Echoes of Incense
A Pilgrimage in Japan
Chapter One, Part Two
From Temple One to Temple Five, most of the henro route is lined with houses. After Temple Five, the houses are farther apart and there are big fields that in spring and summer grow rice, lettuce, and lotus. Now, in January, most fields were bare except for some cabbages.
It was a festival day at Temple Six, Anrakuji, The Temple of Everlasting Joy. A crowd filled the garden. To get to the Hon-do, I had to squeeze past people buying food, souvenirs, plastic masks, model airplanes, potted plants, baskets, kitchenware, and religious items.
The main room of the Hon-do was about 30 meters square. The middle was filled with statues, altars and cushions for the priests. The rest was filled with people praying. I put my name slip (the henro's calling card) in the box in front of the Honzon, Yakushi Nyorai, then recited the mantra of Yakushi: Om huru huru candali matangi svaha.
Yakushi is almost always shown holding a small jar of medicine in the palm of his left hand with his right hand raised in the mudra (hand gesture) meaning No Fear. When Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century, Yakushi was the most popular Buddha. People thought he was a powerful god who could cure earthly suffering. Even today, he is one of the most popular Buddhist figures. Twenty-three of the 88 pilgrimage temples are dedicated to Yakushi, more than any other Buddha or Bodhisattva, though there are 29 temples dedicated to the four different forms of Kannon (Avalokitesvara), the Bodhisattva of the Heart Sutra.
Statues of Yakushi that are easy to reach are rubbed smooth, especially on the knees, hands, back and head. People will rub part of the statue, then rub the same part of their body, praying for Yakushi to heal their arthritis, headache, or cancer.
Before I could go to the Daishi-do, a man grabbed my arm and began talking to me, but the room was noisy and I couldn't understand him. I leaned down and put my ear close to his mouth, but all I could catch were the words "henro," "Yakushi," and "Kobo Daishi."
Then he grabbed my hands, put them with palms together in the mudra gassho (the standard position for prayer in Buddhism as in Christianity) and said forcefully, with his face in front of mine, "Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo," the mantra of Kobo Daishi. To please him, I said it quickly three times. Then he took me around the room, pushing people out of our way, and made sure that at each statue of a Buddha or Bodhisattva I said, "Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo, Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo, Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo." "I venerate the Daishi, Illuminating and Imperishable!" Finally he released me with a blessing. I thanked him, bowed and left.
It was lunch time. I thought about getting something from one of the food stalls that was set up for the festival, but my experience with the old man made me want to get away from the crowd. I felt pressured to act according to someone else's idea of proper henro behavior. I didn't want that. I didn't want the crowd, I didn't want the noise, and I didn't want to feel bound by someone else's expectations. I simply wanted to walk the pilgrimage, to find my own way, my own style.
I knew there was a good noodle shop at Temple Seven, so I walked quickly past the farmhouses and bare lettuce fields that filled the kilometer separating the two temples. But when I got there, the noodle shop was closed. It was open only for pilgrims and, as I would learn on this trip, very few people do the pilgrimage in winter. I ate some chocolate I had in my pack, then visited Temple Seven, Jurakuji, The Temple of Ten Joys.
Most of the temples in this area were burnt in the 1580's, during an invasion of this province by the feudal lord of another province. Jurakuji was not only burnt, when it was re-built, it was moved three kilometers The current temple has a modern gate, brightly painted in red and white. Just through the gate is what I sometimes call a Jizo Army.
Jizo is the Japanese name for the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. The name means Earth Bearer. There are many folk tales from the Kamakura Era (1186-1333) that tell about statues of Jizo that came to life and went down to Hell to rescue people who had prayed to Jizo. Later, Jizo became the Bodhisattva who helped travelers who were lost, and his statues are found on roads and trails all over Japan. In modern times, he is associated with the souls of babies, children, and dead fetuses. Perhaps this is because they were travelers heading for "the farther shore," nirvana. To get to a "farther shore" you must cross a river and children obviously need extra help crossing a river, help from the traveler's Bodhisattva, Jizo.
