We forded a stream. We did not see a rainbow because the sun was out in force. The only music we heard when we finished was a chain saw in the distance that we had mistaken for Buddhist monks chanting. After eight hours of hiking with over 3500 cumulative feet of climbing, one begins to have some blurry thoughts.
After reaching the plateau at the top of the last mountain, we still had another mile to walk before reaching Temple 12 (Shosanji – 706 meters in altitude. Then, another 50 steps to the main temple area. We were humbled throughout and felt moments of great joy and satisfaction to ring the temple bell announcing our arrival. Here is the moment when we sat down after taking our backpacks off.
Who is that woman? She is Marie Claude Bertrand from Montreal. I met her at the entrance of Temple 11 (Fujiidera) at the base of the climb. She is my age less one month. She has walked the Camino. Her reason for coming – wanting to experience another culture away from the big city.
Unlike some pilgrims who want to reach Shosanji as fast as they can (one fellow, a skinny tall Japanese guy routinely goes from Temple 11 to Temple 12 and back in 4 hours), we decided to savor the natural beauty embodied in the climb. Eight hours later, we reached Shosanji.
We stopped for photo opps like the two below. The first is a view of the Tokushima Valley from about 1,500 feet. The other is of a red camillia from a shrub at least 15 feet tall.
The climb naturally unfolds in three parts. Part 1 starts at Temple 11 and climbs to about 1,700 feet and then descends 400 feet. The trail is well groomed, smooth, climbing gently with a few ascending sections. A sign appears that to the initiated seems to indicate that only 3 miles lie ahead to the end. See the photos of the start of the climb at Temple 11 and Marie Claude and another Canadian, Wendy, a retired RCMP officer from Nova Scotia hiking up a steep portion of the trail.
But the second climb begins. Pilgrims ascend 700 feet on a switchback path. The photo of a sign during the climb says, “Ganbi,” keep trying. At that point, your legs feel a bit soft.
Halfway up this climb, you begin to question why you are putting yourself under such stress. About 30 minutes later, as you near the top, a statue of Kobo Daishi appears, of course, with the obligatory stairs to climb. Marie Claude clasped her hands together in a prayer gesture and said, “Thank you Kukai” (Gobo Daishi’s real name).
Alors, we discovered that we were only halfway to Shosanji. Another descent and climb were ahead.
If one still needed a spiritual awakening, the final climb did the job. We “forded” a stream with huge rocks before hiking up a treacherous path of strewn wet rocks, and upturned roots. We were very mindful throughout this part. The consequence of a slip was rolling down the mountain.
But we made it to Temple 12!
This climb also had its humorous side.We were stopped at least four times with Japanese people asking me what country I was from. Although I had recently flunked myself from an eight to a six year old, my efforts in learning Japanese paid off.
I explained that I was an American whose grandparents came from Yamaguchi-ken (my mother) and Fukuoka-ken (my father). A so, desu ne was the response. They told me that I looked Japanese but did not behave like one. I told them that I was in Japan to visit my grandparent’s hometown and to see where my great grandparents and beyond were buried. Smiles, nods of approval, and more, A so, desu ne.
Then, I introduced Marie Claude as a Canadian. The real underlying motive for talking with us came out. Okusan, desu-ka? Is she your wife? No, I responded. However, one person asked me with the corner of her mouth upturned, Kanojo desu-su ka? Is she your girlfriend? Those 14 months of listening to tapes paid off. Not my wife or my girlfriend, said I. Ima Okusan wa America Pennsylvania tonadi New York desu. My wife is in the US, Pennsylvania near New York right now. Marie Claude shook her and pointed at me right on cue. Kyo wa hajimameshita. Today I met her for the first time.
On one of the occasion before this dialogue played out, we met three Japanese couples resting and eating lunch under the shade of the Gobo Daishi statue. Seems as though the locals from the Tokushima region often climb two of the three stages but leave the final and most arduous to the pilgrims.
As Marie Claude and I sat eating our lunches. the wives came over and gave us packages of sembai, Japanese savory crackers. After playing out the above dialogue, I said that I was hoping to finish the walk on 14 May, my father’s birthday whereupon one of the wives said that the date was her birthday. High fives and hugs were exchanged after which they asked me when my birthday is – May 3rd I responded all in Japanese. One of other wives jumped up and said that it was her birthday as well. Who could have predicted. Honto – really?
I am confident that this group left with stories about this odd couple on the mountain. We were on our way to ford the stream and begin our final climb. Here are the ladies.
The events of the day touched me to the core. But surprises were still in store after I left Marie Claude at Temple 12 and took a taxi to my ryokan. I took the taxi because the monk who signed my book at Shosanji said that it would take fours to walk to the ryokan and it was already 3:30. I would miss dinner and walk in darkness.
After taking my bath, two fellows checked in. Turns out I was having breakfast with them at Ryokan Yoshino They could not figure how I got to ryokan before they did because they had left for Temple 12 before I did.
At Ryokan Yoshino, I had sat around for a few minutes thanking the woman who made our dinner and breakfast. She also made nigiri, Japanese rice balls, one with a pickled plum and the other with seaweed, for the people who were hiking the mountain. The rice balls reminded me of my grandmother’s cooking. In any case, I explained that I took a taxi to the ryokan because of the late hour. A round of Aso came forth – aso translated to, “As you will.” I include a photos of the owner of Ryokan Yoshino and the nigiri left on the counter to picked up.
What a rich day of seeing beauty, of engaging in Japanese, and of feeling the good nature of people.