Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Kindness on Shikoku: Temples 31-34

Ruth: I’m feeling very grateful tonight. We found a  shelter behind a Shinto shrine between Temples 34 and 35. It has a roof, two walls and couches. We asked permission to stay the night and then a local man returned with drinks and grapes for us. We are camping Japanese style. It has been raining heavily today and the prospect of camping out was looking a bit grim. 

The kindness of locals is really the best part of this trip. It goes beyond osettai - the gifts that are given to us as pilgrims along the way. We have been given many of these including: Kleenex, drinks, prayer beads, purses and a dvd in the pilgrimage. The generosity of the people on Shikoku goes much deeper than this. Many considerate efforts are made daily to ensure our safety and comfort and because of this, tonight we are dry. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

Golden Week: No Room at the Inn (Temples 28-30)

Ruth: On this pilgrimage each of the four prefectures that we pass through offers a different stage in spiritual development. Tokushima Prefecture is the place of spiritual awakening.  Kōchi Prefecture is the place of ascetic training,  Ehime Prefecture is the place of enlightenment, and Kagawa Prefecture is the place of Nirvana. 

We are not broken, we are merely starting to experience the promised asceticism of the  Kōchi Prefecture.

Golden Week in Japan is a 10 day holiday this year.  We were warned in advance that accommodation can get tight. This year it is even bigger than usual with the abdication by the current Emperor (tomorrow) and the coronation of the new Emperor the following day.

Accommodation is not just tight at the moment, it is non-existent within a 60 km radius of Kōchi city. We know this because the staff of our current hotel have unsuccessfully called dozens of places for us. Unwilling to let this derail our trip we made a trip to the Mont Bell outdoor equipment store and purchased a tent, sleeping pads and a single sleeping bag to share. 

Tonight I am enjoying a western bed in a ridiculously expensive hotel, but tomorrow we camp. 

The trip otherwise continues to be wonderful. My cycling has been on beautiful bike paths along the sea, tiny village lanes and tracks through the rice paddies. 

Our new accommodation 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Tsunami Zone

Ruth: Except for our brief excursions up to the mountain temples, we spend much of our time here in Japan within the tsunami inundation zones. At our guest house two nights ago our host explained in Japanese and charades what to do if the alarm sounds. We must leave from a certain door and basically boot up the hill. It was the only accommodation that also supplied hard hats for each of us. 

The villages are all situated dangerously low, usually tucked behind and dwarfed by a concrete wall. We were surprised to see how much of the ocean front is “hardscaped.” 
Concrete lines the coast in roads and walls. Perhaps even more surprising is when you do access a beach, there is no one on it. It feels like the Japanese largely live, when they are not fishing, with their backs to the sea. 

Tsunami towers like this one are in almost every town. 

We enjoyed a lovely rest at this funny rest stop for henros. 

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Passing the Spiritual Checkpoint: Temple 27

Gordon:  Temple 27 is a henro-korogashi temple located near the top of a mountain and accessed by a spur road 3.2 kms in length.  Ruth had been advised that the access road was too steep to cycle, so we both left our baggage at our accommodation at the foot of the mountain and walked up relatively unencumbered.  It was a pleasant walk, past greenhouses growing eggplants, and on into the forest.  The access road was indeed too steep for a bike, exceeding a 15% grade at times.  It would have been terrifying to come down, not to mention brutally difficult to climb up.

Temple 27 is the spiritual checkpoint temple for Kōchi prefecture.  Each of the four prefectures has such a temple, where Kōbō Daishi examines a pilgrim’s spiritual motives and decides whether he or she will be permitted to continue.  A story is told of a female pilgrim who had assisted in the murder of her husband.  When she arrived at Temple 19, the spiritual checkpoint temple for Tokushima prefecture, her hair became entwined in the temple bell rope.  She acknowledged her sin and spent the rest of her life as a nun.  Her hair is still displayed at Temple 19.

We have already passed the spiritual checkpoint at Temple 19, and things seemed to be trending in the same direction at Temple 27.  However, on the ascent Ruth picked up a walking stick to assist her with the climb.  A staff is considered to be a manifestation of Kōbō Daishi, travelling with a pilgrim and assisting him or her.  They are treated with great respect.  What can we conclude, therefore, when Ruth’s walking stick broke on the descent?  My theory is that Kōbō Daishi feels that Ruth is so close to enlightenment that she no longer needs his assistance.  On the other hand, perhaps Ruth did not pass the spiritual test.  I think we will opt for the former interpretation, unless a less ambiguous sign is sent in the form of a broken leg or a bent bicycle.  I certainly hope that is not the case, as I would be distraught to lose Ruth to a convent.

Friday, April 26, 2019

What is the Shikoku pilgrimage? (Temples 24 - 26)

Gordon:  I recently realized that we have provided no background information regarding the Shikoku pilgrimage.  It is a circuit of the island of Shikoku (the smallest of the four major Japanese islands) with visits to 88 Buddhist temples.  These temples are connected with Kūkai, also known as Kōbō Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.

Kūkai was born on Shikoku in 774.  He studied in China for a period of time, returning with some valuable texts.  He established the famous monastery at Mt. Kōya (now a UNESCO site), and became associated with a number of miraculous occurrences, many on Shikoku.  He died in 835 at Mt. Kōya, but he is still believed to be meditating in his tomb.  Monks at Mt. Kōya still bring him food every day.

Most of the 88 temples on the pilgrimage route claim some connection to Kūkai.  For example, he carved statues for Temples 24 and 25, which we visited today.  At Temple 26, also on today’s itinerary, Kūkai engaged in a debate with a tengu, a mythic creature that was a sort of demonic bird of prey.  Kūkai prevailed and the tengu was banished.

