The Shikoku Pilgrimage
Updated: Jul 4
He told me he was a hit man for the yakuza. Said he had served six years in the pen. Then he found Jesus. He waved the Bible in one hand, tossed it rudely to the side, and poured himself another glass of sake.
He was about fifty. He took off his shirt to keep cool, revealing a tattoo. He grabbed his sake glass with his deformed hand. I noticed the tip of his pinky finger had been amputated. To atone for misdeeds, members of the Japanese mafia cut off the tips of their fingers and presented them gift wrapped to their oyabun. He was real gangster.
He shouted to his wife who skulked into the room.
“Bring the rice,” he commanded. She scuttled back into the kitchen.
He had three mounted swords on display. They were the only things of value in the room. A TV set sat on a cardboard box, a wooden chest leaned against the wall, and a few milk crates with household junk rested by the door.
He got up and unsheathed the long sword. He smiled mischievously, a smile potholed with missing teeth. Then he feigned a swing at me, cackling between grunts. His sidekick chuckled. I grabbed his wrist and put on my cool face, but I was nervous. I wanted to grab my backpack and politely excuse myself, but my backpack was in the back seat of his car and his wife had just appeared with dinner.
“Bring us some bowls!”
I was on a pilgrimage, following the footsteps of the Kobo Daishi, a priest who was said to have walked this route in 815 BC. The trail, which stretched for about 1,000 miles, wound its way around Shikoku, one of the islands of Japan’s archipelago, stopping at the 88 Buddhist temples that dotted the perimeter. I secretly hoped I’d find enlightenment along the way, but here I was behind the eight ball.
If I were superstitious, I might have had a foreboding of the trouble to come when I arrived at Temple One, Ryozen-ji. The shopkeepers were preparing to go home and were as excited to see me as a DMV clerk is to see a motorist who comes to have his car registered 3 minutes before the office is scheduled to close. Inauspicious beginnings. The shop was wallpapered with Zen paintings and scrolls and the portraits of saints. Red lanterns hung from the ceiling, straw hats were pegged to the walls, walking sticks were racked in the corner. They sold pouches and statuettes of pot-bellied Buddhas, white vests and robes and sandals; they sold prayer beads and books and bells and incense which perfumed the room. The old couple was kind, but impatient to see me off, and kindly shooed me away with a map and directions to Gokuraku-ji, Temple 2.
I trudged out to the courtyard with my map in hand and stood before a statue of Kobo Daishi.
He wore a large conical hat and a monk’s robe. In one hand, he held a beggar’s bowl, in the other, a staff. The expression carved on his face was stoic and impassive.
I bowed respectfully and crossed the gate where two temple guardians, called kongorishiki or Nio, stood on either side. They glared down at me, brandishing their weapons as if to strike. The statues stood over eight feet tall. They represented bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who guarded the Buddha. They were menacing gods who would use force to protect good and bludgeon evil.
I continued down the road. Shops and restaurants were closed. I walked through the “tender and growing night.” I heard the animated voices of children and the white noise from TV sets, the humming of washing machines and the whirring of air conditioners. I walked 5 hours to the outskirts of town and finally arrived at Temple 2. The crickets were cricketing and the cicadas were singing their shrill summer songs. A dog barked from somewhere far off where the last house of the village stood.
The temple gate was closed. I peeked through the bars and saw the temple outlined in the darkness. Stone steps lead to the entrance. The branches of a cedar tree tapped the steep sloped roof. Near the gate was a stone ablution basin with bamboo dippers beside it. A statue of Kobo Daishi stood in the shadows.
I continued walking and rested underneath a kiosk not far from Gokuraku-ji. I rolled out the sleeping bag, crawled inside, and closed my eyes. An hour later, I heard a bell jangling, sounded like two quarters pinging against each other. I poked my head out and saw a young man approaching the kiosk outfitted in pilgrim’s dress. He wore white cotton robes, a straw hat, and a purple stole over his shoulders. A brass bell hung from the tip of his staff. The staff symbolized Kobo Daishi, and he treated it with reverence. After we greeted each other, he washed the base of his staff, as if washing the dust from Kobo Daishi’s feet, then removed his sandals and attended to his own feet. His name was Myo-san and he was a student of literature at Osaka University. Etched on the staff were the words: “Dogyo Ninin: Daishi and I go together.” I admired the straw conical hat. The calligraphy brushed on it reminded me of the crescents and ripples on sand.
For the benighted the illusions of the world
For the enlightened the knowledge that all is vanity
In the beginning there was no east and west
Where then is a north and south?
My cap said ABC Sports. My walking sticks were aluminum with rubber grips. I wore polyester shorts, Nike running shoes, and a wind resistant jacket “with encapsulated fibers that absorb odor.”
