This is a work-in-progress musing about the nature of birthdays, what they mean, and how I enjoy them. Bare with my stream-of-consciousness thinking and topic leaps!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
One of the major benefits of doing nojuku, camping, is the chance to see the sunset. Hikers, trekkers, and campers can relate to this.
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.
Even though this was a pretty lousy day, a flapping tarp with a view like this just take your breath away.
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.
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.
It turns out there was a new henro hut literally 15 minutes walk away. But then we wouldn’t have seen this sunset.
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.
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.
Often, one is walking into the day.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I didn’t actually stay here. I wish I did, but next time!
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ordinary, beautiful moments.
An udon shop that has fed henro udon for decades. The brown osamefuda show their age.
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.
On Shikoku, I got used to being loaded with sumomo, buntan, mikan, 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.
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.
So much of Shikoku is still in me. I recreated this light seafood soup by buying sudachi, a sweet lime, from Tokushima recently.
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!
A secret soup in an urn, and unlimited refills of condiments to taste.
I will always remember this sign that I saw while coming down Tairyuu-ji near the beginning of my pilgrimage.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 was, when 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.
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.
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 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-san, Ayumi 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.
Everything disappears quickly, food included. It takes 30 minutes to eat and pack up the pile of things that I’d left at Otsuru Ryokan two days ago. The ‘pile’ had overwhelmed me last night when I returned fits in my 25-litre bag with room to spare.
The last thing I do is loop my tent to the front, which takes a few tries. It only takes two days to unlearn things you never cared for.
At 6:34, I head downstairs to say goodbye to the obaa-san and pay for my room.
She’s serving a breakfast to the French couple having dinner last night when I arrived. They’re heading out to begin their two-week cycling tour of the island which roughly follows the Shikoku Pilgrimage route. Perfect, they’ll need the osamefuda, name slips, and incense I have! With the final exchanges, their meals done, the bags packed, photos taken, they head down the quiet morning street.
After they leave, the obaa-san offers me some coffee and, like last time, gives me a neatly wrapped tube of three softball-sized onigiri.
‘Where will you be going today?’ she asks.
I tell her I’d like to return to Temple 10, my first temple, but am not enthusiastic about the route, which is basically a 20km return walking trip from the closest train station.
Even though it isn’t a requirement, I’d like to complete the circle. The kechigan, completion of the Ohenro, is either finishing the 88 temples, or returning to the temple one started at. It’s up to the pilgrim. For me, the image of arriving back at Kirihata-ji has been the prime motivator to continue since I washed up at Cafe Hikousen in Shishikui on Day 4, wondering what on earth I was doing walking around an island during rainy season. Standing on those same stones from just a season ago, I will finally be able to see what this island has made of me.
Well, if I’m to make it, then I should get going.
8:54. I’ve just changed my mind.
After passing Kou Station, where I finished yesterday, I go up to the train conductor and pay the additional fare to Kawata Station. My original ticket was to Kamojima Station, the closest one to Kirihata-ji, but still a 10km walk across the Awa Plain. The plan was to walk there and back, then pick up my things from my WWOOFing hosts close to Kawata.
After that…not sure. This uncertainty of where to stay tonight preys on me. There are so many logistics in the air: how to carry my extra baggage, where to stay, when I should activate my JR Pass so that I can travel the rest of the country.
I look out the window at the familiar fields and houses. It strikes me that I’ve walked most of this train route. There’s nothing to shield from the sun here. The houses are low, the streets wide, and the chequered green fields drooping with green and yellow-headed rice stalks. It was already stuffy at 7am, when I left the ryokan. It will be an oven when I get off the train.
My bag has its own seat across from me. The lining is super thin, but has somehow survived unscathed. The henro guide book in my hand is bent and wrinkled. The book cover survived all of Kochi’s downpours only to be soaked by my sweating bottle. I’ve gone to every one of those pages. My original staff has another for company now, one that I picked up at the trailhead of Yokomine-ji. They fit snuggly in my grip together. Edvaldo’s oversized sedge-hat is still in perfect condition.
I look at my knees. My left one looks so more caved in. When did that happen? Was it always a like this? My skin is now tri-coloured chocolate, golden, and pale white.
To be honest, my decision sits uncomfortably. If I go to Kawata, I’ve given up on Kirihata-ji. When I travel, I’m happy to leave things undone in places I love. Why is this is one bothering me so much?
Maybe it’s because I don’t know why I want to go, and without going, I’ll never find out. Is it just stubbornness or is there something more? My heart doesn’t stand up to the interrogation of Logic. It can’t articulate why it feels important. So, Logic lists the extra money for the train tickets, the potentially insane price of a taxi if I really don’t want to walk, the long waiting time in rural areas, and the impossibility of hauling the two boxes I’m going to pick up along.
Logic asks, How much do you want to pay for peace of mind?
My heart whimpers. Logic scoffs.
Maybe I should have just given my hosts a mailing address in Tokyo when they offered so I don’t have to go now. Maybe I should have gone to Temple 10 when I passed by Temple 9. If only. I’m taken aback by how strongly these feelings come.
Next time. Next time, I will do this trip properly. Heart and Logic shake on an uneasy truce.
‘Is Masako-san here?’ I ask a group of people sorting potatoes under a barbeque tent.
They eye me for a second, then the tall guy points at the entrance. ‘I think she’s inside.’
When I go in, Masako exclaims,’A-chan!’ As though I’ve risen from my grave. We never exactly worked out the details of my arrival. I sent her message updates as I got closer. I only told her a day ago that I’d be coming by today to get my things and she’s been too busy to reply.
‘Tadaima.’ I say sheepishly, the customary ‘I’m back’. Does this count?
‘Okaeri.’ Her reflexive ‘Welcome back’ is warm.
I came to the house through the rice fields that I used to cycle past with Shou-san, another WWOOFer, when we were working the scattered plots. Back then, they were uniform green bunches, and now the grain panicles are turning yellow. All this seemed to spread out before. Now, it’s just a 30-minute walk.
My two small boxes are in the corner by the entrance. I’ve already forgotten their contents. Masako pours me a glass of cold mugicha, saying I should rest. Yuji-san comes in, much more healthy than last time, and says, ‘You finished it!’
I did. Actually, I haven’t burned my daily energy quota yet, so after finishing two glasses, I head out to help the others sort the produce.
Right now, Ono Farms has another A-chan, Valentin, Yanie, and Nim. The three adjacent rooms separated by the sliding wooden panels are taken up. Yanie and Nim are university students from Hong Kong taking an unorthodox travel approach. Valentin has been studying in Japan and visiting Ono Farms for his last time before he returns to Europe. A-chan does WWOOFing on her holidays to learn more about food since she is a cook in Osaka.
Yanie and Nim take up cooking duties, wondering in Cantonese how they’ve been entrusted to this when they never cook at home. But lunch is a simple squash curry, and the freshly harvested ingredients shine through. This was the celebratory meal I was looking for last night.
After lunch, A-chan helps with preparations for tonight’s barbeque gathering that the local government is hosting. She and Masako-san discuss logistics on food and driving up.
Masako-san turns to me. ‘A-chan, will you stay tonight? Would you like to come too?’
Actually, can I stay two nights and leave with Yanie and Nim? I want to stay in this little safe harbour a little while longer.
‘Of course’, she says.
With the evening sorted, everyone has the afternoon off, so we retreat to our rooms. On the farms in summer, it is best to work early in the morning and nap between noon and 2pm, the hottest hours, and work into the late evening.
‘What time are we leaving tonight?’ I ask Yanie and Nim. I heard both four-thirty and five at one point.
They don’t know.
‘But they were discussing it over lunch!’
‘Yes, in Japanese! No-one tells us anything!’ They fire back good-naturedly.
Oh, that’s true! Masako-san and A-chan were so caught up in the discussion they forgot that humans haven’t evolved to linguistic telepathy yet.
Never-mind. I confirm with A-chan and realise I have enough time to nap and cycle to Temple 10 after the sun begins to wane. I set my alarm for 2:30pm.
‘Please tell Masako-san I’ll be back by 4:55 latest!’ I tell the Hong Kong girls.
They laugh. ‘That’s so specific!’
It’s 2:45pm, and I’m slathering sunscreen on, rushing out the door after slathering, and grabbing my temple supplies. This was exactly how I started a month and a half ago. Some things change, and some just don’t.
Borrowing the same bike, I zip off through village roads. Kirihata-ji is 12 kilometres away, just under an hour if I keep a decent speed. I charge through the empty streets, fanned by the wind I’m creating for myself. This is much better than my first time.
I arrive just before 3:45pm and climb the same steep slope, walk up the same steep flight of stone stairs through the forest.
I wish I had a bit more time to just sit and enjoy the late afternoon, when the sun is behind the trees but still making the cobblestones glow.
I feel the cool stones on my knees. This is the first time I’ve knelt at a temple, head bowed, hands together.
Whatever is out there, whether chance, fate, or divine will, thank you for the safe passage, Thank you for bringing me back. Thank you for providing a solution my Logic had entirely missed. Thank you for leading me back to a home and warm company.
The temple’s still the same, but I can read meaning in the details now. Where it once seemed remote and solitary, it now seems tranquil and centred. I wish I could stay longer, but I need to get the nokyocho, my last act as an aruki henro. For the first time in forty days, rather than moving on, I am returning home.
I arrive back at 4:45. It’s cutting it close. As they say, Carpe diem. Seize the day – and throttle it by the neck.
I present Masako the nokyocho. Ono Farm launched me on my pilgrimage and unconditionally helped me finish. This is the least I can do.
Anyhow, the others are loading the food into the car. I’m glad to join them, returning to a normal life with company, chatter, and laughter. After, Valentin and I cycle up the hill towards the onsen while the others hop in the car.
The handful of people at the site are already prepared to feed a village. Everyone is pitching in to make the last preparations, cutting, skewering, lighting the fire, chilling the drinks and fruits, lighting mosquito incense. Voices clamber over each other with questions and instructions. The chaos and confusion is rural Japan’s warm embrace. A knife is picked up, a cutting demonstration, a point at the produce, fingers for amounts, nods, smiles. It’ll work out.
I watch dusk descend on the Awa Plain, the flat expanse sprinkled with street lights, the patchwork fields worked for centuries, protected by two walls of mountains, and split by the Yoshino River.
I look back at the group that’s doubled in size and trebled in volume. Here I am, in a place half forgotten by the rest of Japan, with the largest BBQ spread I’ve seen. One lady points at the plate of wrapped yams with instructions. There’s a team on the grill. The drinks are passed around.
‘A-chan, the food is ready! Let’s eat!’
A woman points at an open spot. Someone shifts over. I sit down beside Yanie and Nim. The Ono Farm group take up one end of the table. The host gets up to say a few words and we toast. The first batch of veggies and meat is passed down the long table.
Itadakimasu! We dig in with big bites, loud yelps, and covered mouths. It’s hot!
For an event I once did, we did a trailer asking our speakers, ‘If life was a box of chocolates, what have you gotten so far?’
Looking around, I finally recognize my box. This. All this.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Tokushima Otsuru Ryokan (徳島市大鶴旅館) → Kamojima Town Kamo-no-Yu Onsen Henro Hut (鴨島町鴨の湯遍路小屋)
Temples: 4 Dainichi-ji (大日寺), 5 Jizō-ji (地蔵寺), 6 Anraku-ji (安楽寺), 7 Jūraku-ji (十楽寺), 8 Kumadani-ji (熊谷寺), 9 Hōrin-ji (法輪寺), 11 Fujii-dera (藤井寺)
Weather: Cloudy → Sunny
Travel Method: Walking (from Itano Station)
Distance: 35 km
Today is my longest walking day. I get up around 5:30 and make two bananas my breakfast. I pack two sets of things: the stuff in my backpack for another two days and the rest to leave at the ryokan for pickup.
The obaa-san who runs it has packed lunch onigiri for Kouhei and me. We’re heading on the same train and he will get off at Temple 1 to complete his kechigan while I get off at Itano Station to continue walking from Temples 4 to 11.
It’s the first time the view outside the train is familiar fields. Kouhei is beside me looking down at nothing in particular. He apologises for not coming to dinner last night because he’d passed out of exhaustion. I wave it off, glad he caught sleep after his all-nighter before we climbed to Okubo-ji, Temple 88, together yesterday. Instead, I ask if he can help with one last favour: look up an affordably henro ryokan in Kamojima, close to Temple 11, and message me with details.
This is probably the last time I’ll see him. I won’t remember the details of his dark, round face behind bookish glasses. I’ll remember the way he smokes, his energy drinks, his gait, his habit of changing into a presentable shirt at the end of the day, his halting speech. He’s clean shaven this morning, cleaned up to go home to Kyoto this afternoon.
Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
The funny thing is, it actually works. You really do feel the same things. We’ve gone under the same sun, walked the same roads, accepted urbanite discomforts. The road highlights our shared humanity as much as it does our human differences. No-one’s shoes will fit as snug as your own. You can’t walk in someone else’s shoes. But you can share a mile with them. After a few hundred, judgement is discarded somewhere along the way with all the other extra baggage.
He steps off, and after an initial wave, marches past. I’m glad we met. I hope he’s glad too.
I’m at Dainichi-ji bright and early, when the nuns are sweeping the garden entrance and the monk is preparing the grounds. After lighting my incense and dedicating my prayers, I wait until the monk is ready to write my nokyocho.
After that, it’s a half hour walk back out of the valley to Jizo-ji via the Go-hyaku-rakan back entrance. Here, I have my first onigiri, a soft-ball sized riceballs that was filled, lightly pan-toasted, and wrapped neatly in pink wrapping paper. I do it as an excuse to stay in the complex under a ginkgo tree, one of my favourite trees.
Gingko / Ginkgo trees are living fossils, meaning they are the only species left of their kind. They are widely cultivated for medicinal and culinary uses, and the fruit is known in Chinese as baiguo (白果) and Japanese as ginan / ginko (銀杏). They are highly resistant to disease and insects, have aerial routes and sprouts, and were the only living things that survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb within a 1-2km radius. Those trees healed and are alive today.
There’s something magestic about trees that have survived in their little corner of the world through the ages. When you sit under them, it’s like you’re absorbing a little bit of that peace under their protective leaves. I wonder what this ginko tree has seen.
After that, I go into a konbini to stock up on snacks and drinks, picking up boxes of CalorieMate sticks that Kouhei introduced me to yesterday.
But I don’t need a long break like I used to and happily contiue on after I’m done resting. There’s a skip in my walk. I realise I’m grinning. I think it’s been a while since that.
The temples in the Awa Plain feel so close and I’m always a bit surprised when I arrive. I have speed, but no haste. The few days of training with Kouhei and Aurelie have been effective. My Strava app tells me my average pace is 11mins/km, which means I’m comfortably keeping 5.5km/hr. When I walked Temples 1 to 3 in late June, I had ambled along for three hours to cover 8km and was exhausted by the end. That day, I had half a backpack, like today, and twirled my light and untested staff, bored by the quiet towns and thin, but steady, traffic.
My staff is a bit shorter now, its base worn and sanded, its bands dark. When I first got it, it felt like another commercial stick in a stock of pilgrimage paraphanalia at Temple 1. I wanted something more personal at the time. It’s been personalised by the gallons of sweat from my forehead: the middle part is polished smooth now.
The weather is fine today, cloudy with breezes. I’m reminded that Tokushima is the prefecture of backyards and bamboo groves. The henro-no-michi here constantly takes you through fields, past homes, through back paths. It is also extremely well marked with red stickers and arrows a perfect ambassador for the thousands of pilgrims that pass by.
I arrive at Anraku-ji in no time. It’s a funny place with a side garden, a new gate, a new community building, and some distinct statues. I wonder who decided the style of statue on the fountain. This temple is supposed to have a tsuyado in the bell tower, which would have been a cool nojuku place. Too bad, I’m too fast today!
After finishing my rounds, I move on to Juraku-ji just 15 minutes walk away. It has a large fortress-like gate, an impressive temple lodging for paying guests and a decorative fountain. It also has an eatery in the parking lot, but I happily munch on my remaining two homemade onigiri.
Next is Kumadani-ji. I wonder if there really used to be bears here, as the name suggests. I have a lot of mental space to wonder now. The Awa Plain is familiar to me, and I will finish the pilgrimage in the next few days. My mind is relaxed just by the familiarity of the hills.
Anyhow, it’s an unusual 200 metre walk from the main gate to the temple. The walkway to the Main Hall has chanting from hidden speakers, another unusual feature. There’s a final climb up steep stairs to the Main Hall, and then again to the Daishi Hall. Two ojii-san sink on the bench beside me after they arrive, heaving, but happy with each other’s company.
Seeing them reminds me of another wiry man with whiskers of white hair who cycled daily to the cafe by the beach that I once worked at. One day, during a lull in the breakfast rush, I finally asked him what his route was when I brought his coffee. He gave me a location on a mountain, which he’ll be returning to right after.
I asked him why he came so far for coffee.
He said, ‘So that I can cycle back up.’
How long did it take him?
It took me the same time to do half the climb and half the distance.
Walking to the next temple, Horin-ji, Temple 9, is another trip down memory lane. This was my second temple after I impulsively set off on my farm host’s bike when I had an afternoon off. At the time, I just really wanted to ride, and Temples 9 and 10 happened to be the right distance. I thought I was killing two birds with one stone, getting a head start on the pilgrimage. As it turns out, I’m returning to both anyway.
Staring at the solemn Kobo Daishi in front of the Main Hall with flowers at his feet, it feels like he’s asking ‘What have you learned?’
The courtyard here hasn’t changed. But the light of evening has been replaced by noontime sun. That makes all the difference.
The Awa Plain is 10 kilometres across. Are you happy now? I ask myself. I’d wondered about it since the day I arrived in late June. I’ve finally experienced it by walking across during the hottest hours. The Yoshino River, which flows from Mount Ishizuchi to Tokushima, is bloody wide. Damn you river that just happens to feed everyone in this massive valley.
After I cross the bridge, it’s still a walk into the heart of Kamojima town on the other side. Slowly, slowly, the shops grow more dense on the street. There’s even two-story signs! It also has canals. That’s cute.
The Lawson was supposed to be close, but it’s really not. When I get in, I message Kouhei to see if he’s spoken to the ryokan, which offers henro accommodation at 1000 Yen. He’s arrived back in Kyoto and helped me research the Japanese description which reads: Akatsuki-An. Close to East Kamojima Fire Station*. 090-3657-7165
*Note, this is inaccurate and please read the nojuku henro list for the actual location.
The treasure hunt is on. He’s reached the owner, but can’t figure out where it is either. Google maps is showing the wrong spot for me. Sigh. I tell him I’ll go to Fujii-dera, Temple 11, first and check messages again later.
Another three hours later, I’m back at the same Lawson and flustered. After finishing Fujii-dera, I walked to Kamo-no-Yu, which is an onsen with a henro hut on the nojuku henro list. If it weren’t for the promise of a proper ryokan, the henro hut with an onsen beside seems grand.
I went in search of this Akatsuki-An, which didn’t pick up my calls. I asked the Kamojima Fire Station that Google Maps was directing me to, and they told me the listing is based on the old fire station location, which they point out to me on the map, just behind the Lawson that I was messaging from. Armed with the next clue, I marched full circle.
But half an hour later, no luck, and it’s getting dark, and I’m hungry. I wandered the small residential alleys and asked the locals, but no-one could help. Frustrated, I message Kouhei and tell him I’ve been going in circles. It’s the first time I’ve whined, and I’m ashamed of it right after I hit send. This isn’t how you treat someone who’s gone out of his way to help you right after arriving home.
Sigh. I’ll make up, somehow. First, I need dinner.
Never shop for dinner on an empty stomach. I buy a full bag of bread sticks, CalorieMate boxes, milk, veggie juice, and salad. Half-way through chuggin my milk, I had to stop to hold my food down.
Breath in. Breath out. Check messages on Wi-Fi. All will be well.
When my stomach has finished its tantrum, I troop back towards Kamo-no-Yu. It’s so good, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on the elusive ryokan.
The onsen is 360 Yen entry, and I sit outdoors watching the sky go from violet to cobalt around the beaming moon. The henro hut has free laundry and a coin dryer. The girl’s hut needs a replacement bulb, so they give me the guy’s hut since I’m the only one today. It even has an outlet for my phone, a small counter with paper for writing diary entries, and hangers. I lay down, savouring the peace and privacy.
I’ve walked 35 kilometres today, an extra five just looping around town. Unwittingly, I have a new record.
At 5:30, Kouhei is already done packing his tent and sitting on the bench. Why does he have to be so Japanese (early) ?!
No matter. I roll out of Aurelie’s tent inhale the morning dew on the grass. Despite an initially sleepless night, it was one of the best sleeps I’ve had.
Aurelie was right – the grass was more comfortable than the bench I originally chose. It was a valiant effort to set up a lopsided tent, but the higher elevation was chillier than expected, making it difficult to sleep. Then, I heard persistent rummaging noises in the darkness close to my head. Rather than get irritated at me for causing a stir over a cat we eventually found, Aurelie invited me to sleep in her tent. ‘I know what it means to feel afraid.’
