getting through the thirties

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August 25th 2008
Published: August 26th 2008
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i had set two goals. to reach the remote cape ashizuri misaki, location of temple 38, and to leave kochi prefecture - the biggest, longest, most difficult of shikokus four prefectures, in a henro sense of looking at life. im very happy to tell you that both goals are in the bag, though not without a small crisis of faith and one big bloody mountain along the way. the day i left kochi city, everything went wrong. i woke up too late, i didnt have enough time to get to all of my intended temples, it was swelteringly hot and i got lost. on the way to temple 31, chikurinji, i kept emerging into the botanical gardens, much to my own distress as well as those whod been innocently looking at exotic plants when a mad henro sprung from the bushes. i was lost again, an hour later, on the way to 32, and once more as i headed for 33. i found myself in a deserted patch of woods by the sea, on a slippery path covered in moss, beside a big grave. i was seriously considering digging my own alongside it and climbing in. thanks to the help of several locals, i reached temple 33 at last, checked into a small lodge for the night, and, after visiting the temple, walked to the shinto shrine next door and sat composing myself as the cicadas buzzed in the trees. there i had been, planning these twenty mile days, yet i couldnt even find my way between the temples. i didnt sleep well that night. due to the schizophrenic nature of life, the next day was perfect. i walked 21 miles, the locals kept giving me generous presents, the two temples i visited were stunning, i stayed in a hotel with a beautiful communal bath overlooking a japanese garden, had good talks with my fellow henro, and saw a full moon rise over the sea. it was the polar opposite of the previous day. come morning, i walked to temple 36, which was up some steep stone steps in the woods. it was quiet. the honzon hall looked old and rustic, and the statue of fudo myoo was impressive. fudo is a deity who is almost human. he always looks feirce and carries a sword and rope, for attacking and binding enemies (the enemy are worldly desires, holding us back.) this temple, shoryuji, was one of the finest ive seen so far. the nature of kochi prefecture is that, in its length, it actually has few temples. so from this point on there were long distances to cover without much feeling of acheivement. around the same time, my feet went through a second spell of evilness. after about ten miles they would just start to seize up, especially if i stopped for a break. for four or five days i was walking, staying in cities and towns that had all begun to look the same, and battling with my feet, soaking them in onsen along the way whenever i could. i started to think i would run out of time before my flight home. i started to think i was walking too slow. i started to think my bag was too heavy. i started to think i was a lousy henro. why was everyone else i met able to walk faster and further than me? why were my feet so awkward? yet, despite my mood, shikoku stayed beautiful. there were beaches so white and rugged you had to grin on seeing them. there were people who i met - like koichiro, who i walked with for a day - who were so interesting, such nice company. i was given o-settai from locals which always cheered me up. everything from big chunks of watermelon, through to biscuits, drinks, and one man gave koichiro and i so many grapes that we had serious trouble carrying them. by the end of the day, we were pretty much lugging around a big plastic bag of wine! then i hit cape ashizuri misaki and my mood changed. it was this rugged, remote place, famous as a suicide spot, with massive cliffs pushing down into a surging neon blue sea full of splintered rocks. not the kind of place to normally lift ones mood. but i liked it. it had such an air of finality about it. i knew id never see the place again in my life. and that from here on in, i was heading north then east, to hopefully complete my circle. no more moving further and further away from temple one. suddenly the pilgrimage didnt seem impossible anymore! it felt like the adventure i always wanted it to be. after this, walking became fun. my feet were behaving. i found that i could cover distances between 15 and 25 miles without trouble. sometimes it rained and i love walking in the rain. the mist would gather in the mountains and i would go for miles without seeing a soul, listening to music, stopping for cake. (this is a new bad habit. my body suddenly craves cake. normally i dont even like cake. pilgrimage will do strange things to you...) temple 39 was the last in kochi prefecture. it has a legend about a turtle who climbed up to the temple with a bell on its back, and theres a statue of this turtle at the temple. i met about sixty bus tour henro at the temple. i took care to greet just about everybody. bus henro travel in relative luxury, i suppose, but their pilgrimages are just as good as mine. they are so careful to say every sutra, every prayer, and to make all the right gestures at every temple. watching them helped me learn how things are done at a temple in my first days. the sound of them chanting namu daishi henjo kongo in a big group always gives me goosebumps. but when one pilgrim pulled out a flute in front of the main hall and played some classical music that is featured in the movie spirited away, then my goosebumps were tripled. in many ways, thats a movie that illustrates all of the things that i find lovely about japan. to hear the tune played in in this quiet little temple on the edge of a mountain was quite surreal, and just fabulous. i walked on in the rain to the city of sukumo, then crossed out of kochi prefecture, into ehime prefecture the next morning, after a two hour walk in the woods that ended with a mountain climb that almost knocked me out. i met a man who was singing in the woods. i think he was a beekeeper, singing to his bees. another surreal moment. and so you find me now in uwajima, a small city which i have wanted to visit for some time. i walked 40km yesterday to reach it - through a 1.7km tunnel which was noxious to say the least - hence the reason why i wear the surgical style mask and reflectors, even if it does make me look like a cross between ready eddy and hannibal lector - and so today i have taken the day off to enjoy its sights; the gorgeous little castle on the hill, the taga sex shrine, the pretty shinto shrine of warei jinja and the date clan garden of tenshaen. it has been a lovely day. its now almost six in the evening, and i find myself wishing that some of my family and friends could be with me right now. i can think of so many people i would love to catch up with, have a beer and good food with, whose company i would love to have. this henro business is solitary. i meet so many nice people (and occasionally a couple of dodgy characters that i wouldnt want to bump into again, its true!) but theres nothing to beat time spent with those who know you well. so, i will be thinking of you guys when i sit down to a beer and a plate of sashimi tonight. tomorrow, i should, with an early start, be able to reach temples 41, 42 and 43. 44 and 45 are going to be toughies - remote, mountainous walking by the looks of things. and from there, i should move on to the castle town of matsyuma, where i hope to blog again and have some more tales to tell.

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2nd September 2008

Reading this entry made me feel strangely surreal and calm especially about the place you mentioned, which has a high suicide rate, weirdly it sounded tranquil and calm. Glad the feet are better..

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