Echoes of Incense
A Pilgrimage in Japan
The next few days were fairly uneventful, though I did collect a lot of o-settai including a total of about 6,000 yen in cash (about $50). The weather was clear and cool. My feet and my ankles hurt, but not enough to slow me down.
Basically, nothing was slowing me down. The stages of my walk were now fixed mostly by the availability of inns that would take me in. Frequently I had to phone four or five different places before I found one that said they had a room for me. When I walked by the inns that said they were full, they almost always seemed empty, like most of the places where I stayed. Surprisingly, I didn't feel angry at the inns that were afraid to take me in. They were, after all, losing 5,500 yen (the usual price) plus the opportunity to learn that all foreigners are not as much trouble as those shown on TV every night trying to cope with Japanese food, baths, and etiquette.
I reached Temple 61 soon after lunch on day 12. All along, I had been trying to stay at the pilgrimage temples, but only about 25 of them have lodgings for henro and the ones that were in places where I might have stayed were all closed for the winter. At Temple 61, Koonji, I was finally able to make a reservation for a temple shukubo.
Koonji, The Temple of the Incense Garden, looks like part of a modern university campus in California. The plain, dark concrete buildings look like they should be surrounded by thousands of students. The Daishi-do is a small pavilion, just three walls and a flat roof. It covers a modern statue of Kobo Daishi holding a baby. The temple's legend of Kobo Daishi is that here he made four vows:
To guard children.
To ease birth.
To sacrifice himself for others.
To allow women to attain Buddhahood.
This statue of The Daishi, like so many of those found in the gardens of the other pilgrimage temples, shows him dressed as a pilgrim, with a thin straw mat rolled up and strapped to his back. He wears sandals and knee-high leggings. Only the usual bowl-shaped straw hat is missing.
As a young man, he wandered to various parts of Shikoku and nearby areas of Honshu. He went in search of sutras to study, teachers who could explain the sutras, and places to meditate. He lived as wandering holy persons always live, gathering wild foods from the forest, begging, sleeping out. He carried the mat to sleep on and only his robe to keep him warm, day and night.
The priest in the office didn't want me to check in so early. I apologized, but pointed out that since I was going backwards my next temple was Yokomineji, a four-hour walk up a mountain, with no place to stay until I got back down. He grunted and directed someone to show me to my room.
The man who led me to the room didn't try to communicate much. He led me down a corridor. The walls were covered with pictures of babies. I asked him why the pictures were there.
"To thank Kobo Daishi," he said. I gathered that the parents, or more likely the mothers, of these babies were thanking Kobo Daishi for helping them give birth, or asking him to protect their babies, or both.
My room was one of a dozen lining the corridor. It was big enough for a dozen pilgrims without crowding. The tatami mats were sparkling clean. Everything in the room was clean and fresh. And cold. As usual when I arrived at any room, the windows were all open, allowing fresh air to cleanse the room and prevent mildew. It was about seven degrees, outside and in. The man who had led me to the room kicked off his slippers and hurried to close the windows. Although he moved very quickly, his slippers were lined up perfectly just off the edge of the tatami. It's a skill learned in kindergarten. By the time I had my own slippers off and lined up properly and was taking off my pack, he had the windows closed and a big kerosene heater on. A few minutes later, I was in clean dry clothes, sipping tea and eating cookies, enjoying the beauty of the room and the luxury of almost three hours to rest before dinner.
At most of the little inns where I stayed, the tokonoma held a picture scroll, a flower display, a telephone, perhaps a Barbie Doll, sometimes a carved wooden bear from Hokkaido, a calendar (often a year or two old), a TV, and sometimes a pile of mildly pornographic men's comics.
Here, the tokonoma was as it was meant to be. A scroll showed a few branches of a plum tree, the blossoms covered with snow. A small vase held an arrangement of plum blossoms just about to open, with a few slips of green grass to add a little color. Only that. Together, they said clearly that the person who did the arrangement knew that it was still cold and wintry, but in the depths of winter, the plum blossom is Nature's reminder that soon many flowers will sing of spring. For now, the plum blossoms in the picture and the plum buds in the vase were singing the promise of spring. Outside it began to rain, a cold, heavy rain that meant snow on the mountain at Yokomineji.
