Friday, May 31, 2019

Beginning, end and beginning: Temple number 1


Ryōzenji , temple number one on the Shikoku pilgrimage, is the beginning, end, and now the beginning for us. Unlike all the other pilgrimages I have done, Shikoku is a circle and people can start and finish anywhere, with the goal simply to visit all of the temples. 

After reciting the Heart Sutra at 88 temples before returning to Ryōzenji, I have been thinking about the meaning of the concepts of beginning and end or start and finish. Much of the sutra, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, refutes the idea of such opposites, including birth/death, pure/impure and so on. As he explains, "In order to touch the true nature of all phenomena, we need to find a middle way between all these pairs of opposites." (The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries by Thich Nhat Hanh. )

I see this middle way in my brave students who dare to challenge our notions of gender as a solely binary male/female thing. I also seek a middle way for myself, away from my own notions of good and bad that seem to only strangle the joy out of any moment and divide people rather than connecting them. 

So as we continue around the circle we are now back in Tokushima prefecture - the stage of the pilgrimage for awakening. I am smiling to myself as I write this because it certainly does seem that I am aware of how many lessons or insights I must learn only to need to relearn them again. Today, heading up to temple four, I took the same wrong road I took last time. It involved two short but very steep unnecessary climbs. 

Ryōzenji is a stunning temple. The last time we were here the cherry blossoms were putting on their last show, now the trees are in full leaf. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

88 Temples on Shikoku: What Next?

The view from the ridge Gord climbed

Ruth: Yesterday Gord and I climbed from the seashore to the Temple 88 on the Shikoku pilgrimage. I cycled on the road while Gord took a trail that climbed much higher. Before the big climb we met at the Henro Museum where we were each given a henro ambassador certificate (the equivalent of a Compostela on the Camino) and a lovely pin. The museum has a good little display on the pilgrimage, but you have to know what and where it is to recognize it. On display were a few stamp books where the pages were entirely red from the countless stamps for multiple trips to each temple. The warm welcome at the museum more than made up for the somewhat gruff and impersonal reception at Temple 88. 

Unlike other pilgrimage routes this one is a circle, so we still have to close the loop by returning to Temple 1, located 45 kms from 88. We also have 12 more days before our flight home. Lots of time to see more of Japan or visit Koyasan.

Thinking about our extra time, Gord and I independently decided that we would simply like to continue and begin our second Henro. There is a beautiful rhythm to daily life on a pilgrimage and we are happy to continue as long as the June rains hold off. 

After all, life is Henro.

Gordon:  I enjoyed a suitably grand outing on the walk to the final two temples.  Against the advice of the woman at the Henro Museum, I chose to go to Temple 88 via the mountain behind it.  It was a magnificent, varied trail, with bamboo stands yielding to dense cedar forests before a scramble to the top.  The last stretch was a via ferrata, with metal handholds set in the rock.  

On the way up I saw another monkey and encountered a “sparrow bee”, as they are known in Japanese.  They have acquired this name due to their enormous size.  This is a wasp that hums rather than buzzes.  Ignoring the diseases carried by mosquitoes, the sparrow bee is also the deadliest animal in Japan, typically causing 30 to 40 deaths per year.  (Japanese pit vipers and brown bears round out the top three.)  I must admit I took a few apprehensive steps backwards when the sparrow bee showed some interest in me.

After getting lost twice, and walking around an active logging area, I did not complete the 35 km walk until after 5:00.  At dinner we enjoyed a celebratory beer with our Irish friend Geraldine.

Walking sticks left at Temple 88 by Henro completing the pilgrimage 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Some Wildlife: Temples 84 to 86

Gordon:  Despite its industrialization and massive cities, Japan still has a rich diversity of vegetation harbouring a lot of wildlife.  

Some of the animals we regularly spot include carp, egrets, herons and cormorants.  Some days I have also seen literally hundreds of turtles in ponds and slow moving rivers.  They are mostly red sliders, some as large as dinner plates.  Despite their slow-witted reputation they are actually quite elusive, diving upon sighting a curious henro with a camera.

Today was a particularly good day for wildlife sightings.  As I was coming down from Temple 84 I encountered hundreds of small white butterflies fluttering around some shrubs.  It was quite magical.  Ruth and I have both noticed that there are much greater numbers of butterflies in Japan than we see in Victoria.

Walking along the tidal river in the valley between Temples 84 and 85, I passed the lowest of concrete weirs.  This 15 cm barrier was still sufficient to halt the progress of some species of marine fish.  Theses 40 cm fish looked like a cross between a carp and a shark, and there were literally hundreds of them in the pool below the weir.  It was an amazing concentration of life.

