Everything disappears quickly, food included. It takes 30 minutes to eat and pack up the pile of things that I’d left at Otsuru Ryokan two days ago. The ‘pile’ had overwhelmed me last night when I returned fits in my 25-litre bag with room to spare.
The last thing I do is loop my tent to the front, which takes a few tries. It only takes two days to unlearn things you never cared for.
At 6:34, I head downstairs to say goodbye to the obaa-san and pay for my room.
She’s serving a breakfast to the French couple having dinner last night when I arrived. They’re heading out to begin their two-week cycling tour of the island which roughly follows the Shikoku Pilgrimage route. Perfect, they’ll need the osamefuda, name slips, and incense I have! With the final exchanges, their meals done, the bags packed, photos taken, they head down the quiet morning street.
After they leave, the obaa-san offers me some coffee and, like last time, gives me a neatly wrapped tube of three softball-sized onigiri.
‘Where will you be going today?’ she asks.
I tell her I’d like to return to Temple 10, my first temple, but am not enthusiastic about the route, which is basically a 20km return walking trip from the closest train station.
Even though it isn’t a requirement, I’d like to complete the circle. The kechigan, completion of the Ohenro, is either finishing the 88 temples, or returning to the temple one started at. It’s up to the pilgrim. For me, the image of arriving back at Kirihata-ji has been the prime motivator to continue since I washed up at Cafe Hikousen in Shishikui on Day 4, wondering what on earth I was doing walking around an island during rainy season. Standing on those same stones from just a season ago, I will finally be able to see what this island has made of me.
Well, if I’m to make it, then I should get going.
8:54. I’ve just changed my mind.
After passing Kou Station, where I finished yesterday, I go up to the train conductor and pay the additional fare to Kawata Station. My original ticket was to Kamojima Station, the closest one to Kirihata-ji, but still a 10km walk across the Awa Plain. The plan was to walk there and back, then pick up my things from my WWOOFing hosts close to Kawata.
After that…not sure. This uncertainty of where to stay tonight preys on me. There are so many logistics in the air: how to carry my extra baggage, where to stay, when I should activate my JR Pass so that I can travel the rest of the country.
I look out the window at the familiar fields and houses. It strikes me that I’ve walked most of this train route. There’s nothing to shield from the sun here. The houses are low, the streets wide, and the chequered green fields drooping with green and yellow-headed rice stalks. It was already stuffy at 7am, when I left the ryokan. It will be an oven when I get off the train.
My bag has its own seat across from me. The lining is super thin, but has somehow survived unscathed. The henro guide book in my hand is bent and wrinkled. The book cover survived all of Kochi’s downpours only to be soaked by my sweating bottle. I’ve gone to every one of those pages. My original staff has another for company now, one that I picked up at the trailhead of Yokomine-ji. They fit snuggly in my grip together. Edvaldo’s oversized sedge-hat is still in perfect condition.
I look at my knees. My left one looks so more caved in. When did that happen? Was it always a like this? My skin is now tri-coloured chocolate, golden, and pale white.
To be honest, my decision sits uncomfortably. If I go to Kawata, I’ve given up on Kirihata-ji. When I travel, I’m happy to leave things undone in places I love. Why is this is one bothering me so much?
Maybe it’s because I don’t know why I want to go, and without going, I’ll never find out. Is it just stubbornness or is there something more? My heart doesn’t stand up to the interrogation of Logic. It can’t articulate why it feels important. So, Logic lists the extra money for the train tickets, the potentially insane price of a taxi if I really don’t want to walk, the long waiting time in rural areas, and the impossibility of hauling the two boxes I’m going to pick up along.
Logic asks, How much do you want to pay for peace of mind?
My heart whimpers. Logic scoffs.
Maybe I should have just given my hosts a mailing address in Tokyo when they offered so I don’t have to go now. Maybe I should have gone to Temple 10 when I passed by Temple 9. If only. I’m taken aback by how strongly these feelings come.
Next time. Next time, I will do this trip properly. Heart and Logic shake on an uneasy truce.
‘Is Masako-san here?’ I ask a group of people sorting potatoes under a barbeque tent.
They eye me for a second, then the tall guy points at the entrance. ‘I think she’s inside.’
When I go in, Masako exclaims,’A-chan!’ As though I’ve risen from my grave. We never exactly worked out the details of my arrival. I sent her message updates as I got closer. I only told her a day ago that I’d be coming by today to get my things and she’s been too busy to reply.
‘Tadaima.’ I say sheepishly, the customary ‘I’m back’. Does this count?
‘Okaeri.’ Her reflexive ‘Welcome back’ is warm.
I came to the house through the rice fields that I used to cycle past with Shou-san, another WWOOFer, when we were working the scattered plots. Back then, they were uniform green bunches, and now the grain panicles are turning yellow. All this seemed to spread out before. Now, it’s just a 30-minute walk.
My two small boxes are in the corner by the entrance. I’ve already forgotten their contents. Masako pours me a glass of cold mugicha, saying I should rest. Yuji-san comes in, much more healthy than last time, and says, ‘You finished it!’
