Dispatches from SabbaticalLand – Part II

Many of you have asked what a “day in the life of a henro” actually entails. Some of you have implied that you’d gladly be walking for, rather than working for, nine hours a day…

My second dispatch follows me through Kochi, the second of four prefectures on the island of Shikoku. Kochi is known as the “Place of Ascetic Training” (Shugyo dojo) on the pilgrimage, and it lives up to the reputation. This edition is less funny, sorry, but I promise I survive! Here, I’ll cover:

  1. Ritual
  2. Surrender (Injury! Sickness! Rain!)
  3. Surrender continued
  4. Self-care

1. Ritual

I peek my head out from my sleeping bag to a matte gray sky that reveals no clues about the time. The air smells like rain. It’s day 20 and I’ve walked over 550 kilometers so far.

Today, I’ll be rounding Cape Ashizuri, the southwestern-most tip of Shikoku. The cape is harsh and remote, accessed by a twisting one lane road that exists only to provide access to Temple 38: Kongofukuji. Kongofukuji is less than halfway around the island, and is famous for breaking henro spirits. It’s several days to and from T38, requiring a full day of demoralizing backtracking. Plus, legend holds that the temple’s guardian deities cast “unworthy” pilgrims over the rocky cliffs to their death. Did I mention the rain?

As approach Kongofukuji, my thoughts drift to the mental checklist of rituals which I must perform at every temple. Ritual is central to any religion; it’s how we express devotion. A pilgrimage, then, must be tapping into the main line of religious dedication. It’s devoting not just someone’s fleetings actions, but the physical body – their life for a time – to a cause outside of themselves*. And Japan is a country of precise, deeply embedded rituals. It’s a place where the properly executed task communicates a reverence for those in the past, the present, and the society which binds them together. Tracing Kobo Daishi’s path through the 88 temples has been performed regularly since his death in the 9th century. So being on a pilgrimage, in Japan, is kinda like being inside a ritual nesting doll.

I step through the temple’s threshold, bow deeply, and begin the granular set of actions which can dictate hours each day. The level of detail and number of steps involved is tear-inducing, but broadly: First I wash my hands and light candles and incense at each of two important subtemples inside each complex. Next, I chant several sets of prayers in phonetic staccato. Four years of singing Latin polyphany in college helps my chanting, but I’ve been stared at without being looked at on many occasions for incense and candle missteps. Finally, I leave some money, and a handwritten name-address slip, in the brushed metal containers aside each subtemple.

Before leaving the temple grounds, I scout out and enter the temple office, or nokyosho. The main purpose of the nokyosho is to draw each temple’s special calligraphic signature, or “stamp,” onto pilgrim affects. There’s no shortcut to collecting each individual stamp, and a completed stampbook with all 88 pages painted is greatly revered. It’s also coveted. Pilgrims are warned not to leave their stampbooks unguarded, as they contain hundreds of dollars of stamp fees, and can fetch over a thousand dollars for those seeking a (really, really misguided) shortcut to enlightenment.

Much like the temples themselves, which are independently operated and maintained, you can never be quite sure what to expect, stamp-wise. The spectrum ranges from a brisque, dry-brushed lap by an irritable monk to a thick tender trace from a grandmotherly volunteer. It’s 300 Yen, either way. I approach the friendlier-looking monk, and hand over my 8.5×11 booklet.

I smile, and say “Onegaishimasu!” (Please, and thanks in advance.)

The monk performs his ritual with a concentration and tenderness which is hard to imagine mustering after a long day, let alone life, of performing the same redundant task. I think of “The Path,” a book by Michael Puett, a Professor of growing legend for popularizing Eastern Philosophy and Religion among Harvard undergrads. Puett speaks of the historical use of ritual as “role play” – to help us step out of regular, routine life. Puett argues that there’s power in changing roles, whether it be playing hide and go seek to empower a child, or trying on the life of an ascetic. It temporarily breaks the patterns which allow us to sleepwalk through much of our days. My pilgrim role play has produced experiential knowledge about myself which I couldn’t have possibly read, or been told. I suppose that’s why people have done it for centuries: ritual is a proven recipe.

