Utazu (瀬戸大橋四国健康村) →Goshikidai Plateau Henro Hut (五色台遍路小屋)
Temples: 78 Gōshō-ji (郷照寺), 79 Tennō-ji (天皇寺), 80 Sanuki Kokubun-ji (讃岐国分寺), 81 Shiromine-ji (白峯寺), 82 Negoro-ji (根香寺)
Travel Method: Walking
All the other capsules remain silent as crawl out of my cozy unit-bed. The room is a contained, detached darkness lit by a glow of mini LEDs on the floor. I push open the door and exit into the lit world with carpets and pastel beige colours. I pop downstairs to the onsen for a morning soak, pack my bag, and I’m out in the lobby to meet Aurelie, Kouhei, and Edvaldo.
In total, we’ve spent barely a week together, but this premature parting is still heavy. We’re saying farewell to what could have been, the Gang of Four. But the henro-no-michi goes ever forward, so we bury the melancholy with happier chatter and group photos.
Edvaldo suddenly asks, ‘Does anyone need a hat?’ He won’t need it anymore.
Aurelie says she hates them. Then, me! I broke mine two days ago and already miss it. How bittersweet this is, all the things Edvaldo passes on because of his injury. On my head, his oversized sedge hat will complete the Ohenro and await his return in Tokyo.
It’s a quick walk to the Lawson to get breakfast. Kouhei reveals entirely unexplored corners of the konbini to me with his purchases: a veggie-fruit juice for fibre, CalorieMate as a meal replacement, and more energy drink-meals. Aurelie gets onigiri, but she says it won’t last long. I need a big breakfast comprised of whole foods. After the food, a smoke is part of the ritual the morning ritual for them. For me, it’s the comfort of sipping hot coffee. I am fascinated by the patterns: the calculated nutritional intake balanced with creature comforts. The same, yet individual.
We arrive at Temple 78 right when it opens at 7am. We do the rituals in our own ways and wait for each other at the entrance. Kouhei and I fall into a polite group ask before getting our nokyochos. Reflexively, the creaky social gears are turned on.
Mission completed, we turn under the Main Gate, bow in unison back at the temple, and troop off to the next one. Sometimes we go in line, sometimes side by side. Kouhei leads with his cell phone as a guide. I am happy to have a guide while chatting to Aurelie. There’s so much we’ve learned, so much that we want to process aloud.
By the time we hit Temple 79, we were hot, as usual. There is no vending machine, and we’re thirsty. We sit in the shade of the small temple, which is beside a shrine with the same name. Aurelie and I peel off our shoes and wet socks. Smoke break. I watch the ants under the tree and wriggle my happy toes.
Then, onto the next temple. We discover a vending machine down the block, sip our drinks in front, and discard the bottles before moving on. Compared to yesterday’s temples packed back to back, the two-hour walk tediously threads through a suburbia that’s neither picturesque nor a single-road route that allows zoning-out.
When we hit the highway, only the odd cafe and store pop up. Where would a henro stuck here stop? Aurelie and I agree that after all we’ve received, we want to offer shelter to other pilgrims, in Japan or on the Camino de Santiago, Europe’s pilgrimage equivalent to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Agnostic foreigners inspired to have a zenkonyado in Shikoku – maybe it’ll even make local headlines; maybe it’ll be a scandal in Kagawa.
I begin to lag behind as we climb the small hill to the next town. The heat and glare are getting to me, even with Edvaldo’s sedge hat. I’d held out buying a new one because I couldn’t find the rounded-top I wanted, and now I have an even better one.
It’s only 10:30 when we arrive at Sanuki’s Kokubun-ji. It has a vast cultivated tree area with boulders that double up for chairs. After finishing our prayer rounds, we lounge on them in the shade, gulping more drinks from the vending machines. The air is stiflingly hot and the cicadas are a crying cascade. More sunscreen for me. Aurelie takes a nap. Kouhei pulls out a cigarette.
Temple 81 and 82 are on a plateau, which means we need to finish any errands down here first. That means we need to eat lunch and pick up dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast. We’re also in no rush, as Kouhei is waiting for his camping friend to give tips on where to camp on the plateau tonight. I also want to get Wi-Fi to ask my Couchsurfing friends in Tokushima if they can host Edvaldo, who is heading there today to rebook his flight. Aurelie needs to get money at a 7/11.
First, we retrace our steps to lunch at an udon shop on my map. I’m determined to sample more Sanuki udon. The little shop has properly limited menu (the hallmark of quality).
I choose a table that has outlets underneath. Aurelie blurts, ‘You’re so dependent on your cell phone.’
Really? That’s what’s been connecting us, guiding us, tracking our distance, and sourcing our lodgings. I remind myself that bluntness is a cultural thing, but I can’t help but feel mildly annoyed. Kouhei and I have been using phones to figure out logistics for the upcoming few days. Nojuku on a plateau without conveniences has its challenges, and in our upcoming city of Takamatsu poses new ones on a tight budget. It’s better to be prepared than grouchy and anxiously taking shots in the dark for urban shelter.
