Day 23 May 2

Daishi-do at Takejima -> Kanehira-san’s Zenkonyado (Tsuro)
Temples: none
Weather: Sunny
Distance: 33km

竹島の大師堂 -> 金平おばあちゃんの善根宿(津呂)
札所:ない
天気:晴れ
距離:33km

五時の経で目覚めた ~ 近所のお婆ちゃんたち ~ パンのミミ! ~ ゴールデンウイークの遍路 ~ 足摺岬の前の善根宿 ~ 明日の分かれ道

I am in a cave, except it must be a temple because I can hear the chanting. A multitude of voices in dissonant tones, echoing and warping and reflecting, a procession of white-clad pilgrims chanting a wavering chorus in the dark.

I wake up disorientated. I have been dreaming, tucked in my sleeping bag just below the edge of the altar in our tiny Daishido. A few centimeters away, an older woman of indeterminate age kneels with prayer beads in hand, chanting the Heart Sutra in a style unlike any I have ever heard before.

Lying on my side, at eye-level to her floral-print skirt, I listen sleepily. Her smooth voice is edged in a grave huskiness, and her chanting oscillates, seemingly randomly, within a range of semi-tones. Her right hand keeps a steady tapping rhythm on the fish-shaped drum. For the first time I hear cadences and phrasing in this rote-repeated chant. I hear a melody and its counterpoint, balancing, pulling away, accentuating. She has made it into music, I realize.

The woman seems entirely oblivious to anybody in the room, and I start to feel a bit self-conscious at disturbing her ritual. I mumble a quiet “Sumimasen” and push myself away from the altar, fetching up against the wall.

My companions are in similar states of dishevelment, clearly woken up by the entry of our visitor. Hayashi, who had come in the middle of the night, is in a state of undress, and trying to hide inside his sleeping bag. The place is very tiny, and I note with a sort of distracted amusement that while my face had been at her skirt, his had been almost brushing against her feet and behind… I look at Urazaki, who shrugs. Nobody knows what to do either. We all stay where we are in half-frozen awkwardness. The woman continues to chant.

About ten minutes later, her chanting winds to a stop. She gave us the barest of nods, though I could have imagined it, and sweeps out of the Daishido with the echoes of her music still mingling with the last of the incense. “What’s that all about?” I ask, finally getting out of my sleeping bag. Dawn has just broken and the sky is a pale blue-grey.

It seems that the woman is the local priest, or at least somebody who is in charge of this Daishido. Or just somebody who comes to chant sutras everyday at 5am. Somehow, remembering her intense and focused black eyes, I get the odd feeling that she never even saw any of us at all. We are just changeable parts, passerby fish in the stream of her daily faith. I start to realise how transient this walking life is, to the people who maintain a faith entrenched in one fixed place.

“Well, good morning!” Hayashi says, breaking the grave mood. “And here’s the breadcrusts I promised!” He pulls out two huge bags, leaving me open-mouthed. There is enough for all four of us for breakfast, and lunch, and possibly tea. He then passes out paper cups carefully wrapped in plastic wrap (“so that the cups can be re-used”) and pours fresh milk for us (“these are great dipped in milk!”). We are a little befuddled, a little amused, but go along with it. Hayashi is a force of nature. All in all, the breadcrusts are pretty tasty, and sometimes one comes across little bits of cucumber, or garlic, or jam, depending on which sandwich they were cut off from.

“Good morning!” A voice calls from outside. It is two old ladies, and they are here too as a part of their daily ritual. No no no, they don’t mind if we eat breakfast or pack up. In fact they are very friendly, and Hayashi proceeds to chat them up and charm them. Halfway through his usual spiel (“… and I’m 67 years old!”) one of the old ladies interrupts and says, “I’m 92 years old.” We are all dumbfounded. She looks two decades younger. And she must be quite genki to be making the daily trip out here. In fact she has never been to a doctor, still has most of her hair, and is clearly in possession of her faculties. She credits her life and health to her faith in Kobo Daishi, which is why she comes here everyday to thank him. Her companion is not very much younger, but possesses the same calm and centering.

