Shikokuchuo City (四国中央市) –> Kanonji City(観音寺市)
Temples: 68 Jinne-in (神恵院), 69 Kannon-ji (観音寺), 70 Motoyama-ji (本山寺)
Weather: Cloudy + Drizzles
Travel Method: Walking (+Car, Cable Car, Train)
Distance: 19.2 (+40km)

Two big, heavy, onigiri courtesy of the hotel! I stow them in my backpack and finish the rest of my cheese and bread breakfast in the lobby. The guest laundry is waving outside on the veranda.

I message friends using the hotel WiFi. An hour drips by. The more I sit, harder it is to dislodge myself. I’d originally planned to detour 2 kilometres for an onsen en route, but I probably won’t have time anymore. To a summer nojuku henro, a bath probably tops treat list. There are so many options for sleeping: a park, a michi-no-eki, a 24-hour manga cafe, unattended train stations. There are no pop-up shower locations in Shikoku. Is my Whatsapp conversation really worth it? It feels like I’ve traded a henro necessity for a connection to another life, the one with entirely different preoccupations and relationships. 

Lives come in packages. Technology has already made these compartmentalizations more flexible, given us lifelines to support networks outside. Smartphones suited with Wi-Fi puncture brief holes in the henro bubble. Yet, the puncture can sometimes be a painful deflation. The walking henro bubble-package includes early rises, hours of walking, temples, preoccupation with food and water, hunting for accommodation, and onsen. This myopia keeps us going day after day. Yet, they’re priorities our friends can’t share with us.

The morning heat is trapezing in the open glass door. I finish conversation abruptly and slather sunscreen as fast as I can. It’s 7:30. I really need to go.

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Family Mart! I’ve only been walking an hour or so, but I couldn’t resist the air conditioned comfort and seats. Plus, I need water. I sit, checking my messages again. I know should be saving this longer break for noon, when the sun is at its worst, but this route through empty towns makes me complacent. It’s just a straight road along the coast to Kanonji-City. I’m armed with an umbrella and sedge hat to block most of the sun. Tourist henro coming through!

Crap, did I scew up my packing? Why is my shoulder aching already? I’ve stopped at another michi-no-eki that’s facing the sea. A metal plaque gives the heat-bleached islands names. Down the coast is a steady smattering of buildings.

I sit on the covered bench and snack again, eying the sparrows feeding their young in the nests above me. They’ve already decorated most of the area with white droppings. The colony of parents race back and forth between the grass and the little beaks sticking out of the thatched homes. I take off my soaked socks and flex my toes to the cool breeze while snacking.

The sheet of newspaper on the ground catches the bird poop. I’ve seen this before, at a converted farmhouse on an organic farm. The little ones there barely had their beaks out when I arrived and by the time I left almost two weeks later they were barely fitting in the cramped nest. That was in northern Kyoto when tsuyu, the rainy season, began. It’s high summer now. Yet, the sparrows are still nesting. 

Okay, the heat is really getting to me. Suburbia is getting to me. My backpack is getting to me. My irritation is getting to me – and it’s barely noon. I look longingly at a quaint cafe nestled in the shade with a natural wood interior and European-style seats. In the city, it would be idyllic countryside, but in the middle of nowhere, this becomes urbanite romanticism. It’s not time to stop yet, so I march reluctantly on, shelving my city roots.

I’m in the last prefecture. The thought strikes me. There’s a noticeable pile of previously imperceptible changes now. I stop on the sidewalk to capture some of the floating bits.

If you drop me in Kochi now I’d be wiser, but not stronger. Shoulder no longer hurts. I have a good pace. I was actually full walking to shed weight. 3 bananas this morning so I don’t have to carry them, bought yogurt to finish cereal. Onigiri. 

My descriptive skills have attrophied. No. Not that. They’re to the point. The points are all I need; I can navigate my memories from there.

There’s another konbini, so I scurry in. It’s just past noon, an insane time to walk. Plus, the underside of my sedge hat is coming apart. It was half broken when I adopted it in Temple 1. Please, last one more day.

I can only walk normally with a bag now. My gait becomes a waddle the moment I drop my backpack near the entrance of the konbini. I feel the tightness in my legs, my sore butt. I wish I could see myself. I’d laugh harder.

With second lunch, I plant myself on the seats, basking in AC – not good for sweating muscles. My soaked shirt and shorts become cold weights. I’m caught between feeling guilty for ‘wasting time’ and acknowledging the rest my body is demanding. Oh well. What will be, will be. I begin eating and flipping through messages.

When I finally do get up, I feel as light as when I started this morning.What a miracle my cells pulled off during this hour. I wish I could see the minute-by-minute regeneration. My spirits are reset to high. What a grouch I was just an hour ago. I’m glad to leave that simmering cocoon for a more bubbly self as I set off for the final stretch to Kanonji City.

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The entrance to Temple 78’s Main Hall.

