Flashbacks

I remembered today what it was like to be really tired, the kind of tired that hangs over you like a cloud, that works its way into your skin, like a suntan lotion or sweat from working in a summer field all day.

I’m not there now, but a little dazed and wandering by the water in Hornstull I had a flashback to that kind of fatigue.

It was the first office we had in Nakameguro, probably around 2006. I was stressed from constant pressure on the job and hadn’t been sleeping much. I worked overtime, some weekends; didn’t have a day off. I was so tired then that the only thing I could do during my lunch break was trudge across the river to the small municipal park, and lay out on the grass to drift in and out of consciousness for half an hour. This was as close to rest as I got those days. I yearned for noon when I could disappear from the office and roll around on the hard, dry earth, prostrating my body under the Japanese sun.

At first you fight it, the fact your environment is grinding you down like this, but in time you forget why you’re fighting and eventually that any other way of living existed.

Now it’s just a salty, creased memory that bleeds into the edges of feeling when fatigue and the afternoon sun mix together in just the right amount.

Siddhartha

Perhaps that you’re searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?

I read Hesse’s Siddhartha this week. It was a good parable, and full of much thought to give me insight.

There are lessons on philosophy, on the meaning of knowledge and wisdom, as well as parallels to my own life and feeling of obligation, the suffering of love. Many things to reflect on…

One thing I’ve been thinking about is reducing anxiety by training myself on the irrationality of anxiety. For example, from the perspective of loving things. If I stop to wonder if I’ve misplaced something, I remember that I either have it, or I don’t; hurrying to check doesn’t change the fact that I’ve lost it or not. There is much human life in Tokyo, so many infrastructures and pieces in motion. When meditating many things to process, to take note of, filter and appreciate.

Hubris

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my reasons for loving Japan, perhaps too much time. Now that I think about it, there is a lot of logic in just accepting it and moving on, perhaps there are a lot more productive things I could be thinking about. Buddhism teaches to accept one’s nature. Fighting against that which is natural only leads to suffering. Humans are imperfect. We do get angry and irritated. I was talking with another henro about this earlier in the week. When climbing a mountain, it is tiring. The heat, weight of the pack, pain in the feet, all these things can be irritating. it is not useful to feel guilt for being irritated. What is useful is to accept the irritation and try to be positive. Japan is appealing for a large variety of reasons. But I am not Japanese, no matter how long I live here. I feel insecure that my attempts to integrate to Japanese society are superficial or poorly executed. There are certain other foreigners who I look at with disdain for their awkwardness and inauthenticity. Probably because I worry that is how I myself appear.

But I love Japan. I love the constant flow of people around the train stations, the chalky concrete texture on every wall and pathway. The clicking of bicycle transmissions disengaged under dusky baskets full of groceries in polyurethane bags. The sounds lilting from the cracked windows between tightly packed houses. Piano lessons and braking dogs, filling bathtubs and balcony washing machines. A thousand smells wafting on the breeze, soy sauce and cooking wines, fish and mountain potatoes. How an intricate latticework of shadows from the web of power lines, telephone cables and shopping street banners suspended overhead.

But this is not my private banana republic, no matter how much I pretend it were. There are many foreigners living in Japan and many of them are likely as enamored with being here as I am. That duality is something I have to come to terms with. It’s fine that Japan is such a big part of my identity, just as it is for others. I am special and unique, but not entitled to pride or special treatment as such.

Untitled

strick bristle tongue bash
the park is full of your noise
thick in sweat and stares
the mind fights to keep in what others shut out
I am a vagrant and an idler
but a poet and a romantic
come invite me to tea say I

Next steps

I’ve thought about next steps, or sharing. Well I say sharing, but I mean production, the refinement of the experience into something digestible. is that what we call “artifact”? The processing or expression of an experience into some form of media external to the original party.

My feet still ache in the heels, but they’re already much better. The tour de force of the last few days must have driven me upwards of forty kilometers a day. I just noticed now that tapping my socks causes them to emit a rather large dust cloud, despite having been “washed”. I guess that’s what you get for drying them on your pack after walking through quarry routes all afternoon.

