Friday, February 25, 2011

'Round Shikoku Day 36

This will be the last post of the Shikoku series. The fuller, more fleshed out tale of the journey will hopefully be available in book form sometime in the future. Stay tuned...

I had probably the worst sleep of the entire pilgrimage. The stoically hard zen futon gave little comfort, and my aching knees and shoulders kept me awake. We rose with the bell calling the residents to zazen. To have taken part would've prevented us from leaving until well after 7. Too late for us. So we'd agreed beforehand that we'd go before the 5:15 sitting. It was stil full dark as we made our way up the road. The moon was full and bright enough to guide us without any other lighting. But I didn't think it was safe yet to enter the forest. After 30 minutes we came to a small coffee shop I'd noticed the previous day. Here we sat, with our meager breakfast, watching a cat play and waiting for light. Finally, the sun came up, once again bringing definition to the world.

We entered the trail, and minutes later, heard something very large move through the forest above us. Unmistakably, a bear. We moved quickly now, making an incredible racket, whistling and hitting our staffs on rocks and trees. Past the Taishi statue at the trail confluence, we began our descent toward Temple 80, the trail getting steeper and steeper. This would've been a rough climb, and I knew we'd chosen our route well. Before I could congratulate myself too much, I was startled by the sound of another animal, a boar this time, moving through the grass just off trail. We rushed even faster toward the valley floor. Beneath us, the low mountains of Kagawa were like gumdrops.

Midway down, we began to pass henro. Weeks ago, Monoshiri had told us that in doing this pilgrimage counterclockwise, you encounter far more people, and it was true. We passed about 8 people in less than 20 minutes. They'd all stayed in minshuku at the bottom, and this being early morning, were still clustered up in parade formation. We'd been keeping pace with our own group of a half dozen or so, and these folks were now a day behind. Some nodded hello, others stopped to ask conditions ahead, or to ask what day we were on. This latter question had begun to appear around Temple 66. We were all nearing the end, and rather than a feeling of competition, it was more like we were brothers-in-arms, encouraging one another while sharing something profound, something with obvious, yet still undetermined repercussions. Miki and I often did this amongst ourselves, wondering how far a certain henro had gotten, or noting that someone semed to be having a particularly hard time today.

Unsure of the trail, we weaved around irrigation ponds and olive groves to Temple 80. Another Kokubunji, and like the others (besides the one in Ehime), didn't have dramatice scenery or dazzling structures, but had something undefinable that resonates longer and deeper anyway. Amidst the trees and subtle beauty, we met a foreign henro couple, the first for us. She'd started from the beginning, with her boyfriend later coming over to Japan to join her. We didn't talk long, as the four of us felt that nagging internal voice that said, "Get going."

As we still moving out of the traditional order, the path was poorly marked. The actual path down from 82 dropped down the other side of the mountain. We instead moved along its foot, through the outskirts of Takamatsu, a city we'd seen begin to awake earlier from our pre-dawn aerie.

At temple 83, we ran into Confused Henro again. We dubbed him this since every time we'd seen him, he was off the path and looking around frantically for it. A man in his 70s, he'd intended to do it by bicycle. However, his bike had broken down, so he was finishing it on foot. While most walkers had been at this for a month by this point, he was still in the early learning stages of walking, which explained the pained and bewildered look on his face most of the time. He gave us a bag of 8 mikan as settai, which I believe was less a gift than a means of reducing weight carried. As this was settai, we felt obliged to accept, eating most of them on the spot in order to reduce our own burden.

From here, we followed a canal diagonally across the entire face of Takamatsu. I'm sure the city has spots of beauty, but they weren't revealed to us. The canal fed the sea, and above it all rose Yashima. It is a famous battle site of the Gempei War, and a place I'd long wanted to see, though I hadn't known of the connection with the Henro until that moment.

All day we'd been looking forward to a dirt trail, but the path up was concrete switchback all the way. The feet said, "Groan!" At the top was a large grassy park with the temple at the center. As a tourist site, they'd used the museum's proceeds to concrete absolutely everything. But again, temple's with the ugliest faces often contain the nicest personalities within. The man in the nokyo-jo chatted with us about the history. He gave us cakes as settai as we left.

The park surrounding the temple had been our intended camp spot for the night. But our early start left us with more daylight for walking, so we decided to carry on an extra hour to the base of the mountain upon which Temple 85 sat. But we had to get off this particular mountain first. The trail down was the steepest of the whole pilgrimage, and with my heavy pack, made for some rather tough going. With every step, I felt like someone was pushing me from behind.

Along the final stretch were plenty of jizo. I felt especially bad for those who died after coming so far. Most pitiful of all were those who'd died at the many stones marking significant places in the Yashima battle. The majority were for warriors who'd fallen there. I could picture a henro reclining in the shade of one of these for a little rest, then never getting up, joined eternally with history.

We pitched our tent at dusk, in a bicycle shed next to the cable car station. It was a good spot, offering good protection against the cold, and near the toilets. From this height, we could see the river below, with Yashima looking like Diamond Head on the other side, all backlit by the lights of Takamatsu. After setting up, we walked back down aways to an Udon restaurant. To Miki's chagrin, it was a chain shop rather than the mom and pop Sanuki place that she'd longed for. We stayed here for a couple of hours, keeping warm and trying to catch up on our journals, which seemed to be perpetually 4 days behind. Back at camp to settle into what would become a good solid sleep, on this, our last night spent in the tent.

On the turntable: Tomita, "Music for Living Sound"

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