Tokushima Otsuru Ryokan (徳島市大鶴旅館) → Kamojima Town Kamo-no-Yu Onsen Henro Hut (鴨島町鴨の湯遍路小屋)
Temples: 4 Dainichi-ji (大日寺), 5 Jizō-ji (地蔵寺), 6 Anraku-ji (安楽寺), 7 Jūraku-ji (十楽寺), 8 Kumadani-ji (熊谷寺), 9 Hōrin-ji (法輪寺), 11 Fujii-dera (藤井寺)
Weather: Cloudy → Sunny
Travel Method: Walking (from Itano Station)
Distance: 35 km
Today is my longest walking day. I get up around 5:30 and make two bananas my breakfast. I pack two sets of things: the stuff in my backpack for another two days and the rest to leave at the ryokan for pickup.
The obaa-san who runs it has packed lunch onigiri for Kouhei and me. We’re heading on the same train and he will get off at Temple 1 to complete his kechigan while I get off at Itano Station to continue walking from Temples 4 to 11.
It’s the first time the view outside the train is familiar fields. Kouhei is beside me looking down at nothing in particular. He apologises for not coming to dinner last night because he’d passed out of exhaustion. I wave it off, glad he caught sleep after his all-nighter before we climbed to Okubo-ji, Temple 88, together yesterday. Instead, I ask if he can help with one last favour: look up an affordably henro ryokan in Kamojima, close to Temple 11, and message me with details.
This is probably the last time I’ll see him. I won’t remember the details of his dark, round face behind bookish glasses. I’ll remember the way he smokes, his energy drinks, his gait, his habit of changing into a presentable shirt at the end of the day, his halting speech. He’s clean shaven this morning, cleaned up to go home to Kyoto this afternoon.
Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
The funny thing is, it actually works. You really do feel the same things. We’ve gone under the same sun, walked the same roads, accepted urbanite discomforts. The road highlights our shared humanity as much as it does our human differences. No-one’s shoes will fit as snug as your own. You can’t walk in someone else’s shoes. But you can share a mile with them. After a few hundred, judgement is discarded somewhere along the way with all the other extra baggage.
He steps off, and after an initial wave, marches past. I’m glad we met. I hope he’s glad too.
I’m at Dainichi-ji bright and early, when the nuns are sweeping the garden entrance and the monk is preparing the grounds. After lighting my incense and dedicating my prayers, I wait until the monk is ready to write my nokyocho.
After that, it’s a half hour walk back out of the valley to Jizo-ji via the Go-hyaku-rakan back entrance. Here, I have my first onigiri, a soft-ball sized riceballs that was filled, lightly pan-toasted, and wrapped neatly in pink wrapping paper. I do it as an excuse to stay in the complex under a ginkgo tree, one of my favourite trees.
Gingko / Ginkgo trees are living fossils, meaning they are the only species left of their kind. They are widely cultivated for medicinal and culinary uses, and the fruit is known in Chinese as baiguo (白果) and Japanese as ginan / ginko (銀杏). They are highly resistant to disease and insects, have aerial routes and sprouts, and were the only living things that survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb within a 1-2km radius. Those trees healed and are alive today.
There’s something magestic about trees that have survived in their little corner of the world through the ages. When you sit under them, it’s like you’re absorbing a little bit of that peace under their protective leaves. I wonder what this ginko tree has seen.
After that, I go into a konbini to stock up on snacks and drinks, picking up boxes of CalorieMate sticks that Kouhei introduced me to yesterday.
But I don’t need a long break like I used to and happily contiue on after I’m done resting. There’s a skip in my walk. I realise I’m grinning. I think it’s been a while since that.
The temples in the Awa Plain feel so close and I’m always a bit surprised when I arrive. I have speed, but no haste. The few days of training with Kouhei and Aurelie have been effective. My Strava app tells me my average pace is 11mins/km, which means I’m comfortably keeping 5.5km/hr. When I walked Temples 1 to 3 in late June, I had ambled along for three hours to cover 8km and was exhausted by the end. That day, I had half a backpack, like today, and twirled my light and untested staff, bored by the quiet towns and thin, but steady, traffic.
My staff is a bit shorter now, its base worn and sanded, its bands dark. When I first got it, it felt like another commercial stick in a stock of pilgrimage paraphanalia at Temple 1. I wanted something more personal at the time. It’s been personalised by the gallons of sweat from my forehead: the middle part is polished smooth now.
The weather is fine today, cloudy with breezes. I’m reminded that Tokushima is the prefecture of backyards and bamboo groves. The henro-no-michi here constantly takes you through fields, past homes, through back paths. It is also extremely well marked with red stickers and arrows a perfect ambassador for the thousands of pilgrims that pass by.
I arrive at Anraku-ji in no time. It’s a funny place with a side garden, a new gate, a new community building, and some distinct statues. I wonder who decided the style of statue on the fountain. This temple is supposed to have a tsuyado in the bell tower, which would have been a cool nojuku place. Too bad, I’m too fast today!