The next pilgrim I met was an unemployed salesman from Tokyo nicknamed Tochi. Little did I know that this kind stranger would turn out to be one of my favorite characters of the entire pilgrimage, a brother of spirit. He shared his snacks and gave me directions. Turns out we were headed to the same place, so we decided to leg it there together.
If we’re lucky, we will meet people in our pilgrimage through life who are tuned to the same frequency. I would like to think Tochi and I were like that. His English was as butchered as my Japanese, but we were able to commune like old friends.
Tochi and I hiked to temples 11 and 12 together, where we met Mori-san: gung-ho, bald, goateed, with the calves of a hiker. These were my brothers. We climbed to 12. Mosquitoes swarmed around us. I let them feed. One probed and drilled. He didn’t withdraw much blood, so drilled again. His abdomen filled up. He flew off with a tankful of my blood in his abdomen.
Many of the temples were perched on the tops of mountains or tucked away in remote villages. The priests and monks practiced Shintoism, a religion with a profound reverence for Nature, contemplation, and solitude.
Mori and I had marched ahead, leaving Tochi behind. We stopped to wait for him. I sat on a tree trunk. A fly alighted on my leg. Mori whipped it off with a flick of his towel. Thought he was doing me a kindness. I suspect he gave the killing of the fly no thought at all.
A mosquito landed on the arm of a Buddhist monk.
“Why don’t you kill it?” asks his student.
“It is the nature of the mosquito to sting and to draw blood, and it is the nature of the Buddha to show compassion for all living things.”
But it is our nature to kill mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches, and other pests. I would come to respect these pests, however. For even the detested fly was a marvel. Lowly and despised, it was an accomplished flier. The aerodynamics, which the fly knows nothing about, “confounded both mathematical and experimental analysis.”
More than compassion moved me, however. I felt a kinship with all living things. What became of that poor fly? I thought. What became of the spirit that animated it? What becomes of the spirit that lights every living thing that comes into the world? The answer to these questions might redefine how we lived our lives. Am I as insignificant as the fly? Am I as divine as the fly?
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 3:19)
A seed of compassion grew in me that day that day. Like the Jains, who walk with their eyes to the ground so as not to crush ants underfoot, I began regarding every living being as I did myself.
When I returned to teach in L.A., a cockroach scurried across the classroom floor during one of my lessons. A child screamed, “A cockroach. Kill it! Kill it!”
“Don’t!” I grabbed a clear plastic cup and trapped it.
“Ewwww! Why didn’t you kill it, Mr. Felix?”
“It was afraid and running for safety,” I said. “‘All beings tremble before danger; all fear death,” I said, taking a line out of the Dhammapada. “Wouldn’t you be afraid if you saw a giant as tall as a skyscraper coming to stomp you out?”
“But it’s nasty, Mr. Felix.”
“They certainly look different from us. Did you know that these bugs have been around since the age of dinosaurs? They’ve been around for millions of years, and will probably be around for millions more. Nature designed them well. Let’s release it outside away from the building.”
Several months later, during a parent conference, a mother was scolded by her son when she rose to kill an insect. She relayed the story to me. “Don’t kill it mom!” the boy said. “He’s scared. Would you like it if somebody stepped on you?”
These children were descendants of people who were detested, stepped on, and exterminated as if they were cockroaches. Some were of African descent, their skin color like some accursed mark still provoking suspicion and fear. Many were of indigenous descent, immigrants from Mesoamerica, where native peoples were (and are) still despised and still displaced- like the Chiapa and Mixes-Zoques of Mexico- or slaughtered, as the Mayans were during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war.
Mori and I waited for Tochi. I observed a wasp carrying a spider to its nest in the rock face. This time, I keep my observations to myself.
Tochi and I parted after we descended the mountain. I was sad to see him off. He had a friend in a nearby town he had promised to visit. I continued my trek on foot alone. About a week later, I posted this in my journal:
I descended the mountain and visited several more temples. I swam in a river and lay on a smoothed and polished boulder, shaving. I felt so natural, carefree, happy. Walked a bit, crossed a bridge and met Tochi again! What a surprise! I didn’t think we’d meet again. He was at an udon shop. I joined him. The shopkeeper was a former odori dancer. She gave us sweets, ice-cream, tea. We washed our clothes in the river after dinner.
We met an old priest at temple 17 who had completed the pilgrimage over 300 times. He stood out from the crowd. Only one in the gaggle of elderly Japanese to stop and stare at us with that invitation to talk look. There’s an old man like him in every village, every tribe, every town. They are of the earth, solid oaks, respected, and wise. He handed me a gold slip. Tochi said we were lucky to have received it. He winced when I duck taped it to a page in my journal. He says the gold slip is to the pilgrim what the crucifix is to the Christian.
