Furu-Takamatsu (古高松) → Zoda Station (造田駅) → Tokushima Otsuru Ryokan (徳島市大鶴旅館)
Temples: 87 (Nagao-ji 長尾寺), 88 (Ōkubo-ji 大窪寺)
Weather: Sunny → Cloudy → Rain → Cloudy
Travel Method: Train + Walking + Bus to Tokushima
Distance: 17.6 (+ 5.2 km)
5:57. I see the pricing board in the train above the exit where the conductor takes the fare. Ehime and Kochi don’t have it. It’s on Tokushima trains. Wait, this train is going to Tokushima. So am I, except I’ll get off early and walk some 50 km. Significance is a function of self-inflicted hardship, indeed. I’ve been at this for over a month, am about to finish, and the absurdity still amuses me.
I’m on the first train heading close to Temple 87, Nagao-ji, on a funky cocktail mix of early-morning adrenaline, lacking sleep, and a cheese-with-bread breakfast. The ride’s too short for dozing, so I watch the picture-book towns between the hills clunk by.
I’m still thinking about how to make it to Tokushima tonight. It’s a long walk, and I need to conserve energy for a few more days of walking. After Temple 88, I need to finish Temple 4-8, then 11-17 in Tokushima Prefecture because I started piecemeal and out of order. Walking 50km and camping in the mountains today isn’t smart if I need to climb another mountain, the notorious Temple 12, tomorrow. Taking transit to get back to Tokushima the roundabout way after finishing Temple 88 will take longer than walking.
I’ve been stewing on solutions for a few days, but I’ll just have to trust things will work out once I get to the top of the mountain today. They usually do.
Zoda Station is a short walk to Temple 87 and I arrive just after it opens. There’s already someone there.
Kouhei! How on earth did he reach here already?
He slept close by in front of a konbini and barely got 4 hours with the traffic. Yesterday evening, after returning to Takamatsu on the tram with Aurelie and me, he’d picked up his bags and started walking again until he arrived in the area around 10pm. Now, it’s clear why he had told Aurelie he wouldn’t be doing nojuku with her last night: he needed to walk, but didn’t think she’d be up for his plan, and probably didn’t have the energy to use translators to explain.
Last night, we’d also agreed to meet at the Henro Cultural Centre at around 10am today. Does he still want to walk there together? Or perhaps he’d want to walk alone. Ends are important. Finishing them meaningfully is more important.
He’s fine with waiting.
Sure? I need coffee down the street after this.
I light my incense. This is another one of those temples in the middle of an old town that once had a lively courtyard with chattering parents and playing kids. Nonetheless, I enjoy the morning tranquility, when I add my incense to Kouhei’s to the urn. I place my hands together and whisper prayers to my friends. One of them has been on my mind a while, and I’ve procrasinated until now, never feeling it was the right moment.
When I finish, my hands stay glued together a minute longer as something peels away. The weight I thought I carried has in fact been set free, soaring into the blue sky.
Maybe one day, I’ll understand why the act of putting your hands together and whispering a wish into thin air can affect our physiology so much. For now, I’ll just get the nokyocho and get going with Kouhei.
‘You must really like coffee. Do you drink it every morning?’ Kouhei asks.
No, actually, I’ve not been drinking it much because there aren’t washrooms. Still, I need to treat myself once in a while. This is a morning toast to my first last day.
When I finish, we follow the last kilometres of the henro-no-michi out of the town.
The Henro Cultural Centre is beside a lake on the slopes undulating up to Okubo-ji. Inside, there’s a free museum with historical pieces of the pilgrimage. There’s neatly arranged clothing, osamefuda, photos, and nokyochos from over a hundred years ago. How did these people do it then? Aruki henro may be a small and shrinking subset of people, but we continue to trickle through. We’re without drivers and horses, as the wealthy in days gone by would have come, but clean konbini flush toilets and cell phones are a fair trade.
We wait for the office to give us the certificate of completion, and we leave our osamefudaosamefuda, in boxes for each of the prefectures. There is even a box for foreign henro. I pull out the slips and flip through. What brought these people here? What can I learn based on their address, their handwriting, their walking dates? Perhaps, it’s enough that they came. Just holding the stack makes me feel warm.
We help ourselves to the tea and the snacks in the centre, waiting until 11am for Aurelie in case she decided to come.
The last 8 kilometres. They begin gently on the road meandering up the lush, green hills. There’s an odd building here and there. The sun’s disappeared behind the clouds. We’re setting a good pace, but we need to beat the rain.
Finally, we arrive at the trailhead with a stream. Guarding the entrance to Okubo-ji is Mt. Nyotai, almost as high as Unpen-ji at 700+ metres, which henro must scale up and go right back down. It’s the down I’m dreading. I take my time refilling my water in the stream. We will need this.
Kouhei takes off his long-sleeve for the first time. We pick up our bags and head into the forest one last time. Let’s do this.
