After a really warm day yesterday and after almost a week of sleeping indoors it had slipped my memory how bitterly cold it had been during the nights I had camped out. So it wasn't too surprising that when I woke feeling really cold I discovered I had only been asleep for a couple of hours and it was still only 10:40. I had managed a few hours of pretty good sleep but no matter how much I tried I couldn't get back to sleep again. I could hear the constant flow of the river which was quite relaxing but sleep was not going to return so I basically spent the whole night turning one way and then the other. The only downside with not being able to sleep was that like other cold nights, I always seemed to end up eating everything except my emergency dorayaki supply.
In the early hours the relative calm was shattered by the motorbike delinquents as they roared through the Yoshinogawa Tunnel on their specially modified and equally delinquent machines. I had had my ears assaulted by the antics of these kinds of motorbike delinquents during my time in Kagawa almost 25 years ago. I was yet to understand or appreciate their logic for doing it but I figured it must have been an advance on the game I played as a youngster, the relatively harmless activity of knocking on someone's door and running for your life. I was already awake so my only concern, a very small concern at that, was that they might decide to take a break in my rest hut.
Around 05:30 I finally started packing things away and by 06:30 I was ready to make a start. There was not a soul in sight and the early morning stillness seemed to have a beauty all of it's own. I turned and bowed in the direction of my hut and then continued on to the vending machines. It was bitterly cold and even with gloves on my hands were already feeling the chill. I got myself a hot can coffee and used it to as a hand warmer before drinking it. With my coffee stop over, I set of at a steady pace with the intention of getting to Tobe Town and seeing how I felt. I was not sure I would meet any other pilgrims along the route to Daihoji (#44) today but about 40 minutes in a car stopped about 200m ahead and a pilgrim got out and started to ready himself to set of too. As I got closer I recognised him as someone I had met the first time at Tairyuji (#21) and then a few more times after that but I had not seen him for many many days. I was on the opposite side of the road but I waved at him and he waved back as I continued on my way. I had not done this trail before but it turned out to be really fantastic. Route 379 ran along side the river and it made for a beautifully scenic walk for the first couple of hours. The scenery then changed as I passed through small isolated little villages.
When I stopped to check a large road side map the other pilgrim who had disembarked from the car finally caught up and we chatted about the route and he said he had been finding ohenro quite physically demanding. I was doing today's route to Daihoji (#44) for the first time but I reassured him that it was not too difficult. The mountain trails were relatively short and much of the trail was along ordinary roads. We both stopped again for a slightly longer break and it was at this point that I ate one of my emergency dorayaki. It was also the first time I had the opportunity to speak to my fellow ohenro-san. We had met on a number of occasions but I had not really had a chance to talk to him. I discovered he was almost 70 years old and the reason he was doing ohenro was because he wanted to do something memorable before he turned 70.
We were not walking together but we were not too far apart and about 2 hours later we left the mountain trails behind and walked into midst of a local Hina Matsuri or doll's festival in Kumakogen Town. We were just 1km from the Daihoji (#44) but I fancied taking a quick break to take a look at the beautiful dolls on display along the main street which had been closed to traffic. Stalls had also been set up selling street foods and some of the foods looked really tasty. Mr Almost 70 had earlier given me a banana and I wanted to return the favour by buying him something to eat and because it was a good excuse to get myself something to eat too. I saw an old woman selling grilled tofu covered in miso so I ordered two and waited while they cooked. It took about 5 minutes but even before they were ready a woman approached and handed me a bag with what she said contained 6 sticks of yakitori. She said they were for me and Mr Almost 70. I gave her a photograph and chatted to her until our tofu was also ready. I paid the old woman for the tofu and gave her a photograph and then the pair of us set of towards the temple.
The approach to the temple was a steadily uphill stretch about a kilometre long and started with a massive gate like structure. As we walked under the gate coming the other way was the young woman from the minshuku the other day. She looked exhausted and her face was covered in perspiration. I wasn't sure if she was just returning from Daihoji (#44) or returning from Iwayaji (#45). I offered her some of the yakitori and she took one stick and continued on her way. I wanted to share the rest of the yakitori with Mr Almost 70 since the lady had wanted us to share but he insisted I should have them and that I could eat them for dinner that evening. I stopped and started eating the yakitori and ended up eating everything. I felt a bit bad but Mr Almost 70 had repeatedly declined so maybe it was OK.
Daihoji (#44) was one of those temples that made a real impression because of the size of the gate and the size of temple buildings. It's general setting too was particularly nice and during my first pilgrimage I had arrived very early in the morning to find the temple nestled up high on the hill side surrounded by tall cedar trees. I had instantly liked the both the temple and the tranquil and spiritually charged aura about the place. When I arrived at the temple this time, it was a lot busier than that early morning almost four years ago.
It had been almost 3 days since I had last prayed at one of the pilgrimage temples and my usual prayer rituals I headed for the stamp office. There were only 3 pilgrims inside but the first one had a massive stack of books which probably belonged to a bus group of pilgrims. Doing the stamping was a woman and a very young looking man, and they were literally stamping and scribbling away at break neck speed. The timing was definitely not good so I headed back out, got a drink and sat down and decided to enjoy a bit of sunshine. One of the pilgrims who had been waiting in the stamp office came back out with his stamp book in his hand and headed in my direction and put his pack down close to me and started talking to me. He turned out to be from Kyushu and was doing the pilgrimage in stages by bicycle. We talked only briefly but before he left I gave him one of my photographs.
Having waited about 15 minutes I thought it might be safe to head back to the stamp office. When I entered the stamp office there were two new waiting pilgrims and the one with the massive stack of books was still busy drying the books and scrolls she was getting stamped. This time I decided to wait since the mad scribbling and stamping rush seemed to have subsided. The young man was no longer there and it was just the woman. She interrupted her scribbling and stamping of the big stack which had actually shrunk to a smaller stack to stamp the books of the two waiting pilgrims. Once they were done I placed mine on the counter and fished out a photograph I thought I could give her. She had been working furiously to get through the big stack and seemed to be doing a good job of it. She then interrupted her big stack operation again to stamp my book.
One of the vows of a pilgrim is not to complain but I could have exploded had I not known better. As I watched her literally create a mess with both the stamps and the brush, the only thought that went through my mind was that she couldn't have done a worse job had she simply picked up the ink well and flung it at my stamp book. If nothing else, it would have left a mark of far greater artistic expression than anything she left behind. If there was any irony, the photo I had selected for her before I saw what happened to my stamp book was one I had taken of a beautifully done stamp during my first pilgrimage. I left Daihoji (#44) feeling thoroughly disheartened for some reason but I got rid of that feeling almost immediately when I decided to give a photograph to an old woman tending quite lovingly to her assortment of potted plants and flowers. I interrupted her and gave her a photograph of some beautiful cherry blossoms. The look on her face was probably not too dissimilar to the look I probably had on my face when someone decided they needed to give me money or some other form of osettai. If nothing else, it seemed to counteract the feeling I had after leaving Daihoji (#44).
A little further on I spotted a pilgrim sitting with his back to me on the other side of the road. Looking vaguely familiar I crossed over to take a closer look and discovered it was Faisal, the young 22 year old pilgrim from England. I had first met him on the way to Kongofukuji (#38). He had been on his way back from Kongofukuji (#38) but he had complained about a sore leg so my first question to was to ask him about his leg and he told me his leg was much better. I then rattled of my story about my last scribble and Faisal did his best to see the positive side of it by telling me that the Japanese saw beauty in something imperfect. Imperfect was too kind a word but whatever it could be described as, it was now an indelible part of my stamp book and nothing was going to change it. Plus it no longer really mattered and after a pleasant chat with Faisal I was on my way to Iwayaji (#45).
I left the main road and joined the ohenro trail which was marked by arrows and larger wooden signs. I had about two and a half hours and the first sign I saw said 5.8km to Iwayaji (#45). Even with the few steep mountain trails until I got to the temple, I calculated that it would take about 90 minutes. In the end it took a little longer and it felt like an endless roller-coaster of a mountain trail until I finally reached Iwayaji (#45). I would have arrived sooner possibly had I not stopped to take so many photographs but along the way apart from the usual very welcome trail markers, I also came across small wooden plaques with simple messages in Japanese. One in particular talked about reaching your goal by taking one step at a time until the goal was reached. I had liked that particular message most. My only goal now was just to get to Iwayaji (#45) before it closed but thinking about it, it was true that continually taking small steps towards any goal was often the best way of reaching it, even when progress seemed slow.
Anyway the hard work of using the mountain trail to get to Iwayaji (#45) turned out to be well worth the extra effort because near the very end was a small but very striking building built against a very imposing rock face. Inside was a large red very imposing guardian like statue which I later discovered was the deity Fudo Myoo. A short distance on from there was a small temple gate and beyond it was main hall and the daishi hall at Iwayaji (#45). I had managed to arrive with plenty of time to get everything done before closing time.
As I prepared to pray at the main hall I noticed a man standing a little way back from the main hall take a photograph of the hall together with something he was holding in his hand. When he moved away I saw that it was a photograph of a woman and given his age and the age of the woman in the photograph, I would have guessed that it was probably his wife. I had read about and seen people in documentaries do such things. Back on the first day I had met Mr No Excuses who was walking in memory of his wife. His wife had passed away many years earlier and compared to the man with a photo of his wife, Mr No Excuses seemed outwardly strong. This particular man seemed sad and lonely and as I looked at him again I decided I wanted to give him a photograph. After finishing my prayers at the main hall I gave him a photograph which I had taken in the grounds of a church in Kawagoe City in Saitama. It was a photograph of flowers that had been left in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. This small fact was maybe irrelevant but photograph seemed somehow to be appropriate for the situation. I'm not sure what he made of it but he thanked me and thanked me again when I met him in the stamp office a little later on.
After finishing my prayers at the daishi hall I decided to climb up a huge ladder that stood against another very imposing looking rock wall. At the top of the ladder was a viewing area at almost the same height as the daishi hall. I was about half way up when I gave up on the idea. My boots were still wet from the hike over the mountain trail, my leg still a little painful and more crucially I seemed to lack the courage to push myself to the very top. I had seen someone coming down when I arrived and one or two go up whilst I was praying, they had made it look effortless and relatively easy. That said, if any of them had fallen they would definitely not have been walking out of the temple under their own steam. Before heading to the stamp office I gave away another photograph to a woman who was busily tidying up around the two halls. She seemed hurried and harassed but when I gave her a photograph a smile appeared momentarily on her face and then retreated as she got back to her cleaning duties again.
When I arrived in the stamp office there were about 3 people lined up and the stamp lady was slowly and carefully doing the stamps. In front of me was a man with a book, a scroll and a white jacket and just as it came up to my turn, three other pilgrims I had met on the mountain trail came into the stamp office and added to the queue of about 2 or 3 others behind me and the sight of it seemed to visibly change how composed the woman had looked earlier and how she seemed to pick up the pace. She completed my stamp much faster than she had been stamping moments earlier but when she was done, I was thinking, at least it doesn't contain the level of imperfection or imperfect beauty I had received in my stamp at the previous temple. After stepping back outside I figured that the best time to go to the stamp office was when the stamp office didn't have a queue or at least didn't have a very big queue. Then again I had experienced stamps which had left me deeply unmoved even when I was the only person. I decided the best thing to do was to do what I was doing before and that was not worrying in the slightest what happened in my stamp book and in fact turning away and busying myself choosing a photograph.
It was coming up to 5 o'clock as I finished my business at the Iwayaji (#45) and headed back out the opposite way to the way I had come in. What I remembered from my last ohenro was that there were a lot of steps coming up but I had forgotten was just how many there were, and there turned out to be lots and lots and lots. Thankfully this time I was heading down rather than coming up. As I headed down a couple were coming up and the man stopped me and asked me quite directly if I was from India. Technically he was sort of correct because I was actually of Indian parentage, born in the UK. They deserved a photograph but I was thinking Furuiwayaso and enjoying a hot soak so I continued on after our brief chat. Further down I came across a couple of younger women who were literally panting as they came up the and they still had a fair old way to go. I arrived at the bottom checked the large map near the road and turned left and headed in the direction of Furuiwaya Tunnel. Furuiwayaso was just 2.3km away and having picked up the pace I seemed to arrive there fairly quickly.
The first thing I did was take a peek inside the space I was planning to use to camp in. No one else was there and it appeared large enough for many people. I then headed into Furuiwayaso and told the woman at the reception I wanted to use the onsen, the washing machines and the restaurant. She ruled out, or at least asked me not to use the washing machines because they were expecting a very large group of rugby players from a couple of schools and they needed to wash their kit. She checked if I could eat something in the restaurant and it turned out I could. The restaurant had been all set out for the arrival of the school boys. She told me to hurry and take a hot bath before they all arrived.
