Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Ishiteji Matsuyama

Shikoku Pilgrimage: A Henro’s Photo Essay

It’s been a year since I began the Shikoku Pilgrimage across the island’s 88 Buddhist Temples. On July 1, it struck me that I was in the south of Japan, in Kochi, 365 days ago. Writing out an 80,000-word daily diary, creating a list of tsuyado in English and Japanese, joining the Ohenro Facebook group, and reading other pilgrim’s blogs haven’t exorcised the Shikoku bug.

The problem is so apparent that I dragged my family on an 18-kilometre walk through the mountains in a relentless sun out to a Shinto shrine in a coastal town. That was recently in spring. My brother sums it up nicely with an illustration.

HenroLunch Dialogue Illustrated by Greg Lam

Henro Lunch Dialogue Illustrated by Greg Lam

I’ve already changed from the person who wrote the Shikoku Henro Afterword. I’ve replaced the henro sedge hat with a digital nomad and travel writing hat. The sedge one has sat in the closet since I chucked it there after moving to Tokyo. I’m in front of the screen 10+ hours a day rather than on my feet.

With the distance, however, I am better able to articulate the things I loved, and still love, about Shikoku.

Stumbled Upon Moments.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Kochi Cape Ashizuri

Cape Ashizuri, the southern tip of Shikoku

Shikoku isn’t stunning. There are taller mountains, bigger rivers, more dramatic hills. Yet, you still come across moments like this. Epic. Seared into your memory because you walked those hundreds of kilometres to get there.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Kochi

Clouds after the rain in Kochi City

I walked during tsuyu, rainy season, and high summer. It made for strenuous walking, but I wouldn’t give it up to see the cloud theatrics.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Kochi

The flooded stairs up to Chikurin-ji.

Most of the mountain paths I walked were flooded or extremely muddy. Usually it’s not like this, but on the other hand, it makes the trip pretty unique, even for a henro.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Kochi Ya Sea Park Sunset Beach

Ya Sea Park Sunset

One of the major benefits of doing nojuku, camping, is the chance to see the sunset. Hikers, trekkers, and campers can relate to this.

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Watching sunset after setting up camp for the night.

On this evening, I stood alongside another local woman who kept getting out of her car to take more photo of the amazing purple sunset.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

View of the sea en route to Temple 65.

Even though this was a pretty lousy day, a flapping tarp with a view like this just take your breath away.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

Lanterns in a cave at Iwaya-ji

Those supernatural anime moments. This photo always reminds me of the walking kami (spirits) that are half visible and holding lanterns on a festival day. Shikoku has the comforts of a developed country and the tranquility of bygone days where Asia wasn’t so crowded.

Ohenro Brocade Osamefuda

Brocade Osamefuda used by henro whom have done the pilgrimage 100+ times.

I received not one, but two brocade osamefuda. I’ve heard people dig in boxes for even the silver and gold ones. The abundance felt like a guilty weight…until I met Edvaldo on the day he broke his nose. Even though I was a stranger at the time, he offered to treat me to a capsule to get a good sleep and his sedge hat (when mine had just broken the day before). I wasn’t sure he knew what it was until I handed it to him.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Sunset over Goshikidai in Kagawa

Skyporn ontop of a plateau between Temple #81-82

It turns out there was a new henro hut literally 15 minutes walk away. But then we wouldn’t have seen this sunset.

 

Morning Quiet.

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Clear incense urns in the early morning.

Doing nojuku often meant waking up early. Waking up early meant arriving at temples first. I began studying how each temple cleaned its incense urns. They’re usually perfectly smooth, without a grain left out of place. Even if not, they have a soothing feeling.

Temples in bigger cities often aren’t like this.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

5am dawn on my last day.

Those moments when the eye of heaven has yet to fully open, when the birds are singing, and the grass still kissed with morning dew.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Takamatsu Sunrise

Empty streets at sunrise in Takamatsu.

Often, one is walking into the day.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Kochi

Morning mist in Kochi Prefecture.

The morning mist is something only a 5am waking henro (and a farmer) sees. The rounded hills become picturesque because they are soothing.

At the end of a long walk, whatever the view is, it is beautiful because you earned it

The solitude.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

Last checkpoint before Shosanji, Temple #12

The people.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

My walking companions through Kagawa Prefecture, the Dojo of Nirvana.

The expression, ‘If you want to go far, go together’ is true. I’d never have walked as far as I did daily without my companions Kouhei and Aurelie.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Imabari Airbnb host

My amazing hosts at Imabari.

I’d only booked 3 days at this place, with a gap in between. In the end, I stayed a good few days because I arrived the day before a typhoon. Tsuneto and Akiko have walked the henro recently, when they’re above 70. It is an incredible feat. Even more incredible is their unwavering generosity.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro temple nokyocho

Temple #55’s friendly attendant.

The small encounters with the temple attendants were the most staple form of human interaction I had. Many of them offered wishes, charms, snacks, and this one offered me the second brocade osamefuda.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Ehime

Nakamura-san, my walking companion before a typhoon.

It’s strange. The one man I ended up stopping for to walk with (because he was winded going uphill) invests in social businesses. With my limited Japanese, I never imagined being able to converse with someone about the tripple bottom line of monetary, social, and environmental value. On Shikoku, it felt like everything that mattered in my life was shown to me.

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The happy things pilgrims leave behind.

Pilgrims leave things everywhere, and you can tell it is often intentionally. There are heaps of walking sticks left in front of offices, little incense things, snacks, cups, and here: happy little figures to remind you to smile at the end of a long day.

The places I stayed at.

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A new henro hut outside Temple 82.

I didn’t actually stay here. I wish I did, but next time!

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Sleeping spot on top of a stall at a roadside station!

Some people say they always sleep better in their own bed. By necessity, I wasn’t one of them. However, the experience of nojuku gave significance to the places that one chooses to rest in. There are so many factors, such as safety, comfort, and convenience.

Ultimately, what I learned and found most empowering was that we can sleep anywhere. Sleeping is just about lying down. We’re exposed. But we can sleep if we just let go. It makes one incredibly vulnerable, but it makes one doubly appreciative of our homes when we return to them.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

Welcome to a stranger’s home at Iyo Miyoshi.

A new Couchsurfing friend was so concerned about me doing nojuku that she and her friend arranged for me to stay at her friend’s mom’s place. Any place would have been fine, but this house ended up being an incredible walking museum.

Raw and Unadorned.

Dogo Onsen

Dogo Onsen, inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away

Dogo Onsen, for all its fame, is still just a bathhouse that gives you the ¥300 entrance. The inside tubs are austere stone. It’s nothing like the luxurious resorts of contemporary times. That’s just as well. It’s truly experiencing a part of history.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Matsuyama

A temple in what seems like a jungle.

The temples in Shikoku all had character. Their characters were shaped by their environments, humble. Yet, they were so full of life, so free of pretense.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

The 500 Arhats of Unpenji.

Rain or shine. In my case, often rain, one walked. These statues don’t see too many people, but they’re so lifelike and escentric.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Kochi

The view when I missed my train and waited 4 hours in the rain.

Very wet, very tired, and missing the train due to my own misreading of the times. Plenty of time to nap, study the landscape, and the melody of the rain.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Ishiteji Matsuyama

Ishite-ji’s huge lanterns.

The temples are not like those of Kyoto. The wooden beams and boards sit unadorned. If lucky, perhaps the frescos are painted. The ceilings are often bare rafters. Ishite-ji claims some of the oldest structures on Shikoku, and still, it carries its age with grace.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Ehime Forest

Gorgeous streams in mountain paths.

Nature.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

Flooded waterfall after a typhoon.

Mountain water is best for brewing tea and coffee. One such motorcyclist came up to bring water on her way to work at her cafe.

Their ordinary is my extraordinary.

Japan Tokushima Cafe Hikousen

Cafe Hikousen’s regulars

One of my most memorable and warm encounters came early on. This was barely 7am during a torrential downpour, and the fishermen had come back in after their dawn hauls. I got to try the local kai, in addition to their breakfast. Cafe Hikousen is the community hub of Shishikui, and I ended up getting a place to stay with locals thanks to hanging out here.

Ginko Tree in Tokushima Japan

Ginko Tree

The ordinary, beautiful moments.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

Free udon outside Temple #82.

An udon shop that has fed henro udon for decades. The brown osamefuda show their age.

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Unexpected pasta meal thanks to my AirBnB host near Kubokawa.

To this day, I think the greatest gift in life is to be invited to someone’s home and asked to share a meal with them.

Simple food.

Ono Farms Tokushima Japan

An abundance of sumomo fruit from the garden tree.

On Shikoku, I got used to being loaded with sumomo, buntanmikan, and various other fruits and produce. Here, living close to nature and harvesting its abundance seasonally is taken for granted. How shocked I was when I returned to Tokyo to see the prices of fruits, which seem so removed from their home soil.

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A massive bowl of delicious Sanuki udon, merely ¥300!

In a small town, at Temple #80, there is a shop that’s so plain you’d miss it. The udon inside is also plain …goodness. I only buy Sanuki udon now and make it at home myself.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

Light summer soup.

So much of Shikoku is still in me. I recreated this light seafood soup by buying sudachi, a sweet lime, from Tokushima recently.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro

Akiko’s 365-day breakfast special.

This was just one part of Akiko’s breakfast for her AirBnB listing. It was a gigantic feast one really did have to spend a day walking off!

Kamaage Udon Ehime Kumakogen

The best Kama-age udon at Kuma Kogen.

A secret soup in an urn, and unlimited refills of condiments to taste.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Tairuyji Henro Quote

My favourite motto throughout the pilgrimage. Your faith in yourself will become your self confidence.

I will always remember this sign that I saw while coming down Tairyuu-ji near the beginning of my pilgrimage.

自分を信じ、自信に成る.

These words of encouragement, at one point wrapped there by a compassionate henro who had the capacity to think of our trials in addition to their own. These invisible acts of kindness brand invisible imprints into the heart.

Buddhist Candle

The candles at temples.

So long as one candle keeps burning in these temples…

And so, these temples will wait, no matter the weather, to greet the next pilgrim.

Shikoku Pilgrimage Henro Staff

My companion staff and bell when I began.

I didn’t think I’d like my bought staff at first. I regretted buying it. By the end of the journey, it was my best, sweat-coated friend.

I still have it. And in addition, my keychain is a charm from Temple #82 that Kouhei gave me. The jiggle of Kobo Daishi’s bell still follows me wherever I go.

If Shikoku intrigued you, please check out my Henro Afterword, my daily diary of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, then my Henro Forward. Why backwards? I’m not sure, but I feel it’s more readable that way.

Japan Shikoku Pilgrimage / Ohenro
Koyasan Koyo Fall Leaves Maples

Henro Afterward: Mount Koya Oct. 15

Bamboo Grove Choishimichi Koyasan

Bamboo grove beginning to the Choishimichi to Koyasan

There is an old saying that upon entering the sea of Buddhist truth, even the smallest fish is instantly transformed into a great dragon. Monastic disciples upon entering the Dragon Gate at Eiheiji, one of the two Soto Zen headquarters in Japan, are transformed into dragons, and when he finishes training and re-enters the world, he goes back to being a fish.

Kaoru Nonomura (Eat Sleep Sit p. 27)

It’s October 15, and I’ve left the swimming world of fish for a day to wrap up my Shikoku pilgrimage at Koya-san (Mount Koya), the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s been over two months since I finished the Shikoku pilgrimage (or Ohenr0) and fell back into ‘life’, but I do feel the change. Perhaps I’m a small dragon, like the one in Disney’s Mulan.

I wake to the same pitch black night I went to sleep in a few hours ago. It’s 5:00am and I need to catch the first train to Kudoyama, where the path to Koya-san begins from Jison-in. This 22km pilgrimage path is the historical route that Kukai, the founder of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism, routinely walked to visit his mother at Jison-in since Koya-san at the time was closed to women.

Having finished my kechigan, visiting all the 88 temples, the last thing to do is to thank the founder to give thanks for a safe passage. I had put it off in August, thinking I didn’t have enough time to enjoy the place. Ironically, I have even less time now. I’d taken an overnight bus from Tokyo to Osaka and arrived yesterday at 7am, but too late to start my hike up. Today, I need to finish the hike and then head back in another overnight bus to Tokyo, and then catch a flight out to Hong Kong. The entire arrangement seems unceremonious, and yet is entirely in line with my character. If I don’t do it now, I will not be able to do so again until next year’s Spring.

Sunrise over Tokyo

Early birds get to see sunrise

I have breakfast in the downstairs area of my Airbnb house, a pristinely kept building converted into a private coffee house downstairs. My host left me a massive breakfast of bread, tea, fruits, yogurt, and even onigiri. Such breakfast spreads always lull me into a leisurely pace as I put a bit of everything on my plate and fetch a drink too. By the time I sit down, I have only a few minutes left to inhale the food. I fail to finish. Not wanting to hurt my hosts’ feelings by having some dishes untouched, put some of the fruits in a bag as a snack. I rush upstairs to get my things and out the door to catch the train. Missing this one means losing an hour’s worth of walking time (and my precious sleep earlier!).

Unlike my mornings on Shikoku, the air is refreshingly cool.

The station is only a few minutes away, and I end up having a few minutes to spare on the platform. I watch the navy sky melt into warmer colours above the flat-topped houses. Other people in shirts and dark suits were fanning out across the platform in a sleepy daze. This quiet urban scene is such a contrast to the rural towns and highways I woke up to, drenched in sweat, two months ago.

The local train arrives and weaves its way into the hillsides of the next prefecture, Wakayama, where Koya-san is located. I try to nap to make up for my tossing and turning last night. Despite the poor sleep, I need to make the most of daylight, which means setting off at dawn. I’m taken aback by how this was taken for granted, given that city life and city lights means liberation from the limitations of daylight. Could Shikoku really have been two months ago? And was the entire experience really only 40 days? How could something so distant, so specific, be so easy to pick up again? How had those days worked so deeply into my bones, muscles, and entire thought process?

Kudoyama Hiking Route Koyasan Map

Map of Kudoyama’s hiking routes, including the one to Koya-san

When I get off at Kudoyama Station, I fall into another habit I used to have: taking my time to do things like snack and use the toilet before beginning my walk. It’s about a 30-40 minute walk from the train station to Jison-in where the trail begins. The station has a map of the town and I follow the main roads which have morning traffic and many Buddhist temples sprinkled all around.

There are no other henro (pilgrims). Even though I’m accustomed to walking alone in Shikoku, I’d always imagined that Koya-san would be busy as a destination for henro, monks, Buddhists, hikers, and even tourists.

At Jison-in, I take my time looking at the grounds, which includes both an old main gate, and a modern side entrance and fountain area. In between, are the small main halls. I had expected something a bit more lavish,  and this is a charmingly modest place for a temple that once housed Kukai’s mother. The most noticeable items are the streams of what could be mistaken for manju, steamed buns, in the Main Hall. They are breasts, and women often pray here for safe delivery and childbirth.

Jison-in to Koya-san

Jison-in en route to Koya-san

The Koyasan Choshimichi begins from here, up the steep flight of stairs past the Shinto temple. The little henro stickers appear again to guide the way down a small path on the side and through the bamboo groves. Soon, I reach one of the first stone pillars that mark the distances in the route. Of the original 220 stone markers representing every 109 metres, 180 remain. They will be my guides throughout this 22 km trek.

Entrance to Koya-san Choishimichi

Sign at the top of the shrine to the Choishimichi

The route passes persimmon orchards on the hills and steadily climbs upwards without much shade from the sun, but plenty of temptingly ripe orange fruit in the Fall. At the top of the orchard hill, there are baskets of persimmons asking a mere 100 Yen for 4. If I had the appetite, I’d have paid and eaten them on the spot, but this morning’s formidable breakfast is still sitting firmly in my stomach.

Koyasan Choishimichi Map

Map and history for Koyasan’s Choishimichi

This is the last point for me to look back down at the sea, the hills, and the cityscape paved over all the flat patches in between. From here, I will follow the path into the forests. Koya-san safely secluded several ridges away from urbanity.

Hiking to Koyasan

View above the persimmon orchards before entering the mountains

For the most part, I focus on keeping my pace. The well-kept dirt path is easy on the feet, and I don’t feel the need to stop much.

The trees haven’t begun to change colour yet, but there are fewer mosquito in the cooler mountain air. It’s little things like this that I notice. Like Shosan-ji, this route is much more comfortable than I’d anticipated. I’d approached it by considering what I could encounter, such as mud, overgrown paths, and mosquitos. I now understand why henro walk in Fall and Spring – it’s actually pleasant.

My pace is slower than two months ago, when I was well practiced from daily walking. I notice the wide path, the small statues and offerings. I should have time today, so I make a point of observing the tall canopies, the young trees in contrast to the old ones, and the way the sun beams trickle in.

Choishimichi to Koyasan

One of the Choishi that mark each 109 metres to Koyasan

Koya-san is behind several ridges, and therefore compares to the more difficult temples, Shosan-ji (#12) , Unpenji (#66), and Okubo-ji (#88), but the ascent is gradual and without as many sharp turns. It feels like a long, long walk in the quiet woods.

I pause at a pair of stone markers, an old weathered one several feet above the new one beside the path. This path, though old, is also new. Paths stay naturally clear with heavy traffic. Modern pilgrims and day-hikers keep the weeds from growing. Due to the route’s popularity, it is certainly maintained at least a few times a year by an organisation or two. In contrast, I wonder how clear the path for the older, worn-down, marker is. Still earlier, the markers were made of wood and were regularly washed away. What Kukai and his fellow monks for centuries did was no less than bushwhacking year after year, with a single paper lantern and straw sandals that would probably need replacement once they got down the mountain.

Hike to Koyasan

The wide natural hiking route is unlike the paths on the Shikoku pilgrimage

What was it like then, really, to be walking through these woods? Even in our contemporary era, with smartphones, data plans, and Google Maps, we experience the human feeling of anxiety at the unknown and, increasingly, fear of nature that we’re out of touch with. The people that came before us, without stone markers – how did they approach this route? How did they read these trees? How did they gain confidence and reassure themselves? What concrete knowledge did they have that we have now lost in our excess of abstract knowledge and poverty of experiences?

Around lunch time, I descend onto the only roadside restaurant and dig into my packed snacks, the single apple and onigiri. Eating is important for both sustenance and offloading weight. Nothing more, nothing less. Gratitude makes everything tastes good. The bare henro life also renders taste irrelevant. This indifference sounds like a loss in a day and age where food options are abundant to the fortunate. In fact, I have found this detachment from taste liberating.

Hiking route to Koyasan

Occasional views along the hiking route

Another cycling henro stops outside the restaurant, a small log outpost building. An avid cyclist myself, I ask him where he came from and how long he took to get here. He’d taken the ferry to Wakayama and had been riding for a few hours. He remarks that he’s taking it easy, since he’s walked the route I’m taking now.

I feel a special connection with this man already. As a fellow pilgrim, he has shared the same path, no matter what his motivations. The cycling henro invites me to join him for a refreshment and treats me to an o-settai tea and sweet. I gratefully accept. I enjoy these momentary connections with fellows from my community, reminding me that there is a larger river that we are all a part of. I also know I really need food even though I don’t have much of an appetite.

After we finish, I take my leave and he sits on a bench chatting to another walking henro that I’d seen on the way up.

Shikoku Henro Osettai Matcha

Afternoon matcha and sweets O-settai (a treat) from a cycling henro

It’s the last part, the last bit, I keep telling myself. I’m almost there. That knowledge pushes me onwards, above the echoing conversations of socialising henro. This section winds its way through ravines along the streams and I make sure to keep at least one bend ahead of the the three chatty uncles. Their voices bellow through the silence, reflecting lack of consideration and desecrates the stillness in the trees. I’m also mindful that I have not yet achieved the serenity to withhold judgement, to remain aloof from disagreeable things.

The last part is a steady zig zag up a steep slope. I continue my march. I should be there soon. I can hear the cars above me.

I take a final right, following another henro who has disappeared up a ledge.

Mountain Path to Koyasan

Sunlight filtering through the trees in the morning

There it is, the massive red entrance gate.

The cars continue to whiz by, barely slowing down at the structure. I join a monk while we wait for the pedestrian signal to change. We exchange smiles and nods. I lean on my staff and continue to stare. I’m a lay-henro, and the physical demands of walking have pared down my sense of propriety down to bare necessity. I feel no shame in expressing my fatigue, or wiping the dripping sweat from my forehead with my forearm. Thank goodness I’m here because my feet are starting to ache.

Mount Koya Daimon Gate

Daimon (The Big Gate) that marks the entrance to Koyasan town

It’s just past 2pm, so I’m happy with my time. It lulls me into complacency as I buy myself a manju snack at the first shop I see. I don’t know if there will be shops ahead, what time they open and close, or what they will serve. I didn’t do any research on Koya-san and so I only know that it is the largest Buddhist temple collection in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I walk down the carefully preserved historical main street with restaurants and souvenir shops.  There are some discrete tofu shops and grocery stores, pedalling the famous dry-frozen Koya-san tofu. I pick up some for foodie friends as souvenirs.

Manju Buns at Mount Koya

Manju (steamed buns with red bean paste)

I meander through some of the main temples. The complexes have large main halls and multiple buildings that have fresh lacquer and many golden statues. They are impressive. The structures are impassive to the crowds churning between them, squeezing inside, and being excreted back out the cavernous halls again a few minutes later. It is the monks that anxiously watch their stations and direct the tourists. I take it all in. I am no longer dismayed as I once was at Nara’s Todai-ji, Tokyo’s Senso-ji, Matsuyama’s Ishite-ji, and Kagawa’s Zentsu0-ji. I cannot begrudge visitors for their curiosity, ignorance, purposeful prayers, or anything else. The frenetic activity from temple to temple has a suspended feeling of virtual reality, as though the town is holding its breath, waiting for sunset when the temples close and the crowds depart.

I continue meandering around, curiously watching. Having walked all the way here, I just want to see what the place is like. Shikoku taught me that walking to a place always makes a place worthwhile, exactly for what it is, nothing more or less. Disappointment is something we carry on ourselves.

