Kechigan and Orei-Mairi (or, i did it!)

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September 17th 2008
Published: October 5th 2008
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For an hour and a half I walked through the outskirts of Takamatsu, to the pling-pling-pling of railway crossings with their barriers down, and passed pachinko parlours, schools, and heaps of rubbish, waiting to be collected and stinking the streets out meanwhile. I was heading for the Yashima plateau, the mini Table Mountain I'd been seeing from my Takamatsu hotel room and trying to ignore. Temple 84, Yashimaji, is on top of it, and its also well known as the site of a great 12 century battle, the Genpei War. The path up to the top was steep and quite busy with locals getting some early morning exercise. There was mist at the top, and the temple had a red hondo (main hall) with peeling paint; I liked that about it. In front of it, an old man with a long beard was playing some kind of flute. Henro nearby clapped with delight when he finished. Traditional music, even a simple tune, can really bring out the magic of these temples. As the priest signed my nokyo (stamp), I noticed he was wearing the same type of bracelet as me, the one I was given by the priest's wife at temple 79. It made me wonder if I was quite special enough to be wearing it! When I left Yashimaji, I got lost for the first time in ages. I just couldn't find the henro michi (henro path) down from the plateau. When a friendly couple finally pointed me in the right direction, I wasn't pleased with what I found; it had rained all night, and the path was slippery, steep and knotted with tree roots that stuck up like prominent veins just designed for tripping over henro. I had to shuffle down it, grabbing onto trees and swearing, inches from mean looking spiders in treacherously placed webs, at about the same pace as a very leisurely grandpa. The final part of the path was paved but slick with wet moss. I slid-walked down it, gripping branches, thinking, 'damned if I walked 800 hundred miles to break my leg four temples from the end…'
At street level I left the trees and the plateau behind and followed a network of confusing twists and turns down side streets, many of which weren’t marked in my map book but had bright little henro signs pointing down them none the less. They twisted and turned like branches of the same veins that had tripped me up on my descent from the plateau. Yet I knew that temple 85, Yakuriji, was on top of a steep hill - steep enough to warrant a cable car connection for those henro less inclined to strain themselves - so it wouldn't be long before I left the alleyways and udon shops behind and started the ascent. It was quite a slog, but short and sweet. On the way up, mossy stone statues of Jizo (guardian of children and travellers) and Fudo Myoo (warrior against earthly desires) kept me company. By the time I reached to the top I had broken quite a sweat and looked bedraggled next to the immaculate cable car henro, but we were all treated to the same fantastic sight - a beautiful temple backed by a grand, triple-lumped cliff. There was a warm atmosphere to the place. The priest signing my nokyocho cried, 'Ah! London Olympics!' when he found out I was English. The other henro waiting in line giggled. I felt that this was one of the most dramatic looking temples I'd visited, but I didn't have the time or inclination to dawdle. Despite being so within reach of completing this journey to the eighty-eight temples, I found that I was feeling a little morose. Not really because I was disappointed that my journey could well be coming to a close, but more out of fatigue and distraction. I had been alone in Japan for a long time. Now that an end was in sight - an end to what has really been the most remarkable journey in my life - I found myself quite ready to finish. Ready to leave Shikoku. Ready to board a ferry to South Korea and meet Seth, to leave this gorgeous country behind, and then begin to see my journey for what it has been. I wanted to gain perspective, to step out of my henro shoes, basically, and understand what it is exactly I have been doing. The short-term effect of this feeling on this particular day was a feverish brain, throwing out endless petty hassles - where would I stay tonight? Was the route to 88 really up a huge mountain? How could I possibly plan my journey from temple 88 back to temple 1 if I didn't know the distance? What if I didn't make it to Korea on time? And what about this Okinawa typhoon? Ugh!
