Day 44: How Small the World Is (16 April 2019)

We all have stories about meeting people with connections to your past in the unexpected places. I had two zingers in my hip pocket – one from Budapest and another from Kuwait City. Now, I can add a third.

I had made it up the mountain and decided to visit Temple 82, Negoroji, before Temple 81. Kukai founded the temple as a secluded place to practice ascetic virtues. About 450 years ago, a monster terrorized a local village. A champion came forward to slay the beast which he did. The villagers offered the horns of the monster to the temple. Here is a synopsis of the story that presents a caricature of the monster as well as a sculpture that stands outside of the temple.

Besides its superb setting, the temple has a unique hondo. Surrounding the courtyard are indoor corridors that contain rows and rows of small effigies with names of the deceased written at each base. There’s still room for more customers.

While sitting near the temple offices, I saw a couple – the man was white and the woman Asian. Where from?

I left the temple and stopped at a roadside cafe for some udon. In walked this couple behind me. Where from? San Francisco, now San Mateo. I’m from LA. The fellow responded, “I was born in Long Beach.” “What do you think about the pilgrimage?” I asked. “We’re both Catholics but the beliefs are so similar if you practice them in the way you should.”

She said, “Mark once studied for the priesthood.” Mark said, “At a place called Los Gatos.” To close to be true.

Mark is a 1961 Loyola HS graduate, my alma mater. He had Bill Barnett for English and was one of Bill Jr’s confirmation sponsors. Bill Jr is a classmate.

Okay. An okay coincidence. But here is the kicker. Shirley, his wife, Chinese-American, went to the University of San Francisco between 1966-1970. She knew Elliot Short, USF’s chaplain at the time and once my senior religion teacher who opened the ideas of social justice to me. The story goes on from there – too complex to relate here.

They were not walking the entire 88. They are on a custom tour of a sampling of temples in which transportation is arranged for them to a starting point. They walk from there and at the end of the walk are picked up to go to their hotel and the next destination. They get a feel for the walking ohenro but in a limited dosage. Not a bad alternative.

Unlike my usual self, I did not take their photo. They were in a hurry to go down the mountain in order to connect with their taxi. As a gift, Shirley gave me a caramel sucker, cafe latte flavor, from See’s. As good as it gets.

I’ll end today’s blog with panorama photos from the hotel where I am staying. I think that the ohenro network is alive and well.

Day 43: The Curse Is Lifted (15 April 2019)

Finally, I saw someone sporting the Boston Red Sox. I have not mentioned that the logo of the Evil Empire from New York has been seen numerous times. Our bearer of the hanging Sox came into the restaurant where I was having lunch. He was surprised when I asked him if I could take his photograph. My basic Japanese worked well enough and he agreed to have his photograph taken.

Using the rewind button, Kondo-san and I attended a morning service before breakfast (6 AM) as is the custom when you stay in temple lodging. Once the congregation was seated, mostly on the floor, nine priests processed to the alter. Chants, a sermon, striking of a bell, lighting incense, and more chanting ensued. An hour passed.

Kondo-san said that the ceremony was unusually long, the typical ones being about 30 minutes. Perhaps we got the longer ceremony because we were at Kukai’s birthplace. I likened it to a Catholic solemn high mass as opposed to a low mass. Regardless of the reason, the ceremony was interesting and for someone who could not understand most of the Japanese, a time for meditation.

Sadly, after we said prayers and had our book signed at Zentsuji, it was time to say good-bye to Kondo-san at the train station. Our chance meeting at Temple 57, Eifukuji, turned into a three day opportunity to share one another lives. I have had two such gifts on this journey. Although it was hard to part, the togetherness was well worth it.

Onward I continued to Temples 76, 77, 78, and 79. I wanted to finish the day with Temple 80 at the foot of a mountain where two temples sit at the top. However, I underestimated how long it would take to finish an 18 mile segment. Also, I took almost an hour at lunch because the route was shorter. If I did not, I would have missed the Red Sox fan.

These temples were mostly on flat ground and displayed the usual architecture. However, I took a photo of the display of wooden boards with messages to Buddha. One sees these displays at every temple though not as filled as this one. Look carefully and you will see an illustration on one of the faces of the boards. Each temple has its own distinct one.

The host of the Ebisu-ya Ryokan greeted me at the door. It was already 5 PM. She asked for my laundry which she did as an osettai. At the call for dinner, Mitake-san appeared. I first met him on Day 35 at Sea-pa with Akita-san. There he was again for the fifth time. We laughed about how ohenro brings people together. Since he will be in Tokyo during Golden Week, he suggested that we go together Kamakura and walk to the many temples in that city. I agreed although we both recognized that his English is limited as is my Japanese.

Dinner was served and the usual banter ensued about what happened during the day and where we will be staying the next day. I mentioned that I was staying on the mountain by one of the temples. Frowns appeared; heads moved back and forth; da-me (bad) was said; and two index fingers in the form of Xs were shown. Apparently, in the Japanese ohenro community, this particular lodging has a bad reputation.

An animated conversation in Japanese broke out. I could make out about 10%. Ah so, desu ne. Da-me yo. E- to, kono hotel wa e desu. It was settled. I was getting reservations at a different hotel. Calls were made to make the new reservation and cancel the previous one after which we settled back into a conversation about temples we thought were particularly interesting. You have to have faith!

Day 42: Temple 71, Iyadaniji (14 April 2019)

Our host at Minshuku Shikoku drove us back to Temple 70 at 7 AM to begin our day’s walk. We were the first pilgrims to arrive. A woman was sweeping leaves from the walkway to the hondo. Next to the pagoda (see photo from Day 41), Kukai’s statue was among other memorials with a pool of carps in front. An ohenro’s day allows him/her to see the many facets of temple life.

Our walk to Temple 71, Iyadaniji, was full of fun moments. While we were in front of a convenience store sipping our coffee, a 75 year old woman came up to talk with us about why we were on ohenro. I had a smile watching her speed off on her motorcycle. She was on her mini-ohenro.

As we continued our walk, Kondo-san pointed out that we had just passed a ramen university (ramen dai gakkuen). That’s what the sign reads in Japanese. I had to take a photo because it reminded of twenty years ago when my colleague Perry and I rated Lehigh Valley pizzerias. We were the Pizza Professors.

When Kondo-San and I arrived at Temple 71, he said that we were walking up 540 steps to get to the hondo. Are you kidding? Nope. Note the first number on the sign. The temple provides a shuttle for those who want a ride up. Even then, you have about 150 steps to contend with to the hondo.

This temple was awe inspiring because of its setting in the mountainside. The mountain that you see in the distance is Unpenji where Temple 66 is situated. To think that we had walked there yesterday. The walking journey gives one the perspective of how much we have experienced in our lives. As we live in the present, how many mountains have we climbed? How did those challenges affect us? How do we look back on them?

We spent about 1.5 hours here, much of the time taken going up and down the stairs. Just kidding. The physical setting of this temple sets it apart from others not only for how this temple was built but what it does in stimulating thoughts and one’s spirit. No wonder that this temple is a must for bus riding ohenro.

I have written that ohenro is more than the temples. The rain had started – another downpour that lasted until we reached our lodgings at Temple 75, Zentsuji, Kukai’s birthplace. Next to Temple 73, a farming couple had built a small house in which they served hot udon to pilgrims. All are invited but driving or driven ohenro go right by to the parking lot. See what you miss when you don’t walk especially in the pouring rain?

They have been providing shelter and food for ohenro for 20 years. We stayed for an hour. Like others who have offered such osettai, they wanted to know more about us and our journey. Moments like this are the most precious gifts of the ohenro. Nothing expected but warmth and kindness shown by everyone.

We were now pressed for time. We had to be at our lodging by 5 PM. We still had two temples to visit before they closed. We knew that we could not make Zentsuji in time. It will have to wait until the morning.

A downpour focuses the mind and body. Sorry no photos of either temple because I did not want to risk getting this iPhone or my camera wet nor did we have much time.

As the story goes, we made it to our lodging before 5. At the entrance were posted your name at bins in which to put your staff and shoes. I got worried because I did not see my name.

Kondo-san pointed out my name written in katakana, the symbols used when writing foreign words. Rather that Yoshida in kanji, there was my first name – the only one not in kanji. I felt a bit awkward. Another reminder that although all my grandparents were Japanese, I will never be part of the clan. Indeed, I am an American with an asterisk.

Enough of that ah-hah moment. Kondo-san and I were off to the izakaya across the street from our Temple lodging. Its name was “earth and sky,” in other words, Kukai. Here’s a sampling – Japanese style chicken wings, garlic sizzling, grilled fish from Hokkaido, horse meat sashimi, and shochu. Yes, the ubiquitous “V” from one of the counter cooks. Kondo-san gave it two thumbs-up and for our day as well.

Day 41: Unpenji and Beyond (13 April 2019)

Kondo-san joined me to visit Unpenji and the next nine temples. He had completed ohenro once before and often walks portions of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage with friends. We left Minshuku Okada at 6:30.

Since Unpenji has the aura of being the temple at the highest elevation, signage was in Japanese and English throughout with one exception. Those of you who grew up with me can decipher the Japanese.

The trail up and down was the best groomed on the trip. The upward climb was steep but not has challenging as some of the other mountains. The descent was lengthy but the trail had very few difficult spots.

At the top, the early morning view (8 AM) was breathtaking. We were high enough and facing the interior of Shikoku that we could see rows of mountains into the horizon.

The temple had an unique feature as we left it to descend down the mountain. Over 500 figures lined the way. No other temple had this feature. A bit of whimsy.

We descended down a lengthy but well groomed path to Temple 37, Daihoji. I took this photo of votive candles at the hondo. Religious rituals have so much in common. Those rows of candles reminded me of candles that front shrines in Catholic churches. We think that religions are so different. But are they really in practice?

Given the early afternoon time, we decided to push on to Temples 68 and 69, the only twins of the 88. It was odd to see two of everything on the same grounds though the hondo of Temple 39 was concrete and modern.

We went to Temple 70 even though we could not make it by 5 PM, the time when temple offices close. Temple 70 has a pagoda on its grounds that is taller than all other buildings in the area. We walked around but knew that we had to come back in the morning.

Our host at Minshuku Shikoku graciously picked us up at the temple. His wife prepared a wonderful dinner that we ended with a special shochu (distilled sweet potato) from Kyushu. This shochu was really smooth unlike the brands we get in the US. Kondo-san said it was excellent. A good sleep was in order and it was.

Day 40: Lost and Found Again (12 April 2019)

Not something but moi.

The morning started with the owner’s mother playing the Japanese flute for us while we had breakfast. Have you ever had live music (other than perhaps your children) performed at 7AM?

She played what I know is Sakura — spot on given that cherry blossoms were at or just after their peak in this area. My grandmother and mother listened to this music when I was a boy. What a joy to hear music again.

The distance between where I was and where I supposed to be was between 35-45 km. That was near marathon distance with a moderate mountain climb included (450 feet up). I decided to take a short train ride to reduce the distance to just over 15 miles.

What pleasant morning believing that I had the walk under control. I passed some houses with “modern” Japanese architecture – minimalist. As I started the climb to Temple 65, Senryuji, a welcoming broadside was painted on the side of a building.

The sanmon of the temple was the first to have its bell over its entryway. All other bells had a separate structure to house it. The grounds were magnificent even though the sakura was past peak. A very large statue of Kukai was framed against the forest. A cartoonist was sketching pilgrims. The temple was showing well.

After receiving the priest’s signature, I started the walk to my minshuku at the base of the mountain where Temple 66, Unpenji, is located. Everyone says Unpenji with reverence because it sits at the highest point on the pilgrim trail, 912 meters, or more than 2700 feet.

I thought that today’s hike was to be a cakewalk. But I took the wrong path and was in the middle of the forest alone. Am I trying to get into the 88 Temple Hall of Fame of Lost Souls? I eventually found a ravine to take down until I found a road that utility workers use to repair high power electrical transmission towers. I needed to find Route 5.

A woman on a motor scooter was coming towards me. I flagged her down but she could not place where we were on the map. Within seconds, a man in a van was coming up the road. He stopped. From the looks of his uniform, he was connected with the local fuel company. He told me to get in the van and off we went for a short drive on the road that I just came down.

In Japanese, of course (thank goodness for those lessons on directions), he told me that I needed to go straight on the road and then to make a right at “T” and finally a left at the top of hill. Got that?

I hurried my pace because I had lots of distance and time to make up. I went straight, past where I had just come down, and made the right going another 2 miles up the road. As I got to the place where I needed to make a left turn, two trucks whizzed by and then stopped in front of me.

Out popped the same man who had give me the lift. Huh? Was this his planned route or did he intentionally follow up on me to make sure that I had found my way? I didn’t ask but was profoundly thankful when he pointed to signs for the ohenro road. I was on my way to my minshuku.

The owner of Okada minshuku greeted me as the American sansei. At dinner, he introduced me to the other guests in the same way. Turns out that two of the seven guests I had met before on the road. One was Matsuo-san who was carrying Marc from Switzerland’s staff (see Day 27).

Our host enjoys people. The walls of our dining room were filled with photos of people who had stayed at his minshuku and had climbed Unpenji. He chit chatted with us throughout dinner. He even gave a lecture on the correct path to the top and what we will see when get there. What a character and someone you can tell loves being part of the ohenro experience. Can you believe that he is 91? We ended the evening in order to rest for the next day.

Thank you Kukai for sending that man who set me back on the right course. No need to become another wasuremono. I have lost enough things already.

Day 39: Silver Linings (11 April 2019)h

I must confess that I have downplayed my opinions about the dead spots along the pilgrimage when no temples are along the route. Walking along busy highways being buffeted by truck wakes is not pleasant. But these highways and streets oftentimes have silver linings that non-walkers miss as they speed by.

The morning started cool and crisp. The mountains were majestic with clouds rolling up their sides. According to the guidebook, Shikoku runs along the Median Tectonic Line. Thus, Shikoku has the dramatic rise of the mountains so close to the coastline. You can see that in the photo as I crossed a riverbed around 8 AM.

After several hours, I was already thinking about a relaxing bath in the afternoon when a sign appeared advertising the Antique Cafe with crossed UK and French flags. What really caught my eye was the subtext of the “Advanced Coffee Meister.” I thought of the movie Somm in which people are awarded the title of Master Sommelier after passing a very rigorous two day exam. This sign pulled me off the highway. Just what was an “Advanced Coffee Meister?” It was lunchtime. Time for a break from my usual 7/11, Lawson, or Family Mart meal.

Down the side road was a western looking building. Inside I entered a French countryside inn. The menu was limited but the pasta al panna appealed to me. First came a small green salad. The pasta followed with a light cream sauce with Japanese mushrooms instead of porcini. No gooey sauce and just the right amount that coated the pasta. Although a fork and spoon was offered, I chose to use ohashi.

The meal ended with a perfect cup of coffee – rich but without any acidic after bite. Here’s our Master Coffee Meister along with a close-up of his earned pin. I have to find out more about the organization, SCAJ, that appears on the pin.

Back on the road passing colorful signs along the way – Funky Time and Ishikawa Liquor Store. Although most of the cars on the road are either white/cream like or black, the Japanese freely use colors in banners and on buildings. Why not cars? Go figure.

I reached my lodging, Tsutano-ya, at 4:30. The dinner as usual was delicious and ample with sake this time instead of beer. A young woman, wife of the owner, was a big help in making the final hotel and minshuku reservations for the trip. Several choices were already full. Kukai’s help comes in many forms.

Day 38: Ame, Ame, Ame (10 April 2019)

Rain, rain, rain. It started at 2 in the morning. Up for breakfast at 6, still raining.

I have mentioned Christine two other times in the blogs. She is the Frenchwoman that Ayoyama-san and I first met at Micchan’s on day 20 and again on day 28. She and I decided walk together to Temple 60, Yokomineji. We started at 6:30 and did not get to the top until noon.

After getting directions from the priest at Temple 61, Koonji, we were off. Within a few minutes, we came up a row of elementary students with their yellow caps and umbrellas led by their sempie. What a wonderful group of children. Several responded in kind when I said ohiogozaemas (good morning).

Shortly, we made the wrong turn and got lost. After two false starts, we were next to a highway interchange. We flagged down a truck driver in order to ask for directions. He told us to hop in because where he needed to go was on the road that ohenro walk, that is, ohenro who are lost as we were. He dropped us off and we began our walk down the road until we came to a large gravel mining operation. We asked if we were on the right road. Yes, and shortly you will find a small road that will run into the ohenro path. Thank goodness for those Japanese lessons.

We walked for about 45 minutes when we came upon the alternate ohenro path. From there to the top, it was a rocky road. See Christine in the mist, and the big hole in the path. Look closely at the last photo. See the drop off to the left? I had to cross that part of the path twice.

We finally reached the top — from the bottom, an elevation change of 2400 feet. Here is a view of the hondo, Temple 60, Yokomineji. It certainly was in the clouds.

Christine decided to take the bus down while I walked. We started at 6:30 and I returned to ryokan at 3:00. More than eight hours walking – about 21 miles for the day. I ended by visiting Temple 64, Maegamiji, with its colonnades flanking the hondo.