Mount Koya Koyo Fall Leaves Maples

Koyasan is a popular destination for Koyo (changing colours of leaves)

For my part, one moment in particular catches my eye. The maples leading up to an avenue of cedars are turning red. This is Koya-san, during Koyo (the season of red leaves).

Finally, I stop at a Family Mart and chat with my mom on Whatsapp. I feel like I have time to take a break, take off my shoes and let my feet breathe a bit. But before I know it, I’m rushing off again. I realise that Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum will probably close soon at 5pm, and it is deep inside a cemetery almost three kilometres away.

Totoro Plushie at Mount Koya Souvenir

Totoro pilgrim is one of the Studio Ghibli plushies at Koyasan

I end up speed walking the rest of the way through the town. At the entrance to the mausoleum is a small bridge, where pilgrims should cleanse themselves, and bow before entering. There is a one-kilometre hall of regal cedar forest covered in lavish, moss-covered graves nestled between the ancient roots. These are the dignitaries that have striven to be as close to Kobo Daishi as possible.

The air here is thick – perhaps with meaning, purpose, the dead, their souls, or just the moist evening chill. The high canopy makes for a dark, reclusive feeling. It is a place to sit for a day and work towards a layperson’s epiphany induced by a high on the fresh mountain air filtering out 700-year old evergreens. Already, the lanterns on along the main route are beginning to light up.

Mount Koya Kobo Daishi Mausoleum Cemetary

Outer cemetery surrounding Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum

I regret not coming earlier. As usual, I am nearly running through the stone path, focused only on the next few feet in front of me, alert so as not to roll on my ankle. I am shaving precious minutes.

Finally, I arrive. At the end of the cemetery, is Kobo Daishi’s hall, where he is in eternal meditation. The dimly lit, gold-leafed interior feels warm and empty at the same time. It has lavish red carpets, a deep altar, visible more in its size than its contents. The hall is so wide, it fits three large boxes for visitors to toss their coins. The atmosphere is solemn and reverent. Yet, it feels as though Kobo Daishi, the man, were no longer here. The centre feels empty. At the same time, it feels large, full, suspended in breath.

I bow and drop my osamefuda (nameslip) and coins into the box.

Oftentimes, we are misguided to believe that doing something will bring us peace. We  grow obsessed with accomplishing something, mistaking our fervent behaviour as genuine progress towards something better. We load expectation into the result. We are often wrong. Yet, sometimes, we are wrong the other way. Sometimes, we underestimate how much an act would mean. This is one of those experiences for me.

This was the closure I needed, the closing of the loop. It didn’t matter that the town outside is packed with tourists, that an aruki-henro (walking pilgrim) is a rare creature in the commerce of cultural tourism. In this moment, at this closing of the day, the Golden Hour, I feel it was worth it. It was right to come here.

Mount Koya Kobo Daishi Mausoleum

Kobo Daishi Mausoleum cedar forest and cemetery

I stand back on the stone steps leading back down the way I came. I feel like I’ve crossed a threshold, and left behind a part of myself from only minutes ago. It feels like this space is suspended in time, where the living trees are holding their breath. This stillness evokes the torrent of time gushing as images of congested streets and crowded train stations in distant cities. Time doesn’t exist here for the moss that slowly encases the oldest tomb mounds in the far corner, at least not in the same way as it does for us urbanites.

I can see the real world beyond, at the bridge about two hundred metres away. At that spot, there is the temple shop beyond selling charms and a collection of bodhisattva statues. For some reason, the tourists seem more interested in the statues. Perhaps it is also because, on that side, people can still speak and tour guides answer questions with shrill eagerness. On the mausoleum side, silence is observed.

I walk slowly back out and stand on the bridge. Once I cross, I will leave this suspended realm behind. I will step back into the mortal realm, into night, into humanity. I will become a fish again. This moment feels both significant and ordinary, made complete by the two paradoxical halves.

But for now, in this instant, I feel at peace, as though some part of me has joined this eternal, deep slumber.

I wander back out via a shortcut and take the bus that winds down to the tram. I purchase my one-way ticket, which then gets us to the trains. It’s a busy train. There’s nowhere for me to sit, so I stand for the full 45-minutes back into Osaka, staring out at the darkness of rural Japan. My feet are aching, but the pain means little now that I am done.

Once in Osaka, I treat myself to okonomiyaki (a pancake with various toppings) at a random place I find that’s well reviewed close by. I don’t feel the need to celebrate because it somehow feels like just another day, but I force myself to do something a bit different. I should do something that I remember Osaka as more than just a transit point. Then, I roam around, waiting for the overnight bus to take me back to Tokyo.

Okonomiyaki at Namba Osaka

Okonomiyaki at Namba Osaka

I feel tired, moreso mentally than physically. I climbed Mount Koya on Oct. 15. I should remember that. I won’t remember the date so well. But I will remember the trees – the cedars under which the lords and the powerful carve out a space. I replay the day, which again feels distant already now that I am in the thick of Osaka’s neon signs, billboards, and dinner crowds.

The loose ends are finally tied. Yet, I can’t put Shikoku away quite yet. I know that there are a lot of things I have not quite worked out – many mysterious experiences. What is the impact of Shikoku and Koya-san? What have I become?

I ponder this from the overnight bus to Tokyo right through until am at Haneda airport for another overnight wait (for a 5am flight).

It’s over. No ceremonious beginning, no end, no celebration. Not even relief. But, it is the end – an end. I can move on. I will move on. A fish back in the sea of life needs to keep swimming.

Yet, I already know I will return. I don’t know why. Perhaps I will find out when I begin again.

Shikoku Pilgrimage / Ohenro Walks and Hikes

Henro Afterword

If you’ve gotten this far, I thank you for reading my posts, whether one or all. Since I limited myself to 2000 words for most posts, there are many thoughts left unsaid, significances left unelaborated. I will address some of them below. 

I am writing this in the land of pilgrimages. Every year in India, some 100 million people make a pilgrimage, whether Hindu, Jain, Muslim, or even Christian. Every year, for 40 days, an estimated 50 million men (women menstruating between the ages of 12-50 are unclean and cannot participate) take off their shoes to trek through the Periyar Tiger Reserve (i.e. jungle) to Sabarimala, the place where the Hindu god Ayyappan meditated after killing the demoness Mahishi. The banks of the Ganges at Varanasi cleanse an estimated 3 million domestic pilgrims alone. These are just two of India’s countless Hindu holy places.

In these trips, people who painstakingly saved a thousand rupees (~17 USD) will bump along on a lurching bus, or hard seat coach train for days to get to their destination. Families normally behind gated walls may march with commoners in their bare feet. This is India, the surmountable subcontinent when it comes to faith and spirituality.

As I sit in a modern cafe staring out onto the dusty streets with sandstone buildings, the thought occurs that this devotion makes light of the Shikoku Pilgrimage’s 1200 km circuit, which is mostly over paved road, dotted with toilets at convenience stores and reliable trains. Typhoons in summer, yes, but no tigers or poisonous snakes.

It’s been almost half a year since I finished Shikoku’s 88 temples. I’ve never stopped thinking about them. Here in India, the vivid memories stitched into the larger fabric of experience are finally beginning to blend in. I think it’s called digesting, and I’ve tried to lay them out below.

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Nokyocho and the coveted brocade osamefuda I received at Temple 70.

After Shikoku.

I have an endless stream of things to say or nothing at all. I feel like I’ve changed a lot, or very little. I think of Shikoku nostalgically, as one of my happiest times, even though it’s also caused many things that normally would seem upsetting. The summary point is – I’d like to do it again. I am starting with that since many of the thoughts below seem negative, but are just realities that I’ve just absorbed along the way.

Even though Shikoku is largely a mental journey, its strongest memories are physical.

I have a phantom ache in my left shoulder, which usually flares when I am tense or upset. It is the result of continuing with an imbalanced backpack that had no padding, was too large, and had no back support. However, I’d chosen to walk with it early on when the problem arose. I still love it for its convenience, and the ache serves as a quirky reminder.

My sprained left ankle has shaken my confidence walking. It happened just before Temple 36 and I continued untreated. I kept walking despite its softball-sized swell because there was no bruising and I didn’t want the doctors telling me to stop. The price I am still paying is that it makes me wary of all uneven surfaces and keeps my head down on the road. It’s made me realise how frail I am, but it has also made me intensely grateful. This bittersweet gratitude makes me determined to properly recuperate so that I continue doing the things I want to do, not taking my mobility for granted.

Also, I sleep less, and tend to wake up early despite sleeping late. In Shikoku, I usually got up around 5:30 or latest 6am to make the most of the cooler morning hours, even if I slept badly when doing nojuku. My body has become accustomed to light and broken sleep, even if it makes me groggy in the morning.

Sweat was my most constant companion, day and night, on Shikoku. The oily shine on my once sanded-staff is a testament to how often I wiped my brow. I was walking through tsuyu, rainy season, and high summer; most locals and veteran henro have said winter was the better alternative. If I did nojuku, camped out, it meant I didn’t shower. With a shaved head, I often managed to use a sink or a random faucet to cool off and wipe my arms and legs. The stickiness inevitably returned. Paying for an onsen because of the bath it offered became one of the greatest luxuries I afforded myself at every opportunity. Even now, every shower and bath feels like my first. Staying clean after for more than an hour is a miracle.

I take these physical changes as the price paid for an experience, a price I was willing to pay at the time, and a price I still believe is worthwhile. If anything, it’s working past the pain that gives an even greater sense of accomplishment.

Some memories are so alive, they are the present.

My perception has been honed for specific survival skills, while my response to many other things has completely atrophied.

All surfaces are potential sleeping spots: a parking lot, a washroom, a nook in the rock, cradling roots in old-growth forests, ramparts, under a table, are all good since that’s how I sometimes did nojuku. A floor in a building is a luxury. It is both obsessive and empowering,  knowing that you can sleep anywhere, exist anywhere.

I also reflexively notice power outlets. While I often got by without my phone, it was still a handy tool when charged in Shikoku. Since I was usually walking, I maximised my lunches by charging from plugs in odd corners of shops and restaurants. The awareness of resources in spaces lingers.

I also notice how much stuff places have. Instead of blending into the background of a cozy home, I immediately wonder as to their use, and if finding none, find them curious.

I have no problem waiting for hours, or taking a train for two days to get across India. After missing my train by a minute and waiting for 4 hours for the next one in the rain, I learned how to wait. Time is easily passed either walking, sleeping, or drifting. At some point, whatever needs to happen will happen.

It’s also slowed my sense of time. In a world where we can always grow more efficiently by listening to a lesson on a train commute, gains can be thin-sliced into minutes and seconds that race by. Yet, after that month of walking in slow motion, to the same 24-hours, I now feel that life is long. Before, I had a job, organised major events, help some startups and projects, did writing, read a ton of books, kept an active lifestyle, and socialised often; that would have probably kept me on the hamster wheel. Eventually, the efficient micro-minute investments would pay off. Now, I think more in terms of seasons: five years would be five chances to climb a mountain in the summer, or five opportunities to try growing a Spring vegetable.

The experiences of Shikoku were jarring for life after because even if they were uncomfortable, they felt right. Even now, they occupy an aspirational vision for me to return to.

There’s no previous version recovery.

Despite being someone who highly appreciates aesthetics, choices for material things doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I open my closet in Tokyo and am continuously, mildly, dismayed that I have about 10 shirts (for 3 seasons). I prefer a life contained in a backpack. Resisting the urge to toss everything out, I’m wearing only a handful of the same clothes until they cannot be worn before working through the rest of my wardrobe.

Despite being someone who loves good food, eating for pleasure is no longer a priority or interest. I still appreciate a quality meal (street food or fine dining), but I no longer need good food for gratification. I still cook every day and take care in the process, but I can just as easily survive on meal replacements. For hunger, any food is good.

I’ve grown more quiet, and feel no social obligation to speak. I thoroughly enjoyed being alone when walking. At first, it gave me time to think. Eventually, I even dropped the need for thought. I like the settled peace of wordlessness.

Even if asked, I have less to say about things, less of an opinion, and less of a need to be heard. Friends, this quiet inertia feels natural, even though I’m listening to you.

Similarly, I have less reaction to things. Occurrences just float by. When walking, a small mistake or oversight had large consequences. Alone, I lived with the results of my actions. An ankle sprain, an uncharged phone, or missing a train were all avoidable mistakes. The pilgrim continues on, and eventually arrives. Life moves on, and eventually, you’ll get where you want to go.

I can let go of almost anything – a good book, my cell phone, a favourite expensive camera lense. Moving around often for the past 6 years means things often get lost, but after living out of a backpack in Shikoku through rain or shine, everything is reduced to a question of weight relative to use. Everything you carry you need; everything else you can find a substitute for, make due without, or borrow. Ultimately, if we’re resourceful, we need virtually nothing except the clothes on our backs, water, food, and sleep. It’s humbling and liberating.

I make decisions quickly now. In Shikoku, the handful of choices made multiple times a day forced a decisive hand: clean up in an onsen now to feel better for a few hours and arrive after dark, or continue and arrive before sunset to have dinner? Hang around another hour here to charge my phone or hurry to the next temple, but have nothing to do after that? These decisions with direct consequences every day made bottom lines and priorities clear. The shades of grey were stripped away: you made you decision, made it work and moved on.

Finally, I have no particular faith, but I want to kneel every now and then. Shikoku is where I first felt the profound desire to kneel, to express gratitude not through words, but through stillness. In my first week, I was drowned in a downpour with nowhere to stay when the image of me returning to the Main Hall of my first temple, Kirihata-ji, and kneeling came to me. I fiercely wanted to complete the circle, return to where I’d begun, and ask, or discover, what this was all about. In the end, I made it back to realise that vision and thanked every possible being – or just pure luck – for safe passage. It is a simple act that feels mysteriously wholesome. Every now and then, I now like to sit in the Japanese style, and just feel that small, quiet place, of nothing in particular, but a light, glowing gratitude.

Things I’ve Come to Believe

I’m a believer in positionality and that ‘life truths’ are just a reflection of one’s personal experiences. I don’t want to propose that you will experience all of these things if you walk Shikoku, but based on my encounters with other pilgrims, I think at least a handful of experiences will resonate.

Gratitude. Probably the single most important word to all henro. Small things mean so much. In that moment, a cool bottle of water midday when you’ve run out is just as moving as a roof over your head.

The pilgrimage is made of accidents and coincidences. The specific ones we get shape our entire experience, and are completely non-transferable from one pilgrim to the next. Yet, it is a guarantee that if you expose yourself as a walking pilgrim, these matters of chance will shower you along the way. And, if you are thus exposed, you will experience the raw emotions that only walking pilgrims face.

Shades of gratitude. Shikoku and the pilgrimage itself create a bubble of generosity. Generosity is often so abundant it creates a nuance of reactions mingled with gratitude. How do you deal with the 5 bottles of water handed to you that you must accept, and would certainly need, just not now, when they weigh an extra 2.5 kg? How can you ever repay your host for a much needed extra day? How on earth are you going to fit the feast your host has laid out even though the futon they offered was already a blessing? These mingled feelings leads to another revelation: humility so profound it cuts into you.