We are staying in the seaside town of Kiragawa.  As we entered the town Ruth commented on the number of well-maintained traditional houses.  It turns out that Kiragawa has national recognition for its century old homes, and is something of a tourist attraction.  We also noticed that the town is decorated with homemade carp kites.  An exchange with our delightful hosts through Google translate established that these have been hung in honour of the forthcoming Boys Day. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019


The black dots in the water are surfers. 

Gordon:  This is our first trip in Japan and we didn’t do sufficient reading in advance, so we truly don’t know much about the country.  To provide some background information we are taking a course in Japanese cultural history through a series of video lectures.  Yesterday we spent part of the rainy afternoon watching a lecture on the Japanese language.  Among other things, we learned that Japanese is richly endowed with onomatopoeic words.

We encountered the onomatopoeic term “gorogoro-ishi” today.  This is the name given to the long, lonely stretch of coast that we traversed.  Before the construction of the highway, pilgrims walked along the rocky shore, listening to the sound (gorogoro) the stones (ishi) made as they were jostled by the surf.

It was a flat, easy walk today, with the sea at my left hand and the forested mountains at my right.  I did hear the gorogoro of large cobbles on one beach, but there was also the clackety-clack of smaller cobbles, the swish-boom of dumping breakers and, most commonly, the swish-crash of breakers hitting the rocks.  I walked a total of 33 kms, my longest day thus far, so I was a bit tired by the time I reached our accommodation.

Slippers in Japan: No Temples Today

Ruth: I am determined to be as polite as I can be in Japan, but slipper etiquette continues to trip me up. At a minimum there are three different types of slippers at our lodging each night, and one place had five! Yes, that’s right, five. There were the hallway slippers, the outside slippers, the bathroom slippers, the concrete floor before the bathroom stall slippers, and the balcony slippers. 

In preparation for a slipper world I brought my own flip flops, but they do not seem to fit into the highly specialized functions required. And the use of slippers is not optional in Japanese homes. I was beginning to think I was getting the hang of changing slippers when our host in Hiwasa, who spoke fluent English, gently pointed out my errors. I was stepping out of one pair and into the next pair, but as she explained, this action needs to happen without your socks or foot touching the ground between slippers. This requires a sense of balance I do not have, but it is important because those same socks or feet will be the only thing allowed in your tatami floored room.  Grit adhering to socks or bare feet will damage the tatami.

Today was the first day of rain on our trip, and it has come with a vengeance.  We dodged through the torrent in our outside slippers this evening, running into the adjacent building for dinner. Our host is a surfer with a Volkswagen bug and a taste for Mike Myers. We are at Ikumi beach, a big surfing area, but it’s raining so heavily I have not walked the block to even peek at the beach. 

We are moving along one of the longest stretches of the route without a temple to visit. Here is a map to show our progress so far.  (We are on the coast between Temples 23 and 24.). We should make it to Temple 24 the day after tomorrow. 

How about this for the tiniest sink ever!!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Sea Turtles in Hiwasa: Temple 23

Ruth: I have it easier than all the other henros on the route. Well, perhaps not the ones in the tour buses. I am sitting in my camp chair at a high viewpoint overlooking  the mountains and the sea, waiting for Gordon to catch up. Lots of time to finish up my painting of a turtle.

We stayed in Hiwasa last night, and although the turtle museum was closed we could still see the beautiful creatures slowly cruising in their outside tanks.  Turtles use the beach at Hiwasa to lay their eggs.  In the summer months, at new moon, the baby turtles make their dangerous journey to the sea. 

The Shikoku 88 temple route is absolutely perfect for bicycles. Especially when you are pacing yourselves alongside walkers. For many years I grieved not being able to walk long distances and wished for the simplicity of a backpack and nothing else. I think it is time to admit I have found a lovely alternative to the grind of hard walking. Seeing our travelling tribe moaning and tending to their feet or knees makes me realize it’s time to put that nostalgia about walking to rest. 

We visited our last temple for a little while. The gap between temple 23 and 24 is 77 kms.. 

Today’s ride snaked along amazing cliffs and coastline. We saw two groups of monkeys (tail-less macaques) along the way. 

I have lost three kilograms!!! 

Thank you Japan Post.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sky to Sea: Temple 22

Gordon:  Yesterday I finished my walk at Temple 21.  Located at the top of a mountain, it is known as the “Western Kōya-san” because of its similarity to the UNESCO designated monastic community near Ōsaka.  It is possibly the most beautiful temple we have visited, with magnificent cedars and numerous temples constructed at various levels along a ridge.  After our visit to the temple we took a ropeway (an aerial tramway) to our accommodation in the town below.

Temple 21 was so appealing that I chose to start my day there today.  (This also had the benefit of leaving my line of walking unbroken.  I would never take a train or a bus, but ropeways are a bit of a grey area.)  It was cloudy this morning, making the mountaintop temple quite atmospheric.  It would be a wonderful place to do a meditation or yoga retreat, if you were so inclined.

After lingering on the temple grounds for a while, enjoying the near solitude of the early day, I set off on a 25 km walk to the sea.  Enroute I passed through some truly magnificent timber bamboo forests.  Not limited to isolated clumps of stems, these forests extended over entire hillsides and filled ravines.  I can understand the appeal of these forests to Japanese artists.  The strong vertical lines, lacy foliage, and rich blue-green colour of the stalks are compelling in their simple beauty.

After a week walking through farmland, cities and mountains, it was exciting to suddenly walk into a fishing village on the coast.  The inspiration for Japanese landscape paintings was clearly evident, with ragged islands and headlands rising from the mist.

I’m guessing that we will be having fish for dinner.