I imagine that this monk uses the minute or so that it takes to draw the calligraphy not as a boring routine, but as a sacred ritual. He has to – it practically leaps from his brush. I wonder if anyone else notices. And I realize in this moment that, emerging from my nitpickery of Japanese cultural particularities, is a deep respect for the seriousness, focus, and attention most here devote to even the most mundane tasks. I step back away from the monk’s desk, but remain close enough to continue to watch as he graces the books of other pilgrims. A counterintuitive Marine Corps saying** comes to mind: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. And I think: Attention is love, and love is beautiful.

I vow to treasure at least these remaining moments at each office, and to remind myself to be present more often. I re-wrap my stamp book in its waterproof sheath – three crumpled grocery bags – and set off.

2. Surrender

Across from the temple is a handful of guesthouses stacked on top of each other, clinging to the rugged cliff. Bursts of wind carry spits of rain and unseat my sedge hat. A downpour looks likely, so I duck into a cafe to prepare, and to treat myself to a hot drink. I’ll also try to make sense of the five (5!) different routes to Temple 39 offered by the map book.

First published a decade ago as the first attempt to translate the detailed Japanese guidebook, the “Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide” is as irredeemable as it is indispensable. Indispensable because it is the only English resource for foreign henro. It’s difficult to imagine life without it; it has replaced my phone as an analog gadget to which I’ve become utterly addicted. Irredeemable because it’s bewilderingly complicated. It’s inconsistent in sometimes cruel ways***. And it leaves gaping holes in the daily needs of the pilgrim, such as sufficient details about sleeping arrangements in roadside Henro Huts.

I’ve made peace with it by considering it a “treasure map” instead of a guidebook. After all, treasure maps vaguely warn of ominous obstacles, pointing the explorer only notionally in the right direction. Guidebooks guide you along the way. Frankly, that’s not really what people come on the pilgrimage to do. Plus, treasure maps lead to treasure, which is fun. This “guidebook” has only led me to Blistertownship and Self-Doubt City.

Joking aside, the last two weeks have been the most difficult and painful physical challenges of my life. I coasted along for the first six days, accelerating through the first signs of blisters, and with it, conventional Henro wisdom of walking much less than 20km a day initially. I figured that my relative measure of physical fitness had somehow exempted me from what I now know is an equal opportunity destroyer. A week ago in Kochi City, the inn keeper, after seeing my feet and watching me descend the staircase from my room at her minshuku, all but dragged me to the hospital and begged me to take a few days rest. I declined the hospital, instead giving my feet a thorough duct taping, but agreed to stay an extra day in Kochi, using typing up this dispatch as justification for my weakness. It’s just walking, after all. Two days later, my feet likely rejoiced when I contracted food poisoning, giving them yet another day to recover.

Over the two weeks that followed, the blisters buried themselves below thick callouses, delivering them beyond reach of non-surgical intervention. It set off a chain reaction of maladies: my gait shifted in response to the new landscape on the bottom of my feet. This resulted in more blisters cropping up on other parts of my soles, like Whack-a-Mole(skin). I wake up nightly, twisting in my sleeping bag to back and calf spasms, as each part of my body tries to alter thirty years of learned ambulatory behavior.

On the positive side, I’ve seen the other face of something I once considered involuntary: walking. I’ve never been so wholly and physically brought to a grinding halt, especially by such a comparatively small area of skin and muscle. The irony of the self-inflicted nature of my misery is not lost on me: isn’t a career/life version of this exactly what burned me out to the point of needing a sabbatical? I didn’t just volunteer for the pilgrimage, I sought this out. And I choose to continue daily. But I’ve surrendered in smaller, symbolic ways: I’ve taken more rest days (2) in less than half of the journey than I thought I’d need in its entirety. Just yesterday, I made the emasculating decision to ship a box full of (hopefully) excess weight, including my stove, pot, and several layers of clothing, in attempt to reduce the load on my feet. I’m trying to imagine myself finishing the pilgrimage, while not picturing walking another 750 kilometers to do so.

