Henro Day 33: July 23

Fureai Park-mino (ふれあいパークみの) → Utazu (瀬戸大橋四国健康村)
Temples: 72 (Mandara-ji 曼荼羅寺), 73 (Shusshakaji 出釈迦寺), 74 Kōyama-ji (甲山寺), 75 (Zentsū-ji 善通寺), 76 (Konzō-ji 金倉寺), 77 (Dōryū-ji 道隆寺)
Weather: Sunny with Clouds
Travel Method: Walking
Distance: 24.8 km

Last night averaged out alright. After being turned away by Iyadani-ji, I relaxed in the onsen down the hill, snacked on o-settai cookies, napped on a lounge chair until midnight, and found a covered bench beside the onsen entrance, sheltered from the rain, as my final sleeping spot. What more could I ask for?

It’s another night in the memory bank. Time passed, not quickly, not slowly, not relaxed enough to sleep, not uncomfortable. In the past weeks, I’ve drifted in and out of sleep to stopping trucks, night travellers, noisy branches, animals, temperature fluctuations, and street light automations. Even if still foreign, the nocturnal world is growing on me.

Before I know it, day arrived. I turn my back to it and squeeze in my best sleep hour during twilight. Eventually, I push myself up from the bench. It’s time to go when it’s bright enough to see in the forest that I must cross this morning.

The rhythm of the falling rain is captivating, but it also spears leaves off trees, turns soft soil into clingy mud, and breeds the mosquitos buzzing around my ears despite the incense.

I stop often to record my intense feelings, which catch me off guard.

The same bamboo that had enchanted me in Tokushima now is just a slippery obstacle. I regret taking the mountain road. I crawl down the 100 metres. 1.5 km feels like forever.

Despite nojuku bringing broken sleep, I’ve never felt the grogginess and headaches that gripped me in the city if I slept less than 7 good hours. Despite twisting stiffly all night, leg isn’t torn anymore once I begin to walk. Somehow, this body still works. I think it’s more at home in the Ohenro than I am, operating like an SUV off-road survivng its rookie driver.

My mind registers without thinking. Tall bamboo. Mud trough and slippery leaves. Fallen bamboo and trees. Blocked path. Opens into lake. Cow mooing in a clearing. Out of drinking water. A house with a white and red roof in the European style. The stagnant green ponds look idyllic beyond the tall grasses. My path is overgrown. Too few henro feet have passed. Shoes get wet fastest in wet grass.

I realise my body’s overstretched. It heals fast, but not well. After the initial hours, my ankles and calves begin to tear again.

Since my left ankle sprain back in Kochi, I’ve learned to avoid and dislike the mountain roads that I once sought out. Now, every time I trace an off-road trail on my map, I get anxious. My once confident strides are reduced to small, tentative steps.

Just one more week and it’s over. Thank God. I like challenges, and I thought I’d never say that. I still do, but now the distances feel like forever.

When I finally make it out onto the road, it’s morning traffic. I duck into a Family Mart for breakfast. I promised my legs a break today. I’ll just cover the cluster of temples in Zentsuji City, take a train if necessary. I message Aurelie and tell her where I’m headed. She messages back telling me she’s found company and is ahead of me. How?

After 7:30, I head to the first temple about 15 minutes away. There’s supposed to be a restaurant beside it with o-settai udon for aruki henro. I’m hanging around for that.

At the temple, there’s one other henro – in long-sleeves and pants!! – just heading out. We exchange greetings and he leaves. There aren’t even bus henro to liven up the place; they petered out after Kochi.

I make my prayers, pick up a nokyocho, and ask the stamp office whether they have a tsuyado, an overnight place for henro. It was listed in my updated Japanese nojuku henro guide. If this place says yes, I can wash the sour taste from yesterday’s encounter at Iyadani-ji. 

Mandara-ji’s office also says sternly that there is no tsuyado. The tea place on the temple grounds isn’t one. The man’s impassive look isn’t like the expressionless monks in Kochi. It’s off. It’s like the one I saw yesterday, like there’s more to that ‘no’. Temples aren’t obligated to have tsuyado, so I’m more disappointed by my nagging doubt.

The next temple is just 15 minutes walk away. I repeat my ritual, dedicate it to another friend. This temple is endearingly haphazard, with a worn bell tower, a friendly rough-around-the edges rest area for henro, and an office-shop assembled as an afterthought.

I see the aruki henro again, on a smoke break. So he rushes from temple to temple, only to chill on a cigarette. It’s funny what we all stop for.

