The save game

And so my month of pilgrimage has come to an end.  I was going to stay in Shikoku until Friday, but various factors made it more practical to come back a couple days early.

Carrying fifteen kilograms I hitchhiked five hundred kilometers from eastern Japan, and then I walked about five hundred more:  over mountains, through rice fields, along ocean shorelines.  I paid for lodging twice in the whole month, and for twenty four days lived the life ascetic:  sleeping in vegetable fields, shrine gardens, on rest area benches, and in bus stop overhangs.  My back held up better than I expected.  By some miracle I only had two minor blisters on my right foot.  I lost an inch off my waist and three pounds.  I cooked rice in a pot, and ate handouts of oranges and throat lozenges.  I read three novels, two texts on Buddhist sutras, and one work on philosophy. I chanted the heart sutra over eighty times, lit dozens of candles and made offerings at thirty five temples– thirty two Shingon Buddhist and three Rinzai Zen.  And I took over five hundred photographs, film and digital, to remember it by.  Everything cost less than sixty thousand yen, a fraction of my living expenses in Tokyo.

But that is my trip by the numbers.  What I went looking for was solace, reflection, discovery.  I suppose I found all of these.  Nothing earth-shatterimg, no revelations to change my life, but a little deeper insight into what I think I already knew in my heart.  I don’t have a definitive answer to where my career will lead next, but I have a good start on that, and a slew of colorful mindmaps on my tablet documenting the thought processes and action items moving forward.  🙂

I’m not sure if Thoreau would curse me or shake my hand.

But that is my trip.

The birthday

I have a habit of spending birthdays alone.  I used to receive a day off from the company, and it falls in close proximity with the Japanese national holiday Culture Day.  Games that ship at Christmas are long done at the end of October, or there is a major problem, so the confluence of these events leads to time off which I almost always prefer to spend out of town, so the solitary birthday comes into being.  This time it is a whole month, and aside from a few days where friends overlapped my path, it has been a solo expedition.  To be honest I think I have handled it rather well.  No homesickness, hardly any lonely except when I have stopped moving for example due to weather.  I have my thoughts, my books, and the scenery to keep me more than occupied.   Nature itself is an endless realm of learning and challenge.

There is a certain detail-oriented allure to backpacking.  All your possessions are on your person, and as such easily cataloged and maintained.  All of the years raised to put everything in its place:  laundry washed in restroom sinks and hung on the tent rigging, a collapsible set of chopsticks that fit in a titanium lightweight mess kit, toiletries in sealable bags, each trial size and the bare minimum for survival with comfort.  With every tightly rolled sleeping bag the day begins with fulfillment and promise.

So for my birthday when everyone wishes me something special, a drink and a celebratory evening, I thank them for the sentiment but will likely spending it as I am most content:  in a distant country or a remote forest, tidying my campsite in between extended sessions of book reading, stretching, and meditation.  In bed soon after dark and dreaming of how compact my pack will be on the trail tomorrow.

The recluse

When searching for a place to sleep, the basic amenities of dryness and safety are paramount, after which, water, toilet, and electricity, n that order come into play.

I was going to a park near the thirty-second temple because it seemed the most feasible from looking at the map, but along the way I found a nice bathroom behind a small architecture office that was open for pilgrims.  Water, toilet, electricity filled here, I could set a base camp in a nearby field and be set.  However, it rained heavily today and the ground is still damp, so I made trade a little seclusion and softer bedding for the dry concrete in front of the bathroom.  Hopefully there should be fewer bugs as well, but pity the poor soul that would try to use the facilities at night and literally stumble over me in the narrow alcove.  I am willing go bet, however, that this area is remote enough on a Sunday night that the chances are very low.  However, I cannot go to bed at six p.m. because that is pushing it even for me and thusly have to sit in a tiny will to hide my presence and read the sutras for several hours before bed.

The glass river

I sit on the bank of one of the many small rivers running through the valley of Kochi Prefecture.  Doves coo on the opposite bank as the sound of a housewife beating out a futon to dry echoes far downstream.   A young duck excitedly bobs and swims underwater for meters at a time, making his way home.  Sparrows, larks, and finches chatter noisily behind me as a jet liner takes off from the airport in the bay.