I did. Actually, I haven’t burned my daily energy quota yet, so after finishing two glasses, I head out to help the others sort the produce.
Right now, Ono Farms has another A-chan, Valentin, Yanie, and Nim. The three adjacent rooms separated by the sliding wooden panels are taken up. Yanie and Nim are university students from Hong Kong taking an unorthodox travel approach. Valentin has been studying in Japan and visiting Ono Farms for his last time before he returns to Europe. A-chan does WWOOFing on her holidays to learn more about food since she is a cook in Osaka.
Yanie and Nim take up cooking duties, wondering in Cantonese how they’ve been entrusted to this when they never cook at home. But lunch is a simple squash curry, and the freshly harvested ingredients shine through. This was the celebratory meal I was looking for last night.
After lunch, A-chan helps with preparations for tonight’s barbeque gathering that the local government is hosting. She and Masako-san discuss logistics on food and driving up.
Masako-san turns to me. ‘A-chan, will you stay tonight? Would you like to come too?’
Actually, can I stay two nights and leave with Yanie and Nim? I want to stay in this little safe harbour a little while longer.
‘Of course’, she says.
With the evening sorted, everyone has the afternoon off, so we retreat to our rooms. On the farms in summer, it is best to work early in the morning and nap between noon and 2pm, the hottest hours, and work into the late evening.
‘What time are we leaving tonight?’ I ask Yanie and Nim. I heard both four-thirty and five at one point.
They don’t know.
‘But they were discussing it over lunch!’
‘Yes, in Japanese! No-one tells us anything!’ They fire back good-naturedly.
Oh, that’s true! Masako-san and A-chan were so caught up in the discussion they forgot that humans haven’t evolved to linguistic telepathy yet.
Never-mind. I confirm with A-chan and realise I have enough time to nap and cycle to Temple 10 after the sun begins to wane. I set my alarm for 2:30pm.
‘Please tell Masako-san I’ll be back by 4:55 latest!’ I tell the Hong Kong girls.
They laugh. ‘That’s so specific!’
It’s 2:45pm, and I’m slathering sunscreen on, rushing out the door after slathering, and grabbing my temple supplies. This was exactly how I started a month and a half ago. Some things change, and some just don’t.
Borrowing the same bike, I zip off through village roads. Kirihata-ji is 12 kilometres away, just under an hour if I keep a decent speed. I charge through the empty streets, fanned by the wind I’m creating for myself. This is much better than my first time.
I arrive just before 3:45pm and climb the same steep slope, walk up the same steep flight of stone stairs through the forest.
I wish I had a bit more time to just sit and enjoy the late afternoon, when the sun is behind the trees but still making the cobblestones glow.
I feel the cool stones on my knees. This is the first time I’ve knelt at a temple, head bowed, hands together.
Whatever is out there, whether chance, fate, or divine will, thank you for the safe passage, Thank you for bringing me back. Thank you for providing a solution my Logic had entirely missed. Thank you for leading me back to a home and warm company.
The temple’s still the same, but I can read meaning in the details now. Where it once seemed remote and solitary, it now seems tranquil and centred. I wish I could stay longer, but I need to get the nokyocho, my last act as an aruki henro. For the first time in forty days, rather than moving on, I am returning home.
I arrive back at 4:45. It’s cutting it close. As they say, Carpe diem. Seize the day – and throttle it by the neck.
I present Masako the nokyocho. Ono Farm launched me on my pilgrimage and unconditionally helped me finish. This is the least I can do.
Anyhow, the others are loading the food into the car. I’m glad to join them, returning to a normal life with company, chatter, and laughter. After, Valentin and I cycle up the hill towards the onsen while the others hop in the car.
The handful of people at the site are already prepared to feed a village. Everyone is pitching in to make the last preparations, cutting, skewering, lighting the fire, chilling the drinks and fruits, lighting mosquito incense. Voices clamber over each other with questions and instructions. The chaos and confusion is rural Japan’s warm embrace. A knife is picked up, a cutting demonstration, a point at the produce, fingers for amounts, nods, smiles. It’ll work out.
I watch dusk descend on the Awa Plain, the flat expanse sprinkled with street lights, the patchwork fields worked for centuries, protected by two walls of mountains, and split by the Yoshino River.
I look back at the group that’s doubled in size and trebled in volume. Here I am, in a place half forgotten by the rest of Japan, with the largest BBQ spread I’ve seen. One lady points at the plate of wrapped yams with instructions. There’s a team on the grill. The drinks are passed around.
‘A-chan, the food is ready! Let’s eat!’
A woman points at an open spot. Someone shifts over. I sit down beside Yanie and Nim. The Ono Farm group take up one end of the table. The host gets up to say a few words and we toast. The first batch of veggies and meat is passed down the long table.
Itadakimasu! We dig in with big bites, loud yelps, and covered mouths. It’s hot!
For an event I once did, we did a trailer asking our speakers, ‘If life was a box of chocolates, what have you gotten so far?’
Looking around, I finally recognize my box. This. All this.