Later, as we were leaving Temple 86, Ruth spotted a weasel behind a row of stone monuments.  I stuck my head through a break in the stone palisade to watch the weasel devouring a lizard.  The weasel then hopped along past me.  He found another lizard just in front of me, which led to a brief but frantic chase before the blue-tailed skink became the second portion of the weasel’s lunch.  This occurred a little more than a metre from me.  The weasel then ambled further along the row of stones, entertaining a few other henro as he went.  I have encountered a number of weasels in my life (not even including my brief legal career) but I have never had such a front row seat to one engaged in the bloody business of life.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Life is Henro: Temples 70-83

Ruth: I saw a t-shirt at a temple that simply said “Life is Henro,” and I am beginning to agree. 

It’s hard not to compare our experiences on the various Camino routes with the Shikoku 88 temple Henro. Visiting Japan, even without doing the Henro, is so different.

For me, one of the things I appreciate so much about this route is that the Henro is truely for everyone. Whether you are a ninety year old struggling on and off your tour bus, or a walker striding down the trail, you are a Henro. There is no hierarchy or judgement about how you visit the 88 temples, just that you visit them.

As someone who had to give up walking Camino routes in 2011 and switch to a bike, I struggled with the attitudes and judgements I encountered on the Camino. I tried my best to be a “good” cyclist on the route, but was reminded frequently that I was not a real pilgrim. I gave up on Spanish municipal albergues altogether because of posted signs that said cyclists could not check in until 6:00. These distinctions  made me grieve the loss of of the ability to walk even more, because I was clearly not a real member of the club. 

The Shikoku route is much more physically challenging than the Camino if you want to walk every single step like Gord does. The Shikoku route, however, is well set up to be done in a variety of different ways. Some foreign pilgrims come here after doing the Camino to find that in order to complete the route in their available time they must do a combination of walking and public transport. The beauty of this is that anyone can do the 88 Temple route in whatever way they can. Most walkers choose to walk a certain distance every day and then use a train or bus for certain sections. 

At the beginning of our trip, peak season for walking, there were only perhaps 20 walkers on the route per day. Only around three were foreigners. Walkers and foreigners are far outnumbered by Japanese Henro travelling by bus or car. Many of these henro will offer rides to walkers as a form of osettai. So even if you intend to walk every step you might find yourself being stuffed into someone’s car with little chance for refusal. These moments are some of the best cultural exchanges on the trip. 

The largest downside to the Shikoku 88 Temple route is the cost. This is the most expensive trip Gordon and I have taken.  We are spending an average of $100 each per day. The standard form of accommodation is a minshuku or ryokan, which typically cost $80 to $90 dollars per person, including dinner and breakfast. There are people on the route camping, or seeking out the huts and free shelters, but this is a difficult route to do without spending significantly more money than on the Camino. Wild camping, while not legal, is tolerated and often quite comfortable with  the availability of public washrooms.

A Buddhist pilgrimage is also different than a Catholic one. 
While I am not a member of either religion, there is something about the quiet non judgemental Buddhist philosophy that I love. I may not have found Nirvana but I do believe the simple words: “Life is Henro.”  

Temple 75 Zentsuji 

Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu-Chuo. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Staying with a Hibakusha: Temples 66 to 69

Gordon:  Last night we spent the night at Minshuku Okada, located between Temples 65 and 66.  The proprietor, Akira Okada, is in many respects a very interesting fellow.  To begin with, he is 91 years old, though like many Japanese he looks much younger.  He was constantly in motion in the garden and the house.  Among other activities, he prepared an excellent dinner for six of us last night (with some assistance from a younger woman.)  Mr. Okada was also quite adept with his smart phone, booking our accommodation for the next two nights at our request.  He maintains an excellent garden full of bonsai and orchids.  There is also a small pond in the garden with a pair of massive koi.  He has had them for almost 60 years, since the two of them fit in his hand.

Koi that are older than Ruth

During dinner, conversation turned to the Second World War.  Mr. Okada was born and raised in a city near here, but during the War he was studying in Hiroshima.  On the morning of August 6, 1945, he was somewhere not far from Ground Zero when the atomic bomb detonated above him.  A wall protected him from the worst of the blast, but he still sustained burns that kept him in hospital for three months.  He told us of the difficulties he experienced in obtaining food and water in the days after the bombing.  At 91 years of age he is apparently in remarkably good health, though he has had thyroid cancer.

The Japanese has recognized 650,000 people as “hibakusha” or atomic bomb survivors.  Of this number, about 150,000 are still alive.  They receive a monthly stipend from the government of Japan, and those with illnesses recognized as being related to the bombs also receive an additional amount for health costs.

A bit of a hush went over the dining room as we realized the horrors that our host had experienced.  I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to chat with one of the remaining hibakusha.

