Shikoku Day Eleven: Finally Wet Weather

Candy Breakfast

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Where I woke up this day.

Breakfast with Muriyama-san was a curious thing. He reached into his bag to pull out his food to start the day and came out with nothing but candy. Jelly candies, Chinese hard candies – basically like small Jawbreakers – gummies and more. He offered me a handful, which I was hesitant in accepting and stashed for later when my energy was low. I sat eating pineapple watching him pick through his assortment of candies. There was nothing strange about it for him. He put his candy back in his bag, only after offering me more of each one, and got up and left.

I started the day walking with rain in mind. I knew it would be coming. There was a lot of rain predicted so, even if the forecast was wrong it would probably just be by amounts. I wasn’t worried about the distance too much. I still had this day and the next to get into the city and find a place to stay before Cindy arrived. The only concern was a rumored lack of places to stay.

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I was beginning to regret not having a phone. I had already been using payphones to contact Cindy, now I needed them again to call for lodging. There were enough pay phones along the route that I didn’t need to worry too much about searching for one. There was only the question of whether or not it would work.

There were no clouds early in the day. I was hoping to travel a respectable distance and find a place to stay before the rain was falling hard. I was prepared to walk in the rain but it was certainly in my preference to avoid it. I pushed myself to keep a strong pace going despite the heat slowing me down. The road stretched along the coast without any shade for long distances. Each time any shade appeared I took a moment to hydrate and got back on the road to maintain my pace.

I was making good time, but it was taking a price on me. I became exhausted early in the day and was running out of water. I could see down the coast and there were no towns or buildings in sight. I knew I wouldn’t be seeing anything for hours. There was a small town on the map where another closed down elementary school was marked. I planned to stay there for the night, but there was much of anything on the route before it.

The sky was beginning to cloud up and I still had a good distance to go. I was already exhausted and had doubts that I would be able to maintain the pace I was on. The only food I had left in my bag was a few yuzu fruits (a Japanese citrus) and I felt in need of something more.

A Reststop Occupied

I pushed forward with no signs of shade and was growing frustrated. I tried to push myself to move faster but exhaustion wouldn’t allow a maintained increase. I saw far in the distance what looked like the roof of a rest hut and was pleased even though I knew it would only provided some brief shade. I didn’t rush myself. There was still a long distance to go after this hut and I didn’t know when I would have opportunity for a meal.

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I’m going. . . somewhere down that way.

As I got closer to the hut I could see three cars parked beside it. My frustration mounted at the thought of having to spend energy on a social interaction. I was in no mood to interact with anybody and could see no reason for a group of cars to take a rest here. I moved closer and settled upon a cold attitude. They had still not left and I decided if they tried to speak to me I would turn them away with mumbles or grunts of acknowledgement. It was not the way of the henro, but I was tired, hungry, and frustrated. Manners were secondary to me at this point.

When I arrived at the hut I grew embarrassed by my thoughts. Under the hut a group of women welcomed me with trays of food and bottles of tea and water. They smiled and waved for me to sit as they unfolded one chair for me, and another to set my bag on. The weight off my shoulders was a relief enough. I thanked them and eyed the food that was laid out.

I knew they’d set it out for henro but felt rude in just grabbing. The ladies sensed my hesitation and arranged a plate themselves piled with an assortment of rice balls with different ingredients inside. There was one with salmon, one with meat, another with pork fiber, and another with umeboshi (a kind of pickled plum with a very sour taste). On a typical day I would have ate only the salmon and meat and avoided the other two, but I ate them all with gratitude and have since developed more of a taste for the later two.

The ladies spoke to me, poured me drinks, gave me more food, and I hardly had any interest in leaving. One of them got a plastic bag and filled it with food I could eat later in the day. I waited for her to stop but she continued to put more in until the bag was to capacity. There was at least 15 rice balls in the bag and they gave me two bottles of tea to leave with.

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The lovely o-settai women. These ladies came up big for me.

The Rain Arrives

It was not the first time I felt overwhelmed by o-settai, and it wouldn’t be the last. I’d arrived at the hut with low spirits and frustration, I left happier than I’d felt all day and was now looking forward to running into somebody I might be able to share my food with. My spirits were high moving forward and remained that way, even when the rain began.  I still had almost three kilometers to go before I would reach the school. With my revived energy I picked up the pace while the rain was still light.

Had I been wise, I would have put on my rain gear immediately. Instead, I reasoned that the rain was not yet falling too hard and could wait. Not much to my surprise it picked up fast and sent me sprinting under the edge of a stranger’s roof to change; but, I only reached cover once I about as wet as I deserved.

They rain gear I’d purchased worked well but was also very warm and I was sweating a lot. This reintroduced the issue of hydration. Walking in the rain was proving far more uncomfortable than I’d expected with the heat on top of it. I saw another Ryōkan open for lodging and, although I fought myself from going to speak with them, I had to inquire about their prices to see if it was worth my salvation from walking in the rain. It wasn’t. I was tempted, but I needed to put a stop to the extra money I’d been spending.

The rain was falling hard now. I could both hear and feel the drumming of raindrops on my sugegasa. It was frantic and without rhythm. As I moved forward, I grew desperate for some salvation from the rain. It came in the form of a phone booth. I was happy to get out of the rain and now I could call some lodgings to see if anything was available.

The folding door of the ancient booth had not been maintained and was a job to open. I shook it back and forth making miniscule progress until there was enough space for me to squeeze my frame through and pull my bag through behind me. I wrestled off my bag inside the skinny booth and stood for a minute to appreciate the cover from the rain. The air was humid inside and didn’t provide much comfort.

I jostled in the tight quarters to grab the change and start calling lodging. It appeared that Catherine’s inability to communicate might have been a problem for her because places were not as busy as she’d indicated. I called three Ryōkans and they all had rooms available for me. I made reservations for two nights, the next day by myself, and the day after with Cindy.

The booth with it’s tight quarters and extra humidity was no improvement from being outside in the rain. Once I finished my calls, I jumped right back onto the road. The rain only increased during the walk. I reached the school after 30 minutes more and found shelter beneath an overhang by one of the entrances to the building. I sat for a while and watched the rain drops pound ripples in the puddles of the courtyard. They reminded me of the waves I’d watched brushing on the beach just two days past. But, they had definite differences, I thought. The rain would stop, the waves would not.

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Shikoku Day Ten: The Wisdom in Vulnerability

An early night made for an early morning. I woke up with 15 minutes to make it to the beach for sunrise. I was not the only one with the idea, but it did not make for an overly populated beach. There was also an older man appreciating the scene and a dog taking it’s woman for a walk.