But back to artifact. I have photo graphs, despite losing my camera (film), and twenty or so of these journal entries, along with notes. I imagine writing a novel is quite difficult. I showed some promise in both poetry and prose in college, perhaps with a course or two and a return to my university materials I could produce something remotely-interesting. Like the cliche’, I even have the title already thought out; something along the lines of “Henro Road Blues”.

Bonus round

Yesterday I finished the 88th temple, and have since been in the epilogue of my journey, working my way back to the first temple (something not so common perhaps). There is no direct path nor information on how to get through the void and back into Tokushima’s temple-rich beginning. So I pieced it together from other temple signs and the advice of a monk. Of course it was much longer than I estimated, with a long stretch through a virtually uninhabited mountain pass. This made yesterday particularly gruelling.

I stood on a hill off the main road, weighing my options. To the left up the hill was the road that eventually lead to temple four, with the distance clearly marked. However direction-wise it seemed like it was pointing north, when my instincts told me I needed to move southeast. It was also much farther than I had calculated. On another path heading down to the main road was a battered sign indicating the way to a bangai (off the route) temple I didn’t have plans to visit. But that direction seemed to reconcile better with the advice I’d got from the monk, and my gut. The hot sun beat down, burning through the third application of lotion I’d applied to my striated and reddened skin. I took one last look at the clean, recent sign indicating the route to temple four and turned back to the main road, scurrying to the shelter of a large bamboo grove hanging from the mountain.

Route 377 snaked through the heart of Kagawa. The shoulder swelled and faded with the curves and banks, but it hardly made a difference. I counted fewer a dozen vehicles until the pass began to open up in the late afternoon. Near Ichiba-cho a smaller road branched off to skirt a rice field. A bent signpost pointed the way to temple 8 and shortly after I found myself in the pass of Route 2, a gully running south through the mountains into Tokushima. At two I passed a turnoff for trackers with a splintered roof covered two marble benches. I kicked off my shoes and sprawled ungraciously across the the stone. After completely the full course of 88 temples my dignity had begun to lax. Fortunately for the reputation of henros everywhere it didn’t matter, traffic on the sole corridor between the two prefectures was almost nonexistent.

After another two hours tracks began to appear, carrying massive rocks down the mountain from a dusty quarry. All the way down the pass the hulking vehicles circled. Some with custom paint jobs, others scratched and worn. I started keeping a list of the number plates in my head to estimate the round trip between the quarry and the construction site which must lay further down the road in Awa.

Finally around five in the evening, out of water, I hit my first consumer food store and was able to rest and book passage back to Tokyo.

It was anti-climactic, sitting at the counter of a Lawson in Awa eating my dinner. Internet, a full phone charge, sitting indoors for more than ten minutes: decadences I had shirked for weeks out of necessity now made me feel guilty in my hakui. Asceticism is for asceticism’s sake, there is no “victory lap” in henroing, though ironically part of me looking for validation wanted to believe there was.

I studied the most direct route back to temple one on the map and scanned the area for a large park where I could hide myself and go over my thoughts in peace. Once again it would seem media had deceived me as to the quality of facilities at a “park”, but somehow the things worked out for one more night. Marked on the web has having “camping grounds”, the park I found was little more than a row of covered tables and Korean barbecue grills. In lieu of a bathroom a mildew-covered portajohn sat by a parking lot. The washing area was littered with junk food wrappers and cracked mirrors. I had hoped for a large gazebo and soft grass, but it was quickly growing dark and I was too tired to move on. I emptied my sack on one of the barbecue grills and rolled out my sleeping bag on the concrete bench. Just as I finished brushing my teeth, two sleek black custom station wagons rolled into the parking lot forty meters away.