3. Surrender continued

Done feeling sorry for myself for the time being, I slowly start down the cafe’s steep stairs to the street. The cafe waitress runs after me with my walking stick, which I’d left against the wall, and slips a packet of butter cookies into my palm as ossetai. I struggle to maintain my smile as I turn and face what has become a steady rain. It’s 9:30am, 12 degrees celsius, and I still have over 25 soggy kilometers to go.

Rain here is very different than rain in normal life. For the walker, rain has weight and sound. It adds time, subtracts temperature, and injects emotion to your day. There are small inconveniences which I never would have expected: the sound of passing cars, especially through tunnels, is loud when wet. It’s startlingly loud, especially when funneled into your eardrums by a cone hat. The extra weight of water tacked onto your body and backpack is noticeable. Water nefariously stows away in yesterday’s socks, or folded into your tent, safe from evaporation’s reach. But I find the most difficult part is the vulnerability. From moment to moment, nothing is constant or certain. A renegade drop can intrude on areas which seemed watertight. A gust of wind can send a chill down your spine at any time. I have no certain shelter to look forward to, and no guarantee of dryness or warmth once I arrive. It could rain for a week straight.

And yet, I find a surprising feeling blooming in these circumstances: joy. It first starts as frustration, then anger, then disbelief, then surrender. And then joy. It helps to imagine how miserable I must look to cars passing by. And seeing motorcycles. I spent March on motorcycle in New Zealand, and I know they are feeling worse than I am as they pass by. I will see a truck approaching in the distance, and estimate the number of seconds before its nine outer tires spray me with water and sound. At some point, I digress to my youth and walk through the deepest puddles in the road, instead of skirting around them. My pace quickens, and I march to the beat of the rain-peppered conical snare drum on my head. I’ve never before been as wet as I am when walking for hours through a downpour. And in these moments, I can still find wonder reminiscent of seeing the world for the first time. Head down, I scan the sidewalk for small delights.

The rain quickens and thickens, and I stop under a rare overpass to check my pack cover and readjust my rain pants. A silhouette materializes through the vertical static, a spry older man who speaks a handful of English. He removes his shoes one by one, and turns them over, their contents pouring out like a pitcher of water – we laugh.

I follow along as he blazes a trail through high water. He’s in a rush to reach his minshuku, before dinner. Minshukus are run by locals and cater to pilgrims. Guests share woven-straw tatami-matted rooms topped with thin, futon mattresses. For around 6000 Yen ($55), dinner, breakfast, a hot bath are guaranteed, and laundry a possibility. Minshukus are an expensive emergency backup plan for me, though ironically, they aren’t very accommodating to late arrivals, especially foreign ones. I’m suddenly jolted out of my thoughts by joyful music filling the valley. Its melody is garbled by the rain, coming in opposing waves to the deluge. In rural areas, a children’s song is piped over the loudspeaker each day at 5pm beckoning kids home from the playgrounds and baseball diamonds. It has also become a cue for my blood pressure to rise in tandem with the need for accommodation for the night.

I realize I’ve missed my turn onto a steep mountain path – where I’d planned to camp – because it’s too wet to follow the treasure map closely. My walking partner ducks under an awning to compare maps. He suggests I follow him a few more kilometers down the road to a michi-no-eki, a Japanese roadside stop stocked with vending machines and reliably clean restrooms.

4. Self care

It’s now 7:30pm, and I’m hunched into a shivering question mark in my home for the night, an octagonal wooden “henro hut.” The huts are sprinkled sporadically along the route, constructed in all different shapes and sizes. All have roofs, some have benches wide enough for sleeping, and the rare hut has clearance for pitching a tent. It’s never clear what you’re going to get until you see it in person, which makes it mostly impossible to plan in advance where to sleep.