I walked up and down the beach with my camera trying to play with different angles and find the best composition. Being still infantile in the art of photography I was pleased to have a scene different from the monotony of Buddhist temples. While it is an extravagant monotony, and one I won’t complain about, it was nice to have something new to work with.

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When I returned to the Ryōkan, breakfast was ready for me. The couple that owned the Ryōkan treated me with care as if I were their own child. At the same time, it was a wary care, almost apprehensive, so as not to offend my actual parents in the process. Everything they did was pensively weighted like they were asking with their motion, “is this okay?”

Their attitude made everything endearing and easy to respond to with gratitude as they seemed grateful themselves to serve. They may have been, as I found out they’d only recently inherited the house and had remodeled it into a Ryokan. They’d only been in business for a year, but the location was so remote I couldn’t imagine they would receive many customers other than henro.

I sat and enjoyed the Japanese-style breakfast, small portions of a large assortment of things. Salmon, soup, eggs, nattō (fermented soybean), nori (dried seaweed), vegetables, and rice. Another plate with fruit, tea, and crème brûlée waited for me at the end of the table. I was almost through with my first plate when I saw two foreign henro standing outside the large, glass sliding doors of the dining room that led out to the road. It was, again, Catherine and Ricardo.

I went outside to greet them. I did not intended to invite them in, but the mother of the house followed behind me, and she did. She offered them each a plate of crème brûlée, fruit, and a cup of coffee as o-settai. We sat in an awkward arrangement in the dining room with myself returning to the large table I was already eating while they sat at a second table. The two couples tried to speak to each other, learn about each other, and tell about their travels, but repeatedly turned for my assistance at my solitary table to bridge the language gap.

They ate quickly and were back on the road before I finished my fruit. I went upstairs to gather my things and made note of the weather report forecasting a lot of rain for the upcoming two days. It felt about time. While the heat provided it’s own challenges, I’d been lucky to have the weather I did for so long since I’d arrived.

The sun was particularly brutal on this day and I didn’t get too far before I felt the need to take a break. As far as the days of heat went, this one slowed me down considerably. My pace was slacking and I was privately aware that if Connor and Miles had not passed me the previous day while I was getting my early rest, they could very well be catching up soon.

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Myself and the couple running the Ryōkan.

My slow pace was exaggerated by the amount of stops I was making. Apparently, the comfort of the previous night and that morning had made me soft because, even though I’d had a quality meal in the morning, I stopped three more times to eat before five o’clock. I walked now with the mind of looking for a place to sleep. I knew I hadn’t covered a lot of ground, but it was easily excusable now that I was pacing myself for Cindy’s arrival.

I passed through a surfing town with a large beach that I strongly considered staying at, but I still had daylight and an urge to cover more ground. Even as I passed it by, I felt it was a decision I may regret. Walking through the town I ran into the familiar faces of Catherine and Ricardo once again, this time without their bags. They were staying in the town and told me they had hoped to get farther but all of the lodgings had been booked for the next two nights. They told me even in Muroto, where I was planning on meeting Cindy, everybody they called was booked for the following two or three nights.

This became a concern. I wasn’t going to make Cindy sleep outside, but I now had to worry that there may not be a place that we could stay. Either way, it was not something I could yet deal with. I thanked them for the information and moved on wishing them luck.

After passing through the village I took a stop in a small hut beside the road to look at the guidebook and see what was coming ahead of me. The light of the day was beginning to dissipate and I saw no promising beaches, huts, or shelters marked on the near future of the path. The hut had a roof, but no walls and four stumps were plotted as chairs around a small table. I had seen better huts farther back, but they were too far to return to now and the ground by the hut was too wet for the tent.

I sat paralyzed in thought, wondering if this were really the place I would be sleeping that night. It would be, by far, the worst spot of the journey up till now, but people have survived with worse. More than any other moment on the trail I felt vulnerable and alone. Even when Connor and I were still walking late at night, it was much easier to remain calm – even if a little frustrated – when there was another person with me. This was not the kind of alone I’d fantasized about when coming to Shikoku, but our fantasies hardly match up with reality.

Even as I was aware of the overreaction, I felt that the world was apathetic towards me. I had never been more sure I didn’t matter and I thought of the millions that deal with poverty and homelessness on a daily basis. I truly believed my strength was an embarrassment to theirs. This mood of vulnerability came sudden and it hit hard. Some faces even came to mind that I had ignored, or helped, in the past and I wondered if anyone would care to help me.

It got darker every second now and I thought of all the places so much better than this that I had seen. I wasn’t going to go backward, but I could keep going. I would have gotten little or no sleep here and it was honestly foolish to consider. I shook myself out of my irrational depression. If I couldn’t find anything better, I sure couldn’t do too much worse. And, if I really couldn’t find anything I could keep walking through the night. I was not without options.

I left behind the hut of vulnerability at a faster pace than I had moved all day. It didn’t take long to find something better. A large, open grass field just before a tunnel. It looked like it might be used as a parking lot – though I couldn’t imagine what for – and there was nobody there now. It would have been ideal to set up my tent. I can’t say what forces made me keep walking. Maybe the adrenaline I’d produced in myself wasn’t satisfied with the distance I’d traveled since leaving the hut. Either way, I kept walking. After another 45 minutes I could already feel my insecurities raising again. It didn’t take long, but it usually doesn’t in the nighttime. I had nothing to look for. I was wandering in hope of luck, and I found some.

As I approached a town I heard voices down a path away from the main road. I followed them towards a small, homely temple. I could hear the voices, but I could not see the sources. I climbed up the steps slowly while trying to make enough noise with the tapping of my walking stick so I wouldn’t alarm anybody with my appearance. I imagine I must have looked like a stray dog in desperation climbing those stairs. Two men sat in a small stone garden; one with his dog lying by his side, the other was Muriyama-san from the zenkanyado by Byōdōji.

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I looked at him and asked, in the most innocent voice I could muster, if I could stay for the night. He looked over to his friend, the head of the temple, who nodded in agreement. Muriyama-san showed me where the bathroom, shower, and washing machine were before bringing me to the shed we would be sharing for the night. Everything had an old worn out look to it and some walls were reinforced with thin pieces of wood. Regardless, I was grateful that my vulnerability at the hut had driven me away from there and towards the comfort of this temple. If I’m ever again ungrateful for a roof and four walls, I hope I can recall this night.