Despite Unpen-ji’s blocked wreckage and Yokomine-ji’s floods, Okubo-ji claims the most dangerous trail segments, in my opinion. It is the only trail where I use my hands to climb up crags of rock and has a ledge with a sheer slope. Thankfully, it started raining at the end of the most slippery and precipitous part. If Aurelie came, I hope she is ahead of us.
With the rain come the clouds that swallow the mountain. The day before, I’d seen another henro’s photos of the view of the valley from near the top. Now at that spot, I look into a white abyss. The silence up here rumbles. The droplets poke playfully at the leaves of the small trees.
Just before the final descent, I ask Kouhei to take a picture. He never takes photos, and this is his evidence that he took the more challenging route to his kechigan, completion of his Ohenro. He stands obligingly for a few, including the ‘V’ for victory. My favourite, though, is the one with the thumb up, with a determined, puckered lips. Yosh! We’re almost there.
In the end, we ascended 300 metres from the trailhead only to come down just as many metres. My Strava app tells me so. The steps are set, but punishing on my terrible knees. I hold my breath watching every step so that I don’t roll on my ankles. Kouhei sailed down and stopped every few minutes to make sure I was still around. How does he do it?
We arrive at Okubo-ji at 13:00. By now, I’ve accepted the wisdom in our elders, who chose the site on the remote side of the mountain. Get off your high horses. What goes up, must come down. Why would a monk need a lofty view? Or perhaps they just slashed through the most direct route rather than circumventing the peak the way the cars do now. Perhaps it was just coincidence.
Okubo-ji is like any other temple, unique. We descend via its back gate to its modest, but nonetheless intricate, Main Hall with the regal mountain slope for a backdrop. The Daishi Hall is in another section of the grounds, a newer, larger section with vine-covered trellises, and a regal tri-arch gate. This is the temple where thousands of henro staves are collected to be burned.
I light my incense, just grateful I made it here in one piece, injury free. Just like Temple 38 at Cape Ashizuri, I’m washed with relief and gratitude. Unlike that time, I’m beyond exhaustion. Even though I have Temples 4-17 to go, it feels like the hardest parts are over.
With our nokyochos in hand, we take a quick break on one of the benches. Kouhei is chewing on a stick of CalorieMate, which comes in the square yellow-orange boxes that pop up in every konbini.
What does it taste like? I thought they were for weight loss. I didn’t realise they were actual meals!
‘Try it. Dozo.‘ He hands me a fruit flavoured one.
I break open the package, pull one out and bite. It’s dry, like a cookie, but not buttery. The flavour is mild and conservative, a bit sweet with the light flavouring, but also salty and starchy. It’s actually perfect. Why hadn’t I discovered this before?! The other stick is gone in a minute.
But after that, we need to head out to make the 13:30 bus back to the city. I hope Aurelie finishes today too, wherever she is.
By 16:00, we are back in Tokushima and checked into Otsuru Ryokan. When Kouhei decided to take the bus back rather than spend another day walking from Temple 88 to Temple 1, as some aruki henro do, I knew my solution had presented itself. He was meeting a friend, which turned out to be the obaa-san owner, also a henro herself, and it was no trouble to take an extra room during low season.
After we drop our bags off in the rooms, I immediately head out to celebrate. Kagawa Prefecture is finished and in great company. I have a comfortable place tonight rather than somewhere in the mountains with mosquitos. That is reason enough for cake.
I find a bakery-cafe just a block away and indulge in a strawberry shortcake with tea. Sitting down at the back, with a view of the coffee bar and the street, I check the time. Twelve hours ago, I was just waking up in the darkness of a 100-year-old house. Now, I’m enjoying piano jazz, more like my undergraduate hipster self lounging away an afternoon.
My two previous memories of Tokushima are a characterless city. This time, it feels warm and familiar. It feels like I am rediscovering it upon returning a year later.
I realise we forgot to take a picture at Okubo-Ji and smile at nothing in particular. We accomplished it. Task completed. Relief. Satisfaction. Next.
After sitting on this soft chair for eternity, inhaling the fragrance of the strawberries in the cream, I pay and leave. It’s only 5:30.
I get pre-made dishes from a supermarket and sit by the river to enjoy the sunset over the river. There’s a breeze. The rows of neon lights are getting more distinct. The street lamps on the bridge are on against the magenta and cobalt sky.
As I finish the veggies, enjoying the crunchy textures flavoured with sesame oil, feeling the satisfaction of rice in my tummy, I think about tomorrow. Tomorrow, I begin my real last days.
I hadn’t liked Tokushima when I first arrived over a month ago. Tokushima is the Prefecture of Spiritual Awakening, where henro usually begin their journey. I’d started in bits and pieces, doing Temple 10 and 9, 1 to 3, then skipping to Temple 18. Haphazard, whimsical, ill-planned, complicated, so it seemed to me. Now, staring over the waterway to the shops on the other side, I know it wasn’t. I gave myself the opportunity to come back.
Even though it’s totally the wrong context, I can’t shake the looping lines of poetry: