Thursday, October 28, 2010

'Round Shikoku Day 11

The night before, two cats had been fighting beside the harbor, like a couple of drunken sailors. This morning, a handful of kites were swirling in the sky, as if churning the clouds in order to ring out the last remnants of rain. A trio of old men sit looking over the harbor, not speaking. The seawall is an impressive piece of work, built like a labyrinth to protect the boats and the town from the typhoons which return again and again. The men seem a type of chorus, and may be looking for a tempest of another sort --a tsunami. Stirred into motion by the recent Samoan earthquake, it is due on these shores sometime after lunch. As if this isn't enough, a typhoon is also on its way.

Temple 25 overlooks the harbor, up a long flight of steps that pass beneath a beautiful bell tower. Twenty-six isn't very far away, atop a low mountain like Temple 24. The trio are interrelated and hold an important place in the Kodo Daishi mythology. Apparently it was here that he'd engaged a tengu in debate, who, if I understood correctly the overheard explanation of a tour guide, may actually have been a foreigner. My own pet theory is that the tengu may have been a tree, as the forest is filled with twisted and fantastic shapes. Ironically, on the way down the mountain, my pack caught a tree limb, which broke off the trunk and crashed down a few inches to my right. Most of the wood was rotten (and now sprinkled across my clothes and pack), but the center of the limb was solid enough to have broken a bone or shattered my skull. It was a close shave, but somehow I survived the Tengu's mojo.

There is a small market where the trail meets the highway. We buy lunch here and eat while watching the sea. Next door is a whale-themed center, where the model of a cute looking cartoon whale stands grinning beside an immense harpoon gun. As I eat, I wonder what sort of message this place is trying to send.

When we shoulder our bags it begins to rain, a rain that won't cease for 24 hours. A car driven by a monk stops beside us, and it looks like he's about to offer a ride, but his wife seems to talk him out of it. They drive off. An hour later we're walking down the main street of Kawa, a fine mixture of old Edo and Meiji period buildings. It is a relief to be off Ole '55 for the first time in days. A helicopter is circling the town, on tsunami watch. The really heavy water is in the air, falling all over us. The world is gray, gray funemushi bugs like something from Giger's nightmares, dashing along the gray concrete walls. My mood too is gray and for the third consecutive day I begin to hope for a ride. But this time I really meant it. I was tired of walking and wanted to get on with it, but I wanted to keep my integrity and not deliberately flag a lift. Yet the cars kept skimming past, the rain kept hammering down.

Near dark, I stepped onto a bridge and took a few steps into calf-deep water. "This sucks!" I yelled at nothing in particular. There was a machine shop nearby, so I ducked in, pouting at the rain. It didn't seem to notice, coming down as hard as before. As we walked on again, I went into survival mode, as I often did at this time of day. I was looking for a covered place under which to set up the tent. The bus shelter along this stretch of coast had been built to withstand typhoons, with four sold walls, sliding doors, and a floor spacious enough to set up a tent. But there weren't any in sight.

What I did see was a pilgrim's rest hut, built beside a small cafe. The owner came over, a small sickly-looking woman with bad hearing. I was dry for the first time in hours, and had hot coffee in hand. As we warmed up, we asked about possible places to sleep. A she was thinking, a friendly, robust man walked in; the husband, looking 20 years younger than his wife. When she asked his opinion, he quickly said, "You can sleep here," pointing at a low coffee table beside us. His wife looked horrified and began to protest. Miki and I have often commented on this sort of thing. Men, being impetuous, are often quick to offer help or things, being somewhat disconnected from the realities of daily Japanese life. The women are the ones who put the foot down. They are the ones forced into addition cooking and cleaning due to their man's whims. We've seen it most often with potential rides: the man slows down, then accelerates as the woman beside him sits shaking her head.

The man won this time. He had three friends in tow, and they invited us to join in their impromptu pot-luck sukiyaki karaoke party. It was a surreal night, of food, beer, and loads of enka. Our host thought that Miki looked like the famous Taiwanese singer, Teresa Tang, and made her sing a few of her tunes. I don't know any enka, but I made due with my usual repertoire of Okinawan classics. The woman sitting next to our host was very friendly, quite possibly his mistress. The other couple was quieter, the husband saying little besides, "More Beer!" as raised a bottle to top me up. His wife said nothing at all. All the while, our hostess stayed behind the scenes, cooking and prepping a shower for us. When she did sit down, there was obvious warmth between her and her husband, despite is possibly philandering ways.

The party broke up around nine. Miki curled up into the love seat, while I stretched my sleeping bag along the coffee table...

On the turntable: Jeff Beck, "Beck-Ola"
On the nighttable, John Nichols, "The Milagro Beanfield War"

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


This summer, my brother and I started a editing services company. In addition to our main site, New Wordsmiths, we also started a blog where we'll post flash reviews of books and short stories. My first contribution is here:

Spiritual Memoir and Eat, Pray, Love

On the turntable: Albert King, "At Montreux"

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

'Round Shikoku Day 8

After breakfast, the cook at Yuki-sō was outside our window, throwing small lobsters into a pail. Each would shriek as it made contact with the others, the whole thing a mass of writhing, spiked red. Today, the town would have their lobster market. Next month was the lobster festival. They certainly love their crustaceans.

The chef was young, with a good sense of humor. I'd joked with him that I wanted pancakes and a milkshake for breakfast. (What I got was fish and a salad.) As we set off, he gave me a hard time about the size of my pack, but then he kindly lifted it onto my shoulders.

The trail took us out past a couple of beautiful swimming beaches. We also noticed quite a few decks for picnickers that looked perfect for sleeping on, all a stones-throw from toilets and showers. Last night had been the first night since starting the henro that we'd paid for lodging, and the sight of all these free palaces pained us.

Entering Kiki, we found a sports day event in progress at the elementary school. A very old woman sat above on a hill, and gave us each a small bag of 5 yen coins as we passed. (These we eventually donated at temple 23.) We met a few other old timers down in the the town proper, all very friendly and interested in us. It's amazing how one village welcomes henro, and the next looks at them with obvious scorn.

At the far end of town, a sodden rice field was separated by the sea by a narrow concrete wall. Beyond it, the trail climbed into the hills. About half way up we found an old henro listening to the radio and smoking. On his back, he carried a sleeping bag, a vinyl sheet and a worn-out hat. He looked like he'd been doing the circuit for decades. I wonder if he was one of the guys I'd seen at the tent city yesterday.

Where the trail entered rice fields again was a pile of empty beer cans. Miki and I both felt angry. For the better part of yesterday, we'd walked past signs telling people not to dump trash along the roads. many were directed especially at walking henro. I think it is this poor behavior that is causing many zenkonyado to close, and the source of the unfriendly looks we've been getting. (In my own country, it is bums eating out of dumpsters.)

As we neared the sea again, Miki suddenly said that she wished we could finish the walk this fall, rather than keep it as an open 'someday.' We sat and talked awhile, made a couple calls to juggle our schedule, and by forgoing our Kyushu plans, scraped together an extra 20 days.

The trail climbed again, overlooking Ebisu cave and Lover's Point, before returning to sea level at Hiwasa. Many people were walking the long crescent beach, fully clothed in a way that suggested that summer was over. And the cool overcast sky concurred. Autumn in Japan means festivals, and before Hachiman Jinja, some men were putting a couple of mikoshi together. the castle stood proudly above the town on one hill, Yaku-oji on another. The temple is well known as a place to yakuyoke, and the flight of steps up to them was dotted with coins of those who looked to remove this bad luck. (Oba-chan's coins, her karma, not ours) I was 42, a bad year for males, but unfortunately didn't seemed to have the correct change. Midway up was a large urn, where a person was encouraged to pound the ash it contained in a number corresponding to your age. At the top, you were likewise supposed to strike a metal plate with a wooden mallet, again relating to how many years you've lived. On the level above the Hondo was a tall gaudy pagoda. Once inside, you'd pass through a curved dark passage, and enter a room decorated with the Buddhist hells. Then you'd climb to the top of the pagoda (heaven, get it?) to stand beside Kannon and gaze out over the town. This type of Disneyfied Buddhism can be found all over the country, and I've never been fond of it.

Near the temple was a michi-no-eki, the place we'd heard about, where the drunk henro had been rolled for all he carried. As we ate lunch in front, we chatted up a long-haired motorcycle henro we'd seen a few times. He was a Korean exchange student at Doshisha, and had done the first 30 temples in a few days. As he and Miki continued their talk, I wandered off to the foot bath and gave my poor dogs a good soak.

From here we faced a long 15km walk along a busy road. it was an uneventful upward slog to ----- Tunnel, and we rested a long while before entering its 700m length. A group of bicycle riders came up behind us, with a large support team. The leader had his hand on the back of a motorcyclist, getting an assist up this steep hill. (Settai?) Another rider was nursing a flat tire. They all had "88" on their shirts, but we never figured out what was up. Later, another guy came up the hill on a beach cruiser. No gears!

Before going through the tunnel, I put on my iPod, to block out the shriek and roar of cars as they passed through. Entering the mountainscape on the far side, John Prine was perfect. I kept him and Dylan on rotation, letting the lyrics take me from the monotony of this stretch of the walk. It was incredible how much energy the music gave me. John Prine reminded me that there are people out there who feel worse than I. Occasionally, the scenery too gave me a boost, but for the most part it was just a country road flanked by tall pines. Thankfully there were the odd cluster of homes. In one hamlet, a waterwheel thunked rice into flour. We found a trio of old women there and talked awhile. They told us that being young, we'd be in the next 'city' in an hour. While I appreciated their confidence in us, it actually took two. I also noticed quite a few public phones. These have been dying out in this age of the cellular, but in Shikoku, they are used as safety means for walkers. For the safety of American walkers in particular, there was a Pringles vending machine.

Late in the day, we entered a long open valley, with high ferocious mountains to the west. I didn't like the look of the clouds they draped over their shoulders. Closer to town, more and more buildings appeared. In front of the stone-cutter's place were a marble surfboard and Doraemon. A sign outside of Mugi announced that they were seeking Chinese brides.

But prospective husbands require a certain amount of character, and the lack of it in this town became quickly apparent. Nearly everyone we greeted completely ignored us. At the station, I asked the attendant if the inn across the street was open, and he merely said, "Why don't you call?" Prick. I wasn't keen on camping out somewhere since the town seemed so unfriendly to henro. The rain would limit us to choosing a place with a roof, and based on our welcome here, that would draw unfavorable attention. We found an inn a half hour away, then went to buy food. I was chomping at the bit, hoping to both beat the impending rain and to get away from this inhospitable place. But back outside, we found the weather had changed for the worse. And in front of us, the lights of Azuma Ryokan were now lit.

The owner was a friendly, chatty woman, especially after she started in on the shōchū. She was well-versed on the Henro, having done it six times. After our baths, we sat in the restaurant downstairs, talking with her and the inn's only guest, a young woman walking alone--the first we'd met. As we were heading upstairs, who should appear at the door but Bandage Henro-- an hour past dark. And the rain increased in volume outside...

On the turntable: Big Star, "#1 Record"
On the nighttable: Lekson, et al. "Canyon Spirits"