Monday, April 27, 2009

Thirty-three Thumbs

The guy on the train had a T-shirt which read, "Drink and Powders and Pills." Whatever it takes to keep you standing on a train this early on a weekend morning. It was just before seven, and all the passengers were in differing states of sleepiness. Most were starting their day, but for a some, it was just ending. A couple hosts had hair sticking out in that perpetual bed-head look, in spite of having not slept.

I was heading south to continue the Saikoku Kannon Pilgimage. Back in June 2002, I'd spent about 10 days hitching around the Kansai countryside visiting temples. A true pilgrimage deserves some hardship, so I chose to do some on foot, and the rest by thumb, bypassing public transportation except when going to and from the pilgrimage route itself. At that time, I'd visited 24 of the 33 on the pilgrimage (plus the 3 extra "bangai" temples), and today I hoped to visit the three that were clustered around Wakayama city. Unfortunately they were well spread out across the prefecture.

In Osaka, I boarded a train heading out toward Kansai airport. About a half dozen skaters were lounging in the priority seat at one end of my car, two of them sleeping and sprawled across the benches with their shoes off, another was busy texting. One guy in headphones was doing some sort of hip hop neck exercises. (Not far removed, I thought, from the old timers I'd seen earlier, doing radio taiso under a massive tree in some suburban park). These guys were young but must have been really dedicated, to be up this early. Two of the boys looked like they were still in elementary school.

After two hours of trains, I had another hour to go by bus, leaving from some town I'd never heard of. There were a few people aboard with backpacks, obviously heading into the same hills as I was. The bus let me out at the busy end of a small country road which weaved between small shops and large country homes. Quite a number of cars were heading my way and almost without thinking I thumbed one. They were only going part way up the mountain, planning to pick wild veggies beside the river. I asked about all the fallen trees, thinking it must have been one hard winter. No, there was a new dam going up. Here in such a lovely valley with little apparent need for one.

At the trailhead, I said goodbye, and made my way up. I guess a tour bus had just arrived, since I soon became part of a group of twenty or so people moving up the cobblestones. I strode past them pretty quickly to regain solitude. It was beautiful here, the stone trail following a creek up the considerably steep steps. There were a number of small subtemples along way, where I'd stop and pray. One roof had high flowering weeds growing from the thatch. Another was in terrible shape, covered with a tarp and looking like a white and brown mushroom. (It was called the Yamato Hall, and I'll let you come up with your own cynical subtext.) Finally I arrived at the main hall of Makinoodera. A priest with very bushy eyebrows brushed kanji in my nōkyō, the book that serves as a record of the pilgrimage. There was a group who I decided were bus pilgrims, based on their loud voices and poor choice of shoes. The sheer racket they were making at first annoyed me, but in looking over at them, I noticed a part of the temple grounds I otherwise would have missed. There was a set of "Buddha's footprints" in front of a tall stele, surrounded by a series of 33 stones, which if trod upon, allowed one to do this entire Kannon Pilgrimage in symbolic miniature. How convenient for the bus tourists, I thought.

I lingered up top awhile, looking across a series of hills just coming into their spring colors. Then I headed down toward the road again. Hitched back to the bus stop, then sat to think a while. There was a temple due south of me, just on the other side of this range of mountains. I knew a road headed through them, but didn't know how well trafficked it was. I could easily get stuck out there somewhere. Finally I decided that there was no real risk of danger and that I'd let fate dictate the rules of the day. I set off in the that direction. A few cars passed me as I moved through the village, though none stopped. I turned onto a busier road and moved up a steep hill. A van stopped. I told him that he could let me off a couple km ahead, at the junction of the road heading south. He knew this area well and was pretty sure I'd get stuck, but respected my choice. Alternately, he was heading into Wakayama city, where the third of today's prospective temples was. He thought I'd be better off going there first, then hitching back into the countryside again. I accepted. So we spent the next hour together, this man and I and his 4 year old son. They'd spent the night at the father's ancestral home in the country, and were now heading to a park near their Wakayama. I had a nice chat with the dad about those things you come up with in your role as guest. The boy sang a song for most of the drive, making it up as we rolled along. He later caught me up on Ultraman's latest foes. As we neared Wakayama Station, the dad asked the boy if he'd mind taking me all the way to the temple before going on to the park. The boy said he wanted to go to the park right away. Fair enough. Let fate dictate the rules of the day

So I found myself in the center of the city, nine km from my destination. Figuring I had no choice, I checked on train times, but they only ran every half hour. I decided to try to hitch, though pretty certain from past experiences that no one stops in the middle of a city. I'd walk in the direction of the next station and if I couldn't get a ride, I'd take the train. Unbelievably a car pulled out of traffic and stopped immediately. He wasn't going my way, but I became inspired. A minute later, a woman stopped. She turned off the main road so as to avoid the traffic. She also wanted to drop off some cakes at home. (When buying cakes in Japan, they always ask if you'll eat them within a half hour.) This complete stranger left me alone in her car for a few minutes, engine running, then came back to weave through the backstreets toward Kimiidera.

