on the joys of sleeping on a bench

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September 12th 2008
Published: September 12th 2008
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from matsuyama, i walked to hojo, visiting temples 52 and 53 on the way. it was a hot day and my energy was zapped, yet the little port town was pretty. at sunset, i walked along the harbour. there were lots of old folk in floppy sunhats and slippers gossiping in the streets. i had the feeling that, after id passed them and wished them konbanwa (good evening), they might gossip about me, too. the sun set over the kashima hojo island, a big green lump in the seto inland sea, and the water turned pink. big herons flew from boat to boat. i felt lazy, and not much like i wanted to walk on the next day, yet i had to, so i did. after hojo, i found myself in a seemingly endless stream of port cities, each alike, and they were a little depressing. if you live in one of these places, and you know its secrets, its different, but as a tired henro checking into a stream of identical looking rooms each evening, and looking out at factories, school kids loitering on corners and clouds heavy with rain hovering over the sea, it got dull. there was imabari, then toyo, then saijo. i visited the temples inbetween, collected my nokyo (stamps), and felt a bit like a staff carrying, white robed, temple hopping robot, living off a diet of cold coffee and udon, rising at six each morning and climbing into bed to watch japanese soap operas at eight every night. when the challenge of temple 60 presented itself - a nansho (difficult) temple considered by some to be the toughest temple of all to reach, in the mountains near saijo - i was pleased for a bit of excitement. getting up before dawn and packing my gear, it began to feel like an adventure again. seth had decided to book flights to korea to join me after my time in japan, and this was the kind of news to put a giant spring in my step; the best present imaginable. so it was in high spirits that i approached the mountains. school kids walking to their morning classes wished me ohio gozaimasu (good morning) as i began to storm up the steep road into the mountains. my calves felt fizzy, like they might pop. after a few hours following a river, the road turned into a slippery path into the woods. a baby snake, 15cm long, with a beautiful checked pattern, flicked its forked tongue at me as i started up the path. i said, gorgeous! out loud, surprising an old couple who had driven up the mountain to fill hundreds of plastic bottles with spring water. ive got to stop speaking my mind out loud. being a lone pilgrim for two months will do this to you. the path was steep and it criss crossed over a river on slippery log bridges, up and up into the trees, up the mountain. it was so strenuous that i had beads of sweat on my eyelashes - always a bad sign. i kept stopping and listening for the sound i wanted to hear - the sound of a temple gong, ringing out into the woods, to let me know that i wasnt struggling in vain up these rocky, muddy, leafy slopes. all i could hear, though, was the thumping of my heart and then the buzzing of mosquitoes coming to eat me. when i reached sixty, i was over the moon. there were only two other henro there at the pretty little temple, and they had driven up in a car to the nearby car park. they looked a lot cleaner than i did. the preists wife kindly brought me out a slice of ehime cake - a roll filled with sweet bean paste. delicious. the track back down the mountain was my dream henro path. that means, it was downhill, a bit dangerous, a bit overgrown and a lot of fun. i felt like i was skiing as i raced down parts of it, using my staff to traverse from side to side. i disturbed weird creatures in the trees and had to climb over and duck under fallen trees. it made me think, is anybody else really walking this pilgrimage other than me?!! i was into the 60s now, and had the pleasure of visiting temple 61, the only temple on the circuit that has a modern block as a temple, rather than a traditional style building. on its first floor it had a huge buddha statue and a big auditorium. it was refreshing to see a temple so different from the others. when you get these days, as i have recently, where you visit five or six temples, it helps to see some that have unique features that stick in your mind. (like 68 and 69, which are both in one compound, and like 66, with its much stroked bronze aubergine which i will never quite understand...) the next day i walked 22 miles across the waist of shikoku. i just put on my music and walked and walked against the sun. it felt epic. a man in an udon shop kept saluting me which was disturbing, but what can you do? i stayed in mishima, another port city, but i was excited - the next day had temple 65 and 66 on the cards. 66, unpenji, is a nansho temple which is at the highest elevation on the whole pilgrimage. the path up the mountains very steep slope is often considered the toughest (everyone thinks differently on which temples are the hardest, its a debate enjoyed by henro over the centuries.) i would be crossing out of ehime prefecture, and briefly into tokushima prefecture, where my journey began. then the rest of the mission would be in kagawa, the last of the four prefectures. it would be an epic day, and i had decided i was ready to sleep out again, and that id really like to do so at a temple. why not, then, the highest, most difficult to reach temple of the circuit? temple 65 was also uphill. i got lost and a middle aged lady directed me back to the road via a farm full of viscious barking dogs and kept watching for at least ten minutes to make sure i was going in the right direction. each time i turned to bow and wave, she hid, worried id think she thought i was incapable of finding my way, which i was, really. temple 65 was quiet and, i thought, the perfect spot for nojuku (sleeping out) - perhaps i should just stay there, and not make the hard slog up the mountain to 66 until tomorrow? i had to pull myself together and move on. the hike up to unpenji (66) was indeed steep, but it was also to the point. it didnt mess around, it just went up and up and had done with it. i liked that. when i arrived at the temple, it was just after 4pm. the last cable car back down the mountain (yes, most henro take a cabler car! cheating!) would be just after five. after id paid my respects at the halls, i asked the women in the nokyo-jo (stamp office), in