Echoes of Incense
A Pilgrimage in Japan
The old woman who ran the inn was loudly making tea at a quarter to five. My nose, sticking out of the quilt, told me it was almost freezing in the room. I reached out, turned on the heater, and waited until the room warmed up. Then I got up, dressed, and went to the dining room.
Breakfast was soup, rice, vegetables and a small piece of old, cold fish. While I was eating, my hostess, who wore a surgical mask and at least four sweaters, toasted slices of ancient mochi on a little grill. She gave me two mochi wrapped in a piece of paper for a snack. By seven, I was on the trail.
The Shikoku no Michi led straight up from the temple, climbing steeply, mostly by steps. I was wearing all my clothes against the morning cold, but I went so fast that sweat was soon dripping off my face. The trail went directly up to the summit of the mountain at 800 meters. From the top there was a view of my next six days of walking, the whole of Kagawa Prefecture.
Kagawa is the smallest of the four prefectures on Shikoku and the most developed. It's a flat plain with conical hills rising one or two hundred meters above rice fields. The northern part of the plain is covered by Takamatsu, the prefectural capital.
At the northeast edge of Takamatsu, a flat-topped hill rises abruptly and falls just as sharply into the Inland Sea. There's a tiny channel of water that cuts this hill off from the land, and the flat summit looks like the roof of a house, so the hill is known as Yashima, Roof Island, and Temple 84, on top, is Yashimaji, Roof Island Temple.
I approached Yashima from the east. When I got near the base of the hill, I misread my map. The maps in the guidebook were turned whichever way the most details fit, so north could be in any direction. I turned right. I should have turned left. An hour later, when I finally realized I had made a mistake, I asked directions at a coffee shop. I'd walked four kilometers in the wrong direction. The owner offered to drive me to the temple. I said, "No thank you. I am walking the pilgrimage." He pointed me in the right direction.
I got lost five more times in the next two hours. I felt completely stupid. I've walked in mountains and cities all over the world and I've never had as much trouble staying on the right trail as I had that day. I walked an extra nine kilometers before I got on the right path. I knew it was right because the distance to the temple was marked every hundred meters and there were signs all along the way.
At a turn in the path, there were three big trees carrying dozens of green, pear-like fruits. A sign in English and Japanese told the story of Kobo Daishi and the Inedible Pears.
One day, Kobo Daishi was praying on Yashima. When he was finished, he walked past this spot and saw the pears. The man who owned the trees was doing some work nearby, so the priest asked if he might please have a few pears. The farmer was stingy and he didn't really like Buddhist priests who begged for their food, but he didn't want to simply refuse and sound rude. Instead he said, "Oh, I'm sorry, but these pears are inedible. They are very hard and even if you cook them they taste terrible." Kobo Daishi said, "Oh, I see. Thank you very much. I understand completely."
After the priest was gone, the farmer harvested some of the pears for his family, because they were actually delicious. But when he got home, he discovered the pears were hard, bitter, totally inedible. And so they have remained to this day.
On my ninth day I only visited one temple, Number 66, Umpenji, The Temple of Hovering Clouds. It's the highest temple in elevation, almost 1,000 meters.
I started at 8:20 in a light mist, the wet leaves on the ground quieting my steps. The diffused light bouncing off the brown leaves painted everything a warm golden color. No birds sang. The air was still. The only sounds were the dripping of water and the quiet thump of my feet and walking stick. The few times I walked quickly up flights of stairs, I heard my breath. It sounded like a harsh intrusion and I made a new hiking rule: "If the loudest sound in the forest is the sound of your breath, slow down."
The mist cleared shortly before noon. By one I was on top, bathed in weak winter sunshine. My first stop was the noodle shop at the top of the ropeway that carried up those who didn't walk at least from the parking lot a few hundred meters from the temple. I ate a bowl of wakame udon, then bought a couple of chocolate bars which I ate outside, sitting in the sun, sipping a can of hot lemon with honey that I bought from a vending machine in front of the noodle shop.
Except for a few temples in the middle of towns, the first 33 temples I visited were mostly deserted. Umpenji was no exception. I saw only about 20 people in the whole hour I spent on top. When I went to get my temple stamp, I had to interrupt the priest ‹ he was watching sumo on TV in his office. He was, like everyone else, surprised to see a foreigner doing the pilgrimage.
"Welcome, o-henro-san. Bless you. Do you speak Japanese?" he asked, speaking slowly and simply.
"Yes. A little. I have lived in Tokushima for two years."
"Two years? Really? Your Japanese is very good. I studied English for six years but I cannot speak English. Do you like Japan?"
He asked me the usual questions, my country, my age, whether I had any children, my job, etc. Then he said, "You are walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage? How many days since you began?"
"You are walking in reverse order? Usually only priests do it that way. Why do you?"
"Because I thought if I walked this way, I would meet all the other henro who are walking the usual way."
"How many henro have you met, walking?"
"Only three," I said. He nodded. Then he drew a map so I wouldn't get lost on the path down to Okada Ya, the only inn on the south side of the mountain.