There was a lot more activity here, and despite being on the outskirts of the city, it had all the feel of a temple village, with hotels and restaurants lining a single wide street. It looked more like China than Japan. I climbed yet another flight of stairs, though not nearly as high as the mountainous Makinoodera. This had probably been a beautiful place prior to the arrival of concrete. At the main hall was another group of pilgrims, though this time dressed in identical white and chanting sutras. This is how it should be done. Approaching a monk with my nōkyō, my face fell when I saw that he had a stack of around 50 in front of him, all belonging to the sutra-chanters. Luckily, he quickly dashed off mine. I wandered up to a small hall higher on the hill. Over the entrance was a carved wooden pigeon, and just below it, the floor was littered with bits of broken seeds and scat. Strangley, I saw no real birds. I moved across the grounds toward a massive concrete tower. Inside was a three story high Kannon statue, all done up in fake-looking gaudy gold. I could see no real purpose for this, other than as a way to use untaxed revenue. The real value was in the view from the top deck. It would've been a fantastic view were it not for the line of high buildings in the foreground. So I raised my eyes to take in the fields stretching away toward the sea, and the jagged line of mountains beyond. The color of the sky and of the bleached out buildings gave everything a real sea-side feel. I made my way down the steps again, thinking that the next time a person asks me why I'm doing this pilgrimage, I'll answer that it's because I love stairs.

I thought about hitching toward the next temple, but it was well out in the countryside and I had no idea which road or direction to take. I hoped to get picked up by someone else doing this pilgrimage, as it came next in the traditional order. It took some effort but I caught a ride. Ironically, this driver, and the cake woman earlier, were both the wives of priests. This ride too stopped along the way, to pick up her son at cram school. Beside me in the backseat was a friendly young woman who'd just started dental school. (In more irony, the very next ride I'd hitch, albeit a week later, would himself be a dentist.) Like the two earlier rides, they asked me if I had food. Very kind, the people around here. They were bound for Wakayama Station, so I went along, compromising on my rule by taking a slow train out toward Kokawadera.

At the top of town, two huge trees marked the main gate. Beyond them, subtemples spread out along a creek, with a few Buddhas and graves along the path. It was wide and open here, like an old West town, all dust and sun. There was a merciful lack of steps. One small hall looked abandoned, the earthen wall challenging the roof tiles in a race toward complete decay. In the main courtyard was an unusual dry rock garden, climbing up a small rise toward the Hondo. In true Western movie fashion, the wind picked up some, causing a rack of wooden ema to clack together beside the main altar. The floor before the principle carved Buddha was worn away and warping due to centuries of praying pilgrims. To the side was a trail leading up to an ascetic's hut. On my way up, a large bee circled me three times, then flew off. The hut is closed but for a small slit in which to slide food and offerings. Beyond it, a path leads away through the forest, the floor worn smooth but veined with tree roots. I followed a different trail to a small subtemple hidden above the Hondo's right shoulder. It looked abandoned, but surprisingly, I was allowed to enter and was given a brief tour by a very old woman. I sat for a while overlooking the garden, and at the borrowed scenery that the woman had told me was slowly disappearing behind high bamboo growing in the valley below. What had once been pines had now been replaced by a grove of fruit trees. In a decade, the peaks of the Izumi Range themselves will no longer be seen. I walked back into the temple and headed toward a couple of attached halls. One contained a beautiful ancient Kannon, and it was difficult to turn away from a face radiating such peace. Above, a tapestry of a once-colorful lotus was peeling off the ceiling. I continued walking along the old crumbling decrepit hallways, the wood complaining under my feet. I've never seen a temple in such an obvious state of disarray. But it was gorgeous, the textbook definition of mono-no-aware.

Walking back down through town, toward a mountainscape of houses climbing the hills, partial hidden by forests dotted pink with yamazakura. The foreground too was an almost alpine scene, between two rows of buildings of equal height. At the bottom, I came to my last destination of the day, the Yamato Kaido. Originating as the Nara kaido back in the 6th Century, this route had taken on many names and had been much extended over the centuries. The section I'd follow would shadow the Kiinokawa for 11 km. It was well marked and easy to find. I spend the remaining few hours of daylight walking though quiet villages and fields mostly barren. There were many shrines along this way, synonomous with very early settlement. One shrine had a set of unswept, leaf strewn steps. There were many farmers finishing their work of the day, prodding the earth back to action. One village smelled strongly of citrus. Somewhere past the mikan, I had this exchange:

A group of boys are playing and one yells "Are wa gaijin da!" I check to make sure my horns aren't showing, then respond with, "Are wa nihonjin da!" One of the kids says, "Doko?" The boy who originally yelled says, "Ore wa, Nihonjin da yo." Didn't detract from my day, but things like this help justify my leaving Japan. (One blogger I read cynically calls this type of soft racism, "Death by a thousand cuts.)

The spaces between the homes began to fill with other homes. Just over the river, I walked down a one-street town, many people chatting outside and enjoying the last heat of the day. Over the broad Kiinokawa next, and to the train platform, open and facing the yellowing sky. This had been one long day, zigzagging around the Izumi region of Wakayama and I was weary. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the hours and trains I'd need to get home...

On the turntable: John Coltrane, "Live Trane Underground"

On the nighttable: Brad warner, "Sit Down and Shut Up"

On the reel table: "Kill!" (Okamoto, 1968)

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