Humility isn’t real until it breaks you a little. Linked to gratitude, and the almost helplessness in accepting others’ o-settai generosity, one learns deep humility. One of the most humbling experiences is accepting while knowing that you can never repay the kindness, were never expected to, and perhaps that you’re just the lucky benefactor of an impersonal kindness (giving o-settai to a pilgrim is giving to Kobo Daishi). You’re very small, yet what you do seems so hard, and rather than look down on you, the world stops to help you along.

The world doesn’t make life easier, but it conspires to help you succeed. Taihendesune! was a common refrain I received. How difficult / horrible / insane. Yet, despite the gasp, no-one tried to stop me, to convince me it was impossible. They said it must be horrible, then urged me on, and helped where they could.

Finished correctly is better than finished perfectly. You can complete the Shikoku Pilgrimage walking, cycling, bussing, driving, whatever works. You can do it in a month or over twenty years, backwards, forwards, or piecemeal. I didn’t judge the majority of henro that drove or bussed. I judged the ones, like me, who ‘caved in’ to a ride. It felt like failing a commitment. One of the hardest things for me to accept was that adapting and taking the ‘easier’ way are part of creating an intentional path. Which could I live with: the humbling knowledge that I needed help for a second chance to do this ‘properly’, or knowledge that I completed it walking (but might never do anything of the sort again)? How do you want to get through life – cruising, being taken along, walking, or sampling everything? There isn’t a right answer, just one that’s right for you.

We live with what we have. I have walked past henro with twice my bag, and ones with half. Some used walking sticks even on pavement while others walked through everything on sandals. Some camped the entire route while others checked into a hotel every night. We all used what we had: time, money, physical strength, energy, willpower, technology. I always felt a mutual respect amongst walking henro, and we appreciated the challenges that each person had to face, no matter how many resources they had.

You’ll arrive when you do, one step at a time. No matter how much of a rush I was in, I would have to take roughly the same number of steps to get from one temple to the next. How fast or slow, was up to me. I had a physical limit, but in the end, I arrived. In life, every second is a step, but how every step feels is up to us.

We learn why we do things only after they are done. I mentioned that I really wanted to complete the pilgrimage early on. Before I set off, I thought I would complete about half of it. Yet, a strong gut feeling told me that there was some value in not only the process, but the completion. Going on the inkling that I would experience something, whatever it waswhen I finished, I continued. The answer, when I finished, was simple: it felt right to be back.

It rips open a hole. I first read about this on another henro’s blog in her afterword. Her companion had asked if we’re all empty inside. I don’t feel the emptiness, but I suspect the gaping hole I feel is just my interpretation. I feel like I’m staring into an abyss that I don’t quite understand. Modern psychology would probably summarise it as post-travel depression. My mind swirled with a lot of life questions, and some initial conclusions. I sat on it for a few months and it only just lifted after I visited India (don’t know if it’s location, timing, or just coincidence). I still don’t quite know what has been jolted, and perhaps I’ll spend many more years feeling it out until I walk the pilgrimage again. I wanted to end on a neat, positive note, but this is the more realistic truth.

Life is about the questions we live with. The final thought is that the readjustment to ‘normal life’, the hole and the unanswered questions are, in a backhanded way, the point. Like the walking itself, the challenge of life after it is asking why am I doing this; and why this way? It’s not a comfortable road and it goes round in circles, but it’s up to us to find happiness, contentment, and maybe even meaning for some, by the end.

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Sorted osamefuda for each of my temple dedications.

A Note on Dedications

Normally, one walks the Shikoku Pilgrimage, asking for one thing at all 88 temples with the hope that Kobo Daishi will grant that important wish.

In Shikoku I walked with the people I prayed for at each individual temple. Their memories accompanied me throughout the hours. It began in a straight-forward manner, with the people I’m most indebted and closest to. They were people I was grateful to walk with even in spirit. The friends that followed became more difficult, as I had to choose a limited number, and the ones I instinctively felt an affinity for differed from the ones who ‘deserved’ mention. The process of choosing in Shikoku made me come to terms with one of the questions I’ve asked myself for two decades: why are we friends with the people that we are? Still harder were the people I was ambivalent about, those whom I am most grateful to for what they have taught or given me, and simultaneously the ones I was most disappointed or hurt by. In my routine life, their memories often bubbled to the surface, and would be gently pressed back down after I examined them for a bit. On Shikoku, these were the people I sat with for days, and yet, most of them I no longer speak to.

Did it mean anything to dedicate to them, as opposed to another, actively contributing, person in my life? Does it mean anything to dedicate to someone who probably never thinks of you, and will never know what you did? I struggled with this not because I needed their acknowledgment, but rather that, with a limited number of dedications, did the past or the present have more immediacy?

As I got deeper, and came to understand the history of each temple and the environments they were built in, the dedications became increasingly intentional (Day 15 discusses this). Each temple’s character is as unique as each friend. It also made the process of deciding more aggravating. It would be convenient to say that we shouldn’t choose. Shikoku revealed that in reality, we must, and it is too often that we don’t. Without actively reflecting on the relationships that we have, when the time comes for us to choose, we cannot because we haven’t worked out a system of value relevant to us. We don’t choose because of what it could say about us. However, in the process of choosing, perhaps we begin to see the different types of significances people have, whether their contributions were brief or long, gratifying or painful. Perhaps we can make space to appreciate the people who have entered into our lives.

Acknowledgements

This is the diary of a solo walker, but is a tapestry of a hundred lives. While I tried to describe their generosity in my posts, the gratitude was often implied. I’d like to make their significant contributions clear here.

Thank you to Grace and Kat who both kept walking journals of their individual Shikoku walks, which were invaluable references and enjoyable reads.

Thank you to Mai, who gave me a Japanese name, which I felt smoothed over many new friendships and encounters along the road.

Thank you to Zenryu for your Airbnb advice, which saved me from a typhoon. You welcomed me into Japan, housed me, and provided the simple joys of life I’ve always wanted. I’d like to follow your example in the coming years.

Countless thanks goes to Yuji-san and Masako-san from Ono Farms for hosting me in Tokushima, thereby enabling both the serendipitous beginning and perfect ending to my Shikoku Pilgrimage. You provided the warm home to depart from and return to, and its emotional value cannot be expressed. My thanks also to Shou-san, A-Chan, Nim, Valentin, and Yanie for their great company.

Thank you to all my scheduled hosts, Ayumi and Masashi, my host in Kubokawa, Tsuneto and Akiko, for hosting. They not only sheltered me, but offered me extra nights when I could not make my ambitious schedule. In addition to them, I thank the new friends who offered help and shelter when I was still a stranger, leading my ad hoc stays in Shishikui, Iyo-Miyoshi and Takamatsu, for opening your doors to a stranger. All my hosts sent me off in much better physical condition than they found me.

The countless strangers who stopped on the road to thrust o-settai snacks, drinks, meals and even bills are the army of cheerleaders that keep us aruki henro going. No matter how small the gestures, they always renewed one’s spirit  even at the end of the most depressingly long days.

I am grateful to my walking companions, Yumi, Kouhei, Aurelie, Edvaldo, Noriko, Nakamura-sanAyumi and Kotaro, and the three dogs accompanying me 5km down Yokomine-ji, who were sources of inspiration, comfort, and reflection.

I also thank the family, friends, and benefactors to whom each temple is dedicated for having done so much for me throughout the years. You provided this pilgrimage with meaning, and a treasure trove of memories I can always go through.