As I headed up to the second floor I was hoping I might see Beno and Susanne but the first person I found seated there was Kan, my fellow pilgrim who I had on two occasions camped next to. It was good to see him but I was surprised too because the last time I had seen him was near Ashizuri and he was returning from there and making his way back towards Drive-in Suisha and stopping at a minshuku about 10km on. I had expected him to have been much further ahead because I had stopped an extra day in Uwajima because of a painful leg and done several short days since then but had still somehow managed to catch up. It seemed to show that going too fast too soon led to injuries but I didn't find out too much about what Kan had been doing since our last meeting because I had to dash of to the onsen before the invasion of the rugby players.
A good long soak would have been nice but what I managed was a shave, a shower and a quick soak before the rugby players started to trickle in. My only regret was not being able to use the washing machines but I still had enough clean clothing to survive until tomorrow and I had planned for it to be a short day. If I came across a coin laundry I was confident I would have time to get everything washed. Having dressed I headed back down to the reception area and the woman pointed me in the direction of the restaurant. The restaurant was still largely empty of diners but I spotted Beno and Susanne away to my right. The woman had reserved a spot for me somewhere on my own but I asked if I could sit with my friends and it turned out to be OK so I walked towards them and after setting my pack down I joined them for dinner. Those staying at Furuiwayaso like Beno and Susanne, and Kan who happened to be sat on the table just in front were all digging into very nice looking dinners. I was shown a menu and I opted for a typical set meal, in fact a very nice fried chicken set meal.
I had met Beno and Susanne a few times but only briefly along the way since the first meeting heading up to Shosnaji (#12). They were now both doing really well, making good steady progress and enjoying their stays in the various minshuku along the way. Conversation was about the usual things – people we'd met, places we'd visited and things that had happened. It was fun and interesting to get the insights of others in easy to understand English. Beno and Susanne were walking without any pretensions about it being a spiritual journey so I was quite interested in how it had affected them so far. Pilgrims along the trail had all kinds of motives and reasons for walking but it was not always as easy to ask and understand their reasons. After chatting for well over an hour it was probably time to head back out and set myself up for the night and with that Beno and Susanne headed up to their room and I headed to the reception again to ask if I could use a little of their electricity.
I was hoping I could get my laptop, camera battery and watch all charged again. The woman at reception showed me to a spot where there were some available wall sockets and while she was there she switched on the gas heater near by. I was all set for another hour of relative comfort which I used to update my notes. In between I decided to go over and give a photograph to the woman from the restaurant who had now moved over to the reception area. She liked the photograph but I noticed the other woman I had met earlier at reception in the back office so I got her a photograph too. Just after 9 o'clock the pair of them headed upstairs either to use the hot spa or retire to staff quarters. I checked if it was still OK to stay and I got the thumbs up so I continued until about 9:30 during which time the chef had taken to manning the reception. The onsen was scheduled to be open until 10 o'clock so that was the latest I could have stayed but 9:30 seemed like a good time to prise myself away from the warmth and comfort of being inside. Before leaving I gave the chef a photograph too and then hurried to the space I had spotted close by. The general surroundings were quite dark but there was light coming in from some street lighting and the nearby Furuiwayaso.
I quickly set up my tent and arranged my things inside and it was only then that I saw a couple of signs in Japanese that said something about tents but there were too many Japanese characters for words I couldn't understand. My feeling was that it said no tents but with my tent now up and discretely tucked away in a corner and not visible from the road, I hoped I would not be spotted. I had already made up my mind to get up extra early and just pack up in case I was intruding somewhere where tents really were not allowed. It was bitterly cold and this time I made sure I put on more of my layers before getting into my sleeping bag.
Looking back at the day as a whole, it had turned into a great day of walking along some stunningly pretty stretches and up and down some great mountain trails. I had been on the move for the best part of 11 hours and the day had started and ended well. In the middle, I had encountered my reactions to the assault on my stamp book and that had provided a meaningful opportunity to do a little more self reflection. Despite telling myself that the stamp book was not the most important thing, I seemed to be unusually hung up about what happened to it each time I arrived at the stamp offices. If anything, my seeming attachment to my stamp book only upset the otherwise general calm I always felt when I was walking along or just sitting and enjoying the atmosphere at the temples. In the grand scheme of things, it was probably true for all little upsets, there was always the choice of whether to carry them along or let them go. This was just one small example but each day seemed to bring such opportunities for a little more self reflection.
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