Epilogue: Reflections (12 May 2019)

I followed the green line back to the Bando rail station. My shoulders were heavy with a touch of sadness that my ohenro was finished.

As I boarded the train, a handful of fresh ohenro were getting off with smiles on their faces and quickness in their steps. They were excited about the journey to come. They were zecocho (in high spirits). The green line laid before them to Temple 1. I wished them well.

I was happy for them because I hoped that they would come away with the feelings I had throughout the walk. The catalyst for embarking on this journey was the young Australian policeman saying how the ohenro restored his faith in mankind.

My experience was not one of restoring but reconfirming my belief that deep down in our souls we want to be kind and to behave accordingly. The complement is that we want to be treated in the same way.

You have read in these blogs many descriptions of good hearted people and many acts of kindness. During ohenro, I was not sequestered from the news from America and the world. What a contrast to what I experienced daily. Perhaps those who are angry and woeful may one day find the joy of receiving unconditional osettai from others.

As I re-enter my “real” world, I will work to make sure that every encounter will be framed by the thought of Ichigo, Ichirei. Every Japanese person to whom I mentioned this phrase knew it by heart. One lifetime, one meeting. Each meeting will have an effect for better or worse.

While I was in Sapporo, I went to an izakaya. I sat alone and took this photo of people across from me.

After an hour, the couple on the left facing me sent over a glass of sochu. I went over to thank them. In my basic Japanese and with the little English that they knew we spent the next hour talking about Japan and the ohenro. The other photo is of us as we left when the restaurant was closing. Indeed, random acts of kindness do occur!

Let’s try to make all of encounters for the better. We experience enough angst in our lives.

In the next few days, I’ll write some thoughts to help others who may be thinking about walking ohenro. I met some travelers who designed mini walks. Perhaps my suggestions will spur others to consider temples beyond those closest to Osaka/Kyoto. Make the time if you can.

I will also give my review of minshuku and other lodgings that I found to be comfortable and interesting. These hard working people deserve our patronage.

Finally, I will give some opinions about what to carry on this trip and most importantly, what preparations and precautions to take about your body especially your feet. Hopefully, they will save you from Aoyama-san like blisters.

Let your spirit move you to do ohenro. Don’t hurry through the journey as if it were a goal to meet or another notch on your belt. See, hear, and feel the people and the surroundings. Indeed, ohenro is a challenge but a moment in life that you will always treasure.

Days 50 and 51: Back to Bando (22 and 23 April 2019)

Most pilgrims seem to agree that one has to return to the temple where one’s ohenro began in order to complete the circle of the walk. I agree because in my book of signed pages, there is a page that is reserved for the seals, signature, and date of completion.

After leaving the onsen lodging after Temple 88, I relaxed as I walked to Sanuki-Shirotori, a town that shorten the distance back to Temple 1 by a third. The final day would be long (about 18 miles) but relatively easy, I thought.

Kukai had something else in mind. I still had a 1000 foot mountain to scale before descending into the valley where the first temples were located. The climb up was long but after so many miles, the walk seemed routine.

I reached Temple 3 by 1 PM and sat looking at the surroundings. I was here on 7 March. It was hard to believe that I had experienced 88 temples. I took out my signature book to verify whether all the pages were signed. Indeed they were.

At Temple 2, I walked back to the giant tree that stands in a place of honor in the courtyard before the staircase to the hondo. It rained on 7 March so I didn’t spend much time taking in the scene. This time I gazed up the tree, looked at its enormous truck and gnarly bark. I pulled on its ceremonial cincture. Legend has it that one will have an easy childbirth. I settled on good health.

Finally, Temple 1, Ryozenji. I put my staff, man bag, and backpack down on a bench as I had done many times before. I put on my wagesa, and took out the small doll that the woman from Matsuyama had given me to carry from temple to temple (see day 33).

I walked to the hondo, expressed my gratefulness for my good fortune, and then held the doll up for the photo below. I had done my osettai for the kind lady from Matsuyama. The doll will travel home with me.

I also took out two five yen coins. One came from the mishuku host from Unomachi (see day 29) who said to offer it at a temple with a wish. Aoyama-san said to toss it into the collection box at the hondo of Temple 1.

The other was saved somewhere shortly after Unomachi. I stated my wishes: one for continued good health for friends and family, and other that Aoyama-san complete his ohenro as he intended to do this fall.

Afterwards, I had my book signed. The gentleman congratulated me and gave a string of wooden beads as a remembrance. It will be a complement to the one I wore throughout the walk.

This final day, I traveled alone though I thought of Ichigo, Ichie – one lifetime, one moment. Perhaps that is what Kukai had in mind for my last day.