Mosquitoes surrounded us at Temple 19 and attacked. How could something so small cause so much mischief? They were relentless and merciless. They robbed us of sleep, but not of equanimity. Sleep is a gift. I suppose one must be deprived of it to fully appreciate its restorative power.
The next morning, Tochi and I parted ways. I would miss him as it would be the last time I'd see him.
That night I slept on a park bench surrounded by forest. I had descended yet another mountain. It was a cold night. But the moonrise was beautiful. The air was humid and my clothes were damp. I wrapped myself in every article of clothing I had, but remained cold and wet. I slept fitfully while the insects danced around the street lamps. I descended to Temple 21. Got lost. A white van pulled up. I asked for directions. The man pointed out the right road. He offered me a ride. I declined. I kept walking. No food. Hungry. Tired. Lost again. The white van rolled up. It was the same man. His name was Nakagawa. He was traveling with his wife and 3 kids. They were on a field trip visiting temples. I was spent and accepted the ride. Turns out there were no stores or restaurants for miles. On top of that, I realized I had lost my wallet and 6,000 yen. This adventure would have unfolded differently if he hadn't stopped.
Found a bus. It was laid out. They offered free accommodations to pilgrims. After so many nights of sleeping on park benches and camping out in the forest, the bus was the Waldorf Astoria. Went to Hashimoto’s for dinner. Free meal.
Next day, more walking. A woman pulled over and leaned out to hand me iced tea. I mention this incident, although these unexpected acts of kindness happened daily.
I limped to a beach. My feet were calloused and blistered. My back ached. My clothes reeked. And I was exceedingly happy. For me, pain was the path to joy.
I laid on the beach and watched crabs rolling balls of sand like old women kneading dough. They had a slow deliberate dance. Reminded me of the ceremony sumo wrestlers performed before grappling. The crabs moved in synchrony. All of the crabs would move in the same direction for the same number of steps simultaneously.
I noticed clouds building up in the east. Beautiful spot and all to myself. A mountain man descended to the beach from his hutch and chatted with me while I waited for the sun to fall. He thought long before answering any of my questions and spoke as if he were tasting the words. He told me he had abandoned his life in the city and had retired to the woods to practice meditation. He may have been there months or years. I don’t know. He was natural and relaxed. I was awed by him. He was what I had aspired to be. But he had the desire, the faith, and the courage to let go, while I still clung to the comforts of civilization.
For weeks, my only possessions were those I could carry. I was like a turtle. My backpack was my shell; inside my backpack was my home and my most necessary possessions. I was a renunciate- if only for a few months.
That night, the mosquitoes located me and the rain pelted me, dampening my mood. But I was rewarded with a purple and blue sunrise decorated with ribbons of orange and yellow and fringed with green at the horizon.
I happened upon the mountain man’s hutch the following morning while marching to the next temple. It had concrete walls. The entrance was draped with a tarp. There was a stone bowl for incense and a stone statue of Buddha wearing a red apron. Two towels and a shirt dried on a clothesline. A bicycle leaned against the trunk of a tree. Save for the statues and a cot, there was little else.
Forty some years I’ve lived in the mountains
Ignorant of the world’s rise and fall.
Warmed at night by a stone full of pine needles;
Satisfied at noon by a bowl of wild plants;
Sitting on rocks;
Watching clouds and empty thoughts.
Patching my robe in sunlight
As I walked, I read rain in the clouds. I was getting better at predicting weather patterns. I pitched my tent and secured the rain fly that night . My weary feet were pimpled with blisters. I laid down, prayed, then dozed off. Later, I heard the raindrops popping against the rain fly. I read the clouds correctly. I returned to sleep and slept peacefully.
Next morning, I hiked to temple 26 and shaved in the restroom just outside the temple gates. I showered under a nearby waterfall. A black butterfly flitted past. A bird bathed in a small pool carved into rock. The backpack reeked and rested against a boulder.
Again I camped on the beach. The sea was calm. The waves rolled and broke through the stacks and boulders that littered the shore.
I felt mindful at moments. It took days to get settled in like this. I noticed an old couple hiking the trail together. I wished my girlfriend were with me, but the only pilgrimage she’d care to hike would be from the shop that sells handbags to the shoe store to the mall. Still, I missed her and longed for her soft embrace.
Along the trail were rest stops for pilgrims. Some people offered free lodging and food. I walked to such a place with Kojima, a young man I met along the way. Our hosts were kind. They gave me one of the straw conical hats left behind by a pilgrim. At a nearby shop I bought the white vest pilgrims wear. I looked like a pilgrim, but I was the same guy with the same vices and virtues. But as soon as I donned the vest and straw hat, people treated me differently. Some bowed to me as I passed them, some offered me money or food or drinks. I felt awkward. They approached me with a reverence and respect that made me uncomfortable.
My feet were aching; the miles were taking their toll. We stopped at a shelter. I sat massaging my feet. I didn’t want to continue. Kojima chided me. “Don’t put those thoughts in your head. You won’t be able to complete the pilgrimage with thoughts like that in your head.”
I wanted to tell him I was experienced and that experience taught me to listen to my body, but I couldn’t speak as much Japanese as I could understand. He was unsympathetic.
“You’re a man, aren’t you?”
I felt insulted.
Often in life, we meet people who say things that offend our egos, just the words to push us to do more than we otherwise would. I struggled to my feet and limped a few miles to town. I was grateful. We stopped to celebrate at an onsen, Japanese hot springs.
At the spa, someone offered us a ride to the next temple. We accepted it, but got there late. The temple was on a mountaintop. Fireworks were exploding in the valley below. It was spectacular!
“Let’s go the temple steps for a better look,” I said.
“No,” Kojima said. He looked scared. “The gods would get angry.”
He didn’t want to go. He followed me close. I threw my sleeping bag near a vending machine and loaned him a mattress so that he could sleep a bit more comfortably on the concrete. The light from the vending machine would put him more at ease. It was like a giant night light. How did he get this far? I wondered. He chattered for a long time then finally shut up and went to sleep.
Kojima looked pretty haggard the next morning. I broke camp and was prepared to march on. But he wanted to wait until the priest arrived at 7 so that he could have his book signed. Some pilgrims carry an album and have it signed by the priest at each temple. I didn’t have one, and I didn’t want to wait. I couldn’t vibe with him. He asked me to wait with him another hour, but he was pleading out of fear, not because he enjoyed my company.
"You're a man, aren't you?" I wanted to say, but chose kindness. “You’ll be OK,” I assured him. I continued on my journey alone.
Two burly demons stand guard at each temple gate. They’re called Niou or kongorishiki. The statues are fierce faced. They’re muscular and intimidating. Menacing grins and frightful sneers are carved on their faces. I vibed with them. The statues of Buddha and Kobo Daishi looked too stoic, their virtues seemed too unattainable. If there were a statue of Kobo Daishi massaging his blistered feet or waving away mosquitoes, I might identify with him. But he never appeared weary or hungry or discouraged.
The temple guardians, on the other hand, were fierce and intimidating! They looked like the ones who brought the pain. They looked like they wanted to bash me with their clubs. I imagined if they could talk, they’d mock me at every gate.
“Hey,” one says to the other. “There’s that punk gaijin.”
“You think you’re hard, son?”
The other one laughs. “I heard him whimpering while he was hiking up the hill. Ooh, ahhh, uhh.”
I walk past them with my head up.
“I got something for you when you get back,” says one.
“You heard me? I said I got somethin’ for you!”
I go to the ablution basin and wash my hands. I walk to the temple to pray. Sometimes I sit and meditate. But when I leave, they’re waiting to tease me at the gate like schoolyard bullies.
“We got a whole platoon…”
“…a squadron of mosquitoes just waiting to go kamikaze on your ass.”
“You’re gonna wish you never set your foot on this island.”
“He looks like he’s going to cry. Look at him.”
“You gonna cry, sissy?”
I keep walking.
I rode to temple 33 with an old man I met at temple 11. He gave me mangos and juice. We drove along the coast. “A typhoon’s approaching,” he said. Huge, heaving swells rolled in and pounded the shore.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” the thunder snorted. “We got something for your punk ass.”
I walked to 34 alone. I took shelter at a rest stop. It rained all night.
The statues of Kobo Daishio I met at each temple began to annoy me. This was not a path to enlightenment, but to sleepless nights, blisters, mosquito bites, and sore feet. I projected my irritation onto stone.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” the thunder rumbled.
Many pilgrims hike from inn to inn where they can rest and restore their strength, enjoy a cooked meal, and have their clothes cleaned. Their packs are light and they do not suffer the anxiety of not knowing where they’ll spend the night. The insects do not disturb them while they rest; they are not wakened by the chatter of passersby. They are not pelted with rain or startled by wild animals or howling winds. They do not bathe in sinks or shower with the garden hoses of strangers. They do not sleep on park benches or on the tiled floors of restrooms. I envy them... but not that much.
The cold night bamboos stir
Their sound- now harsh, now soft
Sweeps through the lattice window
What need, by lamplight
Of a single Scripture leaf.
The next day, the hundred dollar aluminum walking sticks broke. I was tired, dirty, irritable, and discouraged. I wanted to quit. Spiritually, I was off the trail. Sadness overwhelmed me. Depression darkened my mind and moved in like a front of gray clouds. I watched the clouds gather. Carbs were low. These were symptoms of overexertion. My thoughts betrayed me. I was irritable and found fault with everything and questioned my motives. “This is stupid! What am I doing here! And where the *$%# is that temple?”
I retired for the night. A little rest was all I needed to recover my good mood and restore hormonal balance. I was at a park. I did about an hour of calisthenics- sit ups, crunches, push ups, pull ups, dips. Some passersby and park bench squatters may have thought I was a bit odd, but I lost my inhibition years ago.
I’m under a tree in a park near the Shimanto River. The grass was freshly cut and makes excellent bedding. Crows and hawks farm the campground for insects that were startled when the mower cropped the grounds. Cicadas whir and chirp and dragonflies hover over the cattails and grasses that grow along the river bank. A cool breeze fans me. A stray dog approached. I liked him better than all of the other strays I’ve met and fed along the way. He ate from my hand and sat patiently waiting for more jerky. He kept his eyes fixed on the bag.
I washed my clothes in a sink and bathed in the river. Took a nap. This pace is more to my liking. I stopped at a music shop and played some jazz and Classical music on one of the pianos for sale. It felt good. Music is soul food.
I picked up a bamboo stick I found along the road. I used it as a walking stick. I also added a mat to my equipment to prevent convection. At night, heat would from the earth, cool, and condense into drops of water which dampened my bag and everything in my tent. It took me 34 temples to figure that out.
At Oki Beach, a reddish orange moon hung over the sea. It was the same color as the bonfires blazing nearby. The moon painted a yellow strip of light from the horizon to the shore.
The sky twinkles with stars. We rose, like a Phoenix, from the ashes of stellar death. Maybe the gods were playing love games when they gave birth to the universe. Maybe this universe is only one of many universes. As improbable as the hypothesis is, so is life improbable.
“The grainy subatomic ingredients of every leaf, worm, star, rock, manhole cover, automobile, cat, dinosaur, running shoe, and every one of us- all entities past and potential- were combined in a white hot soupy intimacy with all of space,” I read in the National Geographic. I liked that.
Did it start with a bang? For the Christian, the beginning is described thus:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” For the secularist, creation is described thus: In the beginning, about 14 billion years ago, the Universe was a singularity, contained in a single point in space. And the Universe was without form and void. And there was a Big Bang. All things were pluripotent at that instant- you, the fly’s wing, the saber-toothed cat, death, the fabric of spacetime, cherry blossoms, gravity, the aluminum can, apatosaurus, Kobo Daishi, atheists, Andromeda galaxy, the smile, thoughts, chlorophyll, all matter and anti-matter… the same was in the beginning. Before the Big Bang was not any thing made that was made. The Universe spit out planets, quarks, nematodes, oceans, pencils, existential philosophy, Buddhism. Out of that explosion emerged everything that would be: from the cicada’s song to the Holy Bible. Indeed, “in the beginning was the Word." From this point, the Universe expanded. And then there were protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons, photons, and neutrinos. And the atomic nuclei were the first day.
And the electrons combined to form the first elements. And the scientists, who were yet to come, would call them hydrogen, helium, and lithium. These elements coalesced to form gas clouds and protogalaxies which collapsed under their own gravitational attraction to form stars. And out of the interstellar dust, planets were cobbled together.
On about the tenth to the tenth day, our sun was born. And it was good. And the Earth grew from tiny grains of interstellar dust to become a planetesimal orbiting about the sun. And the Earth was lifeless, without continents, without seas, without an atmosphere. Volcanoes may have farted out the first gases that made up our atmosphere. The ice encrusted asteroids that bombarded the Earth may have introduced water to the planet. Over time, water vapor gathered into clouds and fell to Earth as rain. Then life happened. 650 million years ago a self-replicating protobiont emerged, and from this, the first living thing from which emerged all life: the flowering plants and the insects that pollinate them, the extremophiles that inhabit hydrothermic vents to the microbes that reside in our guts. Complex creatures that can burrow and fly and swim and think emerged from single-celled ancestors. Within those single-celled organisms were strands of DNA that encoded proteins and produced chemical reactions which allowed cells to interlock and build bodies for life to inhabit. Just as every human- from the Queen of England to the Ku Klux Klansman to the Japanese salaryman- descends from a common African ancestor, every beast and winged fowl and creeping thing traces its ancestry back to that distant prokaryote.
The myriad forms of life evolved through the process of natural selection. On natural selection, E.O. Wilson wrote: “Its products range in magnitude from fixing the number of hairs on a fly’s wing to the creation of the human brain. Natural selection has these magical properties because, in a sense, it is the creation of our language.” And it is the creation of our depression and laughter and fear and love and peace.
Whether we are born of the stars or of God in whom we live, and move, and have our being, we were certainly more than the small labels affixed to us. We are more than our race, ethnicity, net worth, religion, nationality, sex, education, failures, or triumphs. Our notions of self are limiting and delusional. To define one, is to limit one. Yet, we are part of a grand design- which tolerates self-delusion.
We are of the cosmos, expressions of the Universe. The Universe hunts and scavenges like a pack of hyenas and frets over debt like a middle aged housewife. The Universe speaks through us and breathes through all living things. To hunt, to scavenge, to fret, to speak, and to breathe are adaptations as unintentional as octopus tentacles and chlorophyll and knotted branches. Or is there intention in it?
Through me, the Universe writes, plays, doubts, and suffers. Through you, the Universe thinks, reads, laughs, loves… and dies -or does it?
If there is one grand unifying theory that explains the Universe and everything, you and I are included in that equation. If there is a Creator, we are of God which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. Either way, I sit content marveling at the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things.
Everyday, people do me some unexpected kindness. Walking to 40, a driver asked me if I was OK. I told her I was fine. She offered me a ride. She left me a few yards from the temple with a bag of cookies, bananas, and a bottle of Pocari Sweat. At Temple 40, one of the keepers of the temple showed me to a room where I could rest for a few hours and gave me directions to a nearby laundromat. I reeked. A shopkeeper handed me milk and chocolates.
That night, I legged it to a park and sat with 2 older men. I think they were homeless. One of them had rounded Shikoku 5 times. He had a peaceful and gentle spirit. The other was talkative and liked his cigarettes. He made me a bowl of Ramen. He talked on and on. I tried to follow and interjected with “Mmmmm’s” and “So desu ka’s?!” and “Eeeeeeh’s?!” the way Japanese do when they’re listening. I really wish I could understand, but I did a good enough job pretending. I interjected at just the right point in his monologue to keep him going. It didn’t matter to me. I liked his spirit and wanted him to keep talking because it made him feel good. I felt a deep affection for these men and enjoyed their company.
The next day I stopped at an electronics shop and played piano. Then I rode the train to 43. The car was packed with high school students and jazzed with the energy and noise of teenagers. There were muscular boys with close cropped hair, pimpled boys, boys in sideburns, boys with teased hair, girls in ponytails and bobs, some chatting with friends, some yawning and soporific, some reading, textbooks open, pen in one hand, the other hand twirling a string of hair.
The train parked at the station. We sat and waited. I peered out the window and saw dragonflies hovering above the tracks. The train lurched as more cars were coupled together. Some students eyed me curiously. In rural Japan, gaijin are a novelty. I smiled and waved, they returned the kindness. I loved them. They were children of Light, just like me and you. The train pulled forward and rolled down the track. The view was picturesque. Green fields stretched out to the foothills where the houses were stacked. Some were mortared together, some were terraced and seemed to grow out of the mountain.
I exited at Uchiko station and begin the hike to 44. I walked on a dark and winding mountain road to a town and stopped at a supermarket. An old man grilling octopus waved to me. He pushed some squid into my hand. I thought it was a gift, o-settai, so I ate it. “100 yen,” he said. Conned. He ordered me to sit down. I told him I was in a hurry. So, I left him and continued down the mountain road.
It began to drizzle. I flicked my thumb, but no one stopped. About an hour later, a car pulled to a stop ahead of me. I jogged to it and recognized the old man who sold me the squid. “That’s why he ordered me to sit,” I thought. He wanted me to wait so he could give me a ride. As he drove off I thought I heard him say, “Baca yaro!” (He’s stupid!) to another old man who sat in the passenger seat. He made the gesture of throat cutting, then he turned to me and smiled.
We turned off the 380. It was not the direction to the temple. Perhaps this was a shortcut, or maybe he was going to drop off the other man who sat quietly in the passenger seat, I thought to myself.
We stopped at his home. He insisted I take a shower. I smelled pretty bad. I showered quickly and joined them in the main room of the house. He barked commands to his wife. He told me he was a hitman for the yakuza, but had converted to Christianity a year ago. He had been incarcerated 3 times and served 6 years in all.
Someone phoned. His wife answered and beckoned to him to take the call. He handed me the phone and told me to say Good-bye and hang up. I answered. I think the man on the other line was a creditor requesting a payment of 16,000 yen (about $140). His voice seemed a bit too respectful, but polite and insistent. I asked him to call back later and hung up. The old man was pleased.