I started down quickly. The path led through a bamboo grove, probably planted by the temple for building materials. The bamboo towered over my head, still and silent. Drops of water fell from them, slapping on the plastic cover of my straw hat.
The road switchbacked down the mountain, and the walking path crossed it four or five times. The final time, I saw four possible ways to go. A big sign at the junction showed pictures of where each route went. I studied it, looked at the priest's map, consulted the guidebook. Finally, I decided I should take the road to the left. I thought it would lead me to the correct trail in a few hundred meters.
Mistake. I went a few hundred meters, then a few hundred more, but no trail branched off downhill. I checked the map and guidebook again. I decided to go to the next switchback, then I would know for sure.
When I got there, I stopped and looked around. No path. I thought about walking back to where I saw the big sign. I must have made my mistake there. But I didn't want to walk back uphill unless it was absolutely necessary. I waved at a passing car. It stopped. I asked if this road went to Okada Ya. The driver said it did. I asked if the road going the other way also went there. He told me firmly that it didn't. I continued another two kilometers, then asked the driver of another car, a man who looked like a farmer. He was definite. I thanked him and walked quickly down the road. It was getting late.
After some time, I knew I was definitely going the wrong way. But by then I was so far from where I made the mistake, I thought it would be better to continue the way I was going since the two drivers I asked were both definite that I could get to the inn this way.
An hour later, the farmer from the second car came back. He got out of his car and bowed low, repeatedly apologizing, using polite phrases I only dimly remembered from my Japanese textbook, the part marked "Formal Expressions ‹ Rarely Used."
"Excuse me o-henro san. I am most terribly sorry. I made a mistake. When you asked me if this road goes to Okada Ya, I said 'yes' but, of course, you are walking. There is another way, ten kilometers shorter. This way is the way to go by car, but walking it is very far. Please forgive me and allow me to drive you to the inn. It is very late. Please. It is o-settai. Please allow me to drive you to the inn."
Disgusted and embarrassed, I bowed, said it was alright, and got in his car. It felt very strange, as if I had never been in a car before, although only nine days earlier Phyllis drove me to Temple One. The feel of the seat as my body swayed against the curves, the sense of being enclosed by glass, the way the scene changed so quickly around me ‹ it all seemed new, unfamiliar, and unpleasant.
Unpleasant and not right. I'd broken the rules. I'd accepted a ride, though I had planned to walk the whole 1,100 kilometers
Three years earlier, I hiked the John Muir Trail, 340 kilometers over the high mountains of California, camping alone every night. One of the other hikers I met started with a pack that weighed 53 kilograms. He didn't want to have to stop in the middle, go off the trail ten kilometers, and get extra food. He felt that by staying on the trail, carrying all his food for the whole month, he would be doing a "Pure Trip."
My trip was no longer pure and I knew why. I didn't trust my instincts today and I couldn't read the maps in the guidebook. My Japanese wasn't good enough, even after two years. Also, I was trying to do it the hard way, in reverse order. It's said that the hills are steeper if you go backwards but I don't think that's true. What was harder about going backwards was what I was least able to cope with, the lack of good signs.
As we drove down the mountain, I looked off to the east. Through the mist, I could see the hills lining the Yoshino River Valley. When I got down to the highway I could take a bus to the Ikeda train station and then take a train to Kamojima, the town near Temple 11. Then I could pick up the route in the regular direction and continue around clockwise, the easy way, with lots of signs to guide me. I thought about it, then just settled back in my seat. The farmer wanted to take me to the inn. I let him.
Dinner was magnificent, but my taste buds weren't working. The sardine sashimi and the katsuo no tataki tasted the same. I went out to the phone in the hall and called home. My wife answered right away.
"Oh, Hi! Are you ready to give up?"
"No, don't worry. But I need a favor. I want the book of maps from the car. I'd appreciate it very much if you could please bring it to me." I gave her directions to the inn.
She showed up at eight with the maps, some fancy chocolates and a can of sake that heated itself in three minutes after you pushed a button on the top. I chose the maps I thought I would need and set the sake and chocolate aside. Then I handed her one of my two cameras. I hadn't been taking many pictures. One camera and two lenses would be enough to carry. After she left, I ate the chocolate -- I love chocolate. Then I pushed the button and let the sake heat while I read the sutra and commentary. Afterwards I got in bed and drank the sake. It was the first sake I'd had during the pilgrimage. I went to sleep right away and slept very well.
When I started the next morning, I felt strong, rested and confident. I could do it. I would do it. Now I had maps I could read, maps with north always at the top. I felt stronger than I had for days.
The henro route followed a road across the mountains. At the top, there was a long tunnel, well-lit at the ends but dark in the middle. As I was going through the darkest part, looking far ahead towards the light shining at the end of the tunnel, a phrase of the Heart Sutra came into my mind; Nothing is Defiled, Nothing is Pure. Suddenly I breathed more deeply and more freely, filling my chest with air, relaxing the muscles I had held tight since the day before, thinking about how this was no longer a pure trip. Nothing is pure, not even a pilgrimage. Nothing is defiled, not even this pilgrimage. I walked out into the sunlight at the end of the tunnel, ready for the next stretch of road.
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.