The morning was slow. Kei was unsure where he was going next and I’d decided I would go with Miles and Connor to the next temple. There were two separate routes to Onzanji (18), one through the mountains and one through the city. My original plan was to go through the mountains but Miles needed a new tent, and I was having trouble at night without a sleeping bag, so we decided to go through the city and look for a camping store.
Kei went out early to go to Idoji by himself. The loft we were staying in may have been the most comfortable place I stayed during while in Shikoku. When going to the bathroom I passed by the small office where the owner of the Taxi company slept. He had enough space to lay a mattress in front of his desk to sleep. Upstairs. for henro, he reserved plenty of space, mattresses, pillows, and blankets to satisfy upwards of 30 people if need be. He was yet another symbol of the unequaled kindness found in Shikoku. The three of us were very comfortable and didn’t actually get our things together and ready to leave until about 10AM, by far the latest start I’d had yet.
When we started heading out Kei was just coming back. I was relieved to have a chance to say goodbye. He brought me a cover for the handle of my kongōzue. I’d been walking with my hand rubbing against the bare wood. It hadn’t caused any significant damage to my skin yet but it was probably just a matter of time. Kei still didn’t know where he was going. He had not visited all the temples in order so he was considering whether to go backwards or move on to Onzanji (18).
It was another hot day and the walk through the city was flat but challenging due to a lack of shade. Now that the three of us were together talking and moving I noticed the pace was significantly slower than it had been for me in past days. At one point, we also started moving towards the wrong route. We corrected the error before too long, but it set us back some time.
We stopped for lunch but found no sign of a camping store. I asked a few people, but nobody could help. A woman ran out of a side street shouting for us to wait for her. It wasn’t much of a surprise what was coming. I felt embarrassed I’d come to expect o-settai, but there wasn’t much else this could have been for. She gave each of us a bottle of tea and a package of tissues and spoke to us for a bit. When she left we saw her go to her car on a side street.
She drove by us honking and waving. After a moment of thought, we realized exactly what this woman had done. She’d seen us walking as she drove by, drove to a convenience store (there was not one nearby), came back to find us and then chased us down while we were walking. The gesture was small, but took at least 10 to 15 minutes out of her day and it would have been nothing for her to drive past us. Even as it grew repetitive, the thoughtful generosity behind o-settai did not cease to humble me.
Questioning Joining Forces
We were moving outside of the city now and had seen no camping store. I was beginning to resent following them on this route. I would have preferred a walk through the mountains where there were no cars, more nature, and more shade from the heat. We were now moving to an area that appeared in development. There were businesses, but very spread apart and hardly any people.Before going far on this stretch of the walk we took a rest where there was some shade by a closed restaurant.
The slow pace was irritating me. Privately, I put the blame – unjust as it may have been – on Miles and Connor. Whether it was fair or not, my impatience pushed me to find reason and they were the new pieces to the puzzle and, therefore, an easy scapegoat. I didn’t want to offend them directly, so I told them we needed to move faster and that I would be moving ahead and they could try to keep up. It worked out well enough, giving me some time to myself to relax.
We arrived only slightly before five o’clock, so the two of them rushed to the temple office to get their stamps before closing. We took a long break at this temple making plans for where we would be staying that night, but there were not many options. Darkness showed signs of settling in when a tour group began flowing up the steps into the temple grounds. It was a group of about 25 middle-aged women. The last woman straggled well behind the rest as I walked past her.
I said good evening to her. She looked at me with the kind of smile you hope to receive every day of your life, like she was not just happy to see me but she’d be longing to see me, waiting on me. She didn’t say anything that I could hear, but did mouth some words with her lips that I couldn’t read. I walked to Connor and Miles and she looked over to them with a similar smile and waved.
I recall being struck by the way she exuded selfless kindness. It didn’t need action, it just was. There was nothing that could prove or disprove it. Any act of kindness she showed could not fully express it, and no act of selfishness would have been believed as genuine coming from her.
We sat and rested our feet as we watched the group chant the Heart Sutra. The voices humming voices in unison was almost enough to put me to sleep where I sat. None of us spoke while they chanted. We sat in a silent trance for maybe ten minutes. When the tour group was getting ready to leave we were given a surprise. The woman I’d spoken to walked over to us and held out three small envelopes, one for each of us. After she gave them she just bowed her head to us and walked away, still with no words spoken.
Miles handed them out at random and we opened them one at a time. Connor opened his envelope first. Earlier, he’d expressed his disappointment over losing a bell he’d bought for his walking stick. We joked that it was probably a new bell. It was a new bell. The coincidence injected some excitement into our tired bodies. Next, Miles opened his. He’d spent the last 20 minutes or so talking about how he should have brought sandals. His was also a bell, but it had two small golden henro sandals attached as a charm.
It all built anticipation, and a strange pressure, for me to open mine. Conor suggested, “Maybe your girlfriend will be in there.” It was true; I’d mentioned Cindy a few times that day. She’s the kind of girl that finds great pleasure in the simplest things in life, and it’s a pleasure for me to share her joys. But, since living in Tokyo, she’d been having trouble appreciating city life. I thought this would have been a perfect trip for her. She couldn’t join me because of work and classes. I’d called her the previous day and suggested she come to Shikoku on an upcoming holiday, but I found it unlikely that she might have found her way to meet me already, much less in an envelope.
My gift had no coincidental significance behind it, but was appreciated no less. A small medallion with Japanese characters roughly translated to wealth, accomplishment, vitality, and fortune. We left with our spirits lifted and were now focused on a place to rest for the night. Our plan was to head towards the next temple and find a place to sleep nearby.
We stopped for some small things to eat on the way but did not take long because it was almost completely dark now. I did not set a pace anymore. I moved in line with Connor and Miles as they spoke, but said very little. After being the pace setter earlier my energy was drained, and I was anxious to stop for the day. They spoke, still with some excitement, still making suggestions of places to go for exploration. Connor mostly took the lead now, but all I wanted to do was lay down for the night and read.
He sensed my irritation, “Matt here thinks I’m being an idiot. He hates me right now.”
“I didn’t say that,” I replied. He wasn’t completely wrong, but he wasn’t completely right, and I had no interest in trying to explain the middle ground.
“Yeah, but you didn’t deny it either.”
“I didn’t say it, you did.”
There was limited conversation between us for the remainder of the night. We found a hut with a roof providing cover from any potential rain. There was not enough space for us all to sleep inside, so I set up my tent beside the hut and crawled in. I opened my book but got little reading done. My mind was distracted wondering why it was that I seemed to have such difficulty being with company. They were not bad people, but I felt like I hated them for disturbing my solitude, and I only hated myself for my negativity. After all, it was my own choice to go with them.