I was called to dinner at 5:30 and ate alone in the big dining room. Nobody else stayed at the temple that night. The sashimi was excellent. There was also a serving of broiled mackerel, soup, four different vegetable dishes, and bowl after bowl of rice. I had rested for several hours and my appetite was in high gear. I ate it all. The cook came out to compliment me on my skill with chopsticks. Then she asked, "Would you like some mochi for your lunch tomorrow, o-henro-san? The trail to Yokomineji is very steep." She seemed to know I was going backwards.
"Oh, thank you very much. But the fact is, I don't really like mochi very much. I like almost every Japanese food, but there are a few things I don't like so much. For me, mochi is just so-so. And I hate natto." This got a big laugh, and she went back to the kitchen, where I heard her speaking rapidly in a local dialect I couldn't understand. I heard the word "natto" followed by more feminine laughter.
I was lucky that I lived in Western Japan. I've heard that natto is quite common in eastern Japan. I've only had it put before me three or four times, and I only made the mistake of eating it once.
Natto is a food made from soy beans that are allowed to sit and ferment a bit, then served. Sometimes it's eaten at breakfast mixed with a whole raw egg. Natto is slimy and smelly and just about the worst thing I have ever put into my mouth. I like to tell newcomers to Japan that the traditional way to make natto was to feed raw beans to cows, then make them regurgitate the beans after they had passed through the cow's first stomach. (It's a joke. The true recipe is much less disgusting.) I made up a song when I was teaching English in Yoshino (near Temple Nine). It's sung to the tune of "Deep In The Heart Of Texas."
"I like to eat, a lot of foods,
But I do not like natto.
I like fried eggs and fresh tofu,
But I do not like natto."
It went on for six verses. The kids loved it.
After dinner there was an evening service. I was led through a series of corridors and up two flights of stairs into the main prayer hall, which was hidden in the heart of the big, modern Hon-do.
The prayer hall held about 400 theater-type seats surrounding three sides of a spotlighted stage. There were a dozen statues on the stage, but they were all dominated by the Honzon, a huge Dainichi Nyorai.
As soon as I was seated, front row, center, alone in the auditorium, two priests entered. One was a man about 40, his head covered with three-centimeter-long hair. I wondered if his doctor told him to let it grow for the winter, it seemed to be the exact same length all over his head.
The other priest was a woman with a clean-shaven head. She handed me what looked like a prayer book, saying, "Bless you, o-henro-san." I thanked her and said, "Thank you very much. I'm sorry, I cannot read Japanese." She took back the prayer book and went up onto the stage.
The two priests each performed a separate service. The male priest did a rather short goma, only about twenty minutes or so. Then the woman did a Heart Sutra service. But I wasn't paying close attention. Instead, I was practicing a meditation technique I once read about but never tried before. You visualize the mantra of a deity issuing from the deity's mouth as a form of energy which then circulates through your body, back to the deity, through the deity, out the deity's mouth, and so on.
I don't know why I decided to try this. I read about it when I was studying the different techniques that Shingon priests use to meditate. There was something about the place, the dark hall with the two priests on stage, the two rituals enacted before me, the looming statue, that brought this practice out of the depths of my mind. At that time in my life, I was not practicing any sort of meditation. For me, simply walking from one temple to the next was all the meditation, all the religious practice, that I felt I needed or could do. But I was still searching for my own style of pilgrimage. So for about half an hour, I sat in the dark and a current of energy flowed between me and a spotlighted statue while a ritual fire burned sticks symbolizing delusions and a priest with a shaven head chanted the Heart Sutra.
I left shortly after 7:00 a.m. The temperature was minus three degrees. The mountain was covered in mist, and the ground was wet.
Koonji's okunoin, the inner sanctuary, built in the same modern style as the Hon-do, stood in a grove of trees two and a half kilometers from the main temple. In back, several modern statues perched on rocks in a small stream beneath what looked like an artificial waterfall. It was an unusual scene, the modern buildings and statues in the wild woods.