Thankfully, reaching Shidoji, temple 86, was an absolute breeze. All I had to do was enjoy a nice long stretch of paved downhill road, then head into the flat, plain town of Shido to the temple compound. The temple was unique in that the main hall and Daishi hall were attached by a covered walkway, in which the nokyojo (stamp office) was contained. Compact! After paying my respects and receiving my stamp, I mooched down the road to check-in to quiet, modern hotel, where my room had a view out over the sea and the temple. There was a stunning tall pagoda standing up majestically from the compound. How had I failed to notice it? I shook my head. I must've been too tired to even see it. Beyond was the Yashima plateau; the same one I had climbed that morning to visit Yashimaji, the same one I had viewed nervously from my Takamatsu hotel room less than 24 hours before. Now I was on the opposite side of it and leaving it behind me. Moving on, and over, and through - I had been doing this for so many weeks now. Tomorrow would be the day of my kechigan, if all went well. Kechigan is the act of visiting all 88 temples of the pilgrimage. For some this is the very end of their pilgrimage, but I wanted to complete my circle by returning from 88 to 1, which is known as Orei-Mairi, the act of returning to the temple you started from. To do so would mean to walk an extra 40km, though the distance was hard to fathom from the map. On reaching temple one, receiving my final stamp to mark my return, and paying respects for the last time, my pilgrimage would be complete. I hardly dared to think of it, to anticipate that wonderful feeling. I bought food from the local convenience store and studied my route for my next day; the route on to temples 87 and 88.
The walk to Nagaoji was easy. I passed green fields where teams of farmers were at work with various machines and tools. I thought how I'd always remember the sight of Japanese farmers, in their giant sunhats, the women with their whole faces covered by scarves. There's always someone on their hands and knees plucking, always someone trimming and buzzing, sending grasshoppers flying into the road. There'll be someone with a rake, someone with a watering can, someone with a giant pair of sheers. I felt glad to have walked in the summer, even if it was mad of me. The temple had some pretty trees, but was memorable mostly for being my penultimate temple. When I left it, I knew I was in for a hard afternoon. It was 15km to Okuboji, temple 88, but it looked as though there was a substantial mountain between it and me. As I daydreamed about this - about me clawing my way up some crazy crag, clinging on for dear life, screaming 'I will achieve kechigan! I will!' - a girl ran across the road and pressed a giant, red apple into my hand as o-settai. She had obviously just bought it for herself from the local shop and had given it up to me instantly on seeing that I was a henro. I had met so many kind people like this on my journey.
There were several different routes to Okuboji. They all joined eventually, for the last push over the top of Mt. Nyotai, but I chose the one along a paved road. It would wind steeply uphill for 4km before joining the core path over the mountain. The sun came out and made walking harder, yet I was filled with the lucidity you get when something special is drawing near. How could I possibly be approaching the 88th temple? I remembered so clearly sitting in the communal bath in a hotel in Uwa town, after visiting temple 43, and thinking, 'I've still got 45 temples to go. 45 gateways, 90 more fuda slips to write and post, 90 more halls to pay respects at, 45 more cleansing rituals at water fountains, 45 unmet temple officials need to sign my nokyocho… if I finish this, its going to be all shades of a miracle.'
Despite the heat and steep, strangely deserted road, I was smiling as I walked, maybe even singing a little. When I reached the barrier across the road, I stopped, however. Roadworks in which great chunks of the road had been demolished had made it impassable. That explained why I had met no cars. But I had just spent three quarters of an hour sweating my butt off on this steep uphill route, and there was less than a kilometre ahead of me before my route joined the core route. How could I turn back? Luck was shining on me. It was a Sunday. The diggers were unmanned. The barriers were not protected by the usual polite but strict officials who would no doubt have turned me back on any other day of the week. I climbed the barrier, stepped over the debris, and continued on my way. Twice more I encountered barriers and demolished sections of road. Twice more I climbed over. A group of macaque monkeys, unhappy at my sudden arrival, considered whether or not to give me hassle as I hurried passed them. I was glad of my staff, with which I believe I could have given an angry macaque a good walloping, although it would perhaps be a little disrespectful to the Daishi, whom the staff resembles. (In a situation of monkey mauling vs. disrespect, I think he would’ve been ok with it.)
My route joined with the other henro michis, but still I met no other henro. How can I describe the steep, jungly path that took me over Mt. Nyotai and down the other side towards 88? The higher it got, the more I found myself looking around to see if I was really on the right path and hadn't missed a sign. It eventually became not even a discernable path but a climb up craggy rock, involving hands as well as feet to push myself up. When I reached the top and began to descend, I knew that it had been my last uphill stretch. Typical that it would have to be a bloody mountain! Okoboji temple was only 800m or so down the hill, yet I found myself dawdling. I stopped to take photos. I stopped for a drink. I stopped for a rest I clearly didn't need. I was stalling, because I knew that once I stepped into that temple compound, my journey was part way closed. I had been feeling ready to finish but here I was, not wishing to begin the conclusion. Sometimes you surprise yourself.