In his most common modern form, he is shown as a standing priest holding a tall walking stick. At his feet cluster tiny statues representing mizuko ("water babies"), the souls of aborted or miscarried fetuses. Many of these mizuko and some of the roadside statues of Jizo are found wearing babies' bibs and accompanied by toys, candy and packages of juice. At some temples like this one they cluster in hundreds and look ready to march together to rescue a doll that has been taken to Hell by mistake.
After I climbed the steps next to the Jizo Army, I discovered a big hole where the Hon-do had been. It was being rebuilt. I walked up more stairs to the Daishi-do. It was temporarily both the Hon-do and the Daishi-do. The Honzon, Amida, was next to the statue of Kobo Daishi. The boxes for name slips for the two buildings stood side by side.
The name slip is one of the pilgrim's essentials. At each temple, the henro must deposit one in each of the boxes in front of the two prayer halls. The slips are about five by sixteen centimeters, with a portrait of Kobo Daishi. You write you name, address, and the date on each slip.
To record your visit to each temple, you carry a book, a scroll, or both. After praying, you go to the temple office where one of the priests or a priest's wife stamps the proper page with the vermilion stamps of the temple's name. Then they take a calligraphy brush and write the temple's name and the Sanskrit "seed syllable" of the Honzon, the syllable that symbolizes the Honzon.
A fee is paid for the service, providing a small but steady income for the pilgrimage temples. Most visitors toss small coins in offering boxes at each building. But these offerings and the stamp fees only provide a small part of a temple's income. Most comes from fees for funeral and memorial services. This is true of almost all Japanese temples.
I walked on to Temple Eight and, after my visit there, found a vending machine that sold hot lemon with honey, one of my favorite cold weather drinks. It had gotten up to 15 degrees, but it was cooling off again and I was getting tired. I had walked over 20 kilometers since leaving Temple One. My right hip, left ankle, and both my shoulders hurt from walking and carrying a pack.
But my right knee didn't hurt, even though a year before a truck knocked me off my motorbike and broke my kneecap. It was okay now, though I wasn't as healthy as I should have been at the start of an 1,100 kilometer walk. I walked slowly away from Temple Eight as the route led downhill toward the broad fields that surround Temple Nine, two-and-a-half kilometers away.
After going through my henro routine at Temple Nine and getting my book stamped, I was called over to a snack and souvenir stand near the temple office. A woman in the stand offered me some tea.
"Dozo, o-henro-san. O-cha o dozo." Please o-henro-san, have some tea.
I took off my pack and gloves, sat down and gratefully accepted a small cup of green tea. I wrapped my hands around the tiny cup and let the warmth flow into my hands. Before I even moved the cup near my face, I could smell the fragrance of yuzu, a small, rough-skinned citrus fruit grown in the area. There was a small piece of yuzu peel in the cup. The floral scent of the yuzu and the grassy astringency of the tea leaves made a stimulating combination.
I was aware, too, of the scent of roasted sweet potatoes. I asked for one and it came on a plate with a small pile of salt. As I bit into the red skin and felt the sweet, softly-crumbling, earthy flesh of the sweet potato, I remembered a small tea stall on a hillside in Kashmir, the first place I ate a baked sweet potato as a snack during a day's hike.
In the Japanese tea ceremony, when you are drinking the tea, that should be all that occupies your mind. After my long walk from Temple One, my mind focused on that sweet potato, all my senses working together. Quickly, I finished it. When I looked up, the woman who ran the stall offered me a mochi wrapped in a shiso leaf.
"Dozo, o-henro-san. O-settai." Please, o-henro-san. It is o-settai.
O-settai means a gift or treat, but it has a special meaning for the Shikoku pilgrimage. The pilgrim is a figure of holiness. He (or she, most are women, though most of the walking henro are men) represents an ideal. Local people give things to henro to show they believe in that ideal. The most common gifts are money and food, though I have also accepted packets of toilet paper, small towels, tourist souvenirs, a guidebook, sake, beer, thousands of yen and a few free nights' lodging. It is considered wrong for the henro to refuse o-settai, because the gift is one way the giver can contribute to the pilgrimage without taking the time to go. The Japanese always love to give gifts. When they meet a henro, they can be overwhelming.
