July 17, 2015

Day 27 - July 17

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Imabari City (今治市) →  Iyo-Miyoshi (伊予三芳)
Temples: 64 Maegami-ji (前神寺), 63 Kichijō-ji (吉祥寺), 62 Hōju-ji (宝寿寺), 61 Kōon-ji (香園寺)
Weather: Rain
Travel Method:  Train + Walking
Distance: 8.2 (+15.8) km

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Typhoon day! It’s forecasted to make landfall tonight, so I still have the morning to visit the temples clustered around Imabari. My hosts, having walked the Ohenro themselves, urge me to get up earlier.

The train lines are down until at least noon.

I finally respond to a message from Aurelie, the French henro I’d met back in Shishikui. She messaged me from Cape Ashizuri a few days ago, then disappeared after I responded when I was in Matsuyama. Her latest message asks me where I am, and that she’d take a train immediately to join me. Unfortunately, there is no train for her to catch this morning. 

After the trains start again this afternoon, I’ll be walking from Temples 61 to 64 and then staying at the house of Noriko-san’s friend’s mother. From that house, I will go up and down Temple 60, Yokomine-ji, and return to Tsuneto and Akiko’s house one last time in Imabari. Things ended up being a lot more complicated, but this is one of the most reassuring complications. Four days in homes, not on the street.

Kochi was the prefecture of solitude, the Dojo of Ascetic Training. Ehime is the Dojo of Enlightenment. It seems like paradise, but they seem to be things that just land my way. What have I done to deserve it?

The weather is a problem for sight-seeing around Imabari. Today, the won’t be going to the Shimanami-kaido, the 80km of bridges that connect Shikoku to Japan’s mainland. There isn’t much sight-seeing that’s kid-friendly. A day in is a welcome occasion for me, but for them it’s a day lost.

In the end, Tsuneto and Akiko ask me to translate that they can drive us there. Within 30 minutes, we all pile into the car and are off, the morning salvaged thanks once again to our hosts.

Not long after, we’re the only group at the look-out point from the city towards the bridge. It’s a stunning vista with islands and coast a green so deep they’re almost black. In the distance, mountain ridges are water-colour painted onto the horizon. The sea is still a dark, sombre steel. The sky is a bright fluffy grey. I only learned of this bridge when translating back and forth between the two families this morning. This is the only time I’d ever come to see it, even in better weather.

We hop back in the car and sail across the bridge to the viewpoint on the other side. It’s a spectacular view and a quick 30 minute drive up the winding slopes. Had we taken transit and walked up, we’d have been soaked.

It’s about time for lunch, so we drive back into town. The Iranians treat us to curry – me the translator tag-along. After this, I head out for my mini henro walk. The rain has stopped and the trains have resumed.

After a sleepy ride, I arrive at Ishizuchiyama station, which is just in front of Maegami-ji, when it begins to pour. It’s 2:30pm, which is late for a henro, and early for most people in a storm. All the temples are barely eight kilometres in total. No sweat.

Maegami-ji was historically a temple for nobles and military families. It has since revealed for public viewing three Zaō Gongen statues, protective avatar deities associated with the religion Shugendō and are seen as local, Japanese, manifestations of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Its two flanks of covered walkways from the Main Hall feels like foot soldiers surrounding you in a courtyard. I dedicate this to a family I’m indebted to, without whom I would never have managed a foothold in Asia. Even though I get the nokyocho, I’m still unsure of whether to give it to them. The auntie has a great love of Chinese history and equal dislike for the Japanese. No family was spared the upheavals in China in the past century, or specifically Japanese occupation. But lighting incense at a Buddhist temple will hardly bridge the cultural gap she sees between the country she sees as an aggressor to her cultural homeland after a century of turbulence, wars and unequal treaties. In contrast, both my grandmothers have been to post-war Japan and one of them remembered a kaiseki meal in Kyoto even after Alzheimer’s began erasing people from her memory.

There’s a solitary figure heading my way. Why, it’s the henro from Osaka! It was only yesterday that I saw him at Kokubunji, nursing a limp as Nakamura-san and I left. I ask him if he really went up Yokonmine-ji this morning. He nods and puts his palm against his knees — the water was up to there. I should be careful when I go up. Having that information is reassuring. Someone survived. 

