Friday, March 28, 2014

Return to Forever

There was no reason to think that the two women weren't ghosts.  This peak bore the name Nyotaisan, or body of the woman.  And now there were two, sitting across from us.  They'd appeared at the top of this, the final climb of the Shikoku Henro circuit, having stepped from behind the towering stones that give shape to this jagged peak. 

Japanese folklore is filled with tales of shape-shifters who appear deep in the mountains to prey on unsuspecting travellers, yet I've never heard of any that had taken the form of a Korean nun.  She, through the translation of her Japanese companion, told us that they'd been walking the pilgrimage for exactly a month today, hitching here and there.  It was a plausible story, made somewhat suspect by the clean clothing and shoes that looked new.  

My own road up here had taken 4 1/2 years.  True, Miki and I had already visited the temple that lay at the foot of this peak, a visit that (nearly) completed our pilgrimage in late 2009.  Yet on the way up the mountain, we found a odd, hand-written sign that seemed to imply that the path had been off limits.  This led to a final dash along the valley route, hoping to make it in time to get our final stamp.  Once we reached the temple, we had met a few other pilgrims we knew, who told us that they had come over the mountain.  One of these raved about how hard it had been, eyes wild in a post-adrenal state.  Miki and I felt cheated somewhat.     

I revisited that feeling over the years, but it took until today to actually visit the mountain itself.  I was hired to guide a group over this peak in a few weeks, and something about the old man's raving had scared me.  I needed to do the hike first to confirm that it was safe.

I asked Wes along, wanting another's opinion.  We drove down from Kansai, detouring briefly to Temple 1, so as to set up a later joke that we'd "gone from temple 1 to 88 in a single day."  While there,  the nun I'd met on my actual pilgrimage in 2009 claimed she remembered me, and gave both of Wes and I sandalwood rosary beads to bestow luck on us.  Thus charmed, we returned a quick prayer or two toward the Taishi, then drove off.

A taxi had dropped us at the base of the hike, and what followed was a classic Japanese hike, past farm houses, or the remnants of same, up along quick-moving streams punctuated with the occasional waterfall.  The path remained a steady incline, then about two-thirds of the way along, we were thrust suddenly back to the valley floor, and faced with a final 400 meter ascent over a mere two km.  Very hard work indeed.   The final 100 meters did involve a little rock scrambling, but most could be done with using your hands, and was hardly the object of the raving old man's terror.  

The two women descended first, then we followed, detouring first to the decaying Oku-no-in up a spur trail, then down what amounted to a very long staircase, arriving finally at the temple.  There was a young Czech pilgrim before the Taishi-dō, an obvious walker, judging from his filthy clothing and cracked, sunburned skin.  I tried to chat with him a little,  but he seemed a bit out of it, answering one of my first questions with, "What day is it?"  We also found the Korean nun and her friend, standing with a small group of pilgrims who'd obviously already knew one another from the road.   They were behaving much like I had when I reached here years ago, just sitting and staring at the temple hall, unable to believe it was over, unable to leave. 

I wanted to talk with each of them, but I didn't want to intrude on this private moment.  And my own desire to want to share this with them, to show that I too knew what this felt like, revealed my own desire to return to the pilgrimage.  "Henro-byō," it's called, pilgrim's sickness.  And I suppose that's what prompts me back out on those long hot hard highways time after time, a sort of mad attempt to quiet the painful withdrawal symptoms of the soul.   

On the turntable:  Camper Van Beethovan, "New Roman Times"
On the nighttable:  Jeremy Mercer, "Time was Soft There"

No comments: