Wednesday, January 26, 2011

'Round Shikoku Day 24

In the morning, I saw my breath for the first time this autumn. We moved along a road paralleling Rte 56. A handicapped man in a yellow cap was leading a group of kids to school, like a biped schoolbus. We met up with an older henro who matched our pace awhile. He was a nice guy, and we made small talk until Miki and I stopped for coffee. From here, we went up and over a small pass, then moved through farmland until arriving at Uchiko. There was an old kabuki-jo here, big and strutting its muscles against the smaller buildings in town. These too were impressive, a couple parallel streets of old shops and trad ambiance. Just outside town was a farmers market in the woods beside a fast river. We took a long rest here, eating bread straight from the oven, warming our bellies as we headed into higher altitudes.

We followed a lovely river for the rest of the day. The road out of town must be well traveled by school kids on bikes, for there were signs placed at random intervals, explaining the finer points of a safe commute. Burma Shave for the shortpants set. Each village had stands selling the persimmons that grew everywhere. At midday we came to a small village beside the river that had many henro amenities, with plentiful toilets and rest huts. Miki stretched out in one and pulled out her bento that she’d bought down in Uchiko. I hadn’t been too satisfied by the selection there, so set off to try my luck here. Entering a small sake shop, a woman told me she’d make me some coffee and asked me to sit. When she returned a few minutes later, she was carrying a tray with an entire lunch laid out. Settai. As I ate, we talked about the pilgrimage. She’d done it by bus years ago, and thought that walkers were ‘erai,’ (A word often applied to walkers and loosely translated as ‘remarkable’). She told me that the character of the Henro had changed, and not for the better. Most young henro did it for sport. She said that in the old days there had been more settai given, but that it is fast disappearing. As a result, the pilgrimage was dying. I told that the most amazing walkers were those folks in their retirement years. All the boundless energy that was responsible for the period of tremendous economic growth between the Olympics and the Bubble Years has to be channeled somehow, and many were channeling it through their feet. She also asked me what I thought of Ehime people. I tried to be diplomatic, and said that I noticed a bigger difference from village to village, some friendly, others cold. I didn’t want to tell her that I found Ehime people less than sparkly, but Ehime’s henro path had taken me closer to the center of big cities than in Tokushima or Kochi, and that could be a factor.

In the afternoon, the valley narrowed, as did the road we walked. Had this been a forest path, clinging to the river, it could’ve been beautiful. Paved, it was tough going, choking on exhaust from the trucks that passed frighteningly close. Even the weather was conspiratory. After all these lovely autumn afternoons, the humidity was up and we were suddenly returned to August. As we knew that today would be a short day, plus that we only had two more days walking before our break, there was a certain lack of inspiration today, senioritis.

Along the way we were overtaken by an old henro on a bicycle who was unmistakably homeless. It turned out that he’d be staying in the same Taishi-do as us. We’d heard from HayaAshi Henro that a homeless guy was living there and thought we’d take our chances. We walked with heavy hearts, worried about our stuff and worried about a loss of privacy on a day when we’d deliberately finish early and wanted to simply chill out. For the next hour, the social stigma against homeless was at work in me, and I wasn’t very comfortable with it.

In the next village we met another funky character. A crooked little man was leaning against a bridge railing beside his wheelchair, fishing. He yelled to me something and held up two fingers, the digits turned toward me in a way that would provoke most Brits. It turned out he was telling me that there were two paths toward the mountains and to Temples 44 and 45. We took the right fork and a minute later, yet another character turned up, stopping beside me in his car. He said something in a difficult dialect, something about ‘fast’ and pointed to his left. I thought at first that he was telling me the other way was quicker (despite the higher pass), but it turned out he was offering a ride up to #44, saying he’d get us there in an hour, and to #45 a half hour after that. Miki and I talked it over briefly, then she gently refused the settai, saying that his offer resonated in her heart, but that we needed to walk. He looked a little sad as he drove off, which brought our spirits even lower. Minutes later I got my first look at the peaks we’d be going over the following day, and my back began to ache in anticipation.

We finally got to Oda. Just outside town, we passed a man wearing a wetsuit for some reason. There seemed to insects everywhere. Praying mantises strolled the road with a certain poise, and if by contrast, the frenzied grasshoppers smacked their heads against something with every leap. Some farmers were finishing the rice harvest in this, the middle of October.

We arrived at the Taishi-do and saw a familiar bicycle leaning against the front. Entering, we saw that besides the usual small tatamied area before the altar, there was a second room behind. Here we found the bicycle henro and another, even older man who looked like he hadn’t moved in years. They were barely visible through all the cigarette smoke. I said that since we didn’t smoke we’d sleep in the front room and grabbed a handful of grubby looking futons. Despite our earlier trepidation, they were both very nice men, and completely respectful of our privacy. The only thing that made me nervous was when they asked our dinner plans. I had visions of them rifling through our bags while we were gone. But later, we had another clue. Beside the altar was a hand-written sign asking anyone who stayed to leave some food as settai. This sign MAY have been made by the resident henro here, as a means of soliciting food. Their question may simply have been a fishing for us to bring something back for them. We quickly said goodbye, leaving the two of them to watch TV and smoke cigarettes, much like a good percentage of residents of this country.

As we had futons, plus lodging booked for the next two nights, we decided to mail our camp gear to Miki’s Mom, in order to lighten the load for the mountains. Later, I stopped in a shop to buy a snack, and ended up getting it for settai, my second of the day. I passed the rest of the day reading on the front steeps of the temple, until the cold at this high altitude drove me inside. Udon at a nearby restaurant helped with the chill, but it didn’t last. Thin futons laid beside torn shoji made for a very cold night. At least there was no wind. I can’t imagine being in a typhoon here.

On the turntable: "Echo and the Bunnymen, "Echo and the Bunnymen"
On the nighttable: Chungliang Al Huang, Quantum Soup"


wes said...

Interesting to hear about the homeless henro. I wonder how many people actually leave food as settai and how long we'd been living there

ted said...

These homeless henro have irrevocably altered the Pilgrimage. They play a large part in the book I'm writing about it, excerpted occasionally here.