Shikoku Day Three: Henro’s Fall
Another Cold Night
On this night, I was sleeping indoors, but the shed was not built with insulation in mind. The improvement in warmth was marginal, if there was any at all. I spent most of the night sleeping on my stomach with my arms folded across my chest for warmth.
There was relief in the raising sun since it meant I could start moving again. Sasaki left ahead of me while I grabbed a quick breakfast and some food for the walk up to Shōsanji (12). The walk is estimated to take between 4-6 hours depending on how fast and fit the walker. The path began at Fujidera (11) so the morning began with a return to the temple I’d already seen.
This portion of the trail is sometimes referred to as ‘Henro’s Fall’ or ‘The Fall of the Henro’ for being the first real formidable challenge. The difficulty of the incline increased as it progressed. The beginning had steady inclines and paths wide enough that some cars still came up. There were openings in the trees overlooking the towns and villages I’d spent the last two days walking through, but it wasn’t long before the path moved deep into the forest of the mountains and nothing could be seen outside of the density of the trees.
This was a path only for the walking henro. There were roads for pilgrims traveling by bike, car, or bus, so there were far less people to see during this hike but there were a few. One couple in particular carried small, light weight bags and were running up the mountain. The two of them took turns chasing each other. I would see them again running back down the mountain well before I was anywhere near the top. There was also a woman who pushed so many snacks on me as o-settai I had hardly enough space to store them, and a European couple.
Ricardo (originally from Italy) and Catherine were from Paris. They had been struggling with the language barrier and were pleased to speak with someone in English. I tried to give them some pointers on communicating with Japanese, but it is a complicated language and not much progress can be made on a fly-by lesson during a hike. Meeting them helped me appreciate that even though my Japanese skills were not much to brag about, they were invaluable as a tool during this pilgrimage.
Ricardo, Catherine, and I had a few separate encounters on our way up the trail. First, at one rest stop, then again as I moved past them on the trail, then again when they caught up to me at a shrine where I was taking a rest. I left them behind as I moved on to a road for the final stretch of the hike. Again, space cleared in the trees and the landscape could be seen.
The scenery was no longer villages, and towns but waves of green mountains stretching out as far as I could see only interrupted by the traces of road cutting between them and the blue of the sky falling like a curtain from above. I gazed out on this ocean of trees while backpedalling up the road.
It was about another hour or more of walking on a road, which was a curious change to the route, before I reached Shōsanji. As I arrived, I again saw Katrine and Ricardo, but they were leaving. Apparently, during my appreciation of the scenery I missed the trail and took the long route up by the road, which was about twice as long.
This temple was one of my favorites. Large and prominent in it’s simplicity. There was not too much that stuck out about this besides location and the scenery it offered of the aforementioned waves of trees. Well, there was also a long walkway littered with statues, which reeked of splendor, but even this walkway provided a path to a structure that, to me, was understated with glory.
One might say this about many Buddhist temples as they don’t tend to stray too far from a uniform style. I’ve heard temples be referred to as monotonous, and I suppose I could empathize with that opinion. But, it is true, than Shōsanji played that role of monotony as well as any could. I would have preferred to stay there for hours but, thanks to my detour, I was already flirting with being late for my check-in. I wasn’t sure how serious they would take the matter, but I didn’t intend to find out.
I passed through a field of fruit, flowers, and vegetables. The field looked so large with it’s layers of crops going up hill that I highly doubted the small house on the property housed enough people to work the land, never mind to store the crops. I walked another half-hour through forest and a few more fields before I finally saw signs of buildings being clustered together resembling some kind of mock-village. Imagined my Ryokan (Japanese style Inn) must be here.
I arrived just before five o’clock. As I approached, I could see, far away, an old woman crouched over like she had dumbbells strapped to each shoulder. I was too far to make out her face, but her eyes had not failed her in her age as she had no trouble distinguishing me as the American henro she’d spoken to the night before.
I was relieved to be able to relax for the night. The hike up was difficult, and took a little more than the estimated six hours because of my accidental detour. My knees were sore so I was thrilled when the owner told me and another henro that he would be driving us to an onsen near the bottom of the mountain.
The price of the onsen was included in the price of my stay, so I now doubt I was getting my money’s worth. Having both my second and third days end by relaxing in an onsen was as much as I could have asked for. The onsen from the previous night was sufficient, but this one was on a different level of luxury. I spent the evening bathing in red wine, sweating in a sauna, and letting the jets of a tub massage my muscles.
Some Japanese have asked me if many Americans would be comfortable exposing themselves in an onsen. I can’t imagine it would be an issue, since there is a regularity of nudity in the changing rooms of gyms. I’m sure some would be turned off by the idea, but I’d guess some Japanese are as well. Personally, I find nudity quite liberating. Seclusion might be preferred, but even in company the shedding of clothes is equivalent to a removal of status, pretensions, and ego. We all become exposed to judgment but with that seems to come the entire lack of a need for it.
After about 30 or 45 minutes Yoshida-san, the other henro, suggested it was time to go eat. He wasted no time in letting me know that he would be buying me a beer and paying for my meal. I didn’t resist, but I was worried that I may be spoiled into expecting free dinners every night while I was on the path.
When we returned, there was another traveller, Aki, settling into a room. Aki was more practiced in English and wasted no time in giving me advice both on speaking Japanese, and for the remainder of my journey. He told me about a Taxi station with a large room above the garage offering free lodging to any henro. It looked like it would be easy to reach the next day and I was relieved to know I already had a place to sleep the next night.
I read myself to sleep again that night, not that I got much done before passing out. I was exhausted from the day. The road had been difficult, but the kindness of the people around me was beginning to lull me into a confidence that everything on this path would be provided for me. I warned myself against the danger of falling into that belief, but the following day wouldn’t do much to prove the theory wrong.