The rocks under my bare feet cause the sore flesh to dimple pleasingly, and I have spent a very introspective morning reading the dharmapadma while thinking of priorities.  I am so alone as to be reflective, but like the idle river in front of me to stop for a moment, a myriad of almost indiscernable ripples form from the infinitely complex web of life that surrounds us.

To think is to clean the mind, like water kidneys and and oxygen the blood.  But a life of only thought is wasted, for a hermit brings no happiness to society.  So I walk, and I pray, I smile at old women and touch the bark of great trees.

The heart is a beautiful mirror, in form as flawless and bright as polished glass, but it must be polished to retain its luster, and shone in the world to reflect the truth.  This must be the Middle Path, and one I hope to stray from no longer.

The Diamond Sutra

I must be as smoke on the mountain: ever changing yet formless, natural and unhindered yet the product of my environment, one part of millions, unnoticed in its simple beauty, gone in a matter of moments, spread with peace upon the wind.

Practice kindness and charity without attachment and you can be fully enlightened.

-The Diamond Sutra

The breeze

I haven’t been writing as much as I thought I would, interestingly.  I suppose it is because I am walking from six-thirty until evening and in general every break I take is only a few minutes, not long enough to compose my thoughts, in the evening after I find a safe place to bed down I am usually so tired it is a struggle to see up camp and read a couple chapters of Zen or Into the Wild

I have been to twenty-two temples, technically one quarter of the pilgrimage but in terms of distance more like one eighth.  I have slowly begun to develop blisters despite my best efforts, and my knee gives me pain even while sleeping.  Still, I try to maintain a positive outlook and singing to myself while walking helps a lot. 

Yesterday for the first time I had a walking mate, by chance I ran into a girl from Shimane who was doing the pilgrimage while spending time away from her husband.   A number of pilgrims I have met at divorced or separated, I can see the appeal of the trip to those looking for direction.  I am somewhat the same.

I am gaining practice in the Heart Sutra, as well as building a lexicon of Buddhist lore and architecture.  Though perhaps the most peaceful moments for me are on a lone mountain pass in the shade, or reading a book by the river.  Some of this satisfaction is what I sought on my honeymoon but could not find, though the continual physical challenge still put this as a trial more than anything.  Thinking of the emotional burden November is going to present, I have started thinking of spending the last few days off the trail, or reducing my mobility dramatically so I can focus more on sedentary thought.

The fields and overpasses

Perhaps my favorite time of walking is early morning.  Not as many cars are on the road at six, and the morning sun brings out deeper hues than one experiences at midday.

Sleeping out quality seems to be largely defined by either temperature or insects.  After the typhoons that passed through several days ago, it has grown a fee degrees colder, such that even at sea level without zipping and securing every seam in my outfit, it is too cold to sleep deeply and I usually turn between two and six a.m.  I am in bed by eight thirty every day however, so I do not wake up feeling sick or exhausted.

The sunrise always wakes me, and I still make a frantic look around to see if my intrusion has been discovered.  Vegetable fields make for good bedding as the earth is soft and damp, but sleeping too close to the bamboo is risky, there are many sawed off stumps that one doesn’t see after dusk that can ruin sleeping posture.

I have been blessed with an uneventful two weeks of nomadism, and have now reached the halfway point of my journey.  From here on the the temples become fewer and far between, so each one must be treated even more preciously.  I wouldn’t say I have a rhythm yet for a day of asceticism, but I am getting close.

The crash

Last night I ended up walking far past the seventh temple since all of the restaurants and stores were closed or had gone under.  Finding food while on walking henro was proving to be an increasingly difficult problem.  Many of the references that I had read on maps or the internet were dated, and it seemed as though the henro support industry had gone the way of Route 66.

After asking at one of the few building with lights on, I found a family health center (public bath, spa, and restaurant).  Since I was sleeping outside I went all out on dinner, having a pork cutlet set meal with fruit for dessert.

More than half the way to temple eight, I found a small clearing in front of a shrine to set up camp.  In the middle of unpacking the staff all called it a day around eight, and presumably the priest and shrine maidens came out to get in their cars.  The reflective side of my bedroll must have stuck out like a sore thumb in the headlights which were directed my way, but either they didn’t notice or didn’t care, since soon the lot emptied.  I lay flat to the ground behind a bench until the lights were off and everyone gone, my heart racing like a jackrabbit.  I settled in and the sound of a large fruit tree overhead rustling in the breeze slowly lulled me to sleep.

I awoke around two thirty when the temperature started to drop and a mosquito was stalking my ear looking for a bite.  I pulled out my tarp and covered my face with it, burrowing deeper into my sleeping bag.  It was a long time before I could get back to sleep, but when I did I dreamt of my coworkers getting jobs at 7-11 and Nao-chan showing up on the OC.

When the sun rose at six I snapped awake and quickly gathering my belongings before breakfast.  I just managed to leave the lot seconds before the shrine head arrived at seven.

The roughing it

After a week of easing into it, I suppose you could say that finally I have approached the bare necessities for traveling.   I spent the night behind a bush in Banpaku Park in northern Osaka, fighting off mosquitoes and then the substantial temperature drop after midnight.  At first when I was in the sleeping bag I was nearly sweating, but around three or four I was shivering so much it was hard to get back to sleep.  I will have to take more samples to see if the air temperature follows a similar curve in Tokushima. 

After finally falling asleep around five I awoke to full daylight at seven.  There was an old man practicing his short game about ten meters off, but I think I scared him away once he realized my presence.  I proceeded to assemble my belongings and then wash my alternate set of laundry in a fountain next to the playground equipment.  Now I am readying up on the first leg of the pilgrimage while my underwear dries unabashedly hanging from a bench canopy.  More or less this is how the next three weeks will be I suppose, though I wonder if my back can take the stress.

Today after lunch I will try to get the rest of the way to Tokushima, starting with a hitch from Senri to Kobe.

The Kyoto

Kyoto.  The simple, five letter word is laden with so much history, fantasy and tantalization, just thinking of it changes my mood as instantly as a sudden squall.  Such a delicate blend of tradition and progress, the veneer of a thousand years of imperial dynasty only barely thins around the edges, revealing a glimmer of neon 21st century finance that courses within.  The new style Cool Japan tendrils of Tokyo wrap themselves lithely down the bullet train electric cables, and the vast marketing power of the Nikkei makes good use of the elegance woven into every kimono thread.  In many Japanese cities I am either a visitor or an inhabitant, but even having dwelled in Kyoto, I know that I could live fifty years and still never be received with genuine affection.  The silken masks Japanese show to each other every day can never fully be removed for me.

The transportation

Yesterday I hitchhiked from the seat of Yamanashi prefecture to Nagoya, so I didn’t have much time to write.  By the time I finally made it to my capsule hotel I was too tired to do much of anything other than idle synchronization.

I travelled 285 kilometers via five cars in seven hours, though about half of it was waiting to get rides.  The campsite owner dropped me on the state route 139 in front of the Yamanashi Wind Cave.  Lots of trucks drive by on that route but I have yet to have any luck with semis. 

After about fifteen minutes an American who was working as a farmhand picked me up in a utility van.  His hair was sandy blonde, and his gray marked teeth hung out from his mouth with the same curve as his rounded large shoulders.  He hunched over the wheel and talked amicably about the the drafty farmhouse he lived in, and his limitations in tolerating Japanese cuisine.  He seemed kind-hearted and simple, trying his best to make a living and save up money to fly back home at Christmas and visit his mother.  I only had a chance to ride with him for fifteen minutes or so before he had to turn off the byway.  He was cheerful, but he laced normal conversation with self-directed mutterings from time to time that showed his social frustrations in relating with people.  He reminded me of a co-worker I used to know, and I thought about all the different kinds of people that make up the tapestry of society.

My next ride took over thirty minutes to get, such that I started changing tactics and bought a magic marker and wrote a sign on the back of some cardboard from behind the convenience store.  No sooner had I done this, however, that an Englishman and his wife approached me from behind and offered a lift to the highway interchange in Fuji City.  Like a lot of hitches, they passed me, proceeded for about a kilometer and then looped back to come pick me up.  The decision to take a hitchhiker is not a light one these days.  To be honest I wouldn’t pick up one myself unless it was a girl or an incredibly benign looking guy.  So of course I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to give me a lift.

The husband had been an English teacher but quit and now was looking, unsuccessfully, for better work.  He strongly recommended against teaching as my next profession due to the lack of advancement potential.  They were a nice couple and I didn’t feel like I had to talk to earn my ride, which is something you have to sense.  Personally unless I really hit it off with someone I dislike chitchat and prefer to just take in the scenery.  However I’ve learned from experience that antisocial hitchhikers rarely get far.  The couple was kind enough to drive me up to the highway tollbooths, but hitching from that point is near impossible since the cars are coming directly up the ramp and only the highway, besides the fact it is illegal and all of the security cameras would surely have the police after me in short order.

So I walked down the highway bus access tunnel and a kilometer back to the entry point of the highway on the state road.  After about fifteen minutes an elderly woman in a small car pulled over and offered to give me a lift.  She had no plans to get on the highway, in fact she lived about five minutes from where I was standing, but she offered to drive me to Shizuoka.  I was a little hesitant at first, but since getting actually on to the expressway is quite hard, I accepted.  She had to run an errand first and return home with her shopping.  I was leery not for my safety, but of wasting a day keeping a lonely old woman company. 

After we went to her house she tried to offer me in for tea, but I politely declined and waited outside while she carried in her groceries.  A small dachshund on her porch playfully rolled on its back begging for a rub.  After we started out driving she took the state route west away from the highway, either she planned on driving to Shizuoka via local roads or thought she could lengthen her time with me by taking a roundabout route.  Though it chilled the atmosphere a little, I restated that I needed to get on the highway as soon as possible and after that we got to Nihondaira in short order.  Along the way she told me of all the foreigners she had helped and set up homestays for, naming each in turn with nationality and remarked how they all came to visit her on the holidays.  At the Nihondaira service area she bought me a container of dried fish and awkwardly said goodbye.  I then had my lunch and talked with some drivers before finding a light trucker who would take me close to Hamamatsu.

He had delivered supplies to Nijima in the night, and was on his way home from work.  To keep from falling asleep he tore through a pack of foul-smelling cigarettes but I wasn’t one to complain.  He was gruff, oily, and as disheveled as his cab but kind and seemed empathetic to the difficulties of hitchhiking.  When he let me off at Enshutoyoda he gave me a wet wipe as a farewell present, half-laughing as he did.

Up until this point, things had gone rather well, but at Enshutoyoda it seemed to run out.  I spent almost two hours trying to get a ride, smiling so much my face muscles started to get sore.  It is illegal to walk out of the highway, so until I could get a ride I was stranded.  Fortunately just as dusk began to set in a young businessman my age took pity on me and gave me a lift into Nagoya.  He was easy to talk to, it felt like we had been friends for a long time.  We joked about girls, baseball, and traveling around.  I got some really lovely pictures of the sun setting over Nagoya as we rolled into town.  At first he was going to drop me near Nagoya station, but on a whim I asked him to take me to Osu Kannon which we were passing by.  I had only been to Nagoya once and didn’t know the area very well. 

We said our goodbyes and he drove off.  As I shouldered my bag I turned to my left and glanced at a restaurant.  The name of the place was Smashhead, and across the building was spray-painted, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I had just started re-reading Pirsig only two days ago.  The coincidence of a somewhat minor western novel being plastered across a random shop in Nagoya, let alone one I just happened to be dropped off in front of, was staggering.  I thought about Yabe-san’s remark about nothing being coincidence again and grinned.  Maybe there were such things as signs.

The bittersweet memories

On the east edge of lake Saiko is a restaurant hotel, Ma Maison.  Apparently it is a chain but I have no knowledge of the other store locations.  It is a quaint, wooden building with a white exterior and eaves.  The inside is dark and lined with wood trim, the kind of place you would never think twice about spending hours in.  Early twentieth century replica pictures dot the walls and the place is lit entirely with dim twenty watt tables lamps.  Soft romantic music from the thirties and forties lilts through the air, mixing with the hum of the old confection refrigerator.  Ella Fitzgerald and red table cloths almost bring a tear to my eye, dredging up memories of dates I had brought here.

Initially the Fuji Lakes were a private retreat, a solemn sojourn of deserted campsites and endless sessions for reading Kerouac.  But in time, it meant so much of me that I had to share it with the person I desperately wanted to understand me.  And so each trip of hiking, horseriding and campfires drew to a close with a bottle of asti and the enchanting haven all to ourselves.

I thought I had grown too old and too strong to be moved by a little atmosphere, but I suppose there are a couple of embers deep inside that still smolder.