Last but not least, I thank my parents for not ever asking where I went or what I was doing, and therefore not insisting that I search for the meaning of life through less esoteric means.


If you liked this post, circle back to my Henro Forward, as it’ll make more sense now. 🙂

You can also check out the daily entries in my Shikoku Pilgrimage Diary.

Japan Shikoku Pilgrimage / Ohenro

Henro: Foreword

Hello!

Thank you for reading.

This is a diary that covers my (mostly) walking pilgrimage in Shikoku, known as the Ohenro.

I took notes throughout to capture the fleeting thoughts tagged as ‘I’ll-remember-that’. Formalising them into coherent posts is a way for me to revisit memories that needed time to digest.

I’ve also tried to include supplementary information for future pilgrims, as other pilgrims’ notes provided me with the courage to begin. I’ve included information on the budget lodgings in bilingual English and Japanese, a glossary of terms, a budget breakdown, and a map for the temple coordinates.

My posts are experimental in their writing style, and my apologies if they are difficult to read. They reflect my shifting focus as I walked. In the beginning, every mile seemed novel, so my mind raced to articulate every new sensation and observation. By the second half, appreciating experiences no longer needed to be bound by words.

These posts, compiled after the trip, are negotiations between my desire to reflect my experiences (jarring, stream-of-consciousness sputters and wordless memories) and my desire to craft a narrative for readers. The more profound the moment, the fewer words I have. Even now, I prefer the single-word signposts I left en route. They mark spots where I can survey a three-dimensional, multi-sensory moment.

Sadly, the panoramas of specific memories are mine alone. Minimalist signposts leave readers bushwacking in all directions between the words. Eventually, I balanced bundles of personal idiosyncracies into light trail guides for readers.

I hope you find parts of the route enjoyable, or at least relevant to you in some way or another.

Athena.
2016 January

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What happens after you become a henro. Illustration by Greg Lam

Shikoku Pilgrimage / Ohenro

Henro Day 40: July 30

 

Tokushima Otsuru Ryokan (徳島市大鶴旅館) → Ono Noen 小野農園
Temples: 10 Kirihata-ji (切幡寺)
Weather: Sunny

Travel Method: Cycling
Distance: 24km

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.

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Cycling henro couple setting off from Otsuru Ryokan.

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.

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Standardized train schedules.

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.

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View under the bridge from Kawata Station to Ono Farm.

‘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 mugichasaying 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.

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Squash Curry made with Ono Farm’s produce and brown rice.

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.

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Home is where friends are.

‘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.

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The steps up to Kirihata-ji.

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.

Thank you.

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.

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Old pilgrim graffiti on the ceiling of the Main Hall.

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.

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Language barriers aren’t a problem for when you want to help out.

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.

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Dusk in the Awa Plain.

‘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.

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The cooks digging in to the feast.

 

Shikoku Pilgrimage / Ohenro

Henro Day 39: July 29

Kamojima Town Kamo-no-Yu Onsen Henro Hut (鴨島町鴨の湯遍路小屋) → Tokushima Otsuru Ryokan (徳島市大鶴旅館)
Temples: 12 Shōsan-ji (焼山寺), 13 Dainichi-ji (大日寺), 14 Jōraku-ji (常楽寺), 15 Awa Kokubun-ji (阿波国分寺), 16 Kannon-ji (観音寺), 17 Ido-ji (井戸寺)
Weather: Sunny & Cloudy

Travel Method: Walking (+ Car + Train return to Tokushima)
Distance: 25.7km (+ 25.9km)

1305. 225. 15.7. 14:19. 25.7.

Sigh. Breathe. Smile. Sit. Close eyes.

Those are the last numbers of my pilgrimage. It is a 1305 metre elevation gain, 225 minutes of moving time, over 15.7km, at a pace of 14:19mins/km from my henro hut to Shōsan-ji. My total walk on my last day is 25.7km when I add Temples 13 to 17, my 88th and final temple.

Where there are no words, there is solace in numbers. The thousand interpretations can all be true.

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Dawn in front of Kamo-no-Yu’s henro hut.

My alarm goes off in twilight. I push off my tent-blanket and get up, awake but not alert yet. I slide my way out of the hut and pile my breakfast onto the picnic table just outside. The air is saturated with cool humidity, ruffled by a light breeze.

I munch on CalorieMate sticks and onigiri, sipping a veggie smoothie and water as I watch the sun climb the flat hills. I smell damp morning grass – a rare scent in these parts.

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Kamo-no-Yu’s henro hut and picnic table at dawn.

I retrace my steps to Fujii-dera, Temple 11. The route to Shosan-ji, Temple 12, starts here and goes straight through three mountains. It’s 6:30 and the early hikers and pilgrims have already begun.

The entrance into the woods is a ubiquitous collection of signs, altars and stones. Once upon a time, this was probably what most of the paths between the temples looked like, even the ones in the valleys that are now neatly paved over with gridded towns.

Alright, here we go.

I set a pace that tempts me to gasp for breath. Focus on breathing. Breathe through the nose. I keep my head down, watchful for anything on the trail that I can roll my ankle on. The shadow of injury lingers. Focus.

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Entrance to Shōsan-ji from Fujii-dera.

The path is nothing like I’d expected. I’d imagined an amalgamation of all the mountain temples: 20, 21, 27, 45, 60, 66, 81, 82, 88. Surely the hardest temple must match them. My memory weaves together the steep inclines, endless paths under dark canopies, mosquito havens, sticky mud, treacherous climbs, and ample weeds.

Instead, the dirt here is soft padding for the feet, and the natural undulation engages muscles that repetitive motions on flat concrete doesn’t. The roots of trees make natural stairs. The young evergreens sprinkle morning sunlight through their branches. The large stone slabs to push off during the climbs are cool to the touch.

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The Awa Plain after Chodo-An.

The first climb runs along a hill still facing the Awa Valley and after 200 metres it opens up with a view and a natural breeze before turning into the mountains.

I can feel my breakfast. I ate too much to be walking so fast. A hornet keeps me at a brisk pace for the first few kilometres until I see a spring. There are only two or three spots to refill along the way, so I fill my bottle and remind myself to look around, enough to commit these places to memory.

I’m racing, against no-one in particular, just the average 5 hours. What I lack in physical talent, I try to make up for with sheer will. This trail brings back an instilled addiction: seeking pain for gain. You’re dying? Good, you’ve warmed up. Thanks, Coach.

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The young trees along the natural trail.

When I first started, I passed a man at the trailhead, shortly followed by two ojii-san chatting at a bench. There’s another ojii-san henro that started again when I stopped at Chodo-An, the first checkpoint with a washroom; when we reached a clearing, I pass him after a brief chat. There’s also a couple that were returning from their morning hike – so early! Compared to my previous trails, this one is lively. The other henro…how’re they finding this? What are they thinking?

I’m not. This is way too fun for thinking.

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Descending in to Ryusui-An. A potential henro rest hut to overnight in.

The route to Shosan-ji is only 12.9km, but since most henro encounter it on their second or third day of walking, it looms as the test in later memory. Mountain roads are unpredictable, and most people are reduced to 3km/hr because of the uphill or downhill. In addition to being isolated, this route has three peaks to climb. There are three unattended Buddhist temples that serve as checkpoints: Chodo-An, Ryusui-An, and Jyoren-An.

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The henro hut just under Ryusui-An.

My first real stop is at Ryusui-An, which has a bamboo water fountain and a bench. It has a series of small buildings, some old, some newer, that are maintained just enough to survive nature’s reclamation. It’s a shady spot on a slope, just like Chodo-An. I retie my shoelaces and, restless, set out again.

One checkpoint left.

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Kobo Daishi at Joren-An, the last Buddhist temple checkpoint.

What is this place? Two stone pillars rise from the ground flanking stone steps masked under a blanket of leaves covering the small slope. Branches reach and dangle around. At the top is Kobo Daishi himself underneath a gigantic tree. From the bottom of the stairs, his silhouette seems poised to descend. The tree behind him looks like it’s still bursting out of the ground.

This is Joren-An, the last checkpoint. The pools of sunlight only make the shade darker. The hydrangeas are wild orphans left behind by the people who once occupied the small, wooden buildings to the side. The bushes have extended in all unfettered directions. My spine tingles. I feel a current. Despite the occasional rustle of leaves, there is a resounding silence.

After lingering a while, a hornet urges me along.

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Taking in Joren-An’s atmosphere.

The last stretch from Joren-An to Shosan-ji is a steep descent into a valley before climbing the final mountain. It’s down, down, down, and killer on the knees. I rely on both my staves and my upper body to take the weight.

In the valley, it passes a hamlet and crosses a small road. At the base, I follow a path through garden grasses. I pass an elderly lady cutting the tall weeds on the pathway wall.

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The mountains that form the heart of Shikoku.

Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t lose momentum. Those words carry me up, up, UP! Yosh! I can’t stop to talk to the lean henro in the corner of my eye as I turn up the zig-zag route. I look up from the ground briefly to say hello and see him seated, mouth open, shoulders and chest heaving, wiping his soaked forehead with his limp arm. He has such sculpted calves. His eyes widen, but I’ve already turned again. ‘Are you a guy? A girl?!’ He shouts after me.

‘Yes,’ I exhale with another step. Hopefully, he heard.

Time doesn’t exist in ‘the zone’. At the right pace, balancing the muscle fatigue, the concentrated breath, the brow-wiping, you can go on forever. Next, next, next. Fast, but not rushed. Steady, but not slow.

Then, I’m at a clearing with a wide gravel path. I follow it and arrive at the paved road from the parking lot to Shōsan-ji.

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The towering trees at Shōsan-ji.

The guest rest area of Shōsan-ji is empty. Still, there are visitors: two newlyweds, two Chinese, two staff-holding henro. It’s a quick set of rituals, buying the nokyocho, and then I sit with the view, enjoying an iced coffee and CalorieMate.

It is the temple of the burning mountain because, according to legend, a large serpent set fire here. Kukai had visited to carry out ascetic training, and chanted the Shingon Sutras to confine the dragon into a cave that is on the way to the Okunoin, the Inner Sanctuary.

I’ll visit the dragon another day. I’m thinking about the walk down to the bus stop. I’m hoping another aruki henro arrives so I have company walking down. The henro grapevine says that Shōsan-ji has someone lurking in the woods on the way to Temple 13 who approaches women walking alone and steals from nojuku henro at night.

But no-one comes, and the stamp office tells me that it’s close to a two hour walk down. It’s just past 11:00 and another tight call. Should I try another focused charging session?

That’s when I see a middle-aged couple stroll in, observing the architecture, checking the view, looking up the towering trees spaced out as natural pillars. The woman has an enthusiastic smile, and the man a patient, if aloof, demeanor. Would they mind if a random, scruffy fellow asked for a ride?

I pick up the courage ask the happy lady.

She defers to her husband who says,’What? Oh, a ride. Sure, not a problem. We’re leaving now.’

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The new Shōsan-ji building perched on the hill.

The couple are from Kochi City and driving to each of the temples whenever they have time. In the car, they can cut between the mountains at the heart of Shikoku and get to most places in a few hours. Their SUV cruises through gentle valleys that would take a day of walking. When the conversation trails away, I can’t resist the lull of the car and doze until we stop.

Some 45 minutes later, we’re in front of Temple 13. We walk from the parking lot into Dainichi-ji and do our rituals separately. I get the nokyocho first, then wait for them to pick up theirs and chat with the temple staff. When we leave, I give them an osamefuda for the ride.

‘You’re not coming with us?’ They’re surprised.

No, no. I just needed to get to Temple 13, and I can finish the rest walking.

‘It’s good to be young, isn’t it? Okiosuketekudasai.‘ We part ways. Ichi-go ichi-e.

At the gate, I notice the other aruki henro sitting in the shade with his lunch. He’s picked up a lute. We have a quick exchange, and then I head out the gate as he begins the first notes.

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Happy moss in an unused fountain.

Temples 14, 15, 16, and 17 are a quick two hours, finished with my adrenaline high from my early morning hike and successful hitchhike. They are clustered within the town sprawl along the train line and look as if they’re having afternoon siestas. I finish my breadsticks at Temple 16, Kanon-ji, without a single soul entering.

At Temple 17, my lighter sputters its last breath at the Main Hall. What about the Daishi Hall?! I’m stuck at the finish line, lighter-less, three incense sticks in hand.

Just then, the lute-player henro from Temple 13 saunters in. Saved! I scurry over and ask to borrow his lighter. He laughs and hands me one.

A few minutes later, finish line crossed with incense lit and nokyocho procured, I return his lighter.

‘Keep it, I have a few.’ He chuckles.

I ask him where he’ll stay tonight and he says he’s just phoned to make a reservation at Otsuru Ryokan, the one I recommended to him earlier. I should have waited for him to make my call! I just informed the obaa-san I’ll be back in the evening. But it’s good, we can catch up later, then. When he gets his lute out to serenade the temple, I head to Kou train station.

I’m done. Sugi. Next. Train, and dinner!

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Temple 17, my 88th temple.

I’ve forgotten what a celebratory dinner is. Kaiseki? The fried chicken on the ubiquitous signs, a marker of a local specialty? The izakayas that will open in two hours? Udon? I meander my way through Tokushima’s downtown looking for culinary inspiration.

After browsing the endless options, I slide open the door to a noodle shop just a block away from my ryokan.

Sumimasen, are you open yet?’ The sun has just disappeared behind the hill.

An obaa-san emerges from the back of the narrow restaurant. ‘Yes, yes. Dozo, dozo.

I slide onto the bar counter with a view of the kitchen and the ojii-san who glances up from under his newspaper.

Elbows propped up, I flip through the menu at the options. There are a bewildering ten. It’s an overload.

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The ojii-san at work making fresh udon.

The ojii-san gets up once the order is placed. He takes his time. I sip my small glass of ice water and refill endlessly.

Finally, the bowl arrives on a tray. It’s a simple udon with deep-fried tofu skin. Right now, it’s all my simple henro palette needs.

I clap my hands together. Itadakimasu!

I slurp the first steaming strands. Kore wa shiawase. This is happiness.

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Fried tofu-slices in hot udon.

 

Shikoku Pilgrimage / Ohenro

Henro Day 38: July 28

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.

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Entrance to Dainichi-ji before 7am.

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.

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Under the shady ginkgo tree at Jizo-ji.

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.

Ginko Tree in Tokushima Japan

Ginko Tree

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.

 

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A happy Buddha at Anraku-ji.

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.

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Home-made onigiri o-settai from the ryokan obaa-san.

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?

’45 minutes.’

It took me the same time to do half the climb and half the distance.

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Looking at the bell tower from the Main Hall at Kumadani-ji.

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.

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The Yoshinogawa running to Tokushima and the sea.

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.

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Book map at the fire station with the local addresses.

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.

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Kamo-no-Yu henro hut.

 

Shikoku Pilgrimage / Ohenro