Anyhow, food arrives! In the summer, Sanuki udon usually has no soup and comes with the dipping sauce added by the customer. The texture is springy, and absorbs enough dashi and lemon juice without becoming soggy. The combination of the onions, dashi, age, seaweed, and katsuo flakes make a hearty meal. Our large is a mere 450 JPY. Score!
After finishing, we leave our bags at the shop and visit the konbini for overnight food supplies. I get a donut and iced coffee to top off my meal. This insane heat and our walking metabolisms results in everything consumed going straight out our pores. With food in hand, the other two wait outside while I finish messages with Edvaldo and my friend in Awa City. When it’s done, we retrieve our bags and begin our climb onto the plateau. I’m looking forward to getting my head up where the air’s clearer.
Despite citing poor health and semi-regular smoking, Kouhei leads the steady climb without stopping. I follow just behind since a steady pace and breathing are key to endurance. Aurelie, who hates hills, can take her time. It’s easier for everyone to go at their own pace and regroup.
Eventually, Kouhei and I stop at a clearing with a breeze. The view here and the cooler air is a welcome change. I drink the last of my water and Kouhei hands me an energy drink with jelly. I’m still full, but I accept and sip the liquid jelly.
I put my soaked towel and shirt that I wrap on my shoulder straps for padding on the rail to dry. Even a few minutes will dry a few drops-worth. Perhaps the city-life efficiency has bled into my nojuku henro life. I can imagine Kobo Daishi, or at least the Zen masters, laughing at my fixation on earthly matters. After about 15 minutes, Aurelie arrives. When she’s ready, I get my shirts and we continue up, my mind fixed on the next temple.
Once on the plateau, we follow a wide, shaded road that’s a few degrees cooler. The last 2 kilometers to Temple 81 is a muddy forest trail. Here, Aurelie and Kouhei disappear quickly, unphased by the slippery mud in the gentle descent. It gives me less pressure to keep up. They’ll be waiting at the temple.
By the time I arrive, Aurelie gets me a green tea as o-settai, a welcome generosity with the thirst quencher. Funny how new-found acquaintances can be more generous than long-time friends.
However, it’s 3:30, and I want to hit Temple 82 today. I finish the rituals and make plans to meet Aurelie and Kouhei at today’s nojuku site, which Kouhei’s friend sent photos of. Aurelie and Kouhei can take their time, and I can hit my goal. Something compels me to do this last push.
It becomes apparent that the 5 kilometre trail is longer than it seems. I use my phone to track my pace, never letting it drop below 6km/hr. The pace is exhilarating. The twists and turns on this path goad me on, as I thrust my staves left and right, leap through puddles, run up muddy banks, and jogg where possible. Here, I finally shed the shadow of Kochi’s terrible sprain.
When I emerge back out onto the paved road, I have about 15 minutes to run the final kilometre. There’s another trail shortcut to the temple, but I go along the car route. My breath becomes short and my throat closes as I thump downhill. I’m so close, but I’m not even sure I’m going the right way now. I should just hitch a ride if I want to finish this.
Just then, a truck comes down the hill. It slows and the driver pokes his head out. ‘Ohenro-san where are you going? Negoro-ji?’
‘Hop in, I’ll give you a ride! Can you sit at the back?’
Yes! I climb the tire and roll into the pickup truck. Off we sail, down the hill, with a cool breeze that chills my sweaty body. I have 10 minutes left. Tanomimasu. I’m counting on him.
After 7 nail-biting minutes, the driver finds the entrance. I hop off and hand him an osamefuda, which they don’t know what to do with. I thank them again and wave as they turn around.
As they drive off, I race down and up the stairs of the tree-lined entrance. I arrive at the temple office with all of 2 minutes to spare. I ask if they’ll let me do the prayers and come back in 10 minutes, but the man in the shop says shortly, ‘It’s better if you get the stamp first.’ Fine, if he insists.
Then, I leave my bag on the bench and explore the Main Hall, which encloses a square courtyard with its passageways lined with hundreds of Buddha and Bodhisattva statues. Walking through those, I reach the main altar to make my prayers. After finishing here, I return to the Daishi Hall and repeat the ritual. When done, I take a shortcut route out of the complex by climbing through a barbed fence on a slope. As evening descends, I take my time meandering the 2 kilometers back uphill, basking in satisfaction. I’m done. Today happened.
When I meet up with Aurelie and Kouhei, they’ve finished setting up their tents on the grass. I get snacks for them from the shop beside the park. It’s a day to celebrate. I walked 30 kilometers, and Aurelie has passed her 25-kilometre record. We have each other, food, and plenty of space. Being stuck on this plateau wasn’t so bad after all, especially when I look up and see the sunset.