Now, the morning blues. The overnight moisture has seeped into in everything, making me reluctant to pack. Kouhei returns with vending machine iced coffee since he’s ready and we’re barely awake. Aurelie didn’t sleep well, but still packs quickly.
When they’re both standing with their backpacks watching me, I sigh in exasperation. ‘Why does it seem like I’m always the slowest?’
‘You are,’ Aurelie says briskly. ‘But it’s fine.’
My gratitude goes a bit sour. Reminding myself it’s a cultural thing doesn’t take the sting away.
As Kouhei and Aurelie march on ahead, I drop behind, trying to take photos of the breathtaking morning sun. It creates a comfortable distance to keep my own company.
Am I just too sensitive? Or is it justified to expect people to have sensitivity irrespective of culture? Why do words carelessly spoken have so much impact? Did I imagine her tone?
Anyhow, we are walking to Negoro-ji, the temple I ran and hitchhiked to yesterday evening. This time, we follow the henro-no-michi arrows pointing into a forest path. It’s as muddy as yesterday’s, but we come across a surprise: a newly built henro hut.
We continue on to the temple, and I wait for them to do their prayers. When we finish, Kouhei presents Aurelie and me a charm each.
I’m touched, but I can’t help but interpret it. The henro-no-michi is banal and intense. In the vast stretches of nothingness, boredom, and solitude, life is distilled until the most basic things take on significance. We become hypersensitive to our surroundings, constantly overwhelmed by our unfiltered reactions. I think he’s trying to express his gratitude for having company, which we all of us feel. I think his background will compel him to continue to watch over us, to worry, to give. I don’t want his gratitude to become a burden. It’s mutual: we’re supporting each other.
When we pass by the new henro hut again, there’s a man filling a tea dispenser on the picnic table. What’s this? He says it’s o-settai provided by a nearby cafe.
We help ourselves to the drinks and snacks and check out the new structure. Inside is a jaw-dropping carpeted space with electricity and a loft. Elementary school students have left their drawings for us to take, and the place already has a small collection of osamefuda, figures, notes. We missed out because I skipped on this forest path last night. Thankfully we had yesterday’s breathtaking sunset.
I continue trailing the whole morning as we descend from the plateau into Takamatsu City, capital of Sanuki udon. Sanuki is the old name for Kagawa Prefecture. Kouhei and Aurelie naturally walk ahead and wait until they see me around a bend. It’s good motivation to keep me at a productive pace.
The distance lets me continue meditating. Having Kouhei yesterday already introduced a whole set of experiences, adding Aurelie exponentially multiplies the dynamics. People flood our system with stimuli, and it’s difficult to curb the raw reactions that are harmless in our solitary walks. After learning to dissolve my sense of self on the henro-no-michi, it’s jolted into re-condensing, forming a boundary of me and them.
I examine the resentment lodged in my mind and find that it has roots. In a bed of silence, the weed had patiently sprouted. I didn’t notice when we were resting more than I normally would. I ignored it when Kouhei and I dug took the lead in researching nojuku spots and bookings. A promise to meet casually forgotten weeks ago prepared the soil, and a following desperate request finally planted the seed. The recent remarks just brought all of this to light.
Aurelie has done quite well. She’s the youngest in a large family and has always been surrounded by love. She’s walking a foreign country without an understanding of the language or culture. While walking down today, she shares her sobering last days in Shishikui where cultural gaps caused a rift. She was cast back out into the henro-no-michi she had taken refuge from for a month, one that exposes each of our flaws and weaknesses.
She glances at Kouhei, who’s out of earshot and says that while he seems calm, he has a heavy heart. ‘I can tell from how much he smokes.’
We’ve walked over a mile in each other’s shoes. Does that give us right to judge?
On this path we’ve taken, her weakness is making judgements without an appreciation of cultural context. Mine is responding to judgement with judgement.
We’re at a Lawson at the edge of town having a late breakfast. I use Airbnb to book a place for Kouhei and Aurelie. Neither of them know what it is, but Aurelie was thinking of a 24-hour manga cafe and Kouhei had no plans. Both like the idea of affordable accommodation close to Temple 73 and a tram line. In addition, I want to confirm that Edvaldo is alright. It takes an hour, and the suffocating city heat has returned.
