July 14, 2015

Day 24 - July 14

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Matsuyama City (松山市) → Kuma Kogen (久万高原) → Iyowake (伊予和気) 
Temples: 44 Daihō-ji (大宝寺), 45 Iwaya-ji (岩屋寺)
Weather: Sunny
Travel Method:  Car + Light Walking
Distance: (+42.6km)

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Today is a late day because Noriko-san, the Couchsurfing friend I’d met yesterday, is driving me up to Temples 44 and 45. Even though I was looking forward to a mountain trail between the two temples, a car is a much more realistic solution.

I wake up late-ish, have breakfast, and repack all the things I’ve spread out over three beds in the empty dorm room. The smell of mosquito incense is reassuringly thick, which means my tent will probably keep the mosquitos away tonight. I had started using these coils after the concerned grandma and grandpa neighbours woke me up to give me the mosquito incense at the Susaki hero hut back in Kochi. I’d kept it inside my tent that night and for the next few the mosquitos that are the bane of this month’s existence were kept at bay.

I put on the new runners that Noriko helped me buy yesterday, in all their neon shining glory. My old Mizzens had hung on for weeks with the help of repeated super-glue applications, but now there is no black sole grip left to glue. They’ve stuck by me through Europe, Asia, and North American, surviving wind, rain, snow, and stroke-inducing heat. They have earned retirement. I can’t afford to carry them, so I put them in with the box of things I’m mailing off without a clue about when I open it again in the city. I take photos for memory’s sake: shoestring whack.

I catch the train from Matsuyama station after 9am to meet Noriko at a train station closer to her house. She had a bento for her husband before joining me.

Noriko is decked out in full athletic gear, with the long leggings that stop muscles from spasming. I think it’s even more valued in East Asia because it prevents tanning. She also has a bag of water, snacks, and lots of mosquito spray. It seems she hates them as much as I do.

First, she drives me to the nearby post office to mail 1kg off to a farm in Tokushima, where I’ll return when I finish this walk. A part of me feels guilty for never having asked before mailing, but I’ve given myself over to assuming that people don’t mind some things.

Then, we sail up the winding mountain paths that reveal a vista of the mountain range that stretches through the heart of Shikoku. It’s only 30 kilometres away – about a day’s walk, and barely an hour’s ride. Noriko is game to try the henro-no-michi rather than drive directly onto the temple grounds so we walk about 15 minutes up. We arrive at the Front Gate guarded by the imposing Niō of Temple 44 at 10:50am. This gate is famous for its O-waraji, the humongous straw slippers meant to ward off evil spirits. Driving henro miss them on the paved road. These straw slippers are remade every 100 years, hanging under the dark wooden roof, between the guardian Niō or Kongōrikishi half hidden in the shade. Small pedestrians have the privilege of feeling awe.

Once at the Main Hall, we light incense and toss coins into the box. Even though Noriko has memories of visiting temples as many Japanese children will have done, she is not confident about the exact procedure. So instead, I pass on what I’ve learned about the rituals and chanting that we watch beside us – things that I’ve come to take for granted. The Ohenro rituals are more niche than I thought, or perhaps it’s one of those school experiences don’t feel relevant to many kids anymore.

Even though this incense lighting feels familiar to me because some Chinese do it as well, there are subtle details like a triple bow in the Chinese custom. Details that seem small, only that I imagine they are significant to both Chinese and Japanese, especially in this space that has a particular reverence to rituals. I ask Noriko if it’s Japanese custom to light incense and bow once, almost as a finishing touch. She confirms this.

When we get to the stamp office, I ask for a small nokyocho stamp rather than providing the usual book to write in. The elderly lady rummages the shelves and pulls out the old medicine cabinets, mumbling that they probably don’t have sheets. Eventually, she finds one and writes it for me. It’s wobbly, but one of the things I like about nokyochos is that each is unique, revealing a bit of the person who wrote it. A steady stroke, a flashy flourish, a messy scribble, a rushed trail all belie character.

Once outside, I want to use the washroom, so I ask if Noriko needs to go. ‘Is it clean?’ she asks doubtfully. Hard to say; my standards aren’t hers. She pokes her head in and exclaims, “It’s clean!” I smile. It’s a simple squat toilet, but has clearly been mopped and wiped daily. Toilets, I think, also reveal something about the places that keep them. Every time, I wonder if clean toilets reflect temple discipline or a rural Japanese standard. How little I know about the minds of the people who live here.

After we’re done, it’s a quick drive through the mountains to Temple 45. Part of me misses following the natural mountain routes where the paths are drawn thinly by feet that tread lightly. The other part of me is just grateful for a ride and a chance to enjoy temples with company rather than always focusing on next-stop logistics.

Temple 45 is arguably the most remote temple. From the parking lot, even driving henro must walk at least one kilometre. As we climb the stone steps, a stream of white-clad elderly bus henro are wobbling down. This place is an unavoidable nansho, trial place. Noriko-san couldn’t have chosen a better temple to dive into the deep end.

When we’re almost at the top we pass a big tall, Caucasian, nojuku henro listening to an elderly Japanese man. I can tell from his enormous backpack and dangling mosquito incense. What on earth brought him across the world at a time like this? I want to ask him, but since I’m not alone, I keep my curiosity to myself. Instead, I point him out to Noriko so she has another nojuku henro reference. 