He pointed to the sheathed swords displayed on a shelf. He unsheathed and brandished the long sword. He took a swing at me and stopped short of my neck. He was toying with me. I grabbed his wrist. I faked a smile, but I was annoyed.
A deli truck rolled to a stop outside the house. The old man told me to follow him outside. He bought some items, but forgot his wallet. He asked me to go inside and tell his wife he needed money. I thought he was conning me, but I offered to pay if he was short money. I went to the car and got my backpack. He was still searching for his wallet when I handed him the 1,000 yen note. I thought it was an act. The “I know I left my wallet around here somewhere” con. He purchased the items and found a coffee can full of coins. He pulled out a 500 yen coin and offered it to me. I declined.
“Ajo!” (Weird) he said, but he didn’t insist I take it.
I told him I should get going and shouldered my backpack. I said goodbye. I think the old man was offended. He said something in his coarse way, but I didn’t understand and would’ve probably been better off without the translation. He invited me to stay overnight, but I had had enough. He insisted on driving me. I refused politely, but he had his shirt on and his sidekick was tying his shoes. He took me back to the 380. I thanked him. He didn’t say anything.
When I got to temple 44 the temple guards were laughing at me.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Here he comes.”
“Wassup, tough guy?”
“You see the way he cringed when that old man pulled out his sword?”
“You’re such a phony! He was just trying to entertain you.”
“And you disrespected him.”
“He invited you to his home…”
“…offered you a shower”
“…prepared you dinner,”
I ignored them and walked past the temple gates.
“Hurry up and pray.”
“Pray for some manners, dummy!.”
“He was scared of an old man,” one says to the other. “The old man was just trying to show him some hospitality.”
“We’re gonna expose you! We’re gonna break you down, tough guy!”
Temple 45 was the most interesting of the temples. Shrines were carved into the cliff walls and there were other shrines tucked away in caves. It was spectacular! Flags lined the trail and statues stood at attention. One of the temples looked like it grew out of the rock from which it was embedded. Red coxcombs, white tulips, and morning glories added color to the walk. I almost missed Mamushi, a Japanese pit viper, coiled up on the trail. Sensing my approach, it slithered away, forked tongue flickering.
I marched down the mountain with an old man who was also on the pilgrimage. When we got to town, we parted ways. He had made a reservation at a Japanese inn. I walked to a telephone booth and called my girlfriend. I shouldn’t’ve. All I got was an earful of sobbing, silence, and sighing.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! You can’t handle it, can you?” One of the temple guardians said when I approached the gate at 46.
“What are you going to do, Enlightened One?”
I summoned my attention, and it returned to the present. I noticed a cicada stuck to the trunk of a tree. I admired its painted, patterned thorax, its transparent wings… alive like me. I was still learning to see. A bird sang. The notes floated out of its beak and descended to me, the small bony ossicles in my ear drumming. When I allowed sounds to filter through me: the voices, the muffled footsteps, the hum of engines, the far off sounds of a cooing dove- I'd lose myself.
That night, I slept in a bus terminal where I met a young man named Nakagawa. He was a purist. We hiked 47 and 48 together. I wanted to whack him with my bamboo cane when he refused a ride to 47. He wanted to do it all by foot. I couldn’t abandon him on that lonely stretch of road though. He had been kind to me. He bought me lunch and a drink. So, I trudged alongside him. But he was beginning to irk me. Nakagawa lectured me for tapping the wooden bridge with my walking stick. Tradition has it that the tapping disturbs the spirit of Kobo Daishi who slept underneath bridges when he was refused lodging in the towns. He also said he didn’t want to lodge at a rest stop for pilgrims near 47 because of rumors that it was haunted. I had had enough.
When we got to 48, I said my prayers and left. He stopped to have his album signed and to perform his liturgies and ablutions and chant his prayers. I hobbled to a convenience store. I walked past a rack of porn magazines. I left the store fantasizing about women when a stranger approached me, bowed, and handed me a rice ball wrapped in seaweed. He judged me by my outward appearance, but could not see the lust festering in my heart.
The Shinto priests had hard-ons for mountains. Just about every temple is perched atop one. I trudged up the stairs to 52. I stood at the gate for a while contemplating the view. 52 was a temple of flies. They swarmed the place.
At Temple 52, an old man invited me to rest on a bench. He spoke slowly so that I could understand. How rare and how pleasant! I appreciated that. His words and gestures were intelligible, he kept his sentences simple and would wait patiently for me to look up words I didn’t understand. I liked him. There was another old man there. He gave me snacks and warned me of another approaching typhoon. The two old men mirrored each other when they spoke. It was the same pace, same tone. Both sat cross-legged with their hands resting on their knees, both were smoking tobacco in the same laid back way.
