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?
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.
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.