From the okunoin, a well-maintained section of the Shikoku no Michi led steeply uphill. Most of the mountain was a tree farm where cedars grew, evenly spaced, of even age, with little undergrowth. This newly planted forest was silent. But when the trail crossed a stream there were bushes and I heard pheasant crying.
The trail climbed steadily, dropping only once to cross a deep valley where the forest had not been cut. There I heard many birds crying, and saw a few snow flakes caught on some ferns. I didn't meet much snow until the trail joined a steep road, a kilometer or so from the temple. There was about two centimeters of snow on the road, making it very slippery. I walked next to the road, where the broken earth gave my boots something to hang on to.
After a few hundred meters, a chain blocked off the road. No cars were allowed past this point. Yokomineji is a nansho.
Nansho means difficult place. On the pilgrimage, it usually refers to mountain temples. In the past, all mountain temples were difficult to reach. Trails were steep. Many pilgrims were old and sick.
Spiritually, a nansho refers to anything that the henro thinks is an obstacle. But it is understood that the true obstacle is not "out there." It exists only in the mind. U. S. President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1933, about the Great Depression, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." The Heart Sutra says, "The Bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita with no hindrance in the mind. No hindrance, therefore no fear."
For me, on this pilgrimage, Temple 84 was a nansho. I kept getting lost and was upset about the fact that I was walking a few meters, or a few hundred meters, or even a few kilometers out of my way. Again, coming down from Temple 66, I was lost and angry, and I almost abandoned my plan to walk the whole route in reverse order.
The priests who hold the pilgrimage in their care understand that nansho are essential. If everything is made easy for you, if the rough places are all made smooth and the mountains turned to plain, then you have less to help you grow spiritually. At some temples, there are cable cars to let more people visit. At a few, like Yokomineji, the road is blocked off, so you must walk to reach the top.
The road climbed, then leveled off. After a few hundred yards, a driveway led down to the temple.
From above, it looked like a drawing of a temple. The roofs and garden were speckled white, but the walkways shone darkly where the snow was swept away. It was two degrees. It was so cold while I was walking that I wore my sweatshirt all morning. When I reached the temple, I put on my jacket, so I was wearing everything except my rain jacket and rain pants.
The only other people at the temple were the priest, sitting in his office in front of a heater, and two very old women henro with their driver. The priest gave me a small towel with the temple's name printed on it as o-settai, but didn't ask me much beyond the usual, Where are you from? Are you doing the whole pilgrimage? etc. He said, "Have a nice trip," and quickly closed the window, locking the heat in his little room.
Next I looked around for a vending machine so I could buy a hot drink. Some foreigners think it's amusing that there are so many vending machines in Japan, but on my pilgrimages and my other trips around Shikoku I really appreciated being able to buy hot drinks in winter and cold drinks in summer. Unfortunately, the vending machines at the temple were out of hot drinks except for coffee, which I hate as much as natto. I had to settle for some lukewarm barley tea that was put out for henro. I really missed a good, hot drink. It was the coldest day of the trip. I left the temple and walked rapidly down the trail so I would stay warm.
As soon as I got down to the road, I stopped at a vending machine for a hot drink. They had Cocoteen, a sweet cocoa sold both hot and cold. A few minutes later, I stopped at a small restaurant for udon and oden (hot, stewed vegetables, kamaboko, and tofu, eaten off the wooden sticks on which they are cooked). I sat there a long time, warming up, eating, sipping hot tea, and looking through some magazines.
After lunch, I had only seven kilometers to go, so I waited till almost three to leave. It was warmer and the sun was shining through the clouds so it was pleasant walking, though the road was busy.
As I walked, I looked at the Heart Sutra written on my walking stick and, although I could only read a little Japanese, fragments of the sutra in English drifted through my mind. I remembered a few sentences from the beginning, a couple of bits from the middle. As I walked, I tried to remember what connected them, how one idea led to the next. When I got to my inn, I studied the sutra and commentary right away. It had been a difficult day, but I felt rested from the long lunch. I wrote a few letters and watched sumo on TV. After dinner and my bath, I lay in bed and thought about my long walk up and down the mountain. I decided it had been a very good day.
Published by Don Weiss (email@example.com) -- 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.