Iwaya-ji is probably the most distinct temple I’ve visited so far. Carved into the massive rock face, the buildings are low, cramped, and jagged to accommodate the rock. Mountains are solitary by nature, but what inspired anyone into a wilderness so deep even by modern standards? The dark, barren cliff looks god-forsaken. Only… it’s not. It is precisely the barreness that makes me feel a tug, a faint echo that must have led the female recluse Hokke-sennin here, and later Kukai here to received the grounds from her. This is the origin for this mountain temple.

A new building is further out, in a bright clearing with a view of the neighbouring hills. It has just been completed, a feat of modern engineering for a place with no roads and barely any surface to put machines on.

We move on to the Halls. Again, I give Noriko-san incense to pray while I climb up a gigantic ladder up to a crevice in the rock. It is strewn with coins, left for good-luck beside the Jizo statue.

Noriko’s afraid of heights, but curiosity gets the best of her. After a few minutes, she can see for herself the gentle waves of forested hills.

When we head down to the stamp office, Noriko reads a sign in front of another cave. It is another Jizo for women who have had miscarriages. She says it’s meant for her and goes in to have a look. It’s an uncanny coincidence. I hang around the entrance to give her privacy. 

She returns and says there’s another tunnel inside. Oh? Then I’m interested. It’s a dark, damp tunnel, lined with planks up a slope. Then, it’s just rock worn smooth. In parts, it’s pitch black save for a candle at the far end. Before long, we’re in front of another statue also surrounded by coins and wishes. It feels eerie. The surrounding darkness and the dampness fill the place with … I don’t know. Hope? Sadness? It’s heavy, but not frightening. It’s too big to be contained in words.

When we get back out, I get a nokyocho and we head back the way we came.

After walking back to the car, Noriko drives into Kuma Kogen for lunch. She wants to treat me to a famous soba place in town. Since it’s closed, she phones her friend, who suggests an udon place. It’s in an unassuming barn-like building with a sign saying Kama-age udon (釜揚げうどん). We go in, seat ourselves, and consider the only three options on the menu. Summer is zaru-udon, cold udon, season, but we go with what the locals trickling in continue to order, the Kama-age style served with a sauce in a clay urn.

When it arrives, we pour the special broth into our dipping bowl and self-serve our age (deep fried dough bits), spring onions, and ginger. We break into sweat from the effort of eating a hot food, with ginger(!), but it’s worth every bite. Our massive medium was a mere 400 Yen.

Next — Noriko’s friend’s place for a quick visit. She’s just picked up her younger daughter from school, and we chat over coffee and cake. Her friend’s husband is a policeman, so they have to move every few years. It must be hard on her kids, who hang around politely. The little one tries hard to ‘behave’ for the adults, but can’t help occasional outbursts and sharing. It’s so cozy to just pay a random visit and have coffee catch-up at home, an increasingly rare occurrence in big cities. All too soon, it’s time for Noriko to go teach, so we head out.

We only make it down the block when Noriko receives a call because I forgot my bandana, and within minutes her friend drops it off for us. Then, we’re off, back to the Matsuyama, back to our daily routines – Noriko teaching, me obsessing about the next place to sleep. I struggle to stay awake despite the sunbeams pouring through the hills that unfold down into the plains.

When Noriko drops me off, I leave her the nokyocho from Iwaya-ji. A good memory of a day her curiosity conquered her fear, one of many fears she’s conquered, and probably not her last. As a poor nojuku henro, it’s all I can give to repay her kindness.

I’m too late to go to Temple 52, but too early to sleep. I hang out at Matsuyama station and do some work using the station Wi-Fi. For two hours, I put down my pilgrim’s hat for the remote work one.

When I get off the train at a stop closer to Temple 52 and 53, I discover it’s suburbia — stretches of nothing much. A few days in Matsuyama and I’ve forgotten this basic fact. I’m a bit late for sleep-spot hunting. Night descends quickly, and the clouds of mosquitos thicken. I’d forgotten this basic reality too – the illuminated cities are night-immune.

The Taishogun Shrine, which was listed on my nojuku guide, is against a hill, raised, and secluded from the street below. I don’t like sleeping in complete darkness, or directly under lamplight, so I retrace my steps.

I stop in a school and use the washroom. I’m tempted to hide somewhere until they locked up. In the end, I give in to propriety and ask. It’s a flat no, despite my feet dragging. They phone a nearby ryokan, but I don’t want to pay for lodgings, again. Eventually, the woman at the back, the most adamant ‘no’, asks if I’ve eaten dinner. Then, she deposits a bag of cherry tomatoes. What am I going to do with that many?! But I can’t refuse and thank them.

In the end, I sleep at a nearby park on a bench until 11pm, when the park lights turn off. Then, I pack up again and zombie-walk to a nearby konbini. It’s just one of those string-of-bad-choices days. It’d have been easier to sleep at the unattended train station I got off at.

A bunch of guys finishing drinks ask me to join them. No thanks; I’m awake on adrenaline, but not enough to socialise. They see me again when I arrive at the Family Mart. The last one out hands me a 1000 yen and says simply, ‘Good luck.’ Very anime, but also very touching.

I stand reading magazines for two hours while charging my phone underneath the racks. Time passes by the minute. Eventually, I walk back out to sleep at the back of the parking lot. I lay my tarp out over the concrete and put my sedge hat over my face. Swarms of gnats surround the Family Mart glass and street light above. 

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