Echoes of Incense
A Pilgrimage in Japan
Ehime, the prefecture covering northwestern Shikoku, exists in my memory as a series of images. I can connect them in my mind, but that is not how I remember them. They don't flow, one from the other, as they happened. I remember this, I remember that, I remember . . .
Downtown Imabari City, like many Japanese downtowns, was flattened by American bombers. Nankobo, Temple 55, The Temple of Southern Lights, was almost completely destroyed. Only the Daishi-do and one other small building survived the war. In front of the Daishi-do, little girls and old women come to feed the pigeons. Every time I visit, I see two or three girls under ten and a couple of grandmothers over 70 feeding a flock of pigeons. The birds crowd together, reaching for the seeds tossed on the ground. I remember the sound of 500 wings beating the air as the birds suddenly flew off and then returned.
Temple 51, Ishiteji, Stone Hand Temple, is the Disneyland of the pilgrimage. It is always crowded with tour groups, even in winter. The entrance is lined with souvenir stalls and, in front, there is a statue of a samurai and an egg-shaped stone. This statue tells the central story of the pilgrimage and the reason it is the most important religious pilgrimage for the common people of Japan. Japanese religious stories of the Kamakura era began, "Ima wa mukashi," Now it is long ago.
Now it is long ago. A rich man lives near Matsuyama. His name is Emon Saburo. He has the right to collect as tax half the rice grown by hundreds of peasants. He has eight sons.
One day, a Buddhist priest came to the door of Emon Saburo's big house, begging for food. Emon Saburo said the priest should be sent away without food.
The priest returned the next day, again asking humbly that something not needed in the house be put in his begging bowl. Emon Saburo ordered that some human feces be put in the bowl.
This went on for a week. Then, on the eighth day, when the priest came, Emon Saburo himself went to the gate and struck the bowl from the beggar's hand. It fell to the stones and broke into eight pieces like the petals of a lotus flower. The priest left and came no more.
The next day, Emon Saburo's oldest son died. The following seven days, the seven other sons also died. Emon Saburo mourned, then repented. He gave away his fields to the peasants that farmed them. He gave away his house, his rich clothes, his jewels. Then he took up a walking stick, a sedge hat and a begging bowl and went in search of the wandering holy man, seeking forgiveness.
For four years he circled the island clockwise, always following the trail of the holy priest, always hearing he was just a few days ahead. But he could never catch up. Then he thought, "If the priest is going clockwise, I simply have to go the opposite way and I will finally meet him." This he did. But by now he was so worn out from four years and 22,000 kilometers of walking that he was near death.
Finally, just as his strength was giving out, he met Kobo Daishi (of course, he was that priest) on the mountain below Temple 12. The Daishi forgave him and comforted his dying moments. He asked Emon Saburo if he had a last wish. "Yes. I would like to be reborn the heir to the lord of my province so that I may use the power of my position to help the common people there, the people I wronged so much in my life." When he died, Kobo Daishi wrote something on a small stone and placed it in the hand of the corpse. Then he buried Emon Saburo on the mountain below Temple 12. There's a small chapel there now. The current priest is very kind.
Some time later, the lord of Yuzuki Castle near Matsuyama became father to a son. But the baby was born with his right hand clutched tightly around something and nobody could force open his hand. Finally a Buddhist priest was called. He prayed over the baby and the little hand relaxed, revealing a stone that said, "Emon Saburo Reborn."
Every time I visit Matsuyama, I stay at a small hot springs resort, Takenoko Onsen. I stayed there this time, too. I checked in and immediately went to the big bath. The windows of the dressing room were open to let out the steam. It was about 15 degrees in the room. A woman was vacuuming but she and the naked men ignored one another. About twenty people were bathing, including a little girl of about ten who was there with an old man, probably her grandfather. Mixed bathing used to be normal at Japanese baths, but these days it is almost never done. I only saw a female in a men's bath one other time, also a grandfather/granddaughter pair. There are some resorts that have mixed bathing, but I never visited one. I once overheard a young woman teacher at a school where I worked telling two of her friends that she had visited a mixed bathing hot spring with her boyfriend. Her friends giggled.
I went to the side of the bath away from the little girl and took a brief dip to warm up, then got out and washed at one of the taps along the mirror-lined wall. While I washed my hair, I looked in the mirror. I could see the little girl talking to her grandfather and pointing at me. Most children in Japan have never seen a foreigner except perhaps for a foreign teacher in English class once or twice a month. Very few little girls in Japan have ever seen a nude male foreigner, especially one with red hair and a red beard.
From Matsuyama City, the path climbed straight up into the mountains of Kuma Kogen. I spent two nights at a rather fancy little inn with a lovely garden about two meters by four. It was in the town below Temple 44, Taihoji, The Temple of Great Treasure. The day I arrived, I visited Taihoji. The next day I walked over the mountains to the most spectacular temple on the island, Iwayaji.
Temple 45, Iwayaji, is The Temple of the Rocky Cave. There are dozens of caves cut into a 70 meter cliff of crumbling rock. It's a true nansho -- everyone must walk at least the last 500 meters steeply uphill, beneath cedars centuries old. All along the path, there are hundreds of statues and grave markers. Some of the graves probably show where henro finally ended their pilgrimage, struggling up to the temple.
