July 21, 2015

Day 31 - July 21


Shikokuchuo City (四国中央市) –> Kanonji City(観音寺市)
Temples: 68 Jinne-in (神恵院), 69 Kannon-ji (観音寺), 70 Motoyama-ji (本山寺)
Weather: Cloudy + Drizzles
Travel Method: Walking (+Car, Cable Car, Train)
Distance: 19.2 (+40) km


Two big, heavy, onigiri courtesy of the hotel! I stow them in my backpack and finish the rest of my cheese and bread breakfast in the lobby. The guest laundry is waving outside on the veranda.

I message friends using the hotel WiFi. An hour disappears. The more I sit, the harder it is to dislodge myself. I’d originally planned to detour two kilometres for an onsen en route, but I probably won’t have time anymore. To a summer nojuku henro, a bath probably tops treat list. There are so many options for sleeping: a park, a michi-no-eki, a 24-hour manga cafe, unattended train stations. But there are few public showers in Shikoku. Is my Whatsapp conversation really worth it? It feels like I’ve traded a henro necessity for unnecessary temptation for another life of preoccupations and relationships. 

Lives come in packages. Technology has already made these compartmentalisations more flexible, given us lifelines to support networks outside. Smartphones suited with Wi-Fi puncture brief holes in the henro bubble. Yet, the puncture can sometimes be a painful deflation. The walking henro bubble-package includes early rises, hours of walking, temples, planning food and water, hunting for accommodation, and onsen. This myopia keeps us going day after day. Yet, they are priorities our friends can’t share with us.

The morning heat is trapezing in the open glass door. I finish my conversation abruptly and slather sunscreen as fast as I can. It’s 7:30am. I really need to go.

Family Mart! I’ve only been walking an hour or so, but I couldn’t resist the air conditioned comfort and seats. Plus, I need water. I sit, checking my messages again. I know should be saving this longer break for noon, when the sun is at its worst, but this route through empty towns makes me complacent. It’s just a straight road along the coast to Kanonji-City. I’m armed with an umbrella and sedge hat to block most of the sun. Tourist henro coming through!

Crap, did I scew up my packing? Why is my shoulder aching already? I’ve stopped at another michi-no-eki that’s facing the sea. A metal plaque gives the heat-bleached islands names. Down the coast is a steady smattering of buildings.

I sit on the covered bench and snack again, eying the sparrows feeding their young in the nests above me. They’ve already decorated most of the area with white droppings. The colony of parents race back and forth between the grass and the little beaks sticking out of the thatched homes. I take off my soaked socks and flex my toes to the cool breeze while snacking.

I’ve seen these birds before on an organic farm. The chicks there barely had their beaks out when I arrived and by the time I left almost two weeks later they were barely fitting in the cramped nest. That was in northern Kyoto when tsuyu, the rainy season, began. It’s high summer now. 

Okay, the heat is really getting to me. Suburbia is getting to me. My backpack is getting to me. My irritation is getting to me – and it’s barely noon. I look longingly at a quaint cafe nestled in the shade with a natural wood interior and European-style seats. In the city, it would be idyllic countryside, but in the middle of nowhere, this becomes urbanite romanticism. It’s not time to stop yet, so I march reluctantly on, shelving my city roots.

I’m in the last prefecture. There’s a noticeable pile of previously imperceptible changes now. I stop on the sidewalk to capture some of the floating bits. If you drop me in Kochi now I’d be wiser, but not stronger. My shoulder no longer hurts. I have a good pace.

I was eating to shed weight — three bananas this morning so I don’t have to carry them, bought yogurt to finish extra cereal. Onigiri. 

My descriptive skills have atrophied. No. They’re to the point. The points are all I need. Sentences unnecessary.

There’s another konbini, so I scurry in. It’s just past noon, an insane time to walk. Plus, the underside of my sedge hat is coming apart. It was half broken when I adopted it in Temple 1. Please, just last one more day.

I can only walk normally with a bag now. My gait becomes a waddle the moment I drop my backpack near the entrance of the konbini. I feel the tightness in my legs, my sore butt. I wish I could see myself. I’d laugh.

With second lunch, I plant myself on the seats, basking in AC – not good for sweating muscles. My soaked shirt and shorts become cold weights. I’m caught between feeling guilty for ‘wasting time’ and acknowledging the rest my body is demanding. Oh well. What will be, will be. I begin eating and flipping through messages.

When I finally do get up, I feel as light as when I started this morning. What a miracle my body has pulled off in an hour. I wish I could see the minute-by-minute regeneration. My spirits are reset to high. What a grouch I was. I’m glad to have a more bubbly self as I set off for the final stretch to Kanonji City.

