July 10, 2015

Day 20 - July 10


Hirata Station (平田) → Michi-no-Eki Mima 道の駅みま
Temples: 39 (Enkō-ji 延光寺), 40 (Kanjizai-ji 観自在寺)
Weather: Sunny with Clouds
Travel Method:  Walking + Train + Bus + Train
Distance: 12 (+78.1) km


Tired of trying to sleep, I get up at 4:30am.

I spent the past four hours lying on the hard plastic chairs – the ones that curve up into ridges – on the platform waiting room at Hirata station. I learned that the lights stay on for about an hour after the last train. The 3am and dawn were chilly. Outside it’s just a uniform darkness sprinkled with a handful of street lamps outlining angular contours.

I walk down the block to the Lawson to cure a thorn of chill lodged in my chest. I need a warm coffee. Praise decent convenience store 100-Yen coffees. Praise their 24-hour service. Praise their Wi-Fi.

Inside, I pick up an onigiri to replenish my salt levels after sweating all day yesterday. I haven’t tired of onigiri even though I usually pick the same flavour. They’re affordable, compact, easy to eat, relatively healthy. My eating habits are pared down to calculations of overall water, salt, and carbohydrate intake. Light snacks can be sweets for quick sugar. Calorically effective snacks have oil, like chips. Both make you thirsty, so better to eat them when a vending machine is around. Despite trying to load up, I doubt I make my 2000 calorie target. Today’s starts with my breakfast onigiri and coffee on the bench outside the Lawson. It’s my first real meal since yesterday’s lunch onigiri. Last night I nibbled at a yuzu pound cake at the station, too exhausted to search for other options.

After breakfast, I convince the shopkeeper to let me leave my bag in the corner while I walk to Temple 40. He frowns reluctantly as he says he can’t watch it for me. I try to communicate that it’s my own risk. Still, he feels responsible and wants me to come back before his shift ends at 7. I’m confident no-one will take a dirty bag with a collapsing sedge hat.

I walk down the quiet street with my staff and henro essentials. I love the melancholy twilight before daybreak. I love dawn. The shades of black, blue, purple, magenta are so subtle in their sleepy shifting. It seems to flip back and forth, as if night and day are in negotiations about how today should be. It feels like the hour of trespassing. Every house I’m passing probably has someone sprawled over a futon without covers.

Temple 40 is only 45 minutes walk, and I arrive before 6:00. It’s early enough to catch the morning chants and see a lit Main Hall, normally dark by 7am when the office opens.

I sit on the wide wooden steps and stare back out at the stone courtyard and the trees behind. Only the thin wisp of incense sways upwards from the urn. It’s barely past 6:15am.

My grandmother, if she were still alive, would probably be up moving about in the kitchen. That’s what I imagine, since I’ve never stayed with her. I think she probably had time to sit and stare out into the garden before my uncles got up. The uncle she lived with seems like the type who would more likely go to sleep at dawn. I’ve probably said fewer than 100 words to him all these years, but I always loved his basement most, where the aroma of smoke rose from his black leather lounge chair and shaggy white floor rug.

I move to a bench facing the wooden passageway connecting the Main Hall and a multi-story dorm building. Between us is a small, intentionally kept garden. Another henro comes and goes and we exchange quick greetings.

I’ll wait. 6:45 will come. I’m hoping someone will be setting up in the office for me to knock and ask for a stamp early. Japanese timeliness (15 minutes early) would make this likely. Buddhist discipline of things done just so would mean not before 7:00am.

I wonder if my grandmother would like this garden. She likes Japanese dainty sizes. The elegant, multi-course kaiseki dinner she had in Kyoto, with my parents and me when I hadn’t learned to sit, was probably her most reminisced meal. I smile imagining the face she’d make if she saw my dishevelled state.

The stamp office is still empty at 6:45. What’s a nokyocho worth? It’s a piece of paper with ink on it, having as much value as we give it. There’s no guarantee it’ll be of value to my uncle, but treating everyone the same is of value to me. There’s no guarantee the Lawson shopkeeper will remember my bag, but I should keep the promise anyway. Making decisions with imperfect information is what we do every day. It reminds me of a TED Talk by Ruth Chang on how to make hard choices.

In the end, I chose to get the stamp and make my 7:00 commitment and see the man behind the counter serving the morning rush. By the time I get my bag, he’s already disappeared.

I walk back to Hirata station to catch the train and bus to the next temple. Having kept my promise to myself to walk to Cape Ashizuri, I’m now getting myself to Matsuyama, some 200 km away, by any means possible. There are too many mountain paths for my disintegrating shoe and sprained ankle.

Waiting 20 minutes on the platform feels so significant. I managed to squeeze in time for everything with time to spare. The groggy students fanning out onto the single platform for both directions probably feel like the could have done with 15 minutes more sleep. As they chat amongst themselves, I watch the morning colours play out on the hills and shifting clouds.

