Any warm sunny day this time of year should be considered a gift, even if that gift will eventually come with a heavy pricetag. And December had warm sunny days aplenty.
On one Saturday, Miki and I decided to do part of the Kansai 33 Temple Kannon pilgrimage. I'd done 24 of the 33 temples in June, 2002, a time that I consider to be amongst my most memorable in Japan. During the day, I'd wander the countryside, hitching from temple to temple, then head back into one of the three major Kansai cities to watch a World Cup soccer match with friends over beers. I'd also found time to visit a few aikido dojos and for some Zen training in my favorite temple. That summer, there was one segment I didn't do, the long haul over the mountains from Daigo to Ishiyama dera.
We got to Daigo early. Due to the ongoing construction, we forewent the temple's lower gardens and structures, and went straight up the mountain. The leaves were still in color, and the long flights of stone were littered with the first of their suicidal numbers. We eventually came to Daigo-ji's upper reaches, with fantastic wooden statuary and incense smoke hovering in the cold shadows. It had been a long ascent, so we sat in the sun drinking lukewarm tea and eating bread. The trail dropped straight down the opposite side of the mountain, but we got sidetracked by a smaller trail leading to Daigo-ji's deepest reaches. At its end, we found a narrow cave with small pools of water around the altars. I shined my torch into the darkness beyond, but mysteriously, the battery gave out just then. After a brief prayer, we followed another side trail which led to a pile of boulders offering views of the valley below. I gazed over the mountains beyond, slightly uneasy. We had no maps and didn't know the direction or the distance involved. But a pilgrimage is all about trusting in the local gods. Our feet would do the rest.
The forest below was a patch of land beautiful and unmolested. A rickety old bridge crossed a brook which led us into the valley. It was warm and sunny again down here. An old woman was selling vegetables from a roadside stand. Miki chatted with her awhile as I moved some boxes she'd been struggling with. My reward was two mikan big as softballs. The valley was wide and pleasant, close to Kyoto yet feeling remote. At the far end, a path took us again into the hills, beneath low hanging bamboo trees and signs warning of poisonous vipers. We had lunch atop the ridge, washed our hands at a small shrine, asked directions of a couple of young potters who dressed and talked like gangsters.
The path led us into the afternoon. At its end we arrived at Ishiyama Temple. A woman noticed us in the courtyard and gasped. She'd seen us from a bus full of old women that had passed us hours ago. We wandered the temple grounds, up the hills to the hidden parts beyond. It was a wonderful place, but we slightly cheated it in being tired. We'd been amazed already today by Daigo-ji, and had walked 23km since then, up and down over four ridgelines. Exiting, we saw the sign saying the train station was yet another kilometer walk away. Groaning, we pushed on toward the train which would take us home.
On the turntable: Philip Glass, "Satyagraha"
On the nighttable: Jan Blensdorf, "My Name is Sei Shonagon"