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Shikoku Day Nine: A Walk in Solitude

The Morning Wait

I woke up refreshed with my best night of sleep yet and did some reading before climbing out of my tent. The henro campsite was already lively at six in the morning. Henro were packing up their sleeping bags, making breakfast on their miniature cookers, and preparing to return to the road whether that meant by foot or on wheels.

This location provided a checkpoint before a 76-kilometer coastal walk to Hotsumisakiji (24) which was estimated to be a three-day journey. I recognized many of the henro from passing on the trail, including Muriyama-San whose snoring kept me awake the previous night. He greeted me with the kind of wave you get from a child where their entire arm appears on a swivel.

I ate breakfast and wrote while I waited for my tent to dry from a light dew. By eight o’clock, there was no sign of Connor and Miles, so I assumed I would be walking alone once again. This wasn’t the first time I’d thought of the possibility. They had gone back about two kilometers in the opposite direction and usually took their time getting ready, so I would have been surprised to see them by nine o’clock. I wasn’t interested in waiting that long.

Arranging a Meeting in Muroto

I was pleased to be  on my own again so I could rediscover the thoughtfulness of a walk in solitude. Just over a week had passed and walking had developed a new sense of value for me. Movement felt synonymous to having value. This seemed contradictory to the idea I had when coming to Shikoku. I thought I would take my time and not rush the process. Maybe, if there were a place I particularly liked, I would stay there even for a whole day. That original idea now felt out of the question.

I had spoken with Cindy (my girlfriend) on a few occasions and told her she should come down to visit the island during a holiday that was coming up. I wanted her to experience the side of Japanese culture I was experiencing. Cindy took a few days off from work and was coming to meet me in the cape town of Muroto. She would be arriving in four days, so I knew I had to temper my pace to align our arrivals.

Leaving Minami Town, I took a route by the coast called the Sun Line. This route first took me through a forested area. At this point, it hardly deserved the name of Sun Line with the cover of trees hanging over me like a tunnel, but I took no issue with the shade on another hot day. I exited the tunnel of trees onto a blinding view of light reflecting off the ocean and waves crashing against cliff ledges hundreds of feet below me.

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With the sun beating down as it had every day since I’d arrived in Shikoku, the tunnel of trees soon became a pipe dream. When I did find shade, it was one of the few places I would stop to dig my camera out of my bag for pictures. I’d been regretting how few pictures I had of the trail I was walking since it was the dominant theme of the journey, and taking pictures provided a quality excuse to stop and rest at any sign of shade.

Hours went by before the Sun Line merged again into the main road for the henro trail. I carried on up the road and considering all the while just how far I would go before stopping for the rest. There are accommodations spotted across the 76-kilometer distance to Hotsumisakiji, but I didn’t intend on using them unless they were cheap or free.

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Evoking Thought

When approaching a tunnel on the road I could already see a beach that sat by it’s exit. I wouldn’t call it beautiful. It seemed more like a planned resort that was deserted part way through the project. There were piles of debris, sticks, bottles, and trash. They were organized for cleaning but now ignored. Long rows of concrete steps extended the length of the beach leading down to the sand where a few large huts were built to provide shade in the heat of midday, but the structures were worn, their color faded, and noticeable chunks were missing giving them the appearance of being closer to their collapse than their prime.

There was nobody else on the beach. This was a place mostly seen in seconds as people sped by on the road. A pier extended out in the distance where I could see the silhouette of a couple people walking towards the end. They appeared to me only as miniature shadows of an existence, not like real people. Do they see me the same way? I wondered. Or, do I not exist to them at all?

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The waves were small, brushing over the sand leaving behind a trace of their presence in the darkened color of the dampened sand. The waves were inconsistent in the distance they came up the beach, as if confused whether it was time for high tide to begin or end. But, they continued. Although indecisive in their technique, there was no consideration in whether the next wave would come. I sat leaning back on my bag with my shoes by my side and my feet in the sand just above the reach of the waves.

If there were any layout to trigger a thoughtful moment, a solitary beach scene may be the most renowned. The passing of the waves had me thinking of my own passing time in Shikoku. How does it fit in? I wondered. For what purpose am I here? I had no definite answer to this question anymore. Before I’d come to Shikoku, when people asked me why I was going, I usually gave the reason of wanting to be alone and escape a world that has become so loud. With worldwide connectivity we hear everything from everywhere at every moment; it’s a job just to think straight. I would also acknowledge how it would aid me in learning to better appreciate the advances in technology. It is, after all, a special thing that I can still contact my friends and family across the planet at a moments notice.

In this moment I became aware, and maybe I always knew, there was significant error in my motives. By saying I wanted to escape technology I admitted I just wanted to get away from it, which I could have just as easily done by leaving my computer, phone, or tablet at home, or off. By saying I wanted to gain an appreciation for technology, I admitted that there was something to appreciate. I was like a cat chasing her tale when it was already in her mouth.

It seemed I had already found what I was looking for and there may have been no reason to continue. My previous job left me with no great excess of wealth, the preparations and purchases I’d made for this trip already cut into that, and now the inevitable day-to-day costs were chipping away slowly at my net worth. That was indeed how I felt, like my value was deteriorating. Moreover, with Cindy coming to visit, I knew I would be spending some extra money on a place for us to stay. I could not make her endure the chill of the nights I’d been going through.

Waves continued to sweep in and out and I was relaxed despite what were maybe stress inducing thoughts. Whatever the calamity was, or how severe, I was aware it was just another pass of the brush; it would end and another would come. I felt no need to rush. I may have found some reasons to conclude my trip early but, even if I did, it would not be that day. On that day, I was in Shikoku. In that moment, I was on the beach. Planning for the future is undeniably useful. But, planning without the ability to be present is to be like a bird with no feet for landing.

A Serendipitous Stay

It was still early, but I felt ready to stop for the day. I realized, in true novice form, I’d made a novice mistake by not having enough food for both the night and the morning. I may have been fine, but with  days that seemed as certain to be hot as my feet were under me, I knew it would not be wise to make a test out of under nourishing myself.

I came upon a Ryokan not far from the beach where they offered both a bed and meals. The price was more than I was interested in paying, as any price would be, but the service proved worth the cost. Since I had not called ahead they didn’t have what they needed to prepare a proper dinner for me and subtracted that from the cost. They still prepared a large bowl of fried rice that proved quite filling in place of a larger meal.

A bath was drawn for me infused with a black stone that rejuvenated my body in ways I never realized I required. The bath alone made me feel the stay was worth the price and I might have continued walking the trail at that moment with the way I felt. But, I remained. I went upstairs to my room where I found tea had been prepared for me and I drank it and laid down to sleep before eight o’clock. Being in nature is nice, I thought, but this too has a strong appeal.