88 was lovely. The mountains behind it felt like my own since I had just climbed one. The atmosphere was like at no other temple, because almost all the people there were finishing their pilgrimages. Hordes of bus pilgrims, as beautifully turned out as ever, posed for professional group photos. Cycle henro took photos of themselves on their mobile phones with 88 in the background. Was I the only walker? There must have been one or two others out there amongst the throng. The priest's wife congratulated me as I had my 88th nokyo signed in my book. A big floppy spider fell out of my bag and ran over my hand as I put my book away. I didn't care. When I had paid my respects, I sat for a long time on a bench just watching everyone. The happy tour groups. Families wafting incense up into their faces to cleanse themselves before entering the main hall. Henro lighting candles before reciting their sutras. Then I walked around the compound taking in every little detail; the statues, the carvings on the gateway, the collection of staffs left behind by henro who felt their job was complete. I couldn't bring myself to leave my own.
I checked in to a minshuku (inn), just down the road, then went for a can of beer in a restaurant near the temple, watching happy henro piling out of the gateway. There were no international phone booths so I couldn't share my feelings about my kechigan with anyone at home. Instead I drained my glass, took dinner at my inn, and then watched the sunset over the mountains from my tatami room. It wasn't over yet. There were 40km between me and temple one. Everyone I asked said it would take two days to walk. But, the way I felt the next morning as I literally blazed out of town with bizarre amounts of energy, had me thinking I could do it in one; that I could and would finish this pilgrimage on this day, September 15th. I might get tired and I might not reach temple one before its stamp office closed, but what did that matter? If I missed the orei-mairi stamp, the one that proved I'd returned to temple one, how much would it really matter? Whom did I need to prove it to anyway? So, on a total high, with my music blaring in my ears, I strode on for hours without stopping. The road went down hill for many miles. I left Kagawa prefecture behind and entered Tokushima prefecture for the last time. On my way back to number one, I would be walking back over old territory, but in the opposite direction. I would pass temple 10, then be on a veritable countdown of my very first temples all the way back to one. When I did pass temple ten, it started to rain. Somehow, that made the day even better, even more epic. I had been given a big box of biscuits as o-settai and I munched them as I raced along backstreets. The map began to fall apart in my hands as the rain fell harder. It hardly mattered - this was my last day! I saw a big black snake in a field, and a father teaching his seven-year-old son how to drive a tractor. There were big metal signs advertising mosquito coils nailed to the wooden houses. Why didn't I recognise any of this from my first two days of the pilgrimage? Had I been walking with my eyes closed, or had I now walked so far and for so long that my memories were beginning to dissolve? I passed an old house with rows of slippers outside its porch, and from inside came the beating of a drum and some singing. I was going to miss Shikoku. Walking parallel to the Tokushima expressway, I could see the giant gateway of temple 8, the biggest gate on the whole pilgrimage. There was seven, with its white and red arched gate. And at six, where I had spent my first night of the pilgrimage, a lady gave me her umbrella as o-settai, insisting despite my protests that I absolutely must have it and she would share her son's. I couldn't believe I was still getting o-settai on my last day. I passed a drenched looking family who had clearly decided to walk a little of the pilgrimage as a day out. Seeing a wet gaijin henro walking in the opposite direction with a big pack, staff and a checked umbrella clearly surprised them. I called, 'Ganbatte kudasai!' (have strength, please!/Keep going!) to them across the road and all of their faces spread into big smiles. I wasn't tired at all. I had to force myself to stop for ten minutes to eat gyozi (dumplings) before continuing on in the rain. It didn't matter to me how late I reached Ryozenji (temple one) because I could pay my respects at the halls at any time at all. I might miss the last train from tiny Bando station to Tokushima city, but if so I would call a taxi. It was mind-blowing to think that I could be in Tokushima that night, my pilgrimage complete. It was such a big adrenaline rush that, as I passed temples 5, 4 then 3, I realised that I might even reach Ryozenji whilst the offices were still open. It rained a little harder. The kilometres flopped and fell under my feet. My remaining map pages were turning to mush. I passed another walking henro and we wished each other well. He looked as happy as I was. I wondered if any one else could ever understand exactly what we were feeling or did you have to be a henro to get it? When I saw the pagoda of Ryozenji rising from the trees in the distance - the same pagoda I had seen as I approached it as my very first temple two months earlier - how could I help but grin from ear to ear. The grey sky and slick wet road seemed somehow to illuminate everything around this exquisite temple. I bowed before the gate. The carp were glowing colourful in the pond. I walked straight to the nokyo office and asked the priest to please put an orei-mairi stamp in my book. 