I woke up on top of the sheets and blankets, still wearing the bathrobe from the Onsen. It was still dark. There were signs of the sky growing lighter, but I saw no reason to be in a race against the sun. I rolled from one side to the other shedding my robe and kicking it to the end of the bed. I looked across the gap between our beds at Cindy sleeping. I could hear her breathing, not snoring, but definitely alive. That was good. I tugged the sheets beneath me but still did not put them over my body. I went back to sleep listening to the sound of Cindy’s breathing.
When day came we made no rush of getting out of the hotel. I knew I would be leaving the trail that day and, though my feelings were conflicted, I was comfortable with the idea. I wanted to finish the trail in one go, but reasoned that it was probably an ambitious task considering I’d never done anything of the sort in the past and had no idea what I was up against in this challenge. Now there is something to come back for, I told myself.
We started moving towards Kōnomineiji (27). It was a 3.4-kilometer hike up the mountain, not close to the challenge of Shōsanji, but a task nonetheless. There was a train station near the bottom of the mountain and we concluded it would be best to see what time we arrived and then decide whether or not to go up.
We walked through more back roads lined with small businesses and homes. It was quiet, but not like the silence during the previous day. There were people around, but they had nothing to make a fuss about. Everybody was relaxed. Everything was calm. As we passed one bakery, the owner stopped us and handed u each a fresh baked roll. This provided a double-sided thrill for me because I had been hoping Cindy would experience some of the o-settai kindness of the island. Also, the bread was good, so that helped. We got back onto a main road looking for a convenience store where we could print the bus tickets we’d ordered for the night bus from Tokushima to Tokyo.
“Do you know her?” Cindy asked me as we walked down the street. She pointed out a woman on the opposite side of the street who was waving to us.
“Ummm. . .” I thought it might be the Japanese Stallion from the day prior, but this woman had grey hair and was without the strong, pride driven elegance of the Japanese Stallion. She started to make her way across the street. There was no crosswalk, and it was obvious that she was concerned over the fact. She looked both ways and crossed with her head down like she was praying to be delivered across this ocean of road towards safety. She had a petit step with a reckless air reminding me of the way a kitten moves innocently through the world but is also comically foolish with it’s shallow understanding. She was an elderly kitten.
She reached our side of the road safely and spoke to us with an excited curiosity. She wanted to know about us, but gave neither of us a chance to speak. She spoke fast, jumping from one thing to another. All I could pick up in her words were a few things concerning the pilgrimage, but I wasn’t sure what. Cindy was more involved, saying a few words of affirmation every now and then.
I whispered to Cindy, “do you know what she’s saying?”
“Not really.” Even while we whispered to each other, the elderly kitten did not stop having her fun. It was as if she had been waiting all day for this precise instance to say these exact words. She’d prepared well. She began to slow her speaking and fumbled with her purse.
Ummmm, what’s happening? I wondered. Then, as I saw her opening her wallet, “what is she doing?”
“I don’t know,” Cindy said.
The woman pulled out a 1000-yen (roughly equivalent to 10USD at the time) bill and pushed it into Cindy’s hands. Cindy was nervous as if she was actually being robbed instead of given something. “Matt,” she looked at me, “what do I do?”
Typically, it’s not appropriate to turn down o-settai offered while on the pilgrimage since it is the citizen’s way of being a part of the journey, but there are special circumstances and I felt this might be one of them. The woman asked Cindy a question, and it was finally her turn to speak.
I don’t know what the question was, and I don’t know what Cindy was saying but I could see that she was hesitating in her speech and pausing at some words. She explained that she was Taiwanese and I saw an enlightening shock come over the woman’s face. She wasn’t upset, but she was definitely surprised. We explained what we had been doing in Japan for the past year and our conversation wore to an awkward close as the kitten inched away wishing us luck.
Cindy stood, still holding the money in her fingertips. She held it out to me like it was dripping with a guilty filth. I took the bill and put it into my wallet. I folded it different than the other bills; I felt I should differentiate it so I could know what we spent it on.
We passed through a number of fields that were out of season, or maybe they were just being ignored, and I knew the trail up the mountain was on the other side of these fields. Cindy wanted to go up to Kōnomineiji, and so did I; the altitude all but guaranteed I would love it. I was concerned about being able to get to Tokushima on time for our bus and having time for meals as well. Tokushima is one of the cities I passed through earlier in the pilgrimage, and it was not nearby.
I saw a set of stairs going up a hill. It could not be the start of the trail, more likely, a small shrine. I suggested we go up and make that our last visit before planning our route to Tokushima. We climbed the stairs. It wasn’t much of a shrine and it looked like nobody had been there in a long time. There was little to see, but it did provide a nice scene looking over the fields into the ocean.
I felt bad that Cindy was only able to see three temples during her short time in Shikoku with me, but I knew this was the conclusion of our journey. I’d heard of other henro leaving their staff at the point that they left the trail. By the shrine, there was a hallowed out tree. I removed the gifts -the cover and the bell- from the staff to carry with me and placed my staff in the tree.
I looked at the staff standing in the tree but was apprehensive to walk away. I don’t consider myself a spiritual person but, in the moment, I was compelled to speak to the spirit of Kūkai. This staff had truly been my greatest companion during this journey, aiding me when my legs were tired, making the uphill climbs easier to manage, providing the rhythmic tap and jingle to distract me from the weariness of the trail. I promised I’d return and be better prepared for the challenges of the trail.
I bowed and turned away. Maybe it was strange to grow an attachment to a staff but it had become more than a representation of a spirit, or an aid when me feet were weary. The staff was a representation of all the assistance that I gained on the trail whether it was direct or indirect. The women giving me food, Muriyama-san helping me when I was scared and just being a joyous spirit, Yuka giving me my first official o-settai, even the people working at the Onsens where I recovered, those who worked to put up the trail markers that helped keep me on the right path, and Cindy who arrived just in time to be my second pair of eyes and help me appreciate the world with some new layers. There were many people involved in the journey that I’d said I wanted to go on to be alone. People do nothing alone. I know I could not have made it past the first days without the help so many people offered.
Everyone, thank you.
Shikoku, thank you.
I’ll be back.
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