The first time I visited Iwayaji, almost two years earlier, Phyllis and I came by bicycle. It rained lightly all morning but as we came through a tunnel into Kuma Kogen it started pouring heavily. By the time we reached the little inn at the base of the footpath, we were as soaked as if we had been swimming in our clothes. The old woman who ran the inn smiled when she saw us. She quickly put newspapers on the floor so our wet socks did no damage. Then she started the heater and boiled some water for tea. The bath was an old-fashioned goemonburo, a "cannibal pot" which I could barely fold myself into, knees, arms and chest sticking out into the chill air.
When I walked over the mountain to Iwayaji on my Winter Walk, I had two routes to chose from, the road and the high mountain trail. I left my inn still undecided and bought a hot Cocoteen from a roadside vending machine. I stood on the icy street, looking at the maps, feeling the warmth of the cocoa flowing down my throat, and decided to take the road, where I might find more Cocoteen during the day. I started calling the henro path The Cocoteen Trail.
The Cocoteen Trail led quickly out of town and up to a tunnel. Ice coated the edges of the road and the walls of the tunnel. As I walked through the tunnel, I started singing, to the tune of "The Colorado Trail,"
"Rice every morning, rice again at night,
Lunch is noodles every day, still I do all right,
Chocolate bars will get me through, and
Drinks are for sale,
All along along along the Cocoteen Trail."
When I got to the heart of the tunnel, I switched to "White Christmas". For the rest of my Winter Walk, whenever I walked through a tunnel, I sang "White Christmas". I thought my voice sounded very good. It's only walking through a long tunnel that someone with a voice like mine can think he sounds like Bing Crosby.
The next day I walked to Koda, a small town in the mountains of Kuma Kogen. The first two inns I called said they were full. The next two didn't answer. But when I called Sakae Ya, a jolly-sounding old woman simply said, "I can't understand your name but you are welcome, please come!"
On the way, a small white truck stopped and the driver got out and introduced himself. He was a farmer taking his greenhouse-grown, unsprayed strawberries to town. He gave me a basketful, o-settai. I immediately sat down on the edge of the road and ate them, savoring their flavor and the way fresh juice burst from each cell as I bit through. I felt the pimply strawberry skins on my tongue. I smelled the aroma as it rose from the strawberries. When I finished, I sat five minutes more, licking my lips like a cat, tasting and smelling still the thin red juice. Then finally I got up and walked on to the inn at Koda.
Sakae Ya was a few rooms over a little noodle shop. I went in, sat down at a table and explained who I was. The old woman (almost all these inns are run by women over 60) smiled and started talking. I understood little, but smiled a lot. Gradually I got used to her accent. She said modern Japanese have "bad hearts" because they don't venerate Kobo Daishi. They are locked into narrow thoughts, in a narrow country, not like America, which is so wide.
Her daughter came by after work and we talked for hours about Shikoku and the pilgrimage. She asked, "Are you a Christian?" I pointed to my henro clothes.
"No, I'm a Buddhist."
"Really? Is your family Buddhist?"
"No, my family is Jewish."
"Oh, you're Jewish! Of course! The Jewish people have such good hearts. You know, all the Japanese admire Jewish people the most of any people in the world. Your hearts are so good, you work very hard, and you have very strong feelings for your family."
That night, I slept under a purple quilt that had the Heart Sutra embroidered on it in gold calligraphy. As in every small town where I stayed, chimes rang out at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. The bells also rang at 9:00 p.m. and, in addition, there was a 6:30 a.m. loudspeaker call to exercises and a 6:45 a.m. listing of local events for the day.
A few days later I walked over Long Tooth Pass. Five centimeters of snow covered the ground, the deepest snow I walked in on the trip. The route was part trail and part quiet road with little traffic so it was pleasant walking, but garbage lined the road; old toasters, magazines, beer bottles, hamburger wrappers (some from the nearest McDonalds, 20 kilometers away), light bulbs, car parts, and hundreds of empty cans of Georgia Coffee. Many displayed pictures of characters from the TV show "Twin Peaks." Sometimes, on the mountain trails, I picked up candy wrappers and other litter I saw on the trail, but here there was so much I would have needed a truck to clean it up. A big truck.
At Temple 42, I met Kobayashi Yuko, a young woman from Mie Prefecture. She was doing the pilgrimage partly by public transportation, partly on foot. I met about a dozen people traveling that way, mostly women or couples. The henro I met who were walking the whole route in winter were almost all men in their forties or fifties. Yuko-san was dedicated to Kobo Daishi. She was doing the pilgrimage to pray for the health of her parents.
At Uwajima, I stayed in Hiromi Ya, as usual. My wife and I had stayed there for the second time a year before, Christmas week. The father of the man who ran the inn was a superb calligrapher. He was busy the day we arrived, writing New Year's greetings on scrolls for all his friends. He let my wife join him and praised her calligraphy more than she thought she deserved. When we left, he presented me with what became my walking stick for my two pilgrimages. He had written the Heart Sutra on it in fine, strong characters. He died six months later.
There was a satisfying feeling about seeing people I knew. When I reminded Kimura-san's widow that he had given me my walking stick, she took it up carefully and examined the calligraphy. She took it over to the sink and washed off the bottom of the stick. Then she put it near the door, ready for my departure. I remember watching her put it there, wondering what she was thinking, what she was remembering . . .
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 June 17, 1999.