'Orei-Mairi?' he said, pleased, and gifted me a bracelet for the completion of my pilgrimage. The women in the office showed me the train timetable, and I was pleased to see I could jump on a train to Tokushima in less than an hour. I walked to the hall, which looked so warm inside with its glowing lanterns, and I paid my respects for the last time. The incense smell was intoxicating. I did the same at the Daishi hall, then sat, ecstatic, surveying the scene. The temple, usually thronging with people, was quiet due to the onset of evening and the rain. I looked at the carp and remembered my first wish, which I had made at this very temple, to be tough, persistent, strong like them. As the last act of my pilgrimage, I bought a bag of fish feed from the temple office and fed the carp. Some were fat and gold, others sleek and white, and the rest were mottled with splashes of orange and black. I was getting wet, but after nine hours of the same it hardly mattered. When I boarded the train at Bando station, I couldn't believe that something was actually going to move me for me. That all I had to do was sit and I would be taken for miles and miles in a matter of minutes. When it pulled out of the station with a lurch and then a steady gu-dug, gu-dug, gu-dug. I was grinning again. It was surreal. I hadn't taken any method of transport for two months. This little local train felt like the biggest of luxuries - and almost a betrayal! At my Tokushima hotel, I took off my hakui (pilgrim shirt) and it was almost like removing my identity. I called home then went to a karaoke joint and sang my little heart out.
I'm leaving Japan only two days later. I need to get to South Korea to meet my Seth. First, I had to reach Koya-san mountain to pay my respects at Kobo Daishi's mausoleum, and thank him for a successful run on his pilgrimage. I had visited the mountain before beginning the pilgrimage too. I remember how I felt, seeing henro for the first time, walking through the beautiful Okunoin graveyard with its giant cedar trees and lantern shaped grave markers. I was so unsure of myself then, when faced with the reality of such a massive mission. I was so scared of failing. Now I was back on the mountain, closing forever my time as a henro. I wore my shirt for the last time, and I produced my nokyocho to one of the priests to inscribe Koya-san's stamp. He looked at me closely, smiling, and said, 'Congratulations', before signing it very carefully despite a restless man with a bunch of pilgrim scrolls who was stalking about impatiently beside us. I stood in front of the closed gateway to the mausoleum, where so many other henro have stood before me and will stand afterwards. I closed my eyes and found that my head was empty, just filled with a sense of pleasure. Then I left the mountain, and made my way (on countless trains) to the port town of Shimonoseki, from where I will sail on a ferry tonight to South Korea, if the typhoon holds off. The further I have come from Shikoku, the more people stare at the Western woman with the crazy hat on her back and the staff in her hand. Some must know that I've been a Shikoku henro. Others must think I'm a total freak. The truth is, there's no other way to carry this stuff home! Sometimes total strangers come up to me to find out all about it. They will tell me about their own plans to make a pilgrimage, or admire the kanji writing on my staff. In a nation where people are generally so private, I feel lucky to be approached in this way and that is true too of the way people accepted me, helped me and approached me on the pilgrimage, This has been a strange time of my life and the only thing I know for sure is how thankful I am to everyone who helped me. Ironically, I am ready for a holiday! To be meeting Seth in Seoul in only two days is a dream come true scenario. As obsessive travellers, I doubt we will be capable of indulging in much R& R, but hey; not walking 17 miles a day is probably a good start.


5th October 2008

Im only sorry of one thing, that I didnt find your travelblog sooner. Sounds like an incredible journey! Ive wanted to visit Japan since i was little and still have yet to- It was really nice to read your stories of your great trek. Best thing is I have several more to read about your journey! How much longer are you on the road travelling? Did you see any Yamabushi?
5th October 2008

Congratulations. Wow!
7th October 2008

thanks :)
7th October 2008

Hi Stephen Paul, thanks for your message. i hope you do get a chance to go to Japan because it's awesome, and i always read back my blogs and think i fail to convey just what a fantastic place it is in which to travel. Just had a look at your own page and am amazed by your travels. will have to take a closer look! Lu

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