It’s 3:00pm and I’ve just finished Temples 68 and 69, which are right beside each other. Actually, I mixed up their Daishi Halls, the secondary shrines dedicated to Kobo Daishi because they’re in the same complex. The contrast between the Main Halls, though, is stark. One has a modern, concrete entrance climbing up to the Main Hall, and a large new building for its offices. The other one seems like an attachment, had it not been for the nondescript sign with the temple name. Nonetheless, one person writes both nokyochos for me.

I sit under the umbrella of a leafy tree in the middle of the courtyard, wondering if these two temples form a block in quiet competition with the Shinto shrines above and below them. I had read that Temple 68 used to be beside the Shinto shrine below, a typical coexistance between Buddhism and Shinto. The Meiji Era changed that by declaring Shinto as Japanese nation’s ‘native’ religion and forced the institutions to separate.

This hill has many family tombs, no doubt from before that separation. Do the families visiting now have allegiances or do they not care? As I leave, I look up at the torii, the red square arches of the Shinto shrine. Despite its simple design it has a similar concept to the Buddhist Niōmon, the gate marking entrance to sacred grounds. You find shimenawa, spiritual ropes, wrapped around many trees on Buddhist grounds. Whatever divisions were imposed seems an arbitrary act of nation-building.

I’m in the ryokan after returning from Temple 70, Motoyama-ji. I’m hungry and tired, but also bathed. Laundry is done. I delay tucking in and let my thoughts swirl. I was lucky that the owner came back for a lunch break minutes after I arrived at the locked ryokan. It looked closed for the holidays, like the ryokans in Shikokuchuo City where I came from. When she discovered me, she said she’d prepare a room for this evening and take my bag as I walked to Temples 68, 69 and 70. 

Without baggage and a close walk to the first two temples, I thought I had plenty of time and hung around under the tree in the courtyard, waiting for the sun to wane. I even went hunting for an ice coffee in a nearby supermarket and sat down outside with the intention to sip it when I discovered it was almost 4:00pm. My last walk was an hour away if I walked fast. 

The coffee was dealt with in a gulp and I raced along the river towards the last temple. Gentle stroll indeed! I speed-walk along the river that never seemed to reach its destination, giving envious glares to cyclists racing by, imagining myself like an anime character knocking them over to borrow the bike, do my rounds, and then return it before they recover from the shock.

My muscles and tendons aren’t sore anymore; they are tearing with every step. I limped into the large temple compounds about ten minutes before closing, filled with thoughts of catching buses and trains. It was the first time I got the nokyocho before finishing the rituals. Shikatanai. There’s no choice if I wanted to get it for the friend I am dedicating it to, but I still felt guilty for doing things out of order. 

The ojii-san in the office wasn’t that keen to help, even after he finally heard what I needed: the nokyocho on a piece of paper. The gap between articulation, understanding, and willingness can sometimes be impassable canyons.

Fortunately, the lady who was sweeping the grounds returned just in time and offered to help. After she wrote it, she asked me the usual questions about my background. Then, she presented me with a brocade osamefuda, casually saying that it might be a good omiyage, souvenir for friends. What an understatement! Silver and gold osamefuda are dug out of temple boxes by henro looking for lucky charms. Brocade osamefuda, used by henro who completed over 100 rounds, cannot be given to someone who doesn’t understand their significance. I was over the moon when I received one at Temple 55. I don’t deserve two.

But, she was giving an o-settai, so I could not refuse. I limped to my bag to get an osamefuda for her, the protocol when henro receive o-settai. Could a piece of paper really convey the heartfelt gratitude? I had to believe she could feel it as it passed between us. The corner of her eyes creased as she smiled under her surgical mask. My memory of her has an evening halo as she bowed a goodbye under the doorway, her broom in hand.

When I am grateful for the things I’ve received, I’ve always needed to give something useful or meaningful back. I am happy to give, but don’t like being indebted. Walking this pilgrimage, the tables have been turned. It’s made me realise that my reciprocation of favours has kept my appreciation and gratitude to a thought rather than a feeling. Unconditional generosity, so rare in our increasingly self-absorbed lives, in such abundance in Shikoku is humbling and disarming. I’ve read that character is how you treat people who can do nothing for you. These people who don’t have much to give but manage so much in the way of giving. Here I’ve learned to feel gratitude and humility deeply. You realise how vulnerable you are, how much you needed what was offered to you only after you receive it.

Anyhow, that’s enough thinking for today. I slip under the warm covers.

I haven’t even gotten to my ryokan host. She’s an interesting one too – but I’ll leave that for tomorrow. She’s driving me to the trailhead of Unpen-ji, the highest temple in the Shikoku Pilgrimage, tomorrow. It’s her o-settai.

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