I instinctively retreated under the picnic table awning and slid into my sleeping bag. Two young men got out of their cars and began talking. I’d heard that yakuza use deserted parking lots for meetings. The remote location of the park and its decrepit condition weren’t helping my imagination. I peaked around the corner of the picnic table and saw them unloading gear from black cases. My body tensed and I hoped it would hurry up and darken to the point where they couldn’t see me. Fifteen minutes felt like hours, and the men kept laughing and joking, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. A pair of wild monkeys started fighting in the trees to the other side of me, and I started worrying about them being attracted to my rations on the picnic table. All I could do is hold my breath and wait. An rumbling thud broke out from the parking lot, and for a moment I wondered if it was a gun. The monkeys fell silent, equally surprised. Then the thud came again, though more familiar this time. Two more fell in quick succession, and the fear drained from my mind to be replaced in equal parts with despair as I realized the sound of a taiko drum. One of the boys hit it again, this time in a rhytmic fashion, sounding off a quick and staccato beat. I tried to sink deeper into my sleeping bag and cover my ears with socks. Fatigue overtook me and I drifted into a delirious half sleep while the boys continued to pound on their massive instrument. Eventually other band members arrived, and whistles, rim shots, and shamisen all rang out in an endless rehearsal session. It must have been more than three hours before they finally quit and disappeared.

The next day I awoke to the familiar cold that saps the last few hours of sleep from all its refreshing properties, but I this time I stayed hunched in my fetal position for another twenty minutes before starting out back on the trail at a leisurely six forty-five. Walking down from the small mountain back into the city I followed my map, through roads unknown to any henro. The paths pilgrims take are well known fixtures in Tokushima, so much in fact that more than one lady pulled her car over to ask if I was lost. It must be bewildering, not only to be off the trail but walking backwards. After hearing I had completed the 88 temples, one group went so far as to offer me a car ride back to number one, but I politely refused saying I wanted to finish the loop walking.

As I returned to the main henro trail, I started to see more pilgrims than I had in months. It made sense, walking not only backwards but near the beginning, with many fresh pilgrims only two days into the journey. A deep sense of acquiescence filled my heart. Watching all of those young and fresh pilgrims was like looking through glass into an exhibition, or a film. Detached, wrapped in gauze, the pristine white robes and fresh boots passed by me like spectres. Or perhaps the spectre was me, looking back at myself four years ago.

The miles and the heat were nothing, I walked on like a silent automaton.

That last afternoon I was walking due east, my back to the sun. Afternoon shadows grew long, the gold haze of summer quickly approaching. Landmarks I’d only previously seen heading the other way fell past, like facades on a movie set. Rounding a corner I came to the last convenience store before the first temple. I felt oddly unhurried, almost hesitant to continue, and leisurely walked through the 7-11 to pick out an iced coffee.

I walked into temple 1 mid afternoon, not quite believing where I was. It seemed different than from when I first visited four years ago: smaller, quieter, more subdued. A few small groups of car henro wandered about, taking pictures. Carp meandered back and forth in the small pond, occasionally rising to the surface, gasping at a fly. I laid my pack and tsue against a post and approached the main temple. Racks of trinkets and charms lined the varnished walls. The offering box sat recessed in a dimly lit alcove, black stones bridging the barrier between the world of the material, and the world of the Buddha. I opened my coin purse and slipped the rest of the coins I had between the wooden slats. Long life of health? Time eternal with my family? Is that all I had left?

The hopes and dreams I started the journey with had all been fulfilled. There was no more goal, no more wish to be fulfilled. Bow.

I sat on a bench and stared at the ground. A monk in informal tan robes sat down next to me on the bench.

Where are you from?
America.
Oh, a nice place. I’ve been there several times. Have you seen the Grand Canyon?
No, but I drove through the desert once.

You just finished?
Yes, just now.
How long did it take you?
About six weeks.
It’s average.
How long did it take you?
Oh, about a month.
That’s very fast.
It’s not a race.

What did you find on the trail?
Some people were very kind and generous, some indifferent, some ignored me, others were inconvenienced.

discussion about why people help henro, for themselves.

He stood up slowly.

“This is a treasure for your life.”

Without looking back he started walking slowly towards the nokyo booth. The words cut into me like a ray of sunshine after a clouded winter.

Departures

I reached temple 88 at 11:15 in the morning. I had been fantasizing what it could be like in my head. Perhaps a finish line of sorts, with people standing on the side of the road to cheer you. However, as a month later said matter-of-factly, “It’s not a race.” It was quiet, and somber. No tour buses arrived while I was there; that was part of it, just a few small groups of people who had come by car, had their picture taken with the status of Kukai, and moved on.

I sat on a bench in the share before the taishido and meditated for a while. An old lady asked where I was from and how the pilgrimage was going for me. I told her I was about to head back to number one to close the loop. She opened her wallet and handed me a thousand yen bill for “drink money”.