The train whisks me some 10 kilometers down to the city of Sukumo. I wait at the bus stop, and about an hour later get off at the entrance of Temple 40, the first temple for Ehime Prefecture.

Even though today was my earliest start, it feels late after all the waiting and sitting. It seems the rainy season is ending, and summer is in full swing. It’s hellishly hot after sitting in train and bus AC. My legs still haven’t walked enough to wake up. Transportation’s convenience now has a disorienting effect.

I pack away the thoughts and walk down the block, light my incense, wish a friend who is starting her PhD well, and get her nokyocho. This office is right in the Main Hall in the corner. The lady who writes my nokyocho is eager to practice her English when she hears my accented Japanese. When the small talk runs out, I comment on the heat.

‘Ah, summer has come,’ she says with certainty. ‘The cicadas are calling. They never stop.’

Oh yes, that’s the whirling cascade from the tree outside. I’d already tuned it out, since it’s a common occurrence in other East Asian countries. A typical summer day indeed. I excuse myself. She says, ‘Sayonara.’ It means good-bye with an implied finality, and therefore rarely used. To her, our paths will likely never cross again.

I have time before the same bus comes again to take me up to Uwajima City. I’m tempted by the delicate cakes in the bakery at the corner. I wonder how many customers from neighbouring towns come to sustain this little shop. Surely this small town doesn’t have enough to clear the display every day. In the end, I just sit in the post office across the street from my bus stop for the AC and hidden outlet I find behind a display case. About 10 minutes before, I head back out to wait for the bus.

I doze on the ride north, and get off a few stops before the stop for the onsen I want to visit. In this heat, the two kilometres takes much longer than I’d anticipated. None of my previous walks prepared me for this. In the end, with no onsen in sight, I shelter in an udon shop for lunch, air conditioning and an outlet. The shop a simple, white standalone building with a wide parking lot in front of it. Inside is spacious, with high rafters and beams, raised wooden seating areas, a bar counter and regular tables. There are TVs in the corners and fans ready for guests that come at other hours. I randomly order a vegetarian udon, and settle in to charge my phone. I haven’t walked much today, but I’m starving. I’m also loving the ice cold water they serve me.

When I finish lunch, I continue up the road. If I don’t find the onsen soon, I’ll just get on the bus again.

The onsen is in a michi-no-eki about 300 metres off the main road. It has a grocery market selling the local produce farmers drop off every morning, small shops, a cultural centre, restaurant, hotel, and the hot spring spa. It even has a free outdoor foot bath. The onsen offerings could keep weary travellers entertained all day. I deposit my shoes at the entrance, check in, and end up staying for two hours in the pools and lounges. The sun is also hot enough to dry my clothes in half an hour, so I do some light laundry too so I feel more productive when napping.

Every onsen has a scale, but I keep forgetting to check my backpack’s weight. I finally find out it’s 10kg, but this is without food and after I sent two boxes of stuff away. The recommended weight for women is 4-6kg. Ooops. I guess it’s better I didn’t know. I’ve been wrapping my shirts around my unpadded shoulder straps successfully for a while now. It’s a good enough solution.

I finally re-emerge onto the street rejuvenated to catch a bus up to Uwajima, Ehime’s first city. It has a castle and some local dishes, but I’m eager to camp close to the next temple tonight. From Uwajima, I take a train up to Mima Station. It’s only two stops, but a long ride through the hilly interior.

When I finally get off, evening is approaching. It’s about time for dinner, and I hope there’s something at the Michi -no-Eki Mima. Surprisingly, everything is closed. That means no proper dinner, as I’m a bit lazy to walk back out to the convenience store. But, on the plus side this place is new, well-designed, with clean washrooms. It also has picnic benches hidden around the side with more privacy. I think about sleeping on top of the table tonight. After snacking, I notice the shop stall in the middle of the parking lot. The boards cover the inside, and its walled in with corrugated plastic. When you climb in and lie against the board wall, you’ll seem like a pile of things. This is the best bed yet!

I move all my stuff over, ecstatic at the raised boards and three walls. Now all I need to do is wait for sunset. And it’s a brilliant one.

It’s been a lazy, but eventful day. It reminds me of our human limitations, and our boundless potential to innovate solutions. Transportation has brought me back to modernity. I’ve covered a week’s worth of walking in the past 24 hours since Cape Ashizuri. I’ve crossed from Kochi to Ehime Prefecture. The Dojo of Ascetic Training is over. I’m spending my first night in the Dojo of Enlightenment. I think Enlightenment also means letting go of dogma. You take what you can get. You do what you need to do. From here on, I’ll do whatever it takes to finish by August 1.

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