Dispatches from SabbaticalLand – Part III

Faithful readers – I’m still alive 🙂

The third dispatch follows my path through the Ehime prefecture – known to Henro as the “place of Enlightenment.” For me, it’s a place of reflection and companionship. You’ll follow me over a river, on top of a mountain, and across the sea:

  1. The Bridge – Reflection
  2. The Temple – Routine
  3. The Dome – Forgiveness

1. The Bridge

It’s 10:30pm on a Sunday, and the streets are deserted in Ozu. The route, and perhaps the city itself, carves through a mashup of industrial warehouses and neon-lit restaurants. I’m walking with Kristen, a 27-year old Japanese-speaking Estonian man whose “pilgrim beard” betrays his youth. We met sitting next to a power outlet, at a highway rest stop the night before.

Much earlier in the day, I convinced Kristen to walk over 40 kilometers so that we could sleep under a bridge. The Toyogahashi bridge was famously shelter from the elements for the pilgrimage’s prophet, Kobo Daishi. Because of this legend, Henros carry their walking sticks soundlessly across bridges throughout the island, so as to not wake sleeping Kobo. Pilgrims visiting Toyogahashi typically sleep at the nearby temple, or business hotels in the city, but we’re craving an authentic experience. We march to a duet of walking stick taps, and bell jingles.

A few steps ahead, I call over my shoulder to Kristen that we should definitely make it to the bridge before midnight. It sounded more encouraging in my head. Kristen’s initial excitement for the idea has long since departed, leaving a formidable silence hanging between us as I try to stay positive.

It’s hard not to think back to my behavior on the Camino de Santiago, 9 months ago in Spain. I convinced my friend since childhood, Ben, to accompany me on the last 100 kilometers of the famous pilgrimage. On the final day, I pushed Ben to the point of injury, insisting we could cover twice the distance we’d planned. Though we ultimately arrived at our destination a day early, neither of us could walk to the central Cathedral – mandatory to officially complete our pilgrimage – from our hotel. When the exotic becomes the everyday, I’ll find a way to ratchet up the intensity until I’m missing the point entirely.

Suddenly, a squeaking bike careens towards us out of the darkness ahead. It stops just short of hitting us, and its rider, an oversized, middle-aged Japanese man, dismounts.

“Henro-san! I’m Daiki. Don’t you have a place to sleep?” he asks in broken English. Both bike tires appear to be flat.

I tell him we’re heading to the Kobo Daishi bridge. But before I can explain we don’t need any help, he begins chaining his bike to the nearest street sign.

“I’ll show you the way – it will take only an hour – can I see your book?” He asks with excitement, almost after snatching the mapbook out of my hand.

I’m terrified of losing the book at this point in the trip; for all of its quirks, the book had become indispensable for navigation. Fearing the worst, I try in vain to politely get it back. But Daiki is hard at work, furiously turning the pages as he walks, and making circles in pen. Something about him seems strange, but my suspicion fades away as it becomes clear that his only intention is the ossetai spirit of Shikoku: he’s adding unmarked places to sleep onto the book. As he writes, he calls out specific details about each mark he’s made in the map.

Kristen and I are overwhelmed with gratitude. Our tensions dissipate, and we forget our tired legs for the next hour. As Daiki leads the way past a dark towering mall, he gossips about the temples on the route. It’s hard to comprehend the details, but it sounds messy, and I picture an US Weekly headline: “Monks, they’re just like us!” I drop back and let Kristen get more reliable information in Japanese.

The minutes melt away on the dark streets. We’d walked a marathon already, and it felt nice to have companionship for the final hours of such a long day. Watching the pair ahead of me, I recognize Kristen’s thirst to learn and connect. To get out of his head and into the lives of others. I wonder what kind of value I’m providing to him, if any. I’m also curious, but to the point of prioritizing learning more for myself versus taking time to teach others what I’ve learned along the way.

Shortly before midnight, we arrive at our destination: a dark, nondescript intersection. Toyogahashi bridge hardly rises above street level, and it spans only a four meter canal. Like most ancient relics in urban areas, it’s surrounded by progress.

“Sleep well, Henro-san. There’s a curry restaurant over there which never closes,” he says as he gestures.

We thank Daiki profusely as he heads into the night, and hand him our personalized osamefuda name slips. Under the bridge is a compact shrine, with a stone carving of Kobo Daishi sleeping. Wordlessly, we set down our packs and head for the curry shop.

The CoCo Curry wait staff hurriedly cleans and prepares a booth at the unusual sight of two foreigners dressed in religious sashes, white robes, and sedge hats on a Sunday at midnight. We are cold and tired. We order, and Kristen breaks the silence.

“Without Daiki’s distraction, I don’t know if I would have been able to walk that past hour.”

I nod. I was maniacally set on making it, but I admit that the bottom of my feet were numb since sunset. Together we laugh about how Daiki had dozens of rest stops, benches, and secondary temples memorized for the next 500 kilometers. I feel bad that I suspected him of trying to sell us something or lead us astray.

“No, really, between your energy and Daiki…” Kristen trails off, looks down, and then back up. “Yesterday, before we met, I was contemplating quitting and heading home. I’m still not sure I’ll finish, but today was a good day. Thank you.”

Over thick, brown Japanese curry and pork cutlets, Kristen laments that he can’t finish things he starts. The light seemingly drains out of his blue-gray eyes as he speaks. He attempted several majors in college before finding a passion studying abroad in Japan, only to abandon his studies upon returning to Estonia. Last month, he left his latest in a string of unsatisfactory jobs to walk Shikoku.

I tell him I struggle to admit defeat or to quit things. Several relationships and jobs are fresh casualties. There’s an obvious hypocrisy in blaming myself both for leaving too soon, and for staying too long, but it’s alive and raw inside me nonetheless. Is it better to be driven maniacally towards goal after goal, or to feel a sluggish self-doubt towards the end of any pursuit? Our conversation stalls. Conversation with Kristen accrue long, weighty silences, which can seem cold at first, but reveal themselves as deep glimpses into his earnest self-examination. I’m fighting back the desire to convince him he’s better off than I. Perhaps he’s doing the same.

Leaving something unfinished rarely crosses my mind. My stubbornness to the point of injury in Shikoku is a raw example. I hadn’t considered actively quitting, but I had begun to understand that my body might not be physically able to continue. Just yesterday, I weighed myself at a bathhouse while cleaning up. The scale echoed the mirror. I was two kilograms less than when I graduated from high school. I looked emaciated. The sabbatical, like the mirror, can offer a chance to see oneself more objectively. But it also offers a new avenue to treat yourself exactly the same, or worse.

Our plates scraped clean, we paid our bill and set back towards the bridge. It’s a place both holy and profane – it’s the underside of a bridge, after all – and we aren’t sure how and where to respectfully sleep. We spread out a tarp to the side of Kobo Daishi’s statue and the unlit candles. I hope that the sun wakes us before the Henro arrive to pay their respects, and my mind reflects on the longest day of the pilgrimage so far.

I’m grateful for meeting Kristen; he has given me an outlet, a foil, and much needed distraction. For the first time on the trip, I felt older and wiser than someone. Being looked-up-to isn’t a cure for self-doubt, but it’s powerful tonic. Maybe it’s permission to divert energy towards others, decreasing the pressure on oneself. Though it’s possible I’m not a mentor in his eyes at all, but a cautionary tale from seven years in the future. I vow to find a way to support Kristen along his journey, though we’ve already planned to part ways in the morning. Daiki’s generosity is an important reminder that we’re never on our journeys alone, only at different times.

2. The Temple

I’m sitting alone with JP on a balcony at sunset, listening as the Frenchman reflects on his walking style thus far. He looks to be in his late forties; he’s handsome, with a few days’ gray stubble and dusted-dark hair. We’re on the balcony of Temple 58, Senyuji, perched atop a 300-meter mountain overlooking the small city of Imbari. The setting sun illuminates several rows of volcanic mountain islands dotting the sea between Shikoku and its island neighbor, Honshu, home to Hiroshima.

After two weeks straight camping in parking lots and forests, I was happy I’d splurged on a room at temple 58. Shukubos are the lodging attached to temples which provide traditional tatami-matted sleeping quarters, vegetarian meals, and the opportunity to chant alongside the resident monks at sunrise.

JP and I have run into each other several times since bonding over our matching backpacks on day seven in Tokushima. I’m listening as he laments the delays and adjustments he’s had to make to his trip to accommodate various walking partners. When we first met, he was traveling with a Korean woman, and now he’s paired with a lady from Hong Kong. It was the complete opposite of my walking style.

I mention that, while I’ve relished the opportunity to spend time with the half dozen or so Henro I’ve met who speak English, I’ve found myself avoiding walking with anyone for more than a day. I can’t put my finger on exactly why – what would it mean if I were to walk slower for a few days? I don’t even have any concrete plans after the trip, if anything, prolonging the pilgrimage gives more time to push the scarier decisions further into the future. Instead, I make excuses to plow ahead once someone attaches themselves to me. I’m cagey with details of my destinations for the evening, and I often eat on the run as an escape hatch.

I ask him if he gets annoyed by his walking partners, and he admits it can be inconvenient.

“I find myself constantly wishing I were going faster,” he says, “or that I could stop where I want, sleep in, or eat differently. But for me, the eccentricities and the detours are part of building compassion for others.”

“What am I in a rush for?” JP continues, “What will I do next?”

I struggle not to feel judged, but the comparison is a useful thought exercise. I’ve walked Shikoku very quickly, and almost entirely by myself. From what I can tell, everyone starts the pilgrimage in pretty much the exact same way: faced with an unimaginably large task (~1200 km’s) in a mysterious land (even most Japanese haven’t been to Shikoku), with a map book in hand. The only option is to begin, and figure everything out as you go.

From there, each Henro begins to make a set of daily decisions, about how far they will walk, how much they’ll spend on lodging, whether they’ll walk alone, and a host of other seemingly small choices that add up to 6 to 8 weeks of their lives. It seems obvious, in retrospect, that these small decisions ultimately become Their Pilgrimage. I reflect on the first two-thirds of my walk. Each day, my most important task is covering around 30 kilometers. Rain or shine, mountains or city, temples or long stretches of nothingness. Why? A couple throw-away lines from a blog indicating the average distances and the number of days the trip will take.

How often does one pause and reflect before the end of a stage of one’s life, as JP’s observations caused me to do? When there’s still time to distinguish your daily actions from the ultimate body of work, the finished product. To see those daily decisions as choices, patterns which can be easily changed. To ask what the differences mean, and what that body of work and the daily choices say about them. The older you get, the more you perspective you gain that all along, it was about how you did it, not how fast.

There’s still time to change, but patterns become routines, and routines hew a path, and it’s pedestrian* daily life again. What does that path say about who we are? In other words, how can I take the wisdom from the end, and impart it to myself in the moment, when I’m truly only part of the way through a much larger and more important journey of life? I don’t need to be at the end to have the wisdom to course correct, I just need a break, for perspective. For objectivity.

JP sees a link between his need to partner up with women along the trail and his underlying desire to have a life partner. Someone to help, even if it slows him down. He misses his daughter, and hopes to do a pilgrimage with her at some point. He lives near the start of the Camino Norte, a less-traveled