Thanks for reading.

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Shikoku Day Eight: Reconvening

The Volume of a Zenkanyado

The zenkanyado provided a warmer night than most had been, but sleep did not come easily. Through the nasal passage of the Buddhist laying to my left came sounds that could disturb a DJ at rave. The snoring was so loud I was waiting for the moment where he would shock himself awake from the noise. That instance might have given me a chance to get some rest before he fell unconscious again, but it did not come.

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This provided more time for me to read, but irritated me further that the only times I seemed able to find time for the things I wanted were in instances of frustration. The words of a good book can still be enjoyable, but sleep deprivation is hardly the best amplifier for a quality message.

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When morning came Muriyama-San, a.k.a. DJ Nostrils, was back to the joyous creature as he’d originally been. He was energetic, smiling, play fighting, laughing, and giving us directions to his own temple back in Yokohama. A good night of sleep will put someone in that mood. I returned his smiles, but I suspect anyone could see they were ingenuous. His magnetic personality came thanks to the sleep that he had cost me, and I felt more repelled from him at the time.

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These guys protect the entrance of most temples.

Connor and I got moving after eating and backtracked slightly so we could see Byōdōji (22) in the daylight. We did not stay long as we wanted to be sure to make progress early. We only planned to walk from Byōdōji to Yakuōji (23) in Minami Town where we were planning to meet Miles. It was not a short walk, but one that could be done without much strain.

There were a couple routes to take, one along the roadway and the other more scenic. Connor decided to travel along the ocean and go swimming. The roadway was only three kilometers shorter, but did not need to think long. I was going the shorter route. There was a definite appeal to walking alone again and I wanted to get to an Onsen I saw listed on the map by the Yakuōji.

Back on my Own

There was a decent walk before we split up and it may have been the most pleasant of time we spent together, but I can only speak for myself. We spoke about our lives, aspirations, struggles, and joys. Where I struggle in large groups I thrive in one-on-one interaction. I love a penetrating, intellectual conversation. Maybe that goes a bit far in describing what transpired between Connor and I, but I felt improved by the moment and am grateful to him for it. I can only hope he gained something from it as well.

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We reached the point where our paths split and planned to meet again at the train station. The road way proved to be what was expected; a main road passing through and between moderately populated towns areas resulting in consistent levels of traffic. Consistent in the way that nobody needs to slow down for the car in front of them, but there was never much time between obnoxious engines roaring by in the form of a motorcycle, 18-wheeler, or one of the car engines that seems specifically crafted to make noise.

The consistency of their passing was an irritating occurrence but the road, after all, was not made with feet in mind. There were two restaurants marked on this road in the guidebook but they had both been closed down. One was now overrun with monkeys, which provided some entertainment, but I would have rather had food. After passing the second of the restaurants, the irritation of the engine noise became appreciated as a distraction from the irritation of my hunger. The town was only about four kilometers away now, so there was no real cause for concern. But, as each bend in the road revealed only more road and no place for food, my hunger pains became merciless stabbings to the stomach.

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One bend eventually did reveal a convenience store. I bought a lunch box of sushi and sat down in the parking lot stuffing my face full of raw fish. I was aware it wasn’t the best look on me, but I was far from caring at this point and I assumed the henro vest did enough to provide an explanation.

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After the convenience store I moved on to Yakuōji. It was a considerable climb up the stairs of the temple but was worth the effort for the view over Minami Town, which felt like watchtower, a perfect perch for a guardian protecting his village. To the right was another climb of stairs leading to a massive red pagoda larger than any I’d seen at other temples. The pagoda could be seen from all over town letting the villagers know that their guardian was always on duty.

A Disappointing Onsen

From the temple I went direct to the nearby Onsen. This was admittedly a significant disappointment compared to the last but, in fairness, the bar was set high. There seemed to be more showers than there was space in the lone tub to accommodate visitors. In my favor was the scarcity of visitors at this Onsen. Apparently, word was already out on their limited services. There was not even an outdoor area. Typically, an Onsen of any quality will have an outdoor area with a few treatments as well, even if it is small. The liberation of nudity is hardly acknowledgeable if it can’t be done in open air.

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After two days of taunting desire with frustrated reads, this was a day I was determined to do some reading and writing on my own terms. So, after visiting the Onsen, around four o’clock, I began looking for a place to setup camp for the night. It was an early turn in by recent standards, but a preferred hour. My search brought me to the train station where I knew I’d probably be seeing both Connor and Miles if I hung around.

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There were many henro here. It took the form of an unofficial henro rest stop as there were free footbaths and plenty of sitting space with overhead coverage in the case of rain. There were grassed areas as well that I decided were ideal to set up my tent. I didn’t feel it was necessary to set up just yet, so I went across the street to where there were some tables outside a 7-11 and sat down to log some of the events of the day.

O-Settai of the Day and Meeting Miles

I soon gained the company of a stray cat and, soon after, Connor who had seen me from afar. We spoke of our plans for the night. He was again more motivated to find a roof to sleep under. The sound of a small motor introduced itself from the parking lot when an older man pulled his seated scooter up by our table and handed us each an ice cream. For most o-settai I’d been receiving I needed to manufacture a reaction of surprise to hide signs I might expect to receive gifts, but there was genuine surprise this time. His abrupt appearance and his nod as he backed away left nothing to be said aside from what we said about most o-settai, “that was awesome.”

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We went to the train station to wait for Miles, and he soon arrived. He’d been lucky enough to meet someone he could stay with during his overnight in nowhere and his dramatically lowered pace gave him the good luck of seeing Kei again, who was now apparently traveling with a girl he’d met. Miles and Connor wanted to go to the local grocery store to find some food and then search for a rumored zenkanyado. I had enough walking for the day and told them I was staying right there and setting up my tent.

They would need to pass by here in the morning, so we parted ways with expectations to meet the next day. I set up my tent and crawled inside to enjoy some reading and a pleasant night. I would like to say I was finally able to get some quality reading done on my own terms, but I’d hardly turned a page before I fell unconscious.

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Shikoku Day Seven: A Rush to Byōdōji

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Late Start

This night at the school, like those before it, found me tossing restlessly in the cold. Fortunately, I was more able to take advantage of the time and got more reading done than I had at any point in the past week. Before hand, I’d imagined that, after a day of walking, I would have plenty of time to read and write, but with the planning that went into each day and the unanticipated social dimensions, reading and writing was happening on a small scale, if at all. I didn’t like it.