Her husband sat down with me and we talked for a whole. Their son, who apparently was the same age as me, had been living in London and just passed away last Christmas. They were on the trail to send his spirit off. I thought about the woman giving me the money and the twinge in my heart deepened. The small group the couple was with moved on and we said farewell.

Henro is often like this. You learned something private about a person very quickly and then they’re gone, like a butterfly on the wind.

Milepost 700

I sit at the penultimate goal, a mere four kilometers from temple 88. The morning has been full of little surprises, nearly all blessings, and I find myself as expected pensive and mellow. This will be the last temple in the main route before I truly close the loop and return to temple number one where my journey began nearly four years ago.

The day began as most do, at two-thirty in the morning and unable to sleep due to the cold night air. So I did as I am wont to do, I picked up my bags and started walking with my sleeping bag draped around my shoulders for warmth. I must have looked a horrid sight to the occasional motorist, shuffling through the midnight air, hunched and humpbacked. After about fifteen minutes I came across another cache of vending machines and bought myself a warm canned coffee to condition my spirits from within. The dark of the country at three a.m. is quite inhibiting, I must inspect every street post and guard rail for signs about the route to the next temple lest I wander off the trail.

After another twenty minutes I found a rest spot for henros. Many of these which are generously built by the townspeople house a small shrine to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It’s always a delicate situation in how to treat one of these rest spots, there may be cushions to sit on, but sleeping in a shrine is really pushing it and irreverent. But in this case it was the middle of the night, and there was a carpeted area in front of the altar with a cushion, so I begged forgiveness and used the warmth of the four walls to catch 90 minutes deep sleep in my bag before moving on and leaving the place exactly as I found it, aside from a small offering in the donation box.

By dawn I had arrived the Michi on Eki (road market), the last before the final temple. It was seven and a large number of senior citizens were gathering to gossip, laugh, and chat. At first I thought it was simply the hip place for locals to gather, but when the market opened at seven-thirty, I saw they were all workers and had assembled for the day’s undertaking. A lady gave me a package of tomatoes as _settai_ (offering), and another carpenter bought me another coffee before expressing to me his love of America and all the country had done for his land. I had to shake his hand for a solid five minutes it seemed before he happily bid my farewell and continued on his way.

For the first time in days I saw myself in the mirror. Insect bites cover my face, and my skin is dry and worn. Lest the benefits of washing and sleep go ignored my appearance is a testament to the trials of times of old. It was not my intention to run myself down, but my own pride to eke out a minimalist life of quasi-asceticism has produced such. Though I look and feel exhausted, there is a part of my heart that is exceedingly calm, perhaps that is the part of the body the pilgrimage exercises the most.

Delerium

My mind is an addled mess, I make no testament to the quality of my prose or coherency. The last two days have been very long, either due to the raw route distance or my increasing slight detours when I lose the trail. Unlike the other three prefectures I found no guidebook by the roadside for Kagawa prefecture. So I have only snapshots of routes at the occasional temple info station, and the sun to tell my way. Two nights ago I thought I’d find a park to sleep in and instead spent an hour wandering around an industrial area by the sea. I ended up sleeping on the dugout bench at a municipal baseball field.

The sky began gray. I’d heard inklings of the weather for days, that a storm was coming. But there was nothing to be done, the road is to be walked, and we don’t lay up for weather. At temple 80 a history teacher driving the route with his daughter chatted at me as I studied the map. I answered his questions politely and smiled at the bad jokes while eyeing another American heading out of the temple towards the mountain.

Seven kilometers separate temple 80 from 81. On flat ground that’s far less than two hours, but there’s a steep incline up Goshikidai plateau, and at the top a maze of up and down hiking trails. To get to the trail up the hill though first you have to criss-cross through terraces of rice fields and residential areas. At first my road was blocked by a pair of construction workers shoring up irrigation canals. The flooded rice paddies forced me to double back and loop around, adding half a kilometer of catlike tightrope walking. Two levels up a large man-made lake sat in the clearing, encircled by more agricultural ridges. Before entering the mountain path, I skirted by one of the tiny trucks that are the backbone of suburban Japan, less than 150cm wide. Working my way up the grade and starting to sweat, I passed a willowy girl with a large DSLR camera. She smiled and said hello, casually descending in a billowy white blouse and pleated black skirt. The contrast of my tattered clothes, sticky wet with sweat gave me pause. I thought about Ugetsu Monogatari and the tales of yuurei, mountain ghosts of wronged maidens that caught unwary travellers and lured them to their doom. As she continued down the mountain I turned and looked after her, leaning on my walking stick and wheezing.