japanese, if it would be ok for my to sleep out near the daishi hall. they said that would be ok, gaijin-san, but that there would be no light. i said daijo bu (no problem), and it was fixed. i would be sleeping out at temple 66, nansho temple 66, high up in the mountains! how exciting! nojuku is always like this. whilst its still light, and im getting dressed into my bed clothes and making a bed on a bench, looking at my dinner provisions (crisps and cake), covering myself in mozzy repellent and getting my torch out ready, its all very excting. after dark, it feels different! in this case, the rest of the henro left on the last cable car and i wrote my journal until the sun set. then i made a pillow using my clothes in a plastic bag, wrapped in a towel id been given as osettai, and set up on a bench by a phonebox near the cable car station. unpenji is well known for its huge army of life sized statues (see photos) which are pretty spooky, and i was going to be sleeping just a little way down the hill from them. as it got dark, creatures started crashing about and calling to each other. i regretted leaving behind seths sleeping bag in nakamura. i had nothing to sleep under so i used my waterproof backpack cover. it started to get cold. i hadnt experienced anything remotely like cold in japan so far, so as the climate dropped and dropped i realised that this being a big mountain, and the temple having the nickname 'the temple of hovering clouds' i might be in for a cold night. after about an hour, it was like bloody darjeeling up there. i had to put on all of my clothes. i was wearing four t-shirts and two pairs of trousers, and still i was freezing. under the bench, fresh water crabs were scuttling. a spider started trying to build a web between the tip of my hat and the bench (i had to put a stop to that, obviously.) clouds really did creep into the temple compound, sometime around midnight, but all of this is not what i remember most about this night. because - i am not joking - the temple bells were ringing in the night. when it first happened, at 7-8pm, i thought how nice it was that the preist and his family were having their own ceremony. but when they were ringing at one, two, three, five in the morning, i was simply freaked out. i dont have to tell you that i didnt get much sleep that night. but it was all the adventure i had been craving, and the adventure i had been missing when i was watching those soaps in those port cities. when i left unpenji at six the next morning, the mist was still hanging around the compound, and the statues were cloaked in it, grimacing and laughing and frowning and smiling at me as i left and found the henro track in the woods that would lead me down the mountain. the mist meant that i could only see a few metres ahead of me, and a few behind. it was literally a tunnel of trees. i kept looking back, not just because i half expected to see the hound of the baskervilles pursuing me down the track with its glowing red eyes, but because the japanese have always considered the mountains to be the dwelling places of dead ancestors, the woods to be full of spirits. as i picked my way down the steep slope, almost doing my ankle in a couple of times, it was another one of those pilgrimage moments when i thought, 'where in the world am i and what am i doing?!' half way down and the clouds were gone. a little further and the sun was out. i found myself suddenly wondering why the hell i was wearing two t-shirts and two pairs of trousers. i thought nothing of stripping down and redressing on the mountain path. i guess i am just living in a bizarre, alternative universe at the moment! i was now in kagawa prefecture and suddenly there were temples everywhere - i raced through the end of the sixties, went through the seventies and was into the eighties before i knew it. it was exhausting but rewarding. i kept thinking i was seeing so many temples id forget which was which, or that id forget to get my stamp done at one and have to go all the way back; you get paranoid about this kind of stuff as a henro. noteable were 70, with its pretty pagoda, 71, with its cliff setting and cave, 75, the birth place of kobo daishi and the busiest temple on the circuit, and 79, where the preists wife took the bracelet off her wrist and gave it to me as a present. temples 81 and 82 were on top of mountains, but worth the effort, as 82 has been my favourite of all so far. it has a legend of an ox-demon which terrorised the people, and a fabulous statue of the same. it also has a hall with thousands of tiny images of the goddess kannon enshrined in a dark covered walkway, lit by lanterns and smelling of incense. it was an inspiring place. i am now blogging from the city of takamatsu where im rewarding my feet with a day off, my body with copious udon noodles and my soul with walks in ritsurin park, the most peaceful, lovely garden i have ever seen. walking there isnt like missioning, staff in hand, pack on back, to a temple - it is just pure whimsy; switching your brain off, hopping over stepping stones, watching carp swim under classic japanese bridges, viewing a mountain through black pine trees... i think if i lived here i would visit this park every day. how could such a place ever lose its charm? when i look at the carp, i think of my first day of the pilgrimage. i had read that the japanese admire carp for their strength and persistence. at each temple, i like to make a wish for things that id like for myself, my friends, my family, the world - i wont call it a prayer because im not religious - but a wish. at my first temple, i wished to be like a carp on this pilgrimage; tough, strong, persistent. looking at them in ritsurin park, i thought that they were those things and hoped that i have been, and will be. so i have just five temples left on my journey. three are up hills or mountains, and from temple 88 i will need to walk back to temple one, and im not sure of the way - ! - so i don't feel like its going to be a walk in the (ritsurin) park. still, how can i help but feel reflective and lucid and lucky at this late stage.

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12th September 2008

total awe
lu you have done such a great job i am totally overwhelmed with your achievement.so very well done
18th September 2008

thanks sue :) its so great catching trains now instead of walking, haha! my feet love me. looking forward to seeing you when i get back. x

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