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Kino left early, but Connor and I took our time. By this, I mean we took way too much of our time. Between finding rackets and playing badminton, repeatedly deciding our clothes needed more time to dry, exploring the school grounds, and making breakfast (which was more aligned with brunch), we didn’t leave the school until 12:30.

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Connor taking in the scenery.

Two thoughts campaigned for my attention while we ignored the passing of time. (1) “This is not what I came here to do,” and (2), “you came to enjoy yourself, so relax and do it.” The latter of the ideals gained the advantage with the assistance of Connor’s carefree mentality, but the day would end with the former winning the decisive last laugh.

Tairyūji (21) sat at the top of another steep hike, only three kilometers in distance but rumored more formidable in difficulty. We elected to go a different way, walking about seven kilometers to a ropeway that would bring us straight up to Tairyūji. We imagined this route might save us some time. No matter which way we elected to go, we had to move fast.

We covered the seven kilometers to the ropeway, sometimes running, in just a shade over an hour. This option probably didn’t end up saving us any time and it may have even slowed us down because we had to wait two more hours for our trip up the ropeway. The views during the ride up were worth the wait, but I still had a pang of guilt for not traveling the traditional route

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Once we arrived at Tairyūji, the route no longer mattered. The temple climbed into the ranks of my favorites simply by the appeal to my interest of altitude and mountainous scenery. On top of that, no other temple I saw was integrated with it’s forest setting as well as Tairyūji. The temple navigated the forest with paths like a game board leading to check points on a map. Each path took on it’s own character running through forest trees – some so large it would take five people hand-in-hand to reach around it -, a garden surrounding a pond that could make one feel at home no matter where they come from, or an opening in the trees overlooking the distance tree tops and mountains that seemed to suggest, just look at me and think. . . about everything, or nothing. Either will do just fine.

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I couldn’t see it at first.

No Interest in Leaving

I love Tairyūji. I might have spent the night there were it not for the signs warning against the danger of severe nighttime temperatures. The appeal of the beauty so regularly surrounding me in Shikoku and the actual task of moving forward evoked a tug-of-war in my wanting to stay and wanting to move on. It was as common to wonder how much more ground I might have covered at the end of a day just as it was to consider how much longer I might stay in one place. The fact that either one would be done for the joy of it made it complete nonsense to stress over consideration of which would be a greater joy. How selfish I would be to find the slightest of pleasures insufficient.

We left Tairyūji in a hurry. If there was anything certain it was that we could not spend the night on the mountain. We had to get down if we were going to consider any possibilities of sleeping outside. We set a goal of reaching Byōdōji (22), or at least getting nearby before we stopped for the night. This may have been ambitious since we had almost 12 kilometers to go, part of that was an uphill hike, and it would soon be getting dark.

We ran down a majority of the mountain making significant progress in the short term. We passed a small hotel-style lodging that gave us pause as we weighed the appeal of stopping at that moment, but we moved on. We came to a crossroads when we reached the bottom of the climb. A woman left her work in her garden to speak with us. She let us know we could follow the maps route up and over the mountain or follow the road around. It was a longer distance, but we might be able to save some time with flatter ground.

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In the ceiling.

Hunting for Sleep

Neither of us was prepared to anymore running for the day, but I still exaggerated my stride, and Connor was moving as fast as I had seen him move aside from his running. We passed through tunnels, over bridges looking out on a valley of farms and moved down a gradual, curving slope into the village we had just been looking at from above. I looked back to see where we’d come from, but the distance was growing indistinguishable as it grew dark.

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We passed by a school and moved along a river where we saw a road sign indicating Byōdōji was only two kilometers away. We walked slower now keeping our eyes peeled for places we could camp out, but the ground was too wet by the river and under the bridges we passed. We walked all the way to the temple passing nothing but private property. I was frustrated, reminding myself that if we would have left earlier this would not be a problem. Setting up my tent in the parking lot seemed like the best option at that point.

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Connor still had some hope and I followed him to a small building beside the temple where there was still a light on. He got their attention and handed the business over to me to see if there was anywhere to sleep nearby. I didn’t need to say anything. They understood just what we were looking for and wasted no time in gesturing to their car, signalling us to get in.

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Muriyama-San

In most other scenarios, this may be a huge red flag, but not in Shikoku. We got in the car and they brought us down the street to a zenkanyado where we were able to spend the night for free. There were two other henro there, one particularly gregarious man, Muriyama Kunio, who insisted on snapping as many pictures of us as he could with his cell phone that look like it was from 2001. The area wasn’t luxurious nor was it spacious, but it was indoors and it was free. This was definitely a scenario I was glad I had Connor with me. If I was by myself I may have given up and slept anywhere.

Shikoku Day Six: Splitting the Party

Reunion

This night was more bearable. I still spent time sleeping on my arms, but it was more out of habit than necessity. Rain fell during the night, bringing back memories of childhood camping with huge leaks in our tent. The rain’s tapping on the tent tightened my nerves. If there were anything that could be done wrong in setup to ensure a leak, my carelessness would have been sure to find it. I lay awake waiting for the signs of a leak, but threat turned to solace and the taps lulled me to sleep.

I woke up dry and the rain had stopped. We didn’t take as long to get moving as the day before, probably because we didn’t have the same comforts available to us. It was a quick walk to Tatsueji (19) and it seemed many henro were staying nearby because it didn’t take long for more to arrive, including Ricardo and Catherine. I introduced them to Connor and Miles.

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While they became acquainted, I circled the temple and took some pictures. When I came back, Miles and Connor had been anticipating my return and approached me the moment I was in sight.

“We have something for you,” Connor said.

“This feels like a trap.” My suspicions were soon relieved when I saw the tour group we’d run into at the last temple.

“They felt bad that you were they only one that didn’t get a bell.” Miles handed me my own bell with a charm resembling snow shoes. . . I still don’t know exactly what they are. I went to thank them. The leader of the group greeted me along with the woman that had given us the gifts the day before. She still did not speak. Whether her silence was voluntary or not, it didn’t matter, her kindness and generosity still spoke volumes.

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We spoke with them and told them where we were from, but they were more interested in giving than talking. They were like a mobile gift shop, replete with bells and other trinkets. They gave me one more gift, another bell with a small, smooth purple gem, which I decided to save for Cindy.