As I climbed the Goshikidai plateau the air grew taut, the fused bones in my chest contracting. Hope of making it through temples 81 and 82 and back down the mountain before the weather worsened evaporated with falling temperature. Farther up the road an old man of at least eight-five crept on, pausing often to catch his breath. His frailty and self-absorbed nature held me back, yet another widowed pilgrim beyond his physical limits, driven to walk endlessly until Buddha’s sweet mercy brought him repose and back into the arms of those that went before him. Feeling incredibly self-conscious that I could think of no way to help him, I redoubled my pace and sped up the shear incline. Uncomfortable with the idea of him catching up if I took a break, I tore all the way up the mountain, pulling myself up by branches and tree roots, until I reached the summit in record time. My lungs screamed for air in the heat of my chest as I stumbled out of the brush and onto the paved road up to temple 81. Across the way the American stood uneasily in a Nationals hat, looking back and forth between the road and the overgrown trail that continued up.

Yesterday was a terrible storm…

– shoes sloshing
– minnesota guy-
-laugh “on the path”
– curry lady, mom
– car store
– cars box, marks, etc.
– constant daze
– mind hazy
– feet hurt extra in heels, tensing up
– lost camera

No time for idleness

One week has passed in what seems like a heartbeat on the trail. Is it the long days or sleepless nights? Have I fallen into a fatigue-induced haze and am unable to measure the passage of time? I think only that busy hands, or feet as it were, leave little time to feel impatient. Which is to say no time at all. In pain Tuesday and Wednesday with the onset of blisters, I’ve since adapted and been blessed with no serious deterioration of health other than a mounting number of insect bites on my face and hands, despite my best efforts. My back also feels remarkably well and I suppose I can attribute this robustness to my strength training with Christoffer. I’ve slept outdoors enough to know all the pitfalls, and the weather report suggests my last challenge may be the next thirty six hours.

I passed through a tenth of all the temples on the trail today, the hearts sutra is forming itself in my memory. I did not speculate much today given the number of temples, but I meditated fifteen minutes at morning and night, a practice I hope to hold throughout the rest of my journey.

I have been thinking that all the afternoons here in Kagawa feel the same. is it the season or the climate? The region ior just experience? Somehow each phase of my pilgrimage has a different smell and sensation in my mind. This time is is heat and the strength of the sun. It’s not a smothering humidity like last summer, but an oppressive force that beats on my reddened skin and drains my energy.

Perhaps in fear of my adventure ending, I regrettably find myself thinking of life back in the city. Like the days of vacation before returning to work, the depth of my experience is at risk of being lost. Kerouac seemed to echo similar periods of distraction frequently in his extended periods away from the city. I hope I can delve into my physical energy surplus and convert it to a sort of sterner mental fortitude.

The illusion of freedom

I’ve been thinking more about happiness, and sorrow on the trail. I walked with Pierre for a day and a half and was happy to have his company, to have him drive me on; but it was also stressful not to be able to stop when I wanted or go at my own pace. The freedom was lacking. Ironically, I always had the freedom to say I would part, yet it took a day and a half to use it. Now on my own I have a daily pace which appears sustainable and no longer feel the pressure of time. This should have been the case from the start since I had three weeks set aside, but I needed to find my groove.
The trail is still often arduous and constantly tries my patience, but I’m back in the place where I can appreciate it. As much as I pretend, to me it’s not a game, it’s a way of life. Thoughts of work and family come from time to time, but I am for the most part in a different world: the world of nature, and history, and community. In this world I walk as an observer and an occasional participant.

– udon lady
– grocery store relief
– a well timed park, leaning
– “not a nap”
– now really suing instincts and signs
– could tsuyado, but freedom factor again, beholden
– keizoku ha chikara nari