Yummy natto for breakfast again.

Ruth: On the climb up to the base of the ropeway to Temple 66 I passed some signs in Japanese about road work. Nearing the end of a steep climb the road was completely gone, with only a balance beam to get to the other side. These two road angels carried my bike and trailer across for me.

Gordon:  At over 900 metres, Temple 66 is the highest point on the Shikoku pilgrimage.  Like most mountain temples it is beautifully situated in a mature forest.  It also has a collection of life-sized statues depicting the Buddha’s first 500 disciples.

Really not sure what is going on here. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Pulling and pushing my bike up to Temple 65.

Ruth: I knew in advance that most of the 350 meter climb up to Temple 65 occurred in the last few steep kilometres. I taped my knees, loaded up on more sugary treats than normal, and started the day full of confidence. After stopping at a lovely henro hut for second breakfast with Gord, I headed for the temple. Although the route was marked and I had a backup record on my phone, I somehow missed the car route I was planning to take. Facing an intersection where I had to choose between a road on which I would lose much of my hard earned elevation, and a paved path marked as a henro route, I asked a local farmer and he gestured up the path. Not the best advice, given my bike and trailer. As I pushed my bike up the path it became narrower and so steep that I was sliding backwards. It was a challenge to even find a flat place to park the bike. After texting Gord to let him know of my predicament, I unhitched my bike, left the trailer and continued up the steep path with my bike. Even without the weight of the trailer I was still  sliding down. After a slow and painful count of 90 steps I walked back to pull the trailer up to where I had left the bike. Sucking back the jello sweets I was given this morning as osettai I repeated the cycle again for another 90 steps. Fortunately I made it up to a road where I could continue my climb using my legs rather than my arms. 

Everyday the kindness of the people we meet makes me feel much better about our species. After I finally made it up to Temple 65 a lady caught me on my slow decent down the steps with her osettai. “Just candy” she said as she passed me a lovely zippered pouch. Peeking in, I wondered why she had left a Kleenex inside with the candy. On closer inspection, I realized she had concealed a 1000 yen note (about $12) inside.

Gordon:  I had my own mountain to climb at breakfast this morning.  Unlike some foreign henro, Ruth and I enjoy most of the traditional Japanese food that we are offered, seldom leaving anything on our plates.  A consistent exception is “natto”, a fermented bean dish frequently served at breakfast. It has an odd texture, with spiderweb like filaments trailing behind when chopsticks loaded with natto are raised to the mouth.  

Challenged by a Japanese henro at breakfast this morning, I finally decided to try natto.  It generally comes prepackaged with small portions of vinegar and mustard.  These are poured into the moist beans and the whole mess stirred with chopsticks for a minute or two.  And then the moment of truth, as I lifted some to my mouth ... and liked it.  Ruth tried a bit as well.  It is slightly sweet, with a nice texture.  The stickiness and filaments are still a bit off putting, but in the future I will be eating this part of breakfast when it is offered to us.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Another Henro-korogashi: Temples 59 - 62

Gordon:  We are spending two nights at a business ryokan near Temple 62.  This has permitted us to enjoy an unladen day doing a return trip to Temple 60.  Visiting this temple involves a henro-korogashi (pilgrim falls down) climb to 750 metres. Like many mountain temples, number 60 is set in a mature cedar forest.  It also has a large area planted with rhododendrons, which are currently in bloom.  Ruth cycled to the end of one of the access roads, and then we walked the final 2.2 kms together.  It was a strenuous but delightful trail through the forest.

We are staying at accommodation known among henro as the “butcher’s”, because it is owned by a butcher.  This is significant because it means that meat replaces fish as the centrepiece of dinner.  The presentation of dinner is quite fun, as it is done as a hotpot.  Each diner, or pair of diners in the case of a couple, share a pot of flavoured water heated by a butane burner.  A plate of thinly sliced meat and a mountain of vegetables are placed on the table for the guests to cook.  When beef is served, as it was this evening, each guest also gets a raw egg to dredge the cooked items through before consuming them. We had to bathe after dinner as we had splattered so much on ourselves during the course of eating, but it was a fun and tasty experience.

Yesterday we visited Temple 62.  It is unique among the 88 temples, as it does not belong to the Shikoku pilgrimage temple association.  It does not permit some tour groups to visit the temple, it has closed its washrooms to pilgrim use, and it charges twice the usual amount for the stamping of a pilgrimage book.  Our guidebook does not explain the rationale for the partial rejection by Temple 62 of the normal operating procedures at the temples.  My own theory is that a devout monk running the temple resents the visits of tourist pilgrims like ourselves.  If so, it would be a departure from the open welcome we have received everywhere else on this pilgrimage.