We made our way back onto the road after grabbing some fruit for the day. This time the path was mainly on a country road that ran beside rice fields, through forests, and towards the hills. We walked for about 7 kilometers before stopping at another convenience store.DSC_3255

Leaving Miles

Miles had contacted a friend from home and had them order a new tent for him. They had it shipped to this convenience store so Miles could pick it up on his way by. Yes, you can have mail shipped for pickup at convenience stores in Japan. I never understood why you would want to do it, but it was helpful now. I helped him explain to the store clerk what he was looking for and, although I struggled, he eventually got the idea and went in the back to see if it had arrived. It hadn’t. The package was scheduled to arrive the next day at 3:00PM.
Kakurinji (20) was another seven kilometers away and Miles wasn’t interested in walking the 14k there and back to get his tent. He decided to spend the night in the area where, as far as we could see, there was very little aside from rice fields. We spent the next hour eating fruit and discussing where and how Miles would meet with us again. I gave Miles my Japanese book so he could practice while he waited for the next 24 hours.

There was another uphill climb to Kakurinji, nothing in comparison to what had already been done going up to Shōsanji, but a challenge none the less. My bag was lighter than Connor’s, and I’ve been gifted with some length in my legs, so I was able to cover ground faster than him. We took frequent, short rests on the way up and arrived at Kakurinji within an hour.

It was just in time for Connor to get his stamp. This was the first time I actually got to witness the input of the stamp at the temple, and it was far more interesting than I’d anticipated. Each temple gives a few small stamps along with their unique calligraphy on their own page of the stamp book. An image of one of the temple stamps can be seen here. As you can see, the title of ‘stamp’ does not accurately describe what you receive. I began to regret not buying a stamp book.

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The view going up.

We explored the temple grounds and made our way back down the mountain after refueling with a quick snack. Not too far from Kakurinji was an Elementary school that had been shut down. We planned on staying there for the night and were anxious to see what our accommodations would be like. The area was set up conveniently for a henro with running water and electricity still flowing into the outdoor outlets. There were three separate buildings, two looked like the main school buildings, and the third was a gymnasium that appeared maintained for future use. We found a window open in one of the old school building and couldn’t resist going inside.

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Raw Eggs

The area was set up conveniently for a henro with running water and electricity still flowing into the outdoor outlets. We set up camp by one of the entrances where there was some coverage from the rain. One other henro, Kino, who was doing the trail on his motorcycle, spent the night at the school as well.

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Kino, like most of people we encountered, displayed generosity in excess giving us some detergent to wash our cloths, clips to hang them by, eggs to add to the food we already had. He also suggested what he believed was the best way of eating the eggs by cracking a raw egg on a nearby ledge and dropping it into his mouth with some soy sauce. He mixed the solution using his mouth as a blender, and swallowed. Connor and I elected to fry them with the portable cooker he’d brought.

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Connor cleaned our clothes while I cooked and we spent the remainder of the night relaxing and chatting about the pleasures of the trail. I revealed to him the guilt I was feeling in wanting to be alone again and apologized for my consistent lack of response whenever he spoke while we were walking. In turn, he assured my apologies were unnecessary. He too had come to Shikoku expecting to spend a lot of time alone but found more comfort with company than I did. Furthermore, he assured me, even with nobody around, he would still be talking.

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It was reassuring to know that my anxieties of the past two days were mostly brought about because of an erred interpretation of the situation. Miles and Connor took no issue with my wanting to walk faster or be alone, nor did they find my silence offensive. When writing them out, it seems ridiculous to imagine anyone would find offense in such things. By speaking frankly with Connor we were able to come to a better understanding of each other. This was a huge help in making the rest of our time together more manageable.

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We fell asleep by about 8:30 or 9. With artificial light being sparse, our days usually came to a close as the sun went down. I will always be fond of the way things functioned on the sun’s schedule in Shikoku, the rhythm of life running in tune with the pace of the day. There was no concern for when or how something should be done. When it was dark, I slept. When day came, I woke up. During the day, I walked. It was a joy in simplicity, like a secret much of the modern world, with their bright lights, bright screens, and constant noise, could never be privileged to. It’s enough to make me wonder why I ever came back.

Shikoku Day Five: Internal Conflict

Joining Forces

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.

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Connor (left) and Miles (right).

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.

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Miles and Kei.

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).

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Kei packing his massive bag.

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.

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Connor singing some Bob Marley.

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.

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At Onzanji (Temple 18).

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.

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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.

Irritation Boils

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.

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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.

Shikoku Day Four: A Social Affair

Henro Blood

By now I was growing accustomed to waking up with a road laid out before me. It is easier to get the day started when you not only know what you are doing, but also that you want to be doing it. There were days coming up when it would be harder to get started, but it was always a comfort to know that each day of walking was done out of my own interests. I wasn’t doing it for anybody else.               ]

The morning of the fourth day was one of favorite experiences from the pilgrimage. Passing through high mountain forest roads, fields of fruit trees, looking down on the village below and the river in the distance. It was a pleasant step away from the city lifestyle. I walked slowly. If I would ever have the need to kill time, I hope it would die in a place like that.

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My favorite spot on the path.

I passed a few other henro on this trail, but the majority of my time was spent in solitude. I passed by Ricardo and Catherine again. Catherine fallen coming down a hill and had a serious gash on her nose. I could see from the dried blood on her face, been bleeding a lot. It began to bleed again as she sat on a cement wall by the road and applied a new bandage. I stayed with them for a while, but they were taking their time and were far more prepared for these situations than I was. I could offer very little beyond moral support.

They started out slowly behind me and fell out of sight. After passing through a small village at the bottom of the mountains, crossing a bridge over a river, and moving on to a main road I would follow to Dainichiji (13), I looked back and watched for them. I saw nobody for a few minutes. As my concern grew so did the awareness that there was nothing I could do to help them.

The Weight of Guilt

I moved forward with Catherine on my mind, hoping she was okay. I felt guilty that people had done so much for me and I did s little for her. Almost on cue, as I passed by a small convenience store, a man ran out and handed me a bottle of tea. Shortly after that, I heard another man shouting from behind me.

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A nice flower wall by the road.

“Hello! Scoose me! Hello!” He was begging for me to stop. He caught up and handed me a can of espresso coffee and said to me with his arms opened wide for emphasis, “world and friend and brother!” I’m not a coffee drinker, but that still may have been the best o-settai I received.

Moving along roads back towards populated areas, the mysticism of the scenery dissipated against the sound of cars and motorcycles rushing past me. It was the hottest day yet and I took frequent breaks. I came around a shaded curb and saw an elderly henro standing by a small fruit stand.

