Tuesday, September 07, 2010

'Round Shikoku Day 3

I awoke sometime before six and went outside to sit and look east to where the sun was pulling itself over the pull-up bar that is the horizon. It had been a long night, a siege against cockroaches and mosquitoes. I sat in the peace of morning, the sky a clash of blue and gray that foretold rain. 50CC Henro came out and as the first act of the day, lit one up. A severe bout of coughing followed, guaranteed to awaken anyone still sleeping in the huts behind him. Yep, that first one always tastes best. Judging on last night's performance, he'll go through a dozen more before setting off on his little scooter. He was a good guy, good-natured but for the perpetual butt in his mouth and his little transistor radio, constantly switched on. This latter habit, in conjunction with the high back rest he'd welded on his bike, reminded me of 'Quadrophenia.' A Real Who-nro.

His roommate was a soft-spoken young guy who was doing the 88 Temple in reverse order by bicycle. We all separated at 7am, by our various modes of transportation. It was a half hour on foot to Temple 11. This beautiful little zen temple was tucked away in the corner of the valley, just below where the trail leads up toward Temple Twelve. It had the quiet, forlorn feel that Miki and I love so much, until a group of car pilgrims came and chose to destroy the quiet with a noisy argument about nokyo, as usual. The priest on the other side of the counter wasn't much better, processing us all with a curt, "Next! Next!" Despite this, his calligraphy was the most beautiful so far.

The trail started steep and got worse. The first section was lined with Jizo, whose form repeated nearly ceaselessly for the next five and a half hours. Apparently many people didn't survive this stretch. Approaching the top of the the first crest, I spotted a young Henro sitting and admiring the scenery. I held up my hand in greeting but didn't speak to him since he was wearing what I thought were earbuds. It dawned on me an hour later that he was deaf. The view from this height was of the valley we'd spent the last two days traversing, now covered by a layer of mist due to the coolness of the air and from the smoke of burning rice husks rising from a dozen farms. The smoke hid the view of the highway, and some of the bigger buildings, creating a view that was almost softly Himalayan.

We spent most of the day on this trail, making our way toward Twelve, along a path that wound up and down as if testing our resolve. Besides the ever-present Jizo, there were also plenty of small signs tied to the branches of trees that offered pithy expressions as a means of urging us on. Like Burma Shave ads for the Buddhistic set. A few small temple halls showed up here and there, eroding slowly into forest. We broke for lunch at one of these, and were soon joined by Shibui Henro, dressed in the full kit. He was an interesting guy, doing the full 88, joined by his father for this first Awa section. I hope we run into him again.

The day took us over three passes, each of them a challenge. After the second tough ascent, the pilgrim turns a corner to see the large figure of Taishi atop a flight of stairs. Very encouraging. From here we dropped and dropped and dropped into the valley, past farms with their stone walls and steps, also looking very Himalayan. The valleys in Shikoku have long held secrets of people looking not to be found. Their villages cling to the hillsides, rarely containing more than a dozen homes.

The trail bottomed out at the base of this valley, where a stream was rushing between boulders. Above it was a sign saying that the next climb was the steepest on the entire pilgrimage, and would take 50 minutes. A woman of around 70 hobbled up then, supported by a pair of walking staffs. When she saw the sign, she literally plopped down in frustration, announcing loudly that she'd eat lunch. She began to talk with us, but after a couple of minutes, began to get strangely aggressive, then abruptly walked off, saying she'd eat lunch elsewhere. We found her awhile later, squatting and eating onigiri in the middle of the trail.

The final ascent was as tough as advertised. My heavy bag and I rested three times along the way. Once, I heard the jingle of a bell and clack of a staff and assumed a henro was on the trail just above me. Reaching the next clearing, I saw merely a lone Jizo on an altar, with a bell above him and a staff at his feet. There was no one else around. It was strange, but then again, I'd already hallucinated three times already today. This happens to me sometimes when I'm fatigued, and the straps of my pack are pressing into the optic nerves in my shoulders. One thing I didn't imagine were all the vipers I saw on the climb, including one that darted across the trail right in front of me, in pursuit of lunch.

We finally reached the temple. Even with our bags, we were two hours quicker than average. I was really feeling this weight for the past two days, but seemed to have found my groove. Walking the final set of stairs, a guy began chatting up Miki, and I heard him complaining to her about how curvy the road had been, the drive taking over an hour. Jesus.

Sitting beside the gate was a woman from Flagstaff. Now living in Himeji, she was doing the Henro after having previously done pilgrimages in Italy and Spain. We also saw the two henro who'd been our comrades in yesterday's parade. We did our rounds, then went up the last 30 minutes to Okuno-in. Not many walk this trail and it showed. It was dark and wildly overgrown, with narrow sections leading over high drops, and large swaths taken out by landslides. Mountain sacred to the Yamabushi always have the same look as this one. A place where dimensions overlap. Halfway up is a large rock face where Taishi beat the giant snake. On the peak itself is a large altar. We sat behind it and drank in the view of the peaks before us. We were at 938m, but these were much higher, including Tsurugi which dwarfed them all. In nearly every valley was a small cluster of homes hanging to the steep mountain faces. They were humbled by the large slabs of rock on their slopes. I had never realized that Shikoku was this wild.

Back again at the temple, we grabbed our gear and moved slowly off the mountain. Miki was using a staff now for the first time, a thick cherry branch that she'd found up at Okuno-in. Despite our quick speed of the morning, we'd lingered through most of the afternoon, and hoped to get down to a rumored campsite before dark. If it was full, we'd have a long, dark walk before meeting road again. Entering a village, a man offered us four mikan. At the far end of his village was Joshin-an, where Emon finally caught up to Taishi. His staff had grown into a tree of unbelievable height. Beyond it, we dropped into an orchard, then down into a small village beside a small river. It was a peaceful place, maybe eight houses, three of them empty. There was also an elementary school. We asked at the lone village store if we could camp there, and the young woman working there told us that we were welcome to sleep across the road at a small covered space that they sometime use for their market. This woman had herself been a henro, but had liked this valley so much that she'd stayed on to help out at the store. Twenty-two, she'd given up on life in the city and is looking for a life of farming. When we first saw her, she was cutting the stems off fresh mikan while listening to sumo on the radio. She offered us sweet potatoes and barley tea as settai, which we enjoyed as much as the conversation.

We eventually set up camp, then went to eat at a pilgrim's rest hut that we'd noticed on our way into the village. It had electricity, allowing us to read and write in our journals. Yet after about an hour, an old man came up out of the dark and grumpily told us that the hut was only for daytime us. Go to bed! At 7:30. It definitely diminished the warmth here. If you make a hospitality area beside your house, and show no hospitality, what was your motivation in the first place?

On the turntable: Supertramp, "Retrospectacle"

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