He seems the quiet type, so I just nod. As I’m packing, he walks over and hands me his details on his osamefuda. ‘If you are ever in Kyoto, or need anything, please get in touch.’

I look at the slip. It’s written in a very shaky hand, and I can’t make out all the characters, but I appreciate the thought. I give him mine in return.

As he finishes his smoke, I ask him if he’s planning to get udon at the shop down the street. He says he heard of it, but couldn’t find it.

Osamefuda and quotes and idioms cover the walls of this udon shop.

EH?! There’s only one sign in front of the only shop above Mandara-ji. I invite him to come with me if he’s not in a rush. I’m a bit surprised when he agrees.

We retrace our steps and poke our heads into the shop. The door is open now and the owner invites us to sit if we don’t mind waiting. A free sample of Kagawa’s most famous product, Sanuki udon? Of course, I’ll wait. We leave our bags outside and sit down.

By now, Kouhei’s told me that he’s walking the Ohenro for his late grandfather and his family background. At a distance, he looked like a student, but close up, it’s apparent his work and worries have taken a toll on his round face. He has a kind, if shy and anxious, air so I try to compensate with silly stories and light laughter.

We admire the patchwork of white and stained-brown osamefuda slips lining the shop walls. It’s like we’re eating out of a storage house, one with nokyocho from the 20 Bangai temples, additionally significant temples not part of the official route, and cute posters of Japanese idioms that I ask Kouhei to help me read.

As we run out of topics, the two bowls of plain udon arrive with soy sauce. The owner comes out to explain why plain is best. Of course he’d say that, but when I take a bite I finally get it. The noodles are springy and chewy, with the subtle sweetness of the starch balanced with the saltiness in the dashi-soy sauce. Any toppings are distractions.

Sanuki Udon, Kagawa Prefecture’s most famous product.

When done, we both leave osmaefuda to add to the collection. The couple is close to retirement age. I wonder if this place will soon only live in our memories. Or, perhaps, this noodle shack will still have our nameslips after we are long gone. Who knows?

Kouhei also orders a box of udon omiyage for his family, with next day delivery for only 600 Yen.

Next up is Koyama-ji. I watch Kouhei’s ritual, noting how he does the same things I do in entirely different ways. Despite seeing hundreds of henro over the past month, this is the first time walked and prayed with an aruki-henro. What are they like? Despite being one, I don’t know.

The entrance to one block of Zentsu-ji

We continue on to Zentsu-ji, the namesake of the city. It is the family temple of Kobo Daishi and taking up two massive city blocks is the largest walkable temple complex in the pilgrimage, and a major stand-alone attraction. After walking back and forth a few times, checking out the statues, and admiring the buildings, we escape the bustle.

The grounds of the second wing of Zentsu-ji.

I’m looking forward to a break soon. Without my sedge hat, which finally broke yesterday, the sun is directly on my head. Also, I want to try more Sanuki udon since we’re here. Sanuki is the old name for Kagawa Prefecture, and this is the home of one of Japan’s most beloved comfort foods.

We reach Temple 76, do our prayers and hang out in the large rest building. Kouhei pulls an energy-drink and me an onigiri. We’re a pretty shabby, under-eating pair. I pass my extra one to him.

After, I ask Kouhei to help book a place called Magnanimity Inn, charging aruki-henro a mere 1000 Yen. Most ryokans even in these parts are at least 4000. There’s no pickup, so we go for a 2000 Yen backup at an onsen. Kouhei normally doesn’t make arrangements until the end of the day, so he’s happy to tag along. I have all the directories and lists he doesn’t have (in Japanese) and no phone to call with. We couldn’t have met on a better day. 

Then, we’re onto today’s last temple, Dōryū-ji. By now, my left arch and calf is torn. Knowing how overly considerate Japanese can be, I adjust my step so that I don’t limp visibly.

Just outside the temple, there are two men standing outside their house, waiting for us. They hand us small clay figurines and explain that they’re an artisanal family, interviewed even by the current Prime Minister Abe. So they are the source of these little Jizo figures! Cute!

Little Jizo figures are left in many places throughout the Ohenro.

After we finish our rituals at Dōryū-ji, we have 5 kilometres to our lodgings. It’s straight down the sprawl of small cities along the waterfront. After a bit of limping, I tell Kouhei to go ahead. He has walked over 40 kilometres today, starting from Kanonji City! He needs a break.

He responds in his halting way, ‘No rush. We’re done for today, so it doesn’t matter when we arrive. It’s better to walk together.’

I’m struck by his answer. I don’t know what weighs on his mind, but he has a transparent face. He means it. I’ve often thought the exact same thing after 5pm and the temples close. It must be henro truth. Another henro practice is that people go at their own pace to arrive at an agreed upon location.