 

It’s 3:00 and I’ve just finished Temples 68 and 69, which are right beside each other. Actually, I mixed up the two Daishi Halls, the secondary shrines dedicated to Kobo Daishi because they’re in the same complex. The contrast between the Main Halls, though, is stark. One has a modern, concrete entrance climbing up to the Main Hall, and a large new building for its offices. The other one seems like an attachment, had it not been for the nondescript sign with the temple name. Nonetheless, one person writes both nokyochos for me.

I sit under the umbrella of a leafy tree in the middle of the courtyard, wondering if these two temples form a block in quiet competition with the Shinto shrines above and below them. I had read that Temple 68 used to be beside the Shinto shrine below, a typical coexistance between Buddhism and Shinto. The Meiji Era changed that by declaring Shinto as Japanese nation’s ‘native’ religion and forced the institutions to separate.

This hill has many family tombs, no doubt from before that separation. Do the families visiting now have allegiances or do they not care? As I leave, I look up at the torii, the red square arches of the Shinto shrine. Despite its simple design it has a similar concept to the Buddhist Niomon, marking the entrance to the sacred grounds. You find shimenawa, spiritual ropes, wrapped around many trees on Buddhist grounds. Whatever divisions were imposed seems an arbitrary act of nation-building.

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I’m in the ryokan after returning from Temple 70, Motoyama-ji. I’m hungry and tired, but also bathed. Laundry is done. I delay tucking in and let my thoughts swirl. I was lucky that the owner came back for a lunch break minutes after I arrived at the locked ryokan. It looked closed for the holidays, like the ryokans in Shikokuchuo City where I came from. When she discovered me, she said she’d prepare a room for this evening and take my bag as I walked to Temples 68, 69 and 70. 

Without baggage and a close walk to the first two temples, I thought I had plenty of time and hung around under the tree in the courtyard, waiting for the sun to wane. I even went hunting for an ice coffee in a nearby supermarket and sat down outside with the intention to sip it when I discovered it was almost 4:00pm. My last walk was an hour away if I walked fast. 

The coffee was dealt with in a gulp and I raced along the river towards the last temple. Gentle stroll indeed! It as my typical time-conscious speed-walk along the river that never seemed to reach its destination. Death glare to cyclists racing by. I should learn from my animes, knock them over, borrow the bike, and return in half an hour when they’ve recover from shock.

My muscles and tendons weren’t sore anymore; now, they were just tearing with every step.

I limped into the large temple compounds about 10 minute before closing, filled with thoughts of catching buses and trains. It was the first time I got the nokyocho before finishing the rituals. Shikatanai. There’s no choice if I wanted to mail it to the friend I was dedicating the temple to, but I still felt guilty for doing things out of order.

 

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Motoyama-ji, one of the only temples never destroyed on the Ohenro.

 

The ojii-san in the office wasn’t that keen to help, even after he finally heard what I needed: the nokyocho on a piece of paper. Shut down by an ojii-san. Oh, the ironies.

Fortunately, the lady who was sweeping the grounds returned just in time and offered to help. After she wrote it, she asked me the usual questions about my background. Then, she presented me with a brocade osamefuda, casually saying that it might be a good omiyage, souvenir for friends. What an understatement. Silver and gold osamefuda are dug out of temple boxes by henro looking for lucky charms. Brocade osamefuda, used by henro who completed 100+ rounds, are even more coveted. I was over the moon when I received one at Temple 55. I don’t deserve two.

But, she was giving an o-settai, so I could not refuse. I limped to my bag to get an osamefuda for her, the protocol when henro receive o-settai. Could a piece of paper really convey the heartfelt gratitude? I had to believe she could feel it as it passed between us. The corner of her eyes creased as she smiled under her surgical mask. My memory of her has an evening halo as she bowed a goodbye under the doorway, her broom in hand.

 

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A brocade osamefuda used by henro who complete 100+ times.

 

When I am grateful for the things I’ve received, I’ve always needed to give something useful or meaningful back. I’m used to giving without receiving in return. I don’t like being indebted. Walking the henro, the tables have been turned. It’s made me realise that my reciprocation of favours has conveniently kept my appreciation and gratitude to a cerebral process.

Unconditional generosity, so rare in our increasingly self-absorbed lives, in such abundance in Shikoku is humbling and disarming. I read once that character is how you treat people who can do nothing for you. These people who don’t have much have lots of character – generosity. Here I’ve learned to feel gratitude and humility deeply. You realise how vulnerable you are, how much you needed what was offered to you only after you receive it.

Anyhow, that’s enough thinking for today. I slip under the warm covers.

I haven’t even gotten to my ryokan host. She’s an interesting one too – but I’ll leave that for tomorrow. She’s driving me to the trailhead of Unpen-ji, the highest temple in the Shikoku Pilgrimage, tomorrow. It’s her o-settai.
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