Perhaps there is something about their extreme age and wisdom that confers a sense of grace. They radiate a peace that comes from knowing their place in the world. Maybe a very simple world of religion, ritual, the river, but for all intents and purposes, enough.

My companions and I are young (even Hayashi), scattered, tugged this way and that by wants and fears and a cacophony of voices from an external world. I wonder if I will ever discover an immovable center within myself.

We ask to take a photo, and they seem secretly pleased. One smiles girlishly and says “But my hair is a mess”, and the other actually puts on a bit of lipstick. Well, perhaps some things do not change with age.

***

It is late morning and I am alone again, with Hayashi going back to his car, and the other two walking at a faster pace. I am getting myself used to this, because I haven’t told them yet, but have already decided that tomorrow I will walk the infrequently-trekked Tsukiyama Shrine course around Ashizuri Cape. It is about a day longer, more remote, and skirts the coast of Kochi, instead of the more commonly-used route that backtracks from Temple #38 to Shimanto, before crossing the mountains overland to #39.

Somehow I feel a restlessness, a desire not to follow blindly or cling onto others. In three weeks of having fun in groups, and feeling uncomfortable with abandonment, for the first time I want to be alone.

***

Around lunch time I meet Ozone from Osaka. He is a middle-aged henro with a tiny pack who walks at a sprightly pace of around 30-40km daily, declaring that “it’s a good thing to finish 20km by noon!”.

I gather that part of his enthusiasm to cover the distance is because he is a Golden Week Henro – one of those strange creatures who have real-life jobs and commitments outside the pilgrimage, and only walk during the period of nation-wide holiday in May known as Golden Week. Done this way, it will probably take him about six to seven years to finish the pilgrimage.

He is very friendly and we start chatting and comparing notes. It dawns on me that maybe he finds me the strange one, in transition, cut off from normal life, and a girl and foreigner to boot.

I suddenly recall what Uosaki said once, huffing and puffing up a particularly remote mountainous stretch, “All henro who walk the whole thing are already wierd. All nojuku walking henro are just plain wierdos!” I didn’t realise back then, but on top of a complaint of physical difficulty, he could also be commenting on how out of place, and possibly incomprehensible, the vagabond-pilgrim is in mainstream society.

Well, us vagabond-pilgrims are usually seen as poor, and today I received wonderful settai from Ozone. We stop at an incongruous bright yellow building with a distinct cowboy decor, though the speciality he orders for us is Chinese-style ramen. It is pretty tasty, and he gets the bill before I manage to pay. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I’m leaving in five days! You still have more than halfway to go!” And later on he insists we stop by a cafe to have coffee and snacks, which he also paid for.

We are perched on top of a rise overlooking Oki Beach, one of Kochi’s premier surf destinations. Ozone waxes lyrical about the scenery and walking, and I realise that everything must be quite fresh  to him because he just started walking today.

Could I actually be just a little bit jaded? What must it look like from his viewpoint – the yearly anticipation of picking up a one-week journey in a world entirely different from his daily one.

It seems us humans can get used to anything. I resolve to be more attentive to my surroundings, and more grateful. Maybe I can capture back some of the mystery that he is clearly seeing.

***

We detour from the trail by the main road to walk on the beach, and it is a fabulous idea! The sand is so soft and white, and the waves are huge, and of the sort of jewel-like deep blue found in you tropical island travel brochures. I am tempted to join the surfers, kids and dogs already frolicking, but we still have quite a distance to go and I suspect he was slowing down his pace for me.

At around 3.30pm, right on the dot for his precision-planned timetable, I say thank you and goodbye to him at his ryokan. It’s all planned out, he had assured me earlier. “Around 3.30 I reach my lodging, then have a bath, then 1-2 beers before dinner, then I relax. Everyone does the same thing.” Well, perhaps in his world, but not mine. I still have at least a couple more hours to go.

Maybe a few kilometers later, my feet are feeling it. Other than the beach, all of today has been on concrete surfaces. I sit at a hut at a fishing port, thinking, this is a nice place, maybe I should just stay here… but no. There is a zenkonyado coming up, and more importantly, Urazaki and Morita would be there. I want to say goodbye to them, before I cross the cape.

