot ahead to the next temple and double back up the mountain. I can go to Sankaku-ji, stay overnight in the city of Shikokuchuo, and walk along the coast, rather than up and down Unpenji, to the next city. I puff up at the thought.
My elaborate plan soon unravels. It starts with entering a covered arcade filled with shuttered stalls in the heart of Shikokuchuo City. There’s only a few stray pedestrians, locals passing the time. I knock on a dark ryokan, locked in the middle of the day. Eventually, an elderly lady comes out and explains to me they’ve closed for 2 years and suggests other possibilities close by. Yappari, the heart of this city’s hollowed out.
Based on her suggestion, I move on to the next hotel and catch the owner as she’s heading out…to vacation for the summer. Most ryokan and minshukus are. She passes me on to another hotel close by that’s closer to my budget.
Even this hotel on the outside looks like a plastered cheap candy building, with a field of weeds right in front. Sigh. But didn’t I come here to see Shikoku? It includes the one ravaged by three decades of economic stagnation, which highlights another sober reality: the thousands of pilgrims, especially the vast majority trooping off of the buses, are an economic lifeline for the entire island.
I ask for a room, and leave my things in the lobby while I go up to Sankaku-ji and back. I’ve spent too much time looking for lodgings in the city to go further than Temple 65 today.
The walk to Sankaku-ji quickly takes me out of the small city into the quiet hillside residential areas. Here, I rely heavily on the henro stickers to navigate the winding back roads. From there, it’s about a 5-kilometre gentle climb along the mountain slope. The first part of it remains sunny, with a breeze. There’s a rest spot with a view of the city below. The eye-catching yellow parasol, half-broken, flaps cheerfully in the wind. There’s an ancient rusted-over stove with a new kettle. Logs are cut and neatly piled for use. There’s a gurgling fountain with naturally chilled ground water. A spot from which lines of poetry can be composed over a kettle of boiling water for tea.
On another day, perhaps. In another life. After this, I race to climb the muddy trail faster than the mosquitos that match my pace The henro-no-michi, the one for the heart and mind, is about letting go and learning to take things in stride. In this case, my former tolerance for them has evolved into a full-blown loathing after spending days and nights with their incessant whirling. There is only so much you can forgive when you are constantly sleep deprived.
If I had just sucked it up and come straight up to Sankaku-ji, I might have made it to Unpenji tonight, or at the very least stayed at the economical ryokan in the mountains, which Tsuneto and Akiko spoke highly of. A tinge of regret. Nevermind, the henro-no-michi becomes personal precisely because the mistakes we make are unique to ourselves.
I’m done my rituals and gotten my nokyocho, and a slight drizzle has descended. It makes me retreat to shelter, even though I’d rather spend more time beside the gigantic pines with horizontal branches the size of trunks.
I sit outside the stamp office while charging my phone. There’s a box of small incense containers made of paper and cardboard by elementary students, free to take, so I help myself. Although I’m always finding more things I can do without, I am growing increasingly fond of the small sentimental things – the product of labour and gestures of good will. These weights I happily carry.
The lady at the stamp office tells me I should get on my way to reach Unpenji tonight. I thank her, but don’t bother mentioning I’m going back to the city. Although I enjoy practicing my Japanese, I feel less and less inclined to speak. Silence is so vast and nuanced, unchanging, clear, yet, nuanced and subtle. It’s a good place to dwell.
The way back is still somehow tiring. Maybe it’s just the heat, or last night’s broken sleep. I’m no longer interested in the surrounding areas. They’re places, markers of distances.
I pass a gaunt looking man who looks older than he should be. He’s a walking henro too, but he’s taken a break. He runs into his house to grab his staff. We chat some more about where we’ve been, which routes were hardest, the usual. I sort of want to get going as I’m getting hungry, but don’t quite want to stop him. Just then, a car stops and someone calls out him. While they chat, I use the opportunity to excuse myself. But he wraps up quickly and hands me 300 Yen. He motions to the vending machine in front and says, get a drink for yourself. O-settai. The little things henro do to look out for each other.
I finally reach the supermarket complex. The sun is still high despite the gathering clouds. It’s barely 4pm. But henro can eat whenever they want, whatever they want, which today includes ice cream. I devour the meal and after lounging, decide to return to a store in the shopping arcade earlier. But not before a haircut – there’s a cheap barber shop outside. My hair has gotten way too long. I ask them if they can finish shaving my head in 30 minutes. Barbers here take their profession seriously, so it might not be enough time for them to finish a ritual shampoo and such. The man who does the cut, unconvinced a girl wants such a short one, keeps showing me successively shorter blades until I finally am satisfied. I appreciate the conservative attention. The major cut is over in minutes, but he takes great care to clip the remaining fray bits at my nape and ears. Twenty minutes later, I’m a new henro.
I’m off to the shop to get the silk placemats at the shop with unbelievable local prices. It’s unfortunate economy is so bad here. Many of the crafts I’ve seen here are done with great care. They are traditional designs, no fanfare. The elderly shop lady shows me pictures and guides, in black and white, of her henro journey decades ago when the roads were not yet paved. I thought I came back for omiyage, souvenirs, but I think fate brought me back for this story.
Back to the hotel. I go about the errands. Shower. Laundry. Dry laundry. Just having a tidy room to do the routine is southing.
I’m just in time for sunset. Sunset’s flaming gold brushes along the contours of the dark clouds attached at the hills and showering their wrath. Sky drama. I’m content to just watch it unfold as the minutes pass by. Beauty is so moving.
When glow begins to dim, I return to drying my clothes. It’s been a hard day. I’m used to it, but it never gets easier. It just gets done.
This is the last of Ehime Prefecture, the Dojo of Enlightenment. Perhaps enlightenment came too quickly, too easily, a mirage of sorts. Tomorrow, I will enter the last prefecture, Kagawa, the Dojo of Nirvana – whatever Nirvana means, I want to find out.