This particular henro hut (HH) has other more pressing issues. It has the look, and porousness, of a near-toppled Jenga tower, and it’s been constructed at the entrance to a noisy, and very public, highway rest-stop. As the shops shutter, the flow of cars slows to a trickle, with only those camping out for the night remaining. Nearby, I watch the driver of a small RV labeled Sorba Country dry his pet’s (presumably Sorba) paws before closing the sliding door for the night.

During a break from the rain, I affix my tarp to one-eighth of the hut. I wolf down two onigiri, seaweed-wrapped rice triangles with mystery**** fillings. Today’s rainy slog has me strangely energized. I covered over 35 kilometers, and I realize it’s the first time I’ve felt unencumbered by injury in 15 days.

I tenderly remove a layer of duct tape from my heel to find that my skin is soft and white, almost amphibian, from the constant wetness. I’m cautiously optimistic with what the day’s progress suggests for my recovery. As I unpack, I set aside various nail clippers, bandages, and medications needed for the now-daily footcare routine. Attention and care for one’s feet is, of course, pervasive in religious symbology. But only now do I fully comprehend the connection to prophets and walking and feet. In general, feet are gross. In the real world, you cover them in socks, leave them out in the elements in sandals, and curse them when you have to dress up or stub a toe. But for Henro, they are quite literally all that stands between you and your goal, and they require regular attention. Almost a scheduled appointment, like a tire change. “Self-propelled, self-repairing machines,” is how Vonnegut describes human bodies in “Breakfast of Champions.” In normal life, injuries result from accidents. Here, it’s not something to avoid, but something to expect, and persist through. It’s too early for me to what today means. Have I developed some sort of newfound strength, or if I’m in a lull of the permanent cycle of my body changing, breaking, and healing? My options are limited. All I can do wake up, walk gracelessly, and seek meaning in the hardships.

I’ve surrendered to the elements. I’ve surrendered to the complexity of the mapbook and the uncertainty of the journey. I’ve surrendered pride. I’ve surrendered plans for finishing by my birthday. I have to consider the possibility of not finishing at all. Joy doesn’t emerge from these realizations, but I find it lightens the burden somehow. My tarp seems to be holding out the evening’s spits and gusts. A tinny generator whirs from a huddle of luminescent Coke machines next to my hut, projecting arcs of convenience into the dark parking lot.

5. Questions, shoutouts, varia

Book recommendations

Buddhism is a tough one to read about, and there are a LOT of books out there that will turn you off on it immediately. Here’s what I’d suggest in order of preference:

  • Buddhism without Beliefs – Stephen Batchelor – my favorite book on the topic, brief, readable, and practical. Start here!
  • Siddhartha – Herman Hesse – on most everyone’s Buddhist reading list. Short, easily digestible, and a classic look at the story of Guatama Buddha.
  • If the Buddha Dated – Charlotte Kasl – the remainder of the title of this book is even more embarrassing than the first part. BUT I really liked this a few years ago, in learning about the practical, mental and lifestyle implications of Buddhist thinking. It’s easy and fun, and I exceeded my Kindle highlight limitation reading it.
  • Confession of a Buddhist Atheist – Stephen Batchelor part memoir of his struggles after becoming a monk, and eventually leaving. Good for questioners.
  • Buddha – Karen Armstrong – for history and religion buffs. More dry, but comprehensive look at Buddha the person, and the beginning of the religion.

* At the same time, most pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and many I’ve met in Shikoku, aren’t religious.

** And in, perhaps, the world’s least context-appropriate analogy….or at least as counterintuitively used here as the expression is itself. In fairness to me, I wrote a Marine Corps recommendation during the pilgrimage, so it’s not totally out of the blue!

*** For example, you’ll think you only have 3 kilometers to go, when you realize that book has switched from one map scale to another, and then back again. 3kms becomes 9kms and, well, looks like you’ll be setting up your tent in the dark again tonight!!

**** The filling, of course, is not an actual mystery, but I haven’t learned to read what’s inside of them, and each convenience store has a different color coding system to indicate its contents. And I kinda like the surprise.