This o-settai was small, delicious, and just what I needed since I didn't eat any lunch that day. As I was eating the mochi, the hostess and I were joined by a man dressed in gray pants and a sweater. He was about 60, his face lined with deep wrinkles. He sat down next to me and said, "Hello, o-henro-san. Do you speak Japanese?"
My hostess answered for me. "Yes, his Japanese is very good."
"On the contrary," I said. "I only speak a little. But I understand pretty well."
"Oh, I see." The farmer spoke clearly, using standard Japanese rather than the local dialect, so I was able to understand most of what he said. "Where do you live?"
"I am from California, but for the last two years I have lived in Ishii Town. I taught English in Yoshino Town, at the junior high school and at the elementary schools." Yoshino Town was only five kilometers from the temple.
"Oh, yes. You are the foreign teacher. You were the teacher for my granddaughter, Michiko. Do you remember her?"
I didn't, at least not by her first name. Reading Japanese last names isn't too difficult since most names use the same 70 or so Chinese characters and the students always wore name tags with their last name. First names use hundreds of characters, and the other teachers rarely used the students' first names, so I almost never learned them. I apologized for not remembering his granddaughter. He asked a few more questions, then looked at me more closely.
"You were on TV, weren't you? On Good Morning Tokushima."
"Yes, I was. About one and a half years ago. It was very interesting."
He turned to the woman who had given me the tea and started talking quickly, using lots of local dialect expressions and the sort of compressed grammatical forms that make men's Japanese so difficult for foreigners. He was apparently reminding her that my wife and I had been profiled on the local TV station's happy talk good morning show six months after we arrived. They interviewed us, filmed us eating dinner and studying Japanese, and then followed us the next day as we visited and photographed two temples.
I lost the thread of their conversation and realized I had better get on to my inn. It was after 4:00 p.m. and I still had over three kilometers to go. I tried to pay for the sweet potato (I knew the tea would be free at this sort of stand) but the farmer insisted on paying. More o-settai. I thanked them both, bowed, and left.
It was a long three kilometers, nearly an hour. My shoulders were sore. My right hip hurt. My left Achilles tendon ached. My nose was getting chilled as the temperature dropped and the evening breeze picked up. But I had a reservation, so when I arrived at the inn my room was ready. I had a cup of tea, then soaked in the bath until I felt warm to my bones. Then I rested until dinner was ready.
Dinner was two kinds of fish, a piece of fried chicken, soup, vegetables and rice. I ate it all, including three bowls of rice. I told myself that the more rice I ate each night, the less I would feel the cold and the distance the next day.
It all tasted wonderful. The sashimi, cold, firm-fleshed, raw tuna, felt like my own muscles, full of energy. There was a small bowl of delicately crunchy lotus root in aromatic, sweet vinegar. As I ate it, I thought of the fields I walked past that morning, now bare, caked with mud. But in summer they were filled with ten thousand lotus blooms, a sight I knew well.
The waitress asked if I wanted beer or sake with my dinner. I said, "No." In the old days, henro took a set of vows when they started the pilgrimage. They promised to avoid alcohol, meat, sex and anger during their pilgrimage. I didn't take any vows, but I thought I might as well practice a little clean living while I was on the trail.
When I returned to my room, it was only 7:30. I prepared my name slips for the next day and read the Heart Sutra and Kobo Daishi's commentary on the sutra, the only things I brought to read on the trip. Then I took out the little radio that I carry wherever I travel. As usual, I tuned in BBC World Service but I didn't really listen. I was too tired. The room was warm. My eyes slowly closed.
Suddenly I woke up. It was very quiet in the inn. The radio was sitting on my chest, still murmuring softly. I had fallen asleep listening to the news. I turned off the radio, rolled over and went back to sleep. My first day of the pilgrimage was over.
Published by Don Weiss (firstname.lastname@example.org) -- All rights reserved. You may read this electronic copy on the web or print it out for private reading but no part may be sold or included in any work for sale except for short excerpts used for review purposes.All photographs and maps are likewise copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission except for private, non-commercial use. Updated February 2, 1999.