Echoes of Incense
A Pilgrimage in Japan
Breakfast was what I call Standard Modern Japanese, a small omelet, a tiny slice of ham, miso soup, rice, pickled daikon, and a cabbage leaf. I ate it all, paid 4500 yen for dinner, bed, and breakfast (about $37) and left at 7:30.
As I was walking up the 333 steps to Temple Ten, I met an old, old man. He walked very slowly, looking carefully where he put his feet on the old stone stairs, stopping often to look ahead to see if the left or the right side was safer. He wore several sweaters, thick gloves, and a scarf, but he was bareheaded and almost completely bald.
When I was in front of him, he looked up. He recognized my clothes, smiled and said, "Good morning, o-henro-san." Then he looked more closely at my face and his eyes widened, his smile broadened. "Good morning! Bless you!" He bowed. I returned the bow a little lower, then continued up to the Hon-do. Henro's name slips are of different colors; white for the first few pilgrimages, then green, red, silver, and on to gold after 50 times around. When I put my white name slip in the box, I saw a multicolored name slip on top of the pile. I took it out and read it. It was his 107th time.
Temple Ten's common name is Kirihataji, Cut Cloth Temple. The name comes from a story about a miracle that happened when Kobo Daishi visited here.
When Kobo Daishi was walking around Shikoku, he came here and decided to do a seven-day ritual. During that week, a young girl came every day and brought him food. When he finished, he went to her hut to thank her and to beg for some cloth to mend his clothes. He only asked for a couple of small scraps, but she gave him enough fine, hand-woven cloth for a new priest's robe.
He thanked her and asked how someone so obviously cultured and skilled came to be living all alone in a hut in the mountains, far from the capital.
Her mother was a lady of the court, her father was a guard. Shortly before she was born, her father was exiled for rebellion and her mother, fearing some danger to the baby, prayed for guidance from Kannon (Avalokitesvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Her prayer was answered with advice to go to Shikoku, where she brought up her daughter until she died, leaving the girl alone, as she was when Kobo Daishi met her.
Inspired by her story, Kobo Daishi carved a statue of Senju Kannon, the form of Kannon with 1,000 arms symbolizing the infinite ways this Bodhisattva reaches out to help those who call for her help. The girl then asked Kobo Daishi to cut her hair and make her a nun. He did. Instantly, a rainbow-colored cloud came down from the sky and the girl attained Buddhahood, changing into a statue of Kannon. Kobo Daishi then took the two statues and enshrined them in the temple, which he founded in her honor.
Until the time of Kobo Daishi, most Japanese Buddhists believed that women could not attain Buddhahood. They thought a woman had to first be re-born as a man. This is one of several stories about Kobo Daishi that supports a view found clearly in his writings that everyone can become a Buddha "in this very body."
The standard henro path leads south from Kirihataji, across the Yoshino River to Temple 11. My route led northwest, to Temple 88, where I would begin traveling in reverse order. I immediately got a little lost, which was to be my normal state until day nine, when I got very lost.
The whole route is marked with signposts, some new, some old. The old posts are stone, with pointing fingers showing the way to the next temple. The new signs are little metal rectangles on posts. The old stones were put wherever they might be needed by travelers going in either direction, but many of them have disappeared over the centuries. The new signs appear almost every place they might be needed by a henro going clockwise. Since I was going counterclockwise, I sometimes lacked a sign. Because I read Japanese very poorly, I spent a lot of time looking at the maps in my guidebook, walking in circles, and asking the way.
After half an hour, I found the right road. I only went a kilometer out of my way but it was a bit upsetting, getting lost so easily. Soon, however, the rhythm of walking restored my good mood and the views as I walked up a V-shaped valley aimed my spirit towards the mountains floating above the empty rice paddies.
I felt a strong sense of accomplishment, even though this was only the second day of a very long trip. I had spent two years preparing for this journey. I studied Japanese, Japanese Buddhism, and the legends of the pilgrimage. I visited all the temples, some many times, by car, bicycle, train, and sometimes on foot. Now, walking along, I felt that nothing I had done before in my life was as proper for me as this, walking up this road, on this day, doing this pilgrimage.
I missed another turn right after lunch, but I only went about 50 meters before I discovered my mistake and turned around. There was a sign, but it was only visible from one direction, for those going clockwise. I was beginning to learn that going backwards was harder than going forwards.
Just after this junction, part of the Shikoku no Michi turned off the road. The Shikoku no Michi (Shikoku Trail) circles the island of Shikoku. Much of the time it follows country roads but every now and then it goes over hills and mountains, along riverbanks, and through rice paddies. During its 1,600 kilometers it visits all the pilgrimage temples plus hundreds of Shinto shrines, museums, castles and other scenic places.
This part of the Michi was a farmers' road cut by tractor wheels, now covered with fallen leaves. The tall trees growing over the trail trapped the scent of wet forest soil like incense filling a temple. The smell opened the doors of memory. As a child, I spent my summers in a small house in the forests of the state of Maine. Those woods smelled like this, and felt like this underfoot.
There were houses along the trail, but they all seemed deserted, all except one, where a dog barked at me from the end of a 10-meter rope. Here and there I saw fields overgrown with weeds. I wondered about the people who owned the dog. They had stayed in their mountain home when all their neighbors left for the winter, or forever. Why?
I got to the temple at 2:30. Temple 88, Okuboji, The Temple of the Large Hollow, is also known as The Temple of the Completion of the Vow. But for me, it was far from the end and I felt no special emotion when I got there. My altimeter said 470 meters. The temperature was eight degrees, but it seemed much colder since it was windy. The wind was blowing fallen leaves around the temple courtyard. My straw hat was giving me trouble. I spent ten minutes fixing the chin strap and covering a small tear in its plastic rain cover.
The only inn on the mountain was empty. Unfortunately, that meant I was given a big room where I had to sit right in front of the heater to stay warm. After visiting the temple, I watched TV, then washed my shirt, socks and underwear. I put them in front of the heater. When I returned to the room after dinner, they were completely dry. Like the night before, I read the Heart Sutra and Kobo Daishi's commentary, prepared my name slips for the next day, then went to bed. This time I turned off my radio before I closed my eyes. I stayed up only until 8:30.
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.