I guess we’ve decided to walk far together today. Without him, I wouldn’t have made it here now.

If he’s staying, he’s coming with me to a konbini for a snack. After lots of online map consulting, we finally find one and he comes back out with an ice cream sandwich.

‘O-settai,’ he says, simply.

He’s returning the onigiri I gave him earlier. Despite being like this myself, I’m a bit surprised. I take a bite of the waffle ice cream sandwich. Then another. Then it’s gone. That was good!

He smiles hesitantly, isn’t it?

Try the konbini ice creams!

There’s something creepy about the empty, gridded streets with gigantic games, entertainment, and pachinko buildings close to our onsen. I’m happy to forget them when we finally enter the onsen. We make our payments and part ways with a general matta, later then. If it’s meant to be, we’ll meet again. Ichi go, ichi e.

Almost to the onsen…

An hour later, I’m reborn into clean onsen robes. Now, I need dinner. Upstairs at the vending machines, I see a tall Caucassian guy with a bandaged nose. It’s the henro I’d seen up in Kuma Kogen! This must be Edvaldo, the guy Kouhei told me he met along with ‘a French girl’, Aurelie, in Unpen-ji’s tsuyado!

I introduce myself.

The rest of the night is bubbling reunions, hugs, photos and updates. Edvaldo, Aurelie, Kouhei and I chat through dinner in the restaurant in our mix of French, English, and Japanese.

Edvaldo came to do the Ohenro with no Japanese skills or guides. It’s a wonder he persisted after all the misunderstandings, language barriers, and technology problems. It echoes Aurelie’s experience. She also updates me on her journey since Shishikui with the highs and lows since Cape Ashizuri.

Somehow, Edvaldo and I begin discussing Kagawa. He’s heard from Japanese henro that they find Kagawa strange, and that the prefecture has a history of discouraging foreign henro. He cites examples of henro arrow stickers purposely stuck to misguide and anti-Korean graffiti. That suddenly explains the looks I got at the temple offices. I’m relieved. I can live with a sad reality, not the feeling of suspicion I had earlier.

We’ll walk together from now on. Except Edvaldo, who fainted in the onsen and needs to return to Canada. He’s so close, too. There’s really no guarantee until the last step is taken, a sobering thought.

Proper dinner! The little luxuries.

Yet, Edvaldo wants to treat Kouhei and me to a capsule unit so that we can sleep better than in the common area. When I translate for Kouhei, he accepts with the usual ‘Sumimasen’ and bow. I’m tempted, but protest. Edvaldo doesn’t need to be polite; he’s just met me.

‘You’re not supposed to refuse an o-settai.’ Edvaldo chides cheerfully and ambles off to make the upgrade.

A bed is…priceless. Do I have anything to give in return, something that won’t weigh him down, but a suitable souvenir of his adventure? Suddenly, I remember the brocade osamefudaBrocade osamefudas are used by henro who have done the pilgrimage over 100 times and highly prized. I had received one each from Temple 55 and Temple 70 as o-settai, but felt one was enough. The other was meant to be given away.

Was this the right occasion? Is a 3000 Yen sleep worth this? Or, is it exchanging two priceless and incomparable things? What’s the meaning of giving this, to me, to him?

Holding them, the reasons crystalise. I want him to remember what he accomplished already, and to remember to finish what he started. Too often we say one day, some day, then we let life get in the way. There is no better motivation than a piece of a henro who has completed the pilgrimage over a hundred times.

Osamefuda in hand, I go upstairs to give it to Edvaldo and go sleep.

When I put it on the table, his eyes widen.

‘I thought this might be something you’d like…’ I still start, despite my nervousness, and relief at seeing his reaction.

He knows. He had received one, too. It came from the original owner who mustered the courage to chat with him. Edvaldo, in turn, gave it away to another ojii-san who has yet to embark on his lifelong dream.

I’m speechless. We’re both speechless. It’s hard not to believe in fate when it took so many coincidences that fell into place, and so many uncanny parallels.

We continue talking on late into the night. It will cost me tomorrow, but I want to savour this moment. Eventually, we say goodnight, leaving farewell for tomorrow.

All you can do is hope that it was worth it to give a piece of yourself away. Whether it is known, acknowledged, received, or appreciated is important, but not the motivation. We give what we can. If we put our hearts into it, what we can give just might be exactly what someone else needs. 

My first capsule hotel, and I’m never going back!
Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant.

5 thoughts on “Henro Day 33: July 23

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