Temples 59 and 62

Estimated distance walked this day:  6 kms

Cumulative distance walked: 300 kms

After so much walking the day before, this was a much lower-key day. We walked out to Kokobunji, Temple 59, in the morning. It was another brilliantly sunny day. The temple had a statue of Kobo Daishi with whom you could shake hands, which I did. You also could rub an afflicted body part for healing on a vase of the Healing Buddha, and I put my feet on this, because, what the heck.

When we walked out, there were several small booths selling the usual collection of snacks, temple items, and souvenirs. We bought a box of candles, and struck up a conversation with the young proprietor. He offered us a towel each as osettai, and then took us in to his little shop. He then embroidered, with his fancy computerized embroidery machine, I think, the words, Once in a Lifetime in Japanese on each towel. Then he took our pictures, and posted them to Facebook.

After this, we caught the bus to the train station, ate lunch, and went out to the town of Komatsu.   We then visited Temple 62, Horyuji, mainly because it was a stone’s throw from the station. It was a small, compact temple, and it didn’t take long to do our usual candle lighting, incense, and prayers. We then simply hung out at the temple, reading and relaxing. We checked in to our inn as early as we thought we could get away with. They said that they were completely booked, so we would need to stay in their annex. We were then led around the corner, up a narrow starcase a couple of flights, to a little flat. This “annex” consisted of a kitchen, two tatami rooms, and a Western room, which is where I guess they decided us Westerners should stay. The room was furnished in Early Jumble Sale, and the mattresses looked well-broken in, but Ann seems to sleep better on any bed compared to a futon, so she was a-ok with this. I brewed a pot of green tea in the kitchen, while Ann did more reading. A Japanese man took one of the tatami rooms. I thought how unusual this would be in the US, where we were sharing an apartment for one night with a complete stranger, and no way to lock anything.

When we walked to the dining room for dinner, it was clear that indeed the inn was full. About fifteen or sixteen people, all apparently pilgrims, were seated at the tables on the floor. Then enormous platters came out for us to make shabu-shabu. We ate a ton of shabu-shabu, more than we deserved for a day of largely loafing, and returned to our “annex” for bath and bed.

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Sidebar: a culture of kindness

Shikoku has had pilgrims circulating around the island supposedly for 1200 years. From what I’ve read, most pilgrims were wandering monks, until the late 1600s, when a popular guidebook to the pilgrimage was published, and lay people took it on. And even then, the pilgrimage in its modern form, of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in organized tour buses, didn’t happen until the 1960s, when the roads to the temples were improved as an economic development scheme.

So, it’s hard to know exactly for how long there’s been on Shikoku a culture of supporting pilgrims. Fifty years? Three hundred? More than a millennium? But it exists today.

As two foreign women, we were pretty unusual. During the entire pilgrimage, we met a total of four other non-Japanese pilgrims: a single British man; briefly, a single French woman; and a Canadian mother-daughter combination. Most (90%?) non-tour bus, non-driving pilgrims are older, retired Japanese men. It is possible that we personally received more osettai (gifts of material or nonmaterial value) because we were more visible.

We did, however, receive a lot of osettai. People would stop their cars or mopeds, or whatever, and spontaneously give us 100 yen, or four oranges. A shopkeeper would offer green tea or coffee. But most of the personal osettai we received was in the form of getting directions.

Here is a story about this. We were planning to take the Community Bus, leaving from a stop about one km from a temple, back into town. We didn’t know exactly which road, or which side of the road, but the monk at the stamp office made a dot with a pen on our map.

Community Buses are not like regular city buses. They don’t take commuters. They run typically about four times a day, go all over tarnation (the “milk run”), and are oriented to mostly getting the handicapped and the elderly to their likely destinations. Since it was a Community Bus, its last run of the day was 3:47, and if we didn’t catch it, then our fall-back was to walk another couple of kms to a shopping plaza and catch a bus about ninety minutes later. Possible, but not high on our list.

Based on my reading of the map, it was possible that the farm road that crossed the highway was the general location of the bus stop. Of course, no minor road is labeled, either on the map or in real life. There was absolutely no one to ask, and it wasn’t long before the bus was coming. No one to ask but this elderly Japanese man, creeping along the road with his walker. I came up to him, and asked in my best Japanese, “Excuse me, where is the Community Bus stop?” He looked at me blankly. I tried again, slower, and more distinctly, “Community Bus stop?” Still a blank look. “Bus stop?” He finally said, “I don’t understand” in Japanese, and I thanked him, and we walked up and down that road, and then up and down the highway, searching for the stop.