I continue walking in reverse order to Kichijo-ji, Temple 63, light my incense, and the move on.

The next temple is also down the street. It’s another small one, ordered by the Emperor Shomu in the early 8th century and destroyed, only to be restored almost a thousand years later. I dedicate this to two friends who are working against their lot to create lives for themselves. One of them is in Malaysia and the other is in Hong Kong.

By now, I’m rushing (why am I always rushing?) to the last temple of the day before 5:00pm. I arrive with 15 minutes left to light the incense and finish the routine before getting the nokyocho. Kouon-ji is a striking modern monster. It’s redish-brown rectangular box with pillars beside its walls, like a sarcophagus. 

This one I dedicated to a friend who did the same undergraduate as me. He shares a nerdy obsession with counter-narratives and subnarratives, and I think he’d be the only one amused by this building that defies the stereotypical Buddhist temple. Whomever pushed the project through probably had to fight vehement opposition. It was probably an impressive revitalisation of one of Shikoku’s oldest temples (from the 6th century) at the time that it was built, the 60s or 70s. What were they thinking then? What messages, hopes, aspirations, did they mean to signify through this architecture?

Well, now that I’m done, I can take the train to Iyo-Mishima, where I will be staying tonight. It’s only a few blocks down from the station, but there’s no name plaque or house number. It’s a bit embarrassing ringing up the wrong house, and I begin to circle the block to see if there’s another building. Then, the door opens and a stocky woman with impeccable hair pokes her head out.

‘Are you Ramu-san?’ She asks in a full, raspy voice.

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Come in, come in! I’ve been so worried about you. I didn’t know when you’d be coming with the typhoon!’

Ah, that’s right. Noriko had told me about this obaa-san few days ago, but I’d only confirmed this place last night when I knew my route. I apologise for the inconvenience caused.

‘Nevermind, nevermind. I’ll show you your room. And the bath is ready, so you can take one after you put your things down.’

The house looks like a modern one from the outside, but inside, it feels more like a spacious ryoukan. The ground floor has a bathroom, an entry-way that’s stuffed with items with stories, a kitchen, a back sitting room, and her small bedroom. The hallway is narrow and wraps around each of the rooms. The second floor is accessed through a super-wide and steep stairway. Up here, it feels like a ryokan with a straight hallway flanked by sliding doors leading to four large rooms. I’m given the one at the far end, with the futon and yukata, traditional summer robe.

In the adjacent sitting room, there is a heavy, single-piece wooden table and a massive elephant tooth in the display corner. The other display cases have a handful of other, carefully preserved, items. I want to ask about the story behind every single piece.

Obaa-san cheerfully tells me about each and every one of them in a voice textured by age and the filled with the spirit of youth.

After a while, she suggests I go take the bath while it’s still hot, since baths are filled and then covered to preserve the heat. ‘Take your time.’

I never used to be a bath person, but I have come to love a good soak after scrubbing your body clean. In this island country that has no shortage of water, they really know how to enjoy the basic things in life.

When I float back into the kitchen on a cloud of clean warmth, Obaa-san is deep-frying tempura. Dinner is a full spread of cucumber rice, egg and crab meat on more rice, tempura, pan-fried chicken, simmered eggplant and tofu, simmered konyaku and a veggie, and a variety of pickles she’s done herself. It’s an effort to finish because I spent more time eating big meals than walking today. Plus, she’s cooked enough for four. In between, I ask her about how she makes each dish, and that in turn she excitedly gets me to try her homemade pickles.

She makes them and gives them away to neighbours. She has a busy, active life with its own errands and social routines. Her son lives in a close-by city and she shows me pictures of her grandkids. Just then, her grandson phones and tickles her with his cute single sentences.

Part of me wishes I could stay longer. For the evening, I can fantasise about keeping this obaa-san company, trail her through routines, learn how to make family pickles. But she has extended this hospitality to help me in my goal: Yokomine-ji. If I needed a place to settle, Noriko wouldn’t have arranged this. The best way to honour this is to move on and finish the Ohenro.

At 9pm, I tuck in. Even though I haven’t walked much today, a good bath and a full belly trigger rest mode. As I pull over the covers, I remember my own mantra: if you love a place, make sure to have something left unfinished so you can return.

There are so many things unfinished in Shikoku. I think I’ve fallen in love.

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