Day 49: The 88th Temple (21 April 2019)

I awoke with the ze cocho (good spirits) feeling. It was time to walk to the 88th and final temple, Okuboji. I looked back on all of the experiences of the past weeks – people met, kindness shown, and entering and leaving 87 previous temples. I was overwhelmed.

Our minshuku host was filled with vigor as we came to breakfast. The eggs she served were larger than jumbo. One filled the palm of my hand. They were all double yolks.

She said good-bye to each of us. She followed custom by waving or bowing at her doorstep until we lost sight of her. She is 89 and as I mentioned before, who will take over when she retires or passes way.

About a third of the way to Temple 88 is the Maeyama Ohenro Koryu Salon. The building is larger than I expected. Besides a large sitting area where pilgrims are offered refreshments, it contains two fairly large exhibition rooms. Copies of old ohenro maps are displayed including Shinnen’s map from 1687.

What captured my attention were original books containing the stamps from the temples dating from the late 1790’s to early 1800’s. The second book shows a page covered in red. Each time a pilgrim comes to a temple, s/he has the book stamped. The first time has the signature of the person representing the temple. The book is only stamped each subsequent time. The second book shows that the pilgrim visited the temple multiple times.

The highest number of known walked complete circuits of the ohenro path is 280. This person took 55 years to do so. Ueno-san and I met a fellow at a marketplace where we were resting who told us that he had made ohenro 183 times though in his car. He gave us his osame-fuda (name slip). Most ohenro have a simple thin slip of paper for their osame-fuda. The Ohenro Salon had examples from over 200 years ago.

As part of the visit, the Salon issues a certificate naming the person a Henro Ambassador for having walked the 88. I received mine, number 15198. A nice recognition and based on an honor system of your word that you are a walking ohenro who will reach Temple 88.

I met up with Ueno-san at the Salon. We thanked the staff who waved as we began our walk to Okuboji.

As we bowed before the sanmon, I thought about reaching the finish. Indeed, a moment to enjoy as I passed through the sanmon and rang the temple bell – over two hundred years old.

After climbing more steps (to be expected, no), we saw an enormous metal sculpture of Kukai and the daishou. We discovered that we had come by the back entrance.

To the right of the daishou is a large display of staffs that pilgrims have left. It costs 1000 yen to leave your staff. I decided from the beginning at Temple 1 that mine will come home with me as a reminder of the journey.

As if right on cue, Christine appeared. She had walked a different route to the top. She was all smiles as I was. We asked Ueno-san to take our photo at the Kukai statue. We had endured the climb to Temple 69 in the pouring rain. We had unexpectedly met several other times on the road. What a fitting way to record our moment at Okuboji.

We also had our books signed and stamped. A green stamp was added to commemorate the ending of the Heisei on 30 April when Emperor Akihito abdicates – an interesting point in history to witness while in Japan.

It was time to leave. We said good-bye to Christine who was staying at the only minshuku near Okuboji. Ueno-san and I had another 7 miles to our hotel/onsen down the mountain.

We walked in the beauty of a spring day with its many hues of green. I did not feel the sadness that I had the day and night before.

I felt part of a long tradition of ohenro, not just in terms of the rituals but walking in the steps of those who came before. How will I live onward? How will the ohenro affect my thinking and behavior as I return home and into familiar daily life? I don’t have an immediate answer but time will tell. I am grateful to have had the health, time, means, and support to be where I am this morning.

Day 48: Nearing the End (20 April 2019)

A happy/sad feeling came over me as I neared Temple 86, Shidoji. The journey that I had taken 15 months to prepare for was almost over.

I’ll post several blogs about ohenro after I finish and can let the experiences sink in.

For now, the happiness comes from completing the walk physically, mentally, and spiritually. I feel so privileged to have met other pilgrims, the minshuku hosts, the people who give osettai, and those who said konichiwa as I walked along. I have special feelings for Ayoyama-san, Kondo-san, Monique aka Monica, and Joseph whom I shared many days on the road.

I am happy to have stood at the hondo of 88 temples – places of worship that elicit great devotion among the faithful. I am also amazed at the resilience of these temples. All were founded between the 7th and 8th centuries CE and parts of the buildings where I stepped date from that time.

I am thankful to the pilgrims who have come before me who blazed the trails that I walked. Although difficult, they could not have been as hard as paths when they were trodden decades and centuries ago. I will also be glad to shed the extra 12 pounds that I have carried. Michael, you were right. My camera that feels so light by itself became a heavy stone especially up those steep mountain climbs. Hopefully, some of the images will reward the effort.