My ankle is throbbing, and I am trying to resign myself to a slow hobble across the last 2km when a battered old car pulls up and a tough-looking obasan asks if I want a ride. For sure, yeah! Some henro do not accept car settai, but I see no reason not to. Besides, I don’t quite know where this zenkonyado is located, and having someone drive me right there would be wonderful.

So I get in the car, and whoosh! We are there in five minutes. Cars are marvels. I bet she could have crossed the whole distance I walked today in maybe half an hour.

She asks if I wanted some bread. I say okay, and she piles on me two bags full of loaves and cakes that are probably leftovers from a bakery. This woman had Hayashi beat at his bakery game. Wait till I tell him!

The door to the zenkonyado opens, and Hayashi is there! Of course, he has a car too, I forgot. Urazaki and Morita come out, and clear a space for me at the table where they had been drinking tea and eating oranges. I take the chance to look around, and this place looks great! We have a porch with table and counter, and inside, tatami boards and futons. I spy Urazaki’s laundry hanging up to dry, and hot water heaters for cooking.

Overflowing with enthusiasm, I turn to greet the man coming up the path. “Hi!” I chirped, “You must be Kanehira-san. Thank you soooo much for providing this wonderful place for us to stay!” He stares at me flatly for a second, and says abruptly, “I’m not. I’ll bring you to them.” Woah. What a damper. Maybe he is tired, and I am being too energetic. We walk down the path, and I ask tentatively who he is, and what’s he doing here. “I’m Shinya.” And that’s it. I get the feeling he doesn’t want to talk or doesn’t like me very much. How strange… I may not be super-likable, but so far everyone’s been very cheerful….

I soon forget about him when I actually meet Kanehira, a lovely old lady dressed in a very pretty floral print smock. Her middle-aged son is there, preparing our dinner. I thank her profusely for letting me stay, and she waves me off, telling me to “have a bath and come back with the rest for dinner.”

The bath is an all natural wooden shed surrounded by plants and flowers. Pretty! I get first dibs because I am a girl, but because of that the water is scalding hot. I guiltily pour away maybe a quarter of the hot water and add some cold, hoping it won’t get too cold by the time last person gets in…

Dinner. We all troop into Kanehira’s kitchen. Urazaki’s jaw literally falls open. Instead of the quick one-pot type dish I was expecting, this is a proper multi-dish sit down dinner, in no way inferior to any served in a ryokan. Probably better too, I think, eyeing the fat slices of sashimi. Kanehira charges 500 yen to cover costs, but unless things are really cheap in this part of Shikoku, we are getting a great deal. We begin eating with gusto, and the guys get second helpings of rice, all punctuated with loud cries of “Umai~!” pitched to sound exactly like the critics on those TV cooking shows.

Kanehira’s son is leaning against the stove, looking at us in satisfaction. “You’re from Singapore, right?” he asks. “I used to go there all the time. I was master chef on a ship.” Which explains his culinary skill! We rub our bellies and groan our appreciation, and he smiles.

At night, we are sitting in the hut, folding laundry and discussing plans. Morita is backtracking to catch his Ponyo movie, Hayashi is going back to walk a stretch he missed, and Urazaki is also going around Tsukiyama Shrine, but today he had already went to #38 at the cape and back again, and so has a half-day lead on me. Tomorrow, we are all going to split up, and there is no telling when we would be together again.

“But you haven’t made my tsue-cover yet!” Urazaki pipes up. Oops. A few days ago I had noticed Urazaki’s tsue had no cover, unlike most sticks that have some sort of brocade or crochet top. I think it started out as something practical (fabric = better grip) but along the way took on quasi-religious meanings. The tsue represents the Daishi, and I guess the cover must be his clothes? Perhaps similar in function to the colorful bibs that Jizo statues wear.

In any case I had offered to crochet him one, and we had picked out a lime-green wool at a 100-yen shop yesterday. I glance at my watch. Almost sleeping time, but… “I’ll finish tonight,” I say, and get down to measuring his stick. After all that everybody has done for me today, it is time to give something back.

 

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