June 19, 2015

Day 2 - June 19


Bando (板東町) –> Itano (板野町)
Temples: 1 (Ryozen-ji 霊山寺), 2 (Gokuraku-ji 極楽寺), 3 (Konsen-ji 金泉寺)
Weather: Light rain + Cloudy
Travel method: Walking
Distance: 8km


The day starts briskly with a quick breakfast and a bike ride in the rain to catch the 8:16 train. It doesn’t seem a problem when I decide to go, but my morning commute from Kawata station in Awa City would take three hours to get to Bando, the stop closest to the first temple of the pilgrimage.

The station is a small one, reflecting the status of an outpost town. Nonetheless, the hospitable cushions in the waiting area and information bulletins for the pilgrimage confirmed the first temple is a short walk away. One other henro gets off at the same stop and promptly marches off after studying the map, leaving me in the dust as I study the flower arrangement in the corner and virtually everything else along the short walk to the main gate.

The first temple has a regal air that stands out at the traffic intersection it sits on. The wood on the gate is a dark sombre colour that’s stood the test of time, but nonetheless blends in with the dark green pines that rise in the garden behind and beside. Apart from the few visitors just exiting, it is virtually empty. The man sitting on the bridge beyond the gate feeds the pigeons, adding a reassuring warmth. Behind him is a row of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Beyond that is the main hall, open, dim, but lit with a ceiling of yellow-tinged lanterns. It isn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d imagined rows of pilgrims chanting in a much grander, but simpler, setup like the ones I’d seen in Nara years ago. There is the single backpack left on the bench outside and I am relieved the other henro had led the way in terms of temple etiquette.

Since it’s the first temple, I figured I should put my best foot forward and drop a donation for a candle. All the words inscribed on the candles implied prayers for oneself, or one’s family and loved ones. Without one that had a general wish that could apply to everyone, I decided to to ask for safe travel on the road.

Next, I go to the temple shop to pick up the henro essentials. The staff and hat are the minimum, (candles and incense if you want your message to reach the Buddhas). To those I added a bell, because I liked the idea of a being accompanied by a cousin to the windchime. The hat I wanted wasn’t available, so I hold off and hope I can pick it up at another temple shop.

Before leaving the main hall, I light three incense sticks and send blessings for the future friends I have yet to meet. After realising that I have nothing in particular to pray for myself, I’ve decided instead to dedicate each temple to a person, in case prayers do get answered.

As I head out, I notice the staffs left behind by previous henro and regret my purchase. Many of these were nicer and I didn’t like how commercial mine felt — clearly machine cut wood. Was I just being stingy? However, as I pick up each of them, I realise none of them are quite what I wanted – my plain staff, tinkling bell, and green string. Just a few feet away, I find an abandoned henro hat (in much need of repair). Near disappointment and an instant elation seem to come in pairs. Armed with bought staff and salvaged hat dangling from my backpack, I move on to Temple 2.

In contrast to the contained first temple, Temple 2 feels open. I notice the assortment of cups by the well and take photos. After winding through the various areas of prayer mixed with a well manicured garden, you go up a flight of steep stairs to the main temple – standing solitary and secluded by dense trees.

Without a lighter, I borrow the flame of the single lit candle in the glass box, mumbling a reverent ‘Shitsureishimasu’ (excuse me). It probably isn’t good etiquette. I ask for blessings for all the people I will never meet in this lifetime. I feel I should address them before moving on to usual requests for people I know and care about. As I place my incense stick – the only in the large metal urn – I notice a rosary someone had left behind on one of the holding stones. Somehow, these little gestures are touching; someone leaving an important piece of the pilgrimage behind, maybe for someone else who needed the beads to chant.

Before I head out, I go into the Temple shop to get a stamp (which I forgot to do at the first temple). Knowing I arrived should be enough, but ¥300 insurance against future regret seems affordable. In any case, if I run out of cash, it is easier to just stop purchases!

Outside the shop, I check the left staffs out of curiosity for the characters they reveal. One of them – a sanded stick – catches my eye. Again, I’m met with a pang of regret; was my purchase too commercial? In fact, I am so taken by the sanded tree branch I decide to take it with me to Temple 3 as a test run.

The staff is supposed to represent Kobo Daishi, who accompanies you even if you are alone on your journey. Wanting two of him seems a bit greedy, and I feel self conscious as every car passes me on the main road that I am trekking down. Even for a layperson like me, such small things suddenly have so much significance.

Again, Temple 3 is nothing like the other two complexes. It is bright red newly painted gate almost radiates down the small lane that leads up to it. From the gate, you can see a matching coloured bridge, but not much else as there is a row of well-kept trees. Walking in, I stumble upon a team of gardeners trimming all the plants in the small garden. When I bow and place my incense, I think of my parents and siblings, whom I don’t think of often enough compared to friends.

When I return to the washing station to get my staves, I notice that someone has left a few remaining candles in a plastic bag. I help myself to the anonymous gift with gratitude because I had someone in mind to light the candle for: my grandmother.

Finished with my rounds, I get another stamp and happily place the sanded branch in with all the other left staffs. I thoroughly enjoyed holding it during the walk here, but that’s enough. When knowing you have a whole month of walking ahead of you, suddenly time has a different significance. It is abundantly available for ruminating. I wonder about all my possible regrets in leaving the staff. Related to it is whether I should have waited and found a staff en route that is personal to me. I am a bit uneasy that my staff is just one of many. Yet, as I walked the purchased and picked up one, I noted the qualities that had made me select the purchased one in the first place (its weight, colour, shape, carve). It made me think of people: one can find the most unique and suitable individuals to befriend, or more patiently develop relationships with people who seem ordinary, with mild qualities on the surface. The well-shaped beam I was holding, although not first class, was not poorly made either. Its colour, shape and weight will change with every mile gained. By the time I hop on the train back to the farm, I feel I made the right decision, if not the one that came most naturally to me.

All in all, I only took two hours to walk between the three temples at a pace closer to that of a tourist than a pilgrim. In contrast to my impatience with the ‘uninteresting’ landscape while cycling to my first two temples before, I didn’t mind walking alongside a major road through mostly empty and uninteresting buildings. The gentle rhythm of walking makes the environment seem alright because I have my thoughts for company, and a tinkling bell to chime in.

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