Meanwhile, the man inched along the road with his walker. He then sat down. It was at this point just a few minutes before the bus was due, and I said, “let’s go to where the old man is.” We didn’t have a clue, and waiting somewhere was better than nowhere. We raced over to where he was sitting, and there was a bus stop sign there. He sat there with us, silently. I thought, when the Community Bus rolled up, that maybe he was getting on board too, as he was a typical Community Bus rider. But he didn’t. As our bus pulled away, I could see him out the bus window, struggle to stand up, and then work his way back where he had come from. Without saying a word, inch by inch with his walker, he directed us to where these two pilgrims wanted to go.

But beyond these individual acts of kindness and assistance that we received, there is a whole culture of helping henro. What struck me is, while what has been done may help pilgrims, it also helps all kinds of other people. The whole system of henro rest huts means that anyone gets shelter. Whether it was that old couple gathering firewood in the forest, two young high school students looking for a romantic place to smooch overlooking a mountain vista, a family on a road trip needing a picnic bench…it just wasn’t pilgrims who need a place by the side of the road or trail.

It means that mountain trails are well-marked and well-maintained.

It means public restrooms are even more available.

It means that the benches in the train station, rather than being designed to discourage sleeping, have cushions, and blankets, so someone who didn’t have a place to stay overnight would be comfortable and warm.

Kindness to henro extends kindness to everyone. What if we had a culture of kindness? What if we extended ourselves to help others? Why are we so afraid of being taken advantage of?

Sidebar: the staff (kongozue)

Part of the full team kit for a henro is the pilgrim staff (kongozue). The staff is supposed to be the embodiment of Kobo Daishi, the Japanese saint who originated the pilgrimage. Often along the pilgrimage, you see signs that say that you do not walk alone — that Kobo Daishi is walking with you. The staff helps remind you of this. In days of yore, if you died along the henro trail, the staff would be interred right there, and the staff would be used as your grave marker. So it’s also a reminder of the impermanence of your existence, too.

I got my staff at Temple 1, and I got a pretty standard model. No fancy sutras running down the side, but with a satin-like handle cover, and a bell.

This staff became wasurimono, a forgotten thing, at Kannoura railway station, when we ran for a train. This is the fate of many staffs, and you’ll see a bin of them at every temple, patiently waiting for their owners to pick them up again. Fat chance.

I then had many miles without the staff. The staff is useful on trails, but just one more thing to carry on paved roads. And the bell did not help me with mindfulness, its supposed task. I guess you could say it helped if I wanted to focus on annoyance, but really, that’s not my first choice. Since we were doing a lot of pavement walking, and the unpaved sections were neither long nor steep, not having the staff was fine.

At some point in Ehime province, we were walking up some steep mountain road, and we made a stop at a rest hut. At this hut, jammed in its garbage bin, was a staff. I pulled it out, like the sword from the stone. This staff was not a forgotten staff. It was clearly a discard. I felt I could claim it. The new staff was just like the old one, except it didn’t have a bell. Perfect.

Truth be told, neither staff was made for a walking pilgrim. On both models, the handle cover’s underlying “padding”, just corrugated cardboard, was useless. The satin cover’s gold Sanskrit lettering was rough enough to cause a blister if one weren’t careful.

Eventually, with the new staff, I took off the satin cover and ripped off the stupid, flattened cardboard, and bought from the ¥100 store a soft striped pastel knit mug insulator. I put this under the satin cover, and secured it with the string. Then, when I was carrying the staff like a pencil (as opposed to the ice pick grip), rather than let the satin cover slide through my hand, I could have the soft stretchy fabric do the sliding.

Maybe I haven’t described this well, but the details don’t matter. The important thing was that the staff was now more functional and comfortable. I put a bicycle store reflector tape on it to provide greater safety in low light conditions, such as walking through tunnels.

Then, for my mindfulness practice, instead of that wretched bell…I did my best to use the staff with my left hand. Oh boy. A book I read recommended switching off hands to avoid stress injuries and keep wear and tear on the body balanced. But it’s also an incredible mindfulness practice. If I tried pretty much to only have it in my left hand, it would wind up there maybe half the time, at best.

A staff in the right hand is like dwelling in everyday ego-mind consciousness. It’s the groove you fall into. It’s where you go when there’s an immediate crisis: staff into right hand to navigate this slippery rock, without consciously deciding that.

It takes effort, remembering, to put the staff in the non-dominant hand. At first, it’s unnatural. Then, the more you do it, the easier it is. You remember to transfer the staff back more often. When it’s in the left hand, it feels less strange, more…normal, even.

So it is with a mindfulness practice. At first it’s hard to remember. You’re always sliding back into monkey-mind and story telling. But the more you practice, the easier it is. If you try to be there 100% of the time, if you’re lucky, you manage 20%, maybe eventually 50% of the time. In a crisis, it’s very easy to grab with the dominant hand, go straight into ego mind. But if you’ve practiced switching out, you are overall stronger, overall less prone to stress injury.