Wednesday, February 16, 2011

'Round Shikoku Day 34

We'd wanted to stay in a shukubō once during the Henro but preferably one on a mountain. Last night we discovered that most have closed, and the rest only offer rooms to groups. This final piece of information clinches it for me: this whole thing has deteriorated to the pursuit of money. My experiences here have led me to see a pattern in the way religion is going in this country--priced and packaged for tourist consumption. But maybe I'm simply a skeptic about religion in general.

Yet Temple 71 was the type of place to renew my faith. These mountain temples built in and around forbidding rock formations and cliffs. The stairs alone were enought to drive away those without strong intent; it is nice to see the car henro work for a change. One of them was a 91 year old pilgrim who had made it to the top on rickety legs and a cane. He stubbornly refused help from anyone. That for me defines true shugyo.

Those willing to make the effort were rewarded with statues and altars built into the caves, lit with candles, which caused their features to flicker from fierce to loving. This, like Muroto, was the place where the dead return to linger amongst the living. And my own dead returned to me in a powerful way. After we dropped back down between lakes and bamboo groves, we stopped for a break. I held a mikan in my hand and started to think about how few fruits and veggies I ate prior to coming to Japan. This led me to think about my vegetarian days, and I couldn't remember when I had started to eat everything again. Was it during those days after Ken's death? I suddenly had powerful memories of evenings in my dark kitchen, cooking for two people instead of three, as I always had. The sobs suddenly came, and I found myself crying in a way that I hadn't in years. I kept it up for a good 20 minutes, walking down the road, with tears coming down.

Temple 72, a quiet spot of peace, helped calm me. Temple 73 had the opposite effect. A famous site on the pilgrimage, its small confines were packed with about 200 people. There was also a photo exhibition in one of the halls, including a picture of the Dancer Henro we'd met a month ago at Temple 18. We moved away, back down to Temple 72 where we'd left our bags. We searched the shaded grounds for the famous pine but found that it, like most of the other trees associated with the pilgrimage, had died a number of years ago. As we left, a woman sat on a bench wiggling her achy feet. Just beyond the gate, a couple in a car kindly slowed to let us pass on the narrow path, but a moment later, a priest came roaring past in his luxury car without a care.

At Temple 74 we had a surprise in Miki's brother and his wife. As today was a national holiday, they decided to spend the day walking with us. This particular temple wasn't much to speak of, the grounds hardly distinguishable from the parking lot that surrounded it. The hill that backed it, where the child Taishi had spent so much of his time, was being carried away piecemeal by those who put profit before prophet. Nearby, we found a grassy spot beside a school and had lunch. Miki sister-in-law made rice balls and baked yam. The latter were wrapped in newspaper, and unwrapping one, I was surprised to see that Patrick Swayze had died.

Near temple 75 was an old shop selling katapan, something I'd never heard of before. It was as if, 200 years ago, somebody had accidentally overcooked a batch, and decided to market it. The lines out front attested to its popularity. Also popular was the temple itself. This, the childhood home of Taishi, was probably the most important temple on the whole pilgrimage, its structures and grounds reflecting this. But we hadn't known that this was the day of their annual festival. I first thought this auspicious, but quickly changed my mind due to the crowd and to the circus atmosphere. While it was interesting to see people other than henro at a temple, the hundreds of people here was s bit much. Plus the flea market took it even further, and the karaoke competition pushed it over the edge. The caterwauling from behind us caused Miki and I to have a tough time keeping our chanting in sync. (I think that this was a message from Taishi that I use my aforementioned gift of cynicism to write on how ridiculously commercial it has all become.) We put on a game face for the sake of Miki's brother and his wife, but they sensed our discomfort and encouraged us to move on. Before doing so, we said goodbye to a couple of henro who'd been keeping pace with, one we called the No no no Henro, for what he'd said when I accidentally started to walk off with his staff at Temple 66. The other we called Smoking Henro, for obvious reasons.

We said our goodbyes to Miki's brother at Temple 76, beneath the temple's old and unusual bell tower. Miki and I moved away as a couple again to Temple 77, through rice fields and past a couple of lovely shrines.
Shorinji Hombu was on a hillside to my left, a familiar icon from previous visits back when I'd studied the art. Temple 77 itself was much more modest. Rice covered the walkways. The woman in the nokyo office let us camp in a shed behind the Taishi-do, plus gave us a bag of bread for breakfast. As always, when we are most jaded by the pilgrimage, someone does something to restore our faith. Out of courtesy, we waited for the nokyo-jo to close before putting up the tent. The sunset was turning the buildings a darker brown, stretching the shadows of some girls playing catch between them.

We escaped the cold in a nearby Joyfull, remembering that the Fleet Foot Henro had spent the night in one, to be told off by a waitress for sleeping. Back at the temple, I was overcome by the silhouettes of the buildings in the dark, by their dignity. Later too, stepping out of the tent for a midnight pee, they, backlit by the full moon above, made me linger a long while...

On the turntable: Miles Davis, "The Complete Miles Davis at Montreaux"
On the nighttable: Joe Ambrose, "Chelsea Hotel Manhattan"

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