Yesterday as I made my way through a busy Tokyo JR Station towards the Yaesu Bus Station to catch my night bus to Tokushima I got that de ja vu feeling that I had done this all before. The fact was, I had done it all before because less than four years earlier I had arrived at Tokyo JR Station and taken the same Tokushima bound night bus on the way to do my first Shikoku Pilgrimage. [ link ]
That de ja vu like feeling I got was due in large part to the thought that somehow I was back at square one. Four years earlier I had left home with a feeling of nervous excitement for what lay ahead. Accompanying that nervousness was a strong desire that the pilgrimage might help to unlock some hidden mysteries that would help me to change the course of my inner life. That first pilgrimage turned out to be an incredibly uplifting adventure. It hadn't really unlocked any deep mysteries but I had returned to the reality I knew, full of renewed expectations about the direction I wanted that inner life to take. Four years on however, I seemed to be back at the proverbial square one. I was certainly back at square one in the physical sense but in many other ways it was a different me that was about to head for Shikoku again.
This time there was none of the nervousness because I knew exactly what to expect and if I'm honest, none of that first time excitement either. There were no grandiose ideas about seeking enlightenment or unlocking any deep mysteries. What I'd learned during my first pilgrimage was that ohenro seems to weave it's very own magic as you make your way around Shikoku. This ohenro magic affects not only your mind but if you're spiritually inclined, it affects your soul too. I wanted to experience that magic one more time because I was definitely in need of something soul soothing. I also knew exactly how I wanted to do the pilgrimage. This time it was not going to be just about receiving that magic, it was going to be about sharing the magic with everyone I met along the way.
During my first pilgrimage I had started walking the same morning that I had arrived in Shikoku. This time I wanted to spend the night close to Ryozenji (#1) and make a start the following day so I'd booked myself into OShikoku Guesthouse. OShikoku Guesthouse is located conveniently close to Ryozenji (#1) and although I'd made an online booking many days in advance the confirmation didn't arrive until a few hours before I left home for the bus station. I was scheduled to arrive at Kosoku Naruto around 06:30 but the booking confirmation told me that check-in was from 16:00 onwards. I didn't want to spend the best part of a day just waiting to check-in so the first thing I did when I got to Yaesu Bus Station was head for the ticket office and enquire about changing my destination to Tokushima City. I was told I could arrange everything with the driver before the bus left so I found a seat in the crowded waiting room, sat down and starting thinking about what it was going to be like to do the pilgrimage again.
The thought of doing the pilgrimage for a second time had always been there in the back of my mind, I just never imagined I would be doing it again so soon. The determination to do it had only really gathered steam towards the end of 2014. The event that had been instrumental in making it possible and largely inevitable was my decision to leave my job. I had decided a full 18 months earlier to leave but at the time it had had nothing at all to do with wanting to do the pilgrimage again. The only reason I had not left sooner was principally out of loyalty to a manager who had been hugely supportive. Her departure from the company at the end of November following a management restructuring removed any obstacles and 2 days after she left, I gave notice that I would be leaving at the end of the year.
For me there were plenty of good reasons for wanting to do the pilgrimage again but there were also some nagging doubts. The doubts stemmed mainly from a feeling that I was being selfish for wanting to do it again. There was also the question of whether it would serve any real purpose. One or two of my friends who knew what I was thinking had been asking me the very same thing. Their concerns were of the common sense type, the kind of practical concerns that sometimes keep us firmly on the track we find ourselves on. However, once I'd made the decision to leave my job, serendipity intervened and seemed to be firmly pushing me in the direction of Shikoku. A few days before Christmas a poster on the Tokyo Metro caught my eye. It was for the Metro Walker magazine and it depicted a beautiful temple scene. Flicking through the magazine I discovered that the name of the temple was Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin and upon closer inspection that it was in fact a Kukai related Shingon Buddhist temple. The name of the temple itself was a bit of a give away so I decided I would go and have a look for myself the following day.
The following day as I neared the temple gate, the first thing I noticed was the ubiquitous shape of a standing Kukai statue peeking over the top of the front wall and once inside I quickly discovered a mini Shikoku Pilgrimage. I had seen these mini pilgrimages at other temples in Shikoku and what I found at Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin was similiar, just on a smaller scale. Within a small quadrangle I found the statues of each the 88 temple deities. They were grouped by prefecture and numbered accordingly. I walked around the outside looking out for the many temples that I could still quite easily recall - Ryozenji (#1), Shosanji (#12), Unpenji (#66), Zentsuji (#75), Okuboji (#88) to name just a few. In addition to the mini pilgrimage, I found an assortment of other related artefacts that I had seen at many of the actual temples during my first pilgrimage. Eager to discover more I headed in the direction of what looked like the main hall.
When I peered inside through the small glass panes of the front door I saw the exact same scene that I had seen in the poster on the Tokyo Metro. I could see two beautifully shaped gold lanterns and a statue of a seated Kukai way in the back. I could also see several rows of seating stretching across the front of the altar. A sign and a banner on the front of the main hall indicated some sort of new year ceremony was scheduled to take place around midnight December 31 and again the following morning. I went around the side of the main hall and into an adjoining building to see if I could find someone who could give me more information. The person I found told me all I wanted to know and also told me it was fine to go inside the main hall. I entered through a side door and sat myself down and spent the next hour or so just soaking up the calm atmosphere. Serendipity or not, ohenro seemed to be calling. If I was going to go to Shikoku again, the next question was naturally when would be the best time to go. In my mind I already had thoughts of springtime and cherry blossoms.
On new year's eve I had a choice of temples or shrines I could have gone to but the options had narrowed themselves down to one, Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin. Temples and shrines everywhere are crowded around New Year and I was expecting as much when I arrived at Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin. When I got there I found no queues and no crowds, in fact, I found myself sitting alone in the main hall. It was not what I had expected but maybe with 5 hours to go until midnight I shouldn't have been too surprised. After about 30 minutes a few other early birds turned up and sat themselves down too. Then over the course of the next 4 hours all the remaining seats filled up and an orderly queue formed leading from somewhere outside down to the front of the altar where people could place money into a large box and offer prayers. I sat there for 5 hours observing everything that was going on. There was the fire ceremony, the chanting, the incense burning, speeches and finally the ringing of the large bell outside which welcomed the new year.
I got up and went outside and bought myself an omikuji. An omikuji is like a fortune slip and the interesting thing about the omikuji I bought this time was that it came inside a small wooden daruma doll. Daruma dolls are symbols of perseverance and good luck. I took out the omikuji and looked to see what kind of blessing it was going to bestow on me. It was 'dai kichi', the greatest blessing. More interestingly it described in a simple poetic way the blossoming of flowers, the singing of birds and spring time being a good time for the start of something important. Serendipity or just wishful thinking, the timing of my second pilgrimage was likely going to be spring.
Preparations at the start of January were slowly under way and then another serendipitous encounter similar to my discovery of Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin took place. I visited the nearby historic town of Kawagoe. The town is famous for it's Edo period character and is home to various cultural attractions. I was specifically going there to see and photograph the 500 rakan statues at Kitain (喜多院) but what really enthused me about the trip was the chance discovery of Naritasan Kawagoe Betsuin. Having finished at Kitain I was heading towards the next attraction in my guide book when my attention was drawn to the characteristic outline of a standing Kukai statue visible over a temple wall. I stepped in through the gate and immediately to the left of the Kukai statue was another mini Shikoku pilgrimage. Until a few weeks ago I had no idea that they even existed outside of Shikoku and now I had discovered two in almost as many weeks.
This particular mini pilgrimage was very different to the one at Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin. Around what looked like a Daishi Hall was an L-shape row of upright marble slabs. Rather than statues of the deities, each of these slabs had a colourful painting representing each of the deities. To complete the mini pilgrimage you started walking around the outside of this L-shaped structure and then back along the inside. I would have found this interesting even if I was not planning on doing the real pilgrimage, the fact that I was, seemed to add to the mystery of how or why I had suddenly discovered a second such temple.
January passed and I finally got my finger out and starting putting together a tentative plan based around lodgings that I knew about already and those posted online more recently by others. For someone who was ordinarily a stickler for detail, I didn't really seem to be overly worried about anything. I made a list of things I wanted to take and then over the course of the next 2 weeks my living room took on the semblance of an organized mess. To inject a little urgency into my planning I finally decided to buy my over night bus ticket to Tokushima. I was on my way to a dinner party on the other side of Tokyo so I decided to stop by Yaesu Bus Station and just get it all sorted out. I got off the train at Ginza Station and when I emerged above ground the first thing that caught my eye was a bright red Ferrari with the number plate 88-88. It could only be serendipity because a few minutes later I came upon another exotic sports car, this time a Porsche, and it too had the same 88-88 number plate. It seemed to confirm in my mind that today was indeed the right day to be getting that ticket.
Just before I got to Yaesu Bus Station, coming towards me was a face that looked strangely familiar. I was sure it was someone I knew and it was only as I passed that I realized it was in all likelihood the founder of Facebook. Had I had my faculties about myself I am quite sure I would have stopped and started chatting to him and told him all about the Shikoku pilgrimage. However, he was soon forgotten as I stood before a grumpy looking ticket clerk at the Yaesu Bus Station. I thought about giving her a dose of my own grumpiness but after getting my ticket I decided she would be the first recipient of one of the many photographs I planned to give out to people as I walked around Shikoku. I had already printed out about 50 copies and was carrying them with me with the intention of giving one each to the other guests at the dinner party. Her grumpy demeanour evaporated in an instant and I left behind me a happy smiley ticket clerk. Over dinner a little while later I shared the story of the the car number plates and let everyone choose a photograph of their liking. The near encounter with someone famous however had completely slipped from my mind.
With my bus ticket purchased the countdown to my second pilgrimage had now finally started and I had a little over a week to get myself fully ready. Up until the last minute the only thing that had me rushing around was my dithering over what camera to buy but with a couple of days to go I seemed to have everything I felt I needed. I crammed everything into my backpack, strapped it to my back and walked about my apartment to see how it felt. It felt quite heavy and I would have had to remove quite a bit to make any significant dent in the weight so I decided to just leave it as it was. When I left my apartment and headed the short distance to my local station with the pack strapped firmly to my back I knew the pack was going to prove to be a bit of a burden.
It was a little too late now to be worrying about my burden, the bus was going to leave in about an hour so I got up and headed outside. I set my burden down and just stood and watched the world rushing about around me. It was a Friday evening, office workers, weekend travellers and tourists all seemed in a hurry to get to wherever they needed to get to. For me, this hurried existence would soon be replaced by something altogether different. The bus pulled up along side the bus stop and I waited patiently as the driver checked the waiting passengers onto the bus. When the last person had boarded I approached the driver and asked him if I could continue as far as Tokushima City instead of Kosoku Naruto. He looked at my ticket, scribbled something on his clipboard and told me it would be another 200 yen. It was easier than I thought and with that sorted I left my pack with the attendant and boarded the bus.
Just like last time the bus departed on time at 21:10 and headed away from the Tokyo Station and was soon on the express way speeding away from Tokyo. I pulled out my small laptop and tapped out a few more thoughts and then just wiled away the time lost in thought. The hours seemed to pass by easily and I even managed to get a little sleep. The next morning I was fully awake and waiting for the driver to announce the first stop in Tokushima, Kosoku Naruto. Four years earlier I was supposed to get off at this stop but I had remained seated and mistakenly continued to the next stop. When the driver announced that we would soon be stopping at Kosoku Naruto quite a few of the passengers got off the bus. I leaned across from my seat and pulled back the curtain to see where I should have gotten off during that first journey. The stop was on the express way itself and had I got off here that last time then it would have been a short walk to Naruto Station. As it was it was the next stop which I had disembarked at. The next stop was at Matsushige and looking at the map in my guide book I realised I had had to walk quite a bit to get to Iketani Station and then to Bando Station that morning. Having learned from that mistake however, this time I knew I was going to remain on the bus as it continued all the way into Tokushima City. The driver announced the final destination as the the bus pulled up outside Tokushima JR Station just before 7 o'clock.
I gathered my things and then hurried into the station to get myself out of the cold. The weather back in Tokyo had been quite chilly but I had not expected it to feel so cold here in Tokushima. The sky was a beautiful clear blue and when the sun finally chased away the morning chill I headed back out and followed the signs pointing in the direction of Awa Odori Kaikan. I didn't really have any clear plans for what I wanted to do but I figured I could spend a few hours looking around before heading to Ryozenji (#1) and then OShikoku Guesthouse.
Awa is the old name for Tokushima and odori means dance. Outside the Awa Odori Kaikan were two ohenro huts and what was interesting about them was that the wooden canopies had been designed in the shape of the hats that the women dancers wore. The huts were exposed on the sides but I wondered whether it would be possible to sleep in them when I passed through Tokushima in a few days time. I hadn't come up with a clear plan about how long I would take and where I would stop but was tentatively planning on 45 to 50 days of walking around Shikoku before leaving for Koyasan. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn't want to rush this time and I also didn't want to find myself scrambling for a place to stay so I made a mental note of the huts and then headed towards a bright red coloured shrine gate to the left of the Awa Odori Kaikan.
The red gate belonged to Takaoka Shrine and once inside it looked like it was one of those shrines connected to match making. The give away was the heart shaped insignia and heart shaped marble inlays in some of the paving stones. What was really nice were the blossoms. Cherry blossoms or plum blossoms I didn't really know but whatever they were they looked incredibly pretty. After leaving Takaoka Shrine I headed back towards the station but took a slight detour and discovered that the area to the right of the Awa Odori Kaikan was full of temples both big and small. I went in and out of the grounds of some of them before slowly winding my way back towards the station again.
Just before reaching the station I passed the small opening to a long narrow shopping arcade. I wandered inside and found it lined with small shops and restaurants including one shop which had 2 life sized dolls resembling a couple of elderly women dressed in pilgrim gear seated outside. It reminded me of the small village after Shonsanji (#12) which has dozens and dozens of these kinds of life sized characters. I continued all the way through and then followed the road round towards the back of the station. There I found the Central Park which combined a museum and various other community facilities. As I continued through I spotted a large open hut next to the river which ran through the center of Tokushima. I set my pack down and found a spot nearer to the river and decided to call a friend in Kagawa who I first met during the period I spent living and working in Kagawa (1991-93).
I didn't call Sanae very often and although she wasn't surprised to hear from me, she was very surprised to learn that I was in Tokushima City and planning to do my second pilgrimage starting tomorrow. The fact was that I hadn't really told many people that I was heading to Shikoku again. I made tentative plans to meet up with her again at Zentsuji (#75) like I had last time I did the pilgrimage. It was coming up to midday and probably time to head back to the station and make my way to Ryozenji (#1). I was soon on a train heading for Bando Station and as the train got further away from Tokushima and closer to Bando the scenery started to change and when I got off at Bando Station along with a handful of other passengers I felt a long way from my usual every day sights and sounds.
Exiting Bando Station I crossed over and peered into the restaurant on the corner. During my first pilgrimage I had returned to Bando Station by train the day after I finished at Okuboji (#88) and when I'd exited Bando Station a lady had insisted I come into the restaurant for some hot green tea. I hoped she was still there because I wanted to give her a photograph so I went inside and was shown to a table. The walls in the front room were all covered with messages written out by ohenro-san. I told the woman I had completed my first pilgrimage about 4 years ago and that I had left a message at the shop. She told me to look around the walls to see if I could find it. It was probably there bundled up with the old messages but I was not too worried about seeing it again and told her I just wanted to give her a photograph. She disappeared and returned with some hot tea which I hadn't ordered and while I drank the tea she looked through my photographs. She found one she liked and pinned it to the wall.
While she had been looking through my photographs, a young woman came into the restaurant and ordered something to eat. From what I could gather from the ensuing conversation between the women, the younger woman was also going to do the pilgrimage. I asked her if she was going to be doing the full pilgrimage or just a part of it. She seemed a bit coy about revealing too much so I decided not to ask for too many details. The shop was my first real ohenro encounter and the first time for me to start sharing my photographs with people since arriving that morning. I hadn't expected people to get so excited about seeing the photographs but it felt good. I got up to leave and when I asked how much I needed to pay for the tea, I was told it was osettai. Before leaving, I wished the young woman a safe journey, thanked the woman again for the tea and in a much more upbeat mood than the one in which I had arrived, I headed for Ryozenji (#1).
From Bando Station getting to Ryozenji (#1) is a simple matter of going straight, turning left and then right. I went straight, turned left and then right and at the end of the long narrow street I could make out the temple. About half way down I stopped to confirm the location of OShikoku Guesthouse which was just to my left. I then continued all the way to the end and waited at the crossing to cross over to the other side of the road where the temple stood. Apart from banners and signs informing visitors that it was the 1200th anniversary of the pilgrimage everything else looked just like it was the last time I had been there. Maybe the only difference was that the lady mannequin dressed in ohenro clothing looked newer and a little more youthful. I bowed at the gate and entered, washed my hands and mouth and headed towards the main hall. Everything was just as I remembered it and it felt good to be back there again.
With my pack still strapped to my back, I removed my boots and entered the stamp office just to the side. I was going to buy all my new gear here just like I had the last time. I still had my hat, my white ohenro jacket and my stick from the first pilgrimage but I had deliberately left them behind. I also had unused candles, incense and osamefuda and those I had brought with me. I asked one of the staff about the different types of sticks they had because I was interested in getting a different one from the one I bought last time. The ones they had were just like the ones I remembered before so I picked one and set it aside and then continued looking for the other items. I told the woman I was going to do the pilgrimage for the second time and somehow the conversation took a very different turn and I started showing her the photographs I had. She particularly liked the ones I had taken of Mt. Fuji. and after choosing a Mt. Fuji photograph she liked she placed it under the clear sheet on top of the counter. From being very businesslike the whole atmosphere seemed to change as a result of giving her that single photograph.
She helped me choose a white short sleeved ohenro jacket and convinced me to select the smaller rather than larger hat I was planning to get. I picked out a new ohenro bag and a new stamp book. When I took out my money to pay she told me the hat, the stick and the ohenro bag were osettai. She then disappeared and returned with a wrist bracelet and a tenugui (a cotton cloth) which she also told me were osettai. I just couldn't understand why I was getting all these things as osettai. Before I left she got one of the other staff to show me how to correctly wear the hat. There definitely seemed to be a trick to correctly threading and tying the string around the chin.
I seemed to have everything I needed to make a start the following day and I had only paid for the white jacket and the stamp book. I still couldn't believe that she had decided to give me all the other items as osettai because of a single photograph. Whatever it was, it felt really great and whatever doubts I may have had about doing ohenro again seemed to have vanished. I had not even started ohenro yet but I was already receiving osettai. I thanked her many times and told her I would be back the following day.
I sat outside in the main hall under all the hanging lanterns and as I sat there I spotted a non-Japanese ohenro-san. She was dressed in her white jacket and wearing her hat. I went over to find out who she was and she turned out to be a Das from California. She told me she was making a start the following day and was planning to sleep out as much as possible. She hadn't received a lodging list and didn't seem to be aware of the many free and cheap places so I told her about the tsuyado at Anrakuji (#6), mentioned the lists online and also told her to join the Facebook Ohenro Group to get the latest information posted by other ohenro-san. Das said she had found a couch surfer and was waiting for someone to come and pick her up. I wished her luck but expected our paths to probably cross again the following day or somewhere along the way.
I had everything I needed and with it coming up to 4 o'clock I headed out of the temple, picked up some snacks from a nearby Lawson convenience store and then made my way to OShikoku Guesthouse. A few ohenro-san who had stayed there had not given the most glowing of accounts of the owner so I was interested to see what he was really like. The owner spoke reasonably good English as he showed me to a small tatami room. After a quick tour and a run down of the do's and don'ts I joined him, his wife and another guest in the common room. It was then that I began to understand what the others who had written about him had meant because he launched into a lecture (possibly a sermon) about the concept behind the guesthouse, ohenro etiquette and other things I definitely mustn't do. Rather than being annoyed, I was quietly amused and listened to him politely. I didn't agree with everything he was saying or the way he was saying it, but one of the three oaths a pilgrim is expected to take is not to complain. For me, the place was relatively cheap and most importantly conveniently close to Ryonzenji (#1). I paid him what I needed to and before retiring to my room I let him and the others choose a photograph each.
I arranged everything I would need the next morning and then settled down to get some well deserved sleep.
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