I recognized this from where I had lived the previous year. Farmers sometimes set up stands by the streets where people could take what they wanted for ¥100. Of course, it wasn’t guarded, but there was an understood trust in the act. The man stood, only looking at the fruit. The fruits were looked like over-sized oranges and had more of a yellowish color. They were packaged in groups of two and I could see what he was interested in. “Half?” I asked him. We each chipped in ¥50 and took our fruit under the shade of a tree, ate, and spoke to each other.

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Back to Fountain photography.

The man, Yoshi, looked no younger than 65 and I was sure this walk was a big challenge for him, but he spoke as if he had no cares or concerns. He bit into his fruit and pleasure was washed onto his face. I peeled my fruit and took a bite. I was shocked by a sour slap to the face. The taste was like the month after a terrible decision leaving me apprehensive with my next decision. I wasn’t sure I wanted another bite. I ate slow and was able to adapt to the flavor. That was when I saw Ricardo and Catherine approaching in the distance.

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When they reached us we each had a half of our fruit remaining and offered the two halves to the newcomers. They accepted and ate the fruits with haste. I warned them of the flavor but they hardly seemed to notice. I was relieved they’d caught up so I could know they were okay. Plus, having something to give them helped ease my guilt. I was the first to move on and it wasn’t more than 20 minutes before I arrived at Dainichiji.

Making Friends and Lots of them

When I stepped onto the temple grounds I’d barely had time to look around before a man who looked about my age greeted me, “I’m Kei, where are you from?” He’d cut straight off a chat he was having with another person and somehow pulled me in to create a three-headed conversation. This had already been, by far, the most social day of my journey, and it was not even noon.

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Our conversation was short, pleasant, and left me wishing, for the first time, that I had somebody to walk with for a while. I would have liked to hear more about him, but he was moving on and I needed more of a rest after the 20 kilometers or so I’d already walked.

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My staff is the nude one in the middle.

The hard part of the day was finished. For the remaining hours of walking I would be going to four more temples. Each of them was within a three-kilometer walk to the next, and I would be passing by the place I’d be staying for the night shortly before the last of them.

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There were many people at Jōrakuji(14) when I arrived, so I went to set my things by some benches surrounding a small tree and wait for the crowds to disperse before taking my pictures. I took off my sugegasa (the sedge hat) and placed it between myself a woman on a bench beside me. She looked at the hat, looked at me, said something I couldn’t understand, then grabbed my hat and went to work. She pulled some strings and other equipment from a case she had and looped them around the inner lining of my hat.

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The original chinstrap on the sugegasa is very simple and loose and the head lining is uncushioned and uncomfortable. It does not sit on the head well, and will fly off at the slightest amount of wind. By the time this woman was done with my hat I had an adjustable chinstrap and a small wash towel now cushioned the inner lining. It was a huge improvement in comfort and convenience.

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I tried on my new sugegasa and was very pleased. I had an assortment of drinks I’d received as o-settai and gave her the coffee I wouldn’t be drinking. As I went to get my camera a boy approached me. He looked terrified. His parents and his younger sister stood behind him as he inched forward. I could see there was some parental pressure to get him to speak English with me, so I eased awkwardness by saying hello to him first.

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He was very nervous to speak with me, but my English teacher instincts kicked in and I helped him struggle through a short introduction in which he told me that he likes animals, he lives in Japan (surprise), and his favorite animal was a bat (surprise, but seriously). I tried to speak with his sister as well and he was an awesome brother trying to help her sound out words and phrases like “hello”, “how are you?” and “I’m fine thank you.”

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The walk from Jōrakuji to Kokubunji (15) to Kanonji (16) brought me more and more into more of a city setting – a small city that is. After leaving Kanonji, I began the search for the taxi company. It wasn’t far, but just as I started walking a car honked at me as I drove by and pulled over in a parking lot near me.

I was confused and unsure of what intent the honk had behind it, or if it was even meant for me. I didn’t stop but walked slowlyDSC_3197 as I saw someone climbing out of the passengers seat. It was Kei! He greeted me and went to open the trunk of the car where his backpack was standing. I hadn’t noticed before how immense his bag was. His friend helped him in his struggle to get it on his bag. The bag most have been at least half his weight. He was not a big man, but I did not envy his task.

Kei and I went to the Taxi Company together and signed in for the night. The owner showed us around. The parking area for the Taxis was under a lofted room held up by support beams providing a kind of makeshift garage area, but there were no doors or walls. Along the back of the garage there was a bathroom, a shower room, and two offices.

Kei gestured to some shoes on the ground beside the stairs to the loft. “There is American, from California, and German here,” he told me. He pointed to the shoes, “I know them.” Sure enough, as Kei turned into the loft ahead of me, I heard the scream, “KEEEEEIIIIIIII!!!!!!” When I came around the corner I saw Kei being tackled into a pile of blankets stacked against the wall.

The man doing the tackling was Connor, the German, and yelling with him was Miles, the Californian. The three of them had all met at Shōsanji and spent the night together. The next day Miles and Connor had moved ahead since Kei was moving much slower and made frequent with the weight of his bag.

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While Connor and Miles continued shouting back and forth in their excitement Kei looked at me and said, in Japanese, “they always speak English so fast and I can’t understand. I’m happy someone is here to speak Japanese with me.”

“No problem (Daijoubu desu),” I told him.

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I left my backpack at the Taxi Company and went to Idoji (17) by myself. It was nice to be at the last temple of the day and know that sleep was not far away. Key and I had dinner together that night. He was not only walking around Shikoku but intended to continue walking around the rest of Japan once he was done with the pilgrimage.DSC_3200

I left my backpack at the Taxi Company and went to Idoji (17) by myself. It was nice to walk without the weight on my shoulders. By the time I got to the temple it was getting dark and there was only one other person on the grounds. The sunset provided some quality lighting and it was nice to not to be concerned with getting back on the trail.

Shikoku Day Three: Henro’s Fall

Another Cold Night

On this night, I was sleeping indoors, but the shed was not built with insulation in mind. The improvement in warmth was marginal, if there was any at all. I spent most of the night sleeping on my stomach with my arms folded across my chest for warmth.

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Sasaki, my roommate (shed mate) for the night.

There was relief in the raising sun since it meant I could start moving again. Sasaki left ahead of me while I grabbed a quick breakfast and some food for the walk up to Shōsanji (12). The walk is estimated to take between 4-6 hours depending on how fast and fit the walker. The path began at Fujidera (11) so the morning began with a return to the temple I’d already seen.

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The lodgings. Not too bad or too warm.

