June 17, 2015

Day 1 - June 17


Kawata -> Hourinji –> Kawata
Temples: 9 (Hourin-ji 法輪寺), 10 (Kirihata-ji 切幡寺)
Weather: Cloudy
Method: Cycling
Distance: 31.8km


My first two temples in the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage were chosen, as it were, by fate. After a long morning assisting my  WWOOF host run a tofu-making class for mothers and their toddlers, I had the afternoon off. Though the farm is far from the Shikoku Pilgrimage’s starting point near Tokushima City, I realise that it is close enough to one of the temples deeper in the Awa Valley. I borrow one of the spare bikes and set out for Kirihata-ji, Temple 10.

Since the pilgrimage is in a circle and has no rules on order or method, the start is less a destination as it is the place I just happened to be. I wanted to “get ahead” while still volunteering on the farm.

Right after starting, my chronic lower back pain sets in and I face a stead headwind. Cast against a grey day, going through monotonous rural towns with ample cars but few people, it is a discouraging ride.

The temple isn’t quite what I expect, though I didn’t know I had expectations until I felt surprise. I’d expected people and open shops, even though I am going during off-season. Summer in Japan is rainy season, followed by searing heat in July and August. The shops closest to the temples are closed, the parking lots empty, and the temple grounds silent. The road to Kirihata-ji is an easy to miss lane, marked only by a road sign hovering above the corner. I pass the shuttered shops and continue up the hill. The parking lot, equipped with a modern washroom, is still three flights of stone stairs down from the main complex. Climbing them with only bird calls echoing between the cedars, it really does feel like you’re lifting yourself above the steady whirling traffic below and with it the cares of humanity.

As I approach the top, there is an electric hum that replaces the birdsong. Bees. I was expecting to see a cloud of them above my head, except that there were only a handful of red, demon-like hornets hovering just above the last stone steps. It seems like a first test, and that I am in danger of failing. Fortunately, the temple guardians part without a fuss as I muster the courage to continue up. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring money to buy incense, and after doing ritual washing, could only do three bows.

Then, I realise I don’t have anything to pray for. I also didn’t have a copy of the Heart Sutra that I was supposed to chant at every temple. Does this visit event count, then? What a way to start. The afternoon spontaneity now has the slight odor of disrespect.

While Kirihata-ji is peaceful in its hilltop forest seclusion, Hourin-ji is a discretely hidden amidst the paddies and traditional Japanese houses. It’s a relatively quick ride that is lengthened by the act of way finding.

Going around both temples, the lack company as the evening sets in is a bit lonely, but peaceful. It seems I can expect this for the month to come. I begin imagining going through forest paths in mountains and through highways alone. Did I I really want to do this? I could just continue WWOOFing, which I’ve enjoyed and would love to do in other areas in Japan. Volunteering on farms would mean I didn’t have to worry about getting lost, daily meals, being cold, or animals at night.

Instead, I focus on noting the differences between the two temples so far — the layouts between the halls, the size of shrines, the carving styles. Even though I am unlearned in Buddhist customs, I find the subtle differences fascinating and am already wondering what all the other places will be like. But that would have to wait for another day. It is about time I cycled home for dinner.

The Shikoku Pilgrimage is busiest in the spring and autumn and is completed by bus, car, and committed walkers who usually take seven weeks. Those who walk the route are called henro (遍路), pilgrims and O-henro as an honourific. Legend has it that the 88 Temples were founded or strongly affiliated with Kukai (774-835), also known as Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon (真言) Sect of Buddhism in Japan. You can read more about the history here.

I wanted to pass my summer days by being active, going places, seeing natural landscapes, while spending little money and staying safe (always a consideration for women). While I’ve camped as a kid and love the outdoors, I have no experience preparing for my own trip, much less one alone. But if Japanese city dwellers frequented this route, it meant that it would be well-maintained and more accessible for me.

Even though I am an accidental pilgrim, I feel like this decision to embark on something that has spiritual significance for others already makes me more reflective. Everything I notice feels like a lesson, irrespective of faith or lack thereof. The empty grounds feels like either a reflection of me, my choices, or perhaps what I will learn to accept throughout the coming days. The nagging doubt no longer seems like anxiety, but rather a test of commitment. The natural desire to follow basic etiquette while being uninterested in going the full mile feels like a process of self-definition. Starting in the middle, ad hoc, seems both like a reflection of my character and prophetic. I am struck by how many thoughts I have already from this one afternoon, but I’ll leave it there for now.

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