Freezing at Night
The night was cold, much colder than I expected. I woke up in the middle of the night freezing. I put on all of the clothes I had. My feet were wrapped in three layers of socks and jammed into my shoes. It helped, but not much. The shirts I’d bought we’re too thin and didn’t provide much insulation. My coat did more to comfort me.
The layers were not enough. I felt like I needed to move, but tent was too constricting. I unzipped the tent go outside and try to get my blood flowing. I was greeted by a night sky many people are unfortunately deprived of. I’ll concede, a nighttime cityscape has it’s own appeal, but a clear night in the countryside provides a quality that you can’t fully appreciate unless you’ve seen it. That night sky was a fine French wine compared to the knockoffs I’d grown accustomed to near the cities.
I paced back and forth in front of the temple thinking about where I was, where I was going, and where I’d come from. The going felt the most important at the time and I was already developing concern for had I’d been dealing with the nights coming up. I went back to bed, still cold, but at least I could feel my limbs. I opened a book and read myself to sleep.
I left early in the morning and warmed up quickly while walking with the raising sun. It was still too early to be going to school and there were no children in the streets, but there were some men and women out early tending to gardens or other chores. I didn’t see many, but every one of them greeted me with a Good Morning (o-haiyō gozaimasu).
One man driving, by in his rusted pick-up truck stopped by and spoke some struggled English. “Where – aaa – you – froma?” We spoke for a minute and I surprised him with my Japanese. I maintain, my skills are very limited, but the people usually don’t expect it so it’s easy to get them excited.
The first temple I visited was actually not one of the 88. I stopped at one of the ‘Bangai’ temples along the route, which are extra sites of interest a henro could choose to visit. I went to this one by mistake thinking it was Anrakuji (Temple 6)
Day two felt more like a more genuine start since it would be the first complete day of walking. It wasn’t particularly difficult, but the sun was out all day making every slope feel a little steeper. No one temple was very far from the next allowing me to go from Anrakuji, Jūrakuji (7), Kumadaniji (8), Hōrinji (9), Kirihataji (10), and Fujidera (11) all in one day. The longest walk was the 9.7 kilometers from Kirihataji to Fujidera. Nothing else was much more than four kilometers.
Since I was walking normal hours, I had many more interactions with other henro walking the trail. This was in late April, a popular time to walk due to the weather, so there were many henro to interact with. After a slow, I wanted to make sure to cover some more ground on this day, so I tried to keep interactions limited to hellos and head nods.
At most temples I spent only enough time to pay my respects and take some pictures before moving on. It wasn’t until I got to Kirihataji (10) that I gave my legs an extended rest. I put my staff in its designated place before taking off my backpack and collapsing on a nearby bench.
The staff is said to be the embodiment of Kōbō Daishi and will protect you on the trail. Thus, it is very important according to tradition and there are many signs of respect to show your own Kongōzue.
- When you stop for a rest, always take care of your staff before yourself.
- When you reach a place to stay, wash the end of the staff and place it in the room alcove
- There is a belief that Kōbō Daishi might be sleeping under a bridge, so do not tap the staff while going over any bridge.
- The end of the staff will fray over time. You should never cut it with a knife, but you may smooth it out with a stone or blunt object.
Even though I hold no religious affiliation, I could not help but develop a connection to my staff as I traveled. I was most grateful to it when I was going uphill, climbing steps, or anytime my legs were tired – which was often.
Catching Up with Age
On the other end of the bench sat a young lady with short hair. “Where are you from?” She asked me with more fluency than I was accustomed to hearing from Japanese natives. I responded to her in Japanese. Her reply was surprised, but still in English, “oh, you speak Japanese?!”
She soon discovered the limitations of my skills but, one way or the other, Yuka and I got to know each other with a combination of English and Japanese speaking. She was only going as far as the next temple, Fujidera(11), before returning home to Osaka. She was ready to leave, but I needed to rest a bit longer, so we parted ways half-expecting to see each other at Fujidera.
The walk to Fujidera was easy in comparison to the challenges I would have in the future, but the lack of shade and my not being accustomed to walking long distances made the challenge sufficient at the time. For the last quarter of the distance I focused on trying to keep up with the strong pace of a henro I could see ahead of me.
I was unable to catch him but worked hard to keep him in sight. When I arrived at the temple at came face to face with this man I was surprised to see that his age was not what is strength implied. Judging by appearance, he was no younger than mid-to-late 50’s. His strength was impressive and I told him so. He proved a perfect pace-setter for me and it helped to make the last distance of the day much more bearable.
While resting at Fujidera, I realized I didn’t know, again, where I would be sleeping that night. There was a thirteen-kilometer hike uphill to the next temple, Shōsanji (12), and I considered beginning the ascent and sleeping part way up the mountain, but sleeping at a higher elevation didn’t seem like the best choice after the frigid temperature of the previous night.
I began searching through the guidebook for potential locations when I saw Yuka coming up the temple stairs. “Wow, your fast,” she told me. I’d assumed she had already been here and left but we must have taken separate routes and I, apparently, was a little faster.
I asked Yuka for suggestions and she knew of a hot spring (Onsen) that also provided a place for henro to sleep for free. This is not somewhat common in Shikoku and is known as a Zenkanyado. Yuka was even kind enough to walk me back into town and point me in the right direction.
I invited her to join me for some Udon noodles before she began her return trip to Osaka and received a surprise as I moved down the line to pay for my food. Yuka slid in front of me, handed the cashier her money, and told him she was paying for mine. My natural inclination was to be defensive and assure her I could pay, but she explained, “I’ve received a lot of help from other people and now I want to help somebody else.” This was my first official o-settai.
O-settai is a gift of any form given to help a henro on their journey. It can take any form from paying for a meal, a beverage, giving directions, money, or even a place to sleep. It is given without anything expected in return and is meant as a way to allow people to play a role in your pilgrimage. There is something special about receiving a gift in which the only expectation is that it be accepted.
That night, I had an onsen to rejuvenate my muscles and four walls and a roof to sleep inside of, thanks to Yuka. I shared the small hut with another henro, Sasaki, who had already walked the entire henro trail in the past and gave me advice on where to sleep in the mountains so I wouldn’t freeze on the upcoming night. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be free, but I was willing to pay the price to survive the night.
In the spirit of O-settai, I would like to direct your attention to Aim for Kindness, an initiative focused on inspiring acts of kindness over acts of violence, started in memory of Amy Lord who was tragically killed in Boston in July of 2013. Amy, you remain in memories all over the world.
Thanks for reading. Give O-settai and become a part of someone’s journey.