By the time I confirm their booking and apologise for the wait, Aurelie concedes, ‘I don’t mind waiting, especially if you’re helping us get a place to stay. With your phone.’
The emphasis isn’t lost.
With that we continue to Ichinomiya-ji. Perhaps if we’re lucky, today we can get to Temple 84 too.
It’s a spiritless walk in the city heat. I don’t know how Kouhei manages in his long sleeves and pants. I’m just glad to have company through this.
Aurelie is in high spirits and keeps ahead while Kouhei accompanies me lagging behind. My leg is beginning to bother me again, but he distracts me by entertaining a variety of topics and teaching me new vocabulary.
When we arrive at the temple, I bolt to the washroom. Something was wrong with that chicken earlier. After a bit, I re-emerge a little paler, but with a restored digestive tract.
I do my ritual rounds since Aurelie and Kouhei finished earlier and are waiting in the shade. Then, I head to a nearby Lawson to get their AirBnB confirmation, marking an udon shop on the way for lunch. However, my grand plans for Sanuki udon sampling evaporate as another hour evaporates with flat-searching. We follow the owner’s video description at his insistence, which results in Kouhei getting lost, and then them losing me around a corner. Sigh.
Nonetheless, we arrive. Aurelie does laundry, I shower, and Kouhei snacks. All the long delays have added up, and it’s getting late. We cut the sitting short and head out again to hit the last temple for today. Those two have left their bags in the flat, but I keep mine to take to my Couchsurfing place, which I’d found weeks ago.
Aurelie offers to take my bag, which I’m grateful for. It’s light for her, but the source of my leg muscle strains. In addition, it’s a daypack and has no shoulder padding.
Our walk across the length of Takamatsu is a truly bland, straight, expanse of concrete. When we finally see a konbini, we stop for a late lunch. Due to a misunderstanding, we keep waiting for each other until Kouhei comes to me with alarm and says,’Can you finish in 5 minutes? We won’t have enough time.’
Sigh, I’d gotten the ice cream while waiting, but I can eat and walk! Soon after we resume, my limp drags them down far too much. Eventually, Kouhei asks, ‘Are you okay?’
Before I can respond, ‘No! Not daijoubu!’ Aurelie exclaims with a mix of concern, fatigue, and frustration.
Kouhei hides his startled look when he turns quickly from her to me. He would have felt bad enough without that.
I tell them to go on ahead as they may still make it at their natural pace, and I’m not staying with them tonight anyway. I’ll find my lodging and we’ll arrange to meet up tomorrow, or two days from now. I have Kouhei’s Line account.
With that, I limp to the closest station and wait 45 minutes for the train. Just being able to sit down, take my shoes off, and charge my dying phone is enough. I just want to sleep. I can’t muster the energy to be sociable when I hear my name echo in waiting area. Aurelie grins and waves. She asks me for the route back and I tell her the tram is at another station. She could transfer here, but the tram is cheaper and more frequent than the train. She finally realises I want to be alone and heads out.
After I arrive, at my host’s century-old house, I don’t have the energy to go back out again for food. It’s close to the station and I followed her instructions to let myself in the unlocked door.
It’s old and still in the middle of refurbishment. The empty to-be-kitchen has a new plastic flooring, one running tap, and painted walls. The old wooden floor planks in the rest of the house are loose, with gaping holes. A few giant spiders have made homes in my room with its old sofa set and futons. The tiled shower area has an ancient wooden tub-bath and a modern draw curtain for privacy. I open all the windows to let out the trapped heat and see a spectacular evening sun hovering over the city. No wonder this single mother bought this place.
When I’m done showering and washing my shirt, I lay out the futon to sleep, even though the sun hasn’t even set. I will survive on the energy drink I had earlier. If I’m really hungry, I can go for midnight udon because Takamatsu is the city for 24-hour, authentic, Sanuki udon. My host even has a colour-coded udon map segmented by business hours.
Before I can pass out, my host gets back. She knocks and comes in with her daughter, and shows me the various appliances around the house, scattered where the working outlets are. I can check off quirky house-under-renovation as a life experience.
This wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but then, where any of the other places? I wonder if Kouhei made it in the end. Maybe I should’ve stayed with them. Maybe not. Time will tell.