This portion of the trail is sometimes referred to as ‘Henro’s Fall’ or ‘The Fall of the Henro’ for being the first real formidable challenge. The difficulty of the incline increased as it progressed. The beginning had steady inclines and paths wide enough that some cars still came up. There were openings in the trees overlooking the towns and villages I’d spent the last two days walking through, but it wasn’t long before the path moved deep into the forest of the mountains and nothing could be seen outside of the density of the trees.

This was a path only for the walking henro. There were roads for pilgrims traveling by bike, car, or bus, so there were far less people to see during this hike but there were a few. One couple in particular carried small, light weight bags and were running up the mountain. The two of them took turns chasing each other. I would see them again running back down the mountain well before I was anywhere near the top. There was also a woman who pushed so many snacks on me as o-settai I had hardly enough space to store them, and a European couple.

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Going through Fujidera (Temple 11) again.

Ricardo (originally from Italy) and Catherine were from Paris. They had been struggling with the language barrier and were pleased to speak with someone in English. I tried to give them some pointers on communicating with Japanese, but it is a complicated language and not much progress can be made on a fly-by lesson during a hike. Meeting them helped me appreciate that even though my Japanese skills were not much to brag about, they were invaluable as a tool during this pilgrimage.

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A bumble bee going to work.

Fellow Foreigners

Ricardo, Catherine, and I had a few separate encounters on our way up the trail. First, at one rest stop, then again as I moved past them on the trail, then again when they caught up to me at a shrine where I was taking a rest. I left them behind as I moved on to a road for the final stretch of the hike. Again, space cleared in the trees and the landscape could be seen.

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Coming to the first rest stop through the forrest.

The scenery was no longer villages, and towns but waves of green mountains stretching out as far as I could see only interrupted by the traces of road cutting between them and the blue of the sky falling like a curtain from above. I gazed out on this ocean of trees while backpedalling up the road.

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A shrine where the lighting was very uncooperative with me.

It was about another hour or more of walking on a road, which was a curious change to the route, before I reached Shōsanji. As I arrived, I again saw Katrine and Ricardo, but they were leaving. Apparently, during my appreciation of the scenery I missed the trail and took the long route up by the road, which was about twice as long.

Shōsanji Temple

This temple was one of my favorites. Large and prominent in it’s simplicity. There was not too much that stuck out about this besides location and the scenery it offered of the aforementioned waves of trees. Well, there was also a long walkway littered with statues, which reeked of splendor, but even this walkway provided a path to a structure that, to me, was understated with glory.

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I enjoyed the moss surrounding the fountain.

One might say this about many Buddhist temples as they don’t tend to stray too far from a uniform style. I’ve heard temples be referred to as monotonous, and I suppose I could empathize with that opinion. But, it is true, than Shōsanji played that role of monotony as well as any could. I would have preferred to stay there for hours but, thanks to my detour, I was already flirting with being late for my check-in. I wasn’t sure how serious they would take the matter, but I didn’t intend to find out.

I passed through a field of fruit, flowers, and vegetables. The field looked so large with it’s layers of crops going up hill that I highly doubted the small house on the property housed enough people to work the land, never mind to store the crops. I walked another half-hour through forest and a few more fields before I finally saw signs of buildings being clustered together resembling some kind of mock-village. Imagined my Ryokan (Japanese style Inn) must be here.

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Shōsanji (Temple 12)

I arrived just before five o’clock. As I approached, I could see, far away, an old woman crouched over like she had dumbbells strapped to each shoulder. I was too far to make out her face, but her eyes had not failed her in her age as she had no trouble distinguishing me as the American henro she’d spoken to the night before.

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The only tree I saw in bloom.

I was relieved to be able to relax for the night. The hike up was difficult, and took a little more than the estimated six hours because of my accidental detour. My knees were sore so I was thrilled when the owner told me and another henro that he would be driving us to an onsen near the bottom of the mountain.

Onsen Again

The price of the onsen was included in the price of my stay, so I now doubt I was getting my money’s worth. Having both my second and third days end by relaxing in an onsen was as much as I could have asked for. The onsen from the previous night was sufficient, but this one was on a different level of luxury. I spent the evening bathing in red wine, sweating in a sauna, and letting the jets of a tub massage my muscles.

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Some Japanese have asked me if many Americans would be comfortable exposing themselves in an onsen. I can’t imagine it would be an issue, since there is a regularity of nudity in the changing rooms of gyms. I’m sure some would be turned off by the idea, but I’d guess some Japanese are as well. Personally, I find nudity quite liberating. Seclusion might be preferred, but even in company the shedding of clothes is equivalent to a removal of status, pretensions, and ego. We all become exposed to judgment but with that seems to come the entire lack of a need for it.

After about 30 or 45 minutes Yoshida-san, the other henro, suggested it was time to go eat. He wasted no time in letting me know that he would be buying me a beer and paying for my meal. I didn’t resist, but I was worried that I may be spoiled into expecting free dinners every night while I was on the path.

When we returned, there was another traveller, Aki, settling into a room. Aki was more practiced in English and wasted no time in giving me advice both on speaking Japanese, and for the remainder of my journey. He told me about a Taxi station with a large room above the garage offering free lodging to any henro. It looked like it would be easy to reach the next day and I was relieved to know I already had a place to sleep the next night.

I read myself to sleep again that night, not that I got much done before passing out. I was exhausted from the day. The road had been difficult, but the kindness of the people around me was beginning to lull me into a confidence that everything on this path would be provided for me. I warned myself against the danger of falling into that belief, but the following day wouldn’t do much to prove the theory wrong.

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Shikoku Pilgrimage: Day Two, the Real Day One

Freezing at Night

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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.

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This statue scared the beans out of me whenI got out of my tent.

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.

Friendly Strangers

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)

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Not Anrakuji . . . oops. Still nice.

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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.

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Anrakuji (6). This was nicer.

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.

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Jūrakuji (Temple 7).

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.

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My staff beside Sasaki’s, who I would later meet.

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.

  1. When you stop for a rest, always take care of your staff before yourself.
  2. When you reach a place to stay, wash the end of the staff and place it in the room alcove
  3. There is a belief that Kōbō Daishi might be sleeping under a bridge, so do not tap the staff while going over any bridge.
  4. 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.

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I developed a small obsession with these fountains.

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?!”

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As you can see. . .

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.

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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.

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This fountain was not fountaining. . . Imagine my disappointment.

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.

First O-settai

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.

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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.

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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.

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Kirihataji (Temple 10)

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.

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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.

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My lodging for the night.

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.