Every day is the same; every day is remarkably different. I walk, arms swing, head pivots, legs sway, toes keep the body balanced. Poetry in motion. Each day brings its particular character and mood and problems and protagonists.
It rained most of the following day. My backpack was waterlogged and heavier. I slogged through the muddied trail. A dog trailed me for about 3 miles. I tossed him dried fish. He was the bright spot in my day. I didn’t have much money or time left... or patience or will. I spent the night in a restroom for the handicapped while the typhoon passed over. The wind and rain were relentless. The restroom was cleaner than most, no palm sized spiders or roaches infesting the place. I was weary and sore-footed, but not defeated. I showered in the rain. The next morning, it was still raining. I left my shelter and trudged on.
Hiking up to 65 in the rain, an older couple in a van offered me a ride. They didn’t seem to care that I was dripping wet or that I was rancid. The woman gave me snacks. At the temple some people were chatting with me and gave me 2,000 yen (about $18) in all. As I continued to 66, a man handed me an umbrella. My spirits were lifted and my heart was filled with a deep love for everyone.
I walked to a convenience store and bought a meal and a drink. An employee gave me a bag of bread. I was happy and walked for another 3 hours… in the wrong direction. The rain fell. I stopped at a park to use the toilet and there, resting against the wall, was a rusty old bicycle that had been abandoned. There was rust on the chain and spokes and brackets. The seat post was loose. The front brake didn’t work. But it was my Rocinante, my faithful nag.
Pushing the bicycle up the mountain road to 66, a man in a scooter tooled by and smiled. About 30 minute later he stopped and waved to me. He handed me a bag of ice-cream, juice and cakes. Then he clapped his hands together and bowed and returned down the hill.
I spent the night in an abandoned tour bus parked in the tall grass somewhere near 66. It was perhaps the most magical day. I’m not sure why the gods let up, but, at least on that rainy day, they showed mercy.
The temple guardians smiled mischievously when I arrived at 66.
The next day, my bamboo cane broke; I accidentally left my cell phone in the pocket of the shorts I tossed in the washing machine; the $400 electronic dictionary I totted along was ruined by the rain and humidity; and I took the wrong road and had to cycle 20 kilometers to get back on track.
“This is what you asked for, right?” I berated myself. “My feet hurt. I smell like s***. My ass is saddle sore. It’s raining. I’m tired, and where’s that goddamned temple?”
Despite the pain I have endured, the trip is not without its rewards, it’s joys, its beautiful moments. I am not enlightened; I do not always have control over my anger or emotions. But I accept myself as I am; I love myself as I am- imperfect, ignorant, vulnerable and deluded.
Next morning I stop for breakfast and tea. A tiny voice whispered, “Get out of your thoughts.” Thin plumes of vapor danced around the brim of the tea cup.
The Japanese tea ceremony is essentially a worship of the imperfect. A colleague, Hiramitsu sensei gave me a book that described the spirit of the art. “Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others,” wrote Okakura Kakuzo in The Book of Tea. For the Japanese, the tea ceremony grew to be an excuse for the worship of the mundane. Would that I could apply that same attention to walking, sitting, driving, cleaning.
I noticed a dragonfly with a light turquoise-tipped abdomen and a yellow underbelly. The beauty of life is in the details. I like the name dragonfly, by the way. They haven’t evolved much and resemble their primitive ancestors who hovered over marshes during the Age of Dinosaurs.
Hiked up the hill to 81. Mountains make a V-shape, town sits in the valley. River’s been domesticated. Only a sliver of its former self. Carved out the valley. Hiked 10 temples in a day. Left Rocinante @ 87.
I sat in front of Kobo Daishi at Temple 88, Okubo-ji. It was raining. Streams ran down his face. I bowed. A cicada chirped, a priest chanted, a crow cawed. I passed the temple guards.
I limped to the temple gates feeling quite pleased with myself. “The last bus leaves in 5 minutes,” the priest at the temple said matter-of-factly. He was not impressed.
I bounded down the temple steps and jogged past the temple guardians to the bus stop. I stopped and bowed respectfully. Life is suffering. I get it. But it is also a beautiful, magical and a precious gift.
“We’re not finished with you.”
I had 7,200 yen left- just enough for train fare home. But the trains stopped running sometime around midnight. I was stranded at a station somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I slept on bench at the train station with about a dozen drunkards. A cockroach crawled along the edge of the wall. Yet, I felt whole and at peace. But, so much for the heroic ending.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!”