After finishing my rounds, I move on to Juraku-ji just 15 minutes walk away. It has a large fortress-like gate, an impressive temple lodging for paying guests and a decorative fountain. It also has an eatery in the parking lot, but I happily munch on my remaining two homemade onigiri.
Next is Kumadani-ji. I wonder if there really used to be bears here, as the name suggests. I have a lot of mental space to wonder now. The Awa Plain is familiar to me, and I will finish the pilgrimage in the next few days. My mind is relaxed just by the familiarity of the hills.
Anyhow, it’s an unusual 200 metre walk from the main gate to the temple. The walkway to the Main Hall has chanting from hidden speakers, another unusual feature. There’s a final climb up steep stairs to the Main Hall, and then again to the Daishi Hall. Two ojii-san sink on the bench beside me after they arrive, heaving, but happy with each other’s company.
Seeing them reminds me of another wiry man with whiskers of white hair who cycled daily to the cafe by the beach that I once worked at. One day, during a lull in the breakfast rush, I finally asked him what his route was when I brought his coffee. He gave me a location on a mountain, which he’ll be returning to right after.
I asked him why he came so far for coffee.
He said, ‘So that I can cycle back up.’
How long did it take him?
It took me the same time to do half the climb and half the distance.
Walking to the next temple, Horin-ji, Temple 9, is another trip down memory lane. This was my second temple after I impulsively set off on my farm host’s bike when I had an afternoon off. At the time, I just really wanted to ride, and Temples 9 and 10 happened to be the right distance. I thought I was killing two birds with one stone, getting a head start on the pilgrimage. As it turns out, I’m returning to both anyway.
Staring at the solemn Kobo Daishi in front of the Main Hall with flowers at his feet, it feels like he’s asking ‘What have you learned?’
The courtyard here hasn’t changed. But the light of evening has been replaced by noontime sun. That makes all the difference.
The Awa Plain is 10 kilometres across. Are you happy now? I ask myself. I’d wondered about it since the day I arrived in late June. I’ve finally experienced it by walking across during the hottest hours. The Yoshino River, which flows from Mount Ishizuchi to Tokushima, is bloody wide. Damn you river that just happens to feed everyone in this massive valley.
After I cross the bridge, it’s still a walk into the heart of Kamojima town on the other side. Slowly, slowly, the shops grow more dense on the street. There’s even two-story signs! It also has canals. That’s cute.
The Lawson was supposed to be close, but it’s really not. When I get in, I message Kouhei to see if he’s spoken to the ryokan, which offers henro accommodation at 1000 Yen. He’s arrived back in Kyoto and helped me research the Japanese description which reads: Akatsuki-An. Close to East Kamojima Fire Station*. 090-3657-7165
*Note, this is inaccurate and please read the nojuku henro list for the actual location.
The treasure hunt is on. He’s reached the owner, but can’t figure out where it is either. Google maps is showing the wrong spot for me. Sigh. I tell him I’ll go to Fujii-dera, Temple 11, first and check messages again later.
Another three hours later, I’m back at the same Lawson and flustered. After finishing Fujii-dera, I walked to Kamo-no-Yu, which is an onsen with a henro hut on the nojuku henro list. If it weren’t for the promise of a proper ryokan, the henro hut with an onsen beside seems grand.
I went in search of this Akatsuki-An, which didn’t pick up my calls. I asked the Kamojima Fire Station that Google Maps was directing me to, and they told me the listing is based on the old fire station location, which they point out to me on the map, just behind the Lawson that I was messaging from. Armed with the next clue, I marched full circle.
But half an hour later, no luck, and it’s getting dark, and I’m hungry. I wandered the small residential alleys and asked the locals, but no-one could help. Frustrated, I message Kouhei and tell him I’ve been going in circles. It’s the first time I’ve whined, and I’m ashamed of it right after I hit send. This isn’t how you treat someone who’s gone out of his way to help you right after arriving home.
Sigh. I’ll make up, somehow. First, I need dinner.
Never shop for dinner on an empty stomach. I buy a full bag of bread sticks, CalorieMate boxes, milk, veggie juice, and salad. Half-way through chuggin my milk, I had to stop to hold my food down.
Breath in. Breath out. Check messages on Wi-Fi. All will be well.
When my stomach has finished its tantrum, I troop back towards Kamo-no-Yu. It’s so good, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on the elusive ryokan.
The onsen is 360 Yen entry, and I sit outdoors watching the sky go from violet to cobalt around the beaming moon. The henro hut has free laundry and a coin dryer. The girl’s hut needs a replacement bulb, so they give me the guy’s hut since I’m the only one today. It even has an outlet for my phone, a small counter with paper for writing diary entries, and hangers. I lay down, savouring the peace and privacy.
I’ve walked 35 kilometres today, an extra five just looping around town. Unwittingly, I have a new record.