The way to judge a man

Reading The Diamond Sutra makes my head spin with ethereal concepts, so after a while I started on in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again, because the larger part of it is easier to relate to, with concrete examples.

Reflecting on my insecurities, and how they all trace back to the ego, the craving for individualism and validation of the self from external sources depresses me for I cannot find a substrate to begin the dissolution of the problem.

So I began to think about judgment of character, and evaluating my desire to speak, to write.  These are also undoubtedly driven by the same core psychological elements, so writing or speaking again for these reasons is unjustifiable in the Buddhist sense.

There is a saying that a man should be judged by his actions, and not his words, which I think has a lot of credence.  So, if I as a man am to do as such, words for the sake of others need be limited to the gesticulation of simple commands and needs.  If only it were so.

Communication for the completion of tasks alone is insufficient, for all humans are at some degree driven emotionally.  So the words that are most economical on their use are gratitude, understanding, and apology.  To master these words alone and their usage must take a man far in life.  There is a time, and a manner of dispensing them that builds one’s status in community of the micro and macroscopic scale.

In nirvana all these things may go unsaid, for their meaning would be implicit, and no soul hunger for them.  However, we do not live in such a world as of yet, so acknowledgement of their power is unavoidable.

The quiet of the forest

By noon I had climbed to Gokodai, where Mt. Fuji and its lakes were all visible.  Being a Tuesday there were few other hikers, mostly retirees.  The mountaintop was empty, so after reading some passages from The Diamond Sutra in the shade I sat atop one of the stone picnic tables and meditated on charity and compassion. 

Carelessly I declined to bring sunscreen for the added weight, but feeling the midday sun hot on my face I turned my back to the godly mountain and directed myself northwest.  I thought staring at the mountain would be focusing, but a chuckled to myself when I realized seeing the mountain could be done with more than just a line of sight.  So I turned my inner eye to the summit and visualized it in the wild grass in front of me.

One of the first things The Diamond Sutra teaches is the need for purging ego.  This is a concept I have never been comfortable with, not even in principle.  So I spent the first part of my meditation looking to the root of my need for identity and individuality.  The fact is the greater part of my motivation for creating art lies within the ego, with affirmation of the self and my actions.  So to cast away ego would mean to inviolate my existence as an artist, and perhaps all art itself, unless there is a deeper purpose to drive such activities.  What form does completely selfless art take?  Can it exist in our world?

Secondly, compassion and charity must be performed without motivation of feature or quality.  This is something much easier to comprehend, palatable, I can easily think of many instances where such action of mine were largely directed to those I identified with on a certain level, those who fulfilled needs in my own heart.  Such charity is inherently selfish, and fuels again my restraining ego.

After meditation I made my way back down the mountain, but halfway along took a faintly marked shortcut down the south face.  On the map the path was marked a lighter color, presumably as it was less maintained.  This was a drastic understatement.  The path was barely visible, and the ground largely silt and topsoil, making footing unsure.  It took me thirty minutes of careful navigation, but after sliding more than hiking down the 300 vertical meters, I ended up at a series of three meter high concrete drainage gates that further impeded my progress.  Eventually I picked my way to a tiny path lined with electric fences outside a temple.  On the other side of the street was a discarded, mostly full miniature bottle of sunscreen.  I recalled Yabe-san’s prophetic words of fate and grinned.

The climb

This morning I awoke from the chill of predawn and rose at seven.  I washed my face and my laundry in the bathroom sink and by eight breakfasted with my foster parents while watching the morning news.  After straightening my effects I meditated by the lake and leisurely read Kerouac.

By ten I was on the trail, and listened to Red Dead Redemption while making my annual assault on the north side of Sankodai.  This is the fifth climb I have made of the mountain in consecutive Octobers by this time a new sign greeted me about a quarter of the way up the mountain.

emJinsei ni nayandara yama wo noborou./em
When life is in doubt, climb.

These words struck me and I muttered “prophetic” out loud, remembering the words of my ride yesterday.  Nothing is by chance, everything has meaning if you are wise to see it.

The cliche’ is that I climb a mountain because it is indeed, there.  But there is a deeper meaning that reminded me of some advice I received long ago.  When unsure of what you want, undertake many things and in doing so, you will at the very least find what you do not want.

But perhaps I want everything.  Perhaps the road for me needs not to be chosen but simply trod.  That is a practice of doing I shall follow this month.