I am sad to leave the road with the excitement of what possibilities lie ahead. Each day brought surprises and experiences that can’t be bought. Walking put the moments into slow-motion. I saw details that would have been missed while on a bike, in a car, bus, train, or plane.

I am sad because although I have hiked before, I have never gone this distance and time appreciating nature and our environment. Will I ever hear frogs as I did when I walked around the pond having missed Temple 36 on Day 19? Will I walk along a coastline and feel the wind for as long as I did in Kochi prefecture? Will I hear the sweet spring sounds of the birds as I was walking through the forests of Shikoku?

Those are some of my feelings approaching the walk to Temple 88. Here is the marker in Temple 87 pointing the way with 16.5 km to go. What the marker does not say is that a significant climb of over 2500 feet is included.

I’ll end tonight with two photos of fellow pilgrims. The first met Christine from Paris. We first met at Temple 36 on Day 19 – the same day that I heard the frogs. Later that night, she was at Micchan’s minshuku sharing dinner. We later climbed together to Temple 60 in the rain on Day 38. We said good-bye afterwards but voila we ran into one another as she walked by on Day 40. Here we are together at Day 48. I think that she has come to appreciate sashimi.

The last photo is of Ueno-san. After fellow ohenro left the dining room, he and I continued talking over a second Asahi. He completed a walking ohenro three years ago and is doing a segment now. He’s 68 and once spent a year at UCLA when he was 20. Our paths could have crossed. After that year, he took a nationwide bus trip by Greyhound. His favorite place was the Blue Note in New York City.

We ended the evening having a kareoke moment singing along with Frank (thank you iPhone) – I did it my way. Thank you Sharon for supporting me from the beginning when I turned to you on Koya-san and said that I was going to do ohenro.

Day 47: Looking for George, Nakashima, That Is (19 April 2019)

Kondo-san warned me that the mountain climbs in Kagama prefecture were the steepest of the journey because their shapes were more cone-like. He was right about the paths up and down from Temples 84, Yashimaji, and 85, Yakuji. On the way down from Yakuriji, the road sign stated – 21% grade – the highest number that I have ever seen. The walk down jarred my legs at every step.

While at Temple 84, Yashimaji, I thought about Notre Dame cathedral. Just like ND, most of the temples on ohenro are at least 500 years old or more. Some notable exceptions come to mind such as Temples 55, Nankobo, built after WWII; 61, Koonji, and 69, Kannonji, with their modern concrete hondos.

Amazingly, these wooden structures have survived. The description for Yashimaji’s hondo stated that it was renovated in the 17th century and again in the 1950’s. Hopefully, Notre Dame’s basic structure will be found to be sound and can be rebuilt to capture the essence of its beauty.

Temple 85, Yakuriji, was beautifully set into the mountains. It was quiet and peaceful. On the walk up, a woman offered osettai in front of her home. We talked about my mother’s family coming from Yanai. Turns out that she is from Yamaguchi as well. She gave me a small figurine of an ohenro to bring home. Another moment of unexpected kindness.

After seeing the temples, I was on the hunt to find the George Nakashima Memorial Gallery. Sharon and I first became acquainted with his work in the Japanese Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. We sat on one of the eight conoid lounge chairs surrounding a large somewhat circular table. I write “somewhat” because Nakashima kept the natural shape of the wood.

We were still living in Brooklyn in 1988 when we went to New Hope, PA to visit his studio. We made an appointment three months in advance. At 1 PM, we met Mr. Nakashima. We described what we wanted. He took us to the basement where rows of wood were aging. He pulled out a dusty piece of wood. He told us that it was claro, a type of redwood. We agreed on the wood and he sketched out the table and two chairs. Thirty months later the pieces arrived about a year before he passed away.

The Nakashima Gallery has an extensive collection of his work. Why here in Takamatsu? He was invited in 1964 to visit and returned several times to see people and hug trees. On the first floor, you can have coffee or tea chatting with friends on original Nakashima furniture. Upstairs are examples of his work through the decades and a timeline of his life.

While there, I asked Michiko, the gallery director, about where my hotel was located. I thought it was nearby in the neighborhood. Turns out it was five JR train stops down the line. My guidebook only contains maps directly on the ohenro route. I was 8-10 miles off.

Luckily, I had passed the nearest train stop about a half mile back. Like many of the high schoolers on board, I was commuting “home.” The hotel is located right next to a large city park on the seashore. I had the best sleep of the trip so far listening to the lapping waves. Here is a view from my window at sunrise. The modern day ohenro can travel nicely. I thought about the ohenro from the past because the most of the paths trodden are along the same route.

Day 46: Touring Takamatsu (18 April 2019)

Since I was ahead of schedule to complete the pilgrimage, I decided to spend time in Takamatsu before checking in to my hotel.

Sharon and I were here for a day in November 2017. We went to the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum and the Ritsurin Garden. We had no time for other touring. I stayed here overnight before starting the pilgrimage on 6 March.

Takamatsu is one of the four prefectural capitals of Shikoku. The pilgrimage passed through all of them: Tokushima, Kochi, and Matsuyama. They all have the big city feel of wide streets, traffic, and buzz. But treasures can be found in each.

I returned to the Ritsurin Garden. Sharon told me Ritsurin incorporates the mountain as a backdrop. The scenes were from a movie set. Ritsurin is a must for any visitor including pilgrims.

I walked to the city center, a very familiar place because the main train station is located there. Time for lunch. I returned to the restaurant where Sharon and I lunched on our visit for udon, the speciality of Shikoku. It is said that Kukai brought back the recipe for the Shikoku udon when he traveled to China – a simple mix of wheat flour (wheat fields abound in the countryside and even city plots), salt, and water. At the entrance was an udon maker preparing the noodles for lunch. Here’s what I ordered.

After lunch, I had plenty of time to explore the city. I chose the Takamatsu Art Museum. Only the first floor was open. One gallery displayed prints including a Keith Haring of the Statue of Liberty. Another gallery had pieces of lacquerware from the post-Edo period to the present. No photography was allowed but I took a photograph of a lacquerware piece from the brochure – exquisite. Our lady in the last photo in a very delicate way asked if I was over 65. Yes, admittance, free!

Time to move on. Unexpectedly, I was attracted to a newly constructed five story building that appeared to have a library. It did on the second floor – a branch of the Takamatsu Library.

The building also housed a planetarium, a center to promote gender equity, and a peace museum. The peace museum was extensive showing photos and explanations of events leading up to WWII, life during the war, the loss of loved ones in battle and on the home front. Kondo-san described his earliest recollection as a four year seeing red in the skies over Imabari after it was fire bombed in 1945. Takamatsu was bombed on 4-5 July 1945. Not much of the city was left after that.

Japan took steps after the war to make some basic reforms such as reducing its military.

What impressed me the most was the City Council’s declaration of the values and commitment of Takamatsu citizenry passed in 1980. I wonder how many people know about this document and how it is lived. From what I experienced, this spirit is alive and doing well.

Day 45: At the Hondo (17 April 2019)

Today was light, a 10 mile walk from near Temple 81 down the mountain to Temple 83. As I entered the trail, a warning sign was posted to be aware of wild boars in the area. Other than the friendly heads-up, I could not read about what to do if I faced one of these beasties. I had to rely on Kukai’s protection.

Although we were in Spring, the foliage seemed like Fall with an array of colors. The mountainside was beautiful and put my mind in a state of self-reflection.

I’ll wait until after the end of the pilgrimage to offer my thoughts on how I will respond to the young Australian policeman’s statement about how ohenro restored his faith in mankind.

For the moment, you might want to know what pilgrims do when they are at a temple and what I do as a secular person who respects other people’s beliefs but is not religious but spiritual.

Most people when they enter a temple at the sanmon (main temple gate) bow to recognize that they are entering a holy place. I do too. Indeed, these temples and the path of the ohenro have been in place for over 1200 years. Even though much of the flat parts of the course is covered in asphalt or concrete, the roads are those that pilgrims walked in the past and for some died along the way.

If a bell is available, many take the opportunity to strike the bell. Most of time, I do too especially vigorously if the climb up was challenging. There is a certain satisfaction in hearing a very loud and enduring gong.

The next step is to cleanse one’s hands and some worshippers wash their mouths. I follow the hand washing part of the ritual.

Here is where we significantly differ. Buddhists and many other non-Buddhists light candles and incense sticks and then chant the heart sutra at the hondo.

I put my hands together, bow my head and think the following. I am grateful that I am healthy in mind and body to have walked to this temple (83 so far). I am grateful to my grandparents who had the courage to leave Japan for whatever reason and who endured in a new land. I am grateful to my parents who nurtured me even though at times I rebelled. I am grateful to have Sharon as my wife and partner who has shared my life and supported me on this trip. I am grateful for my friends who I know have helped me and will help me again when needed. I am grateful for all of my girl cats and Sherman who purr and give unequivocal love. I am grateful to all of the people who have given me acts of kindness. For those fellow pilgrims and for those performing osettai whom I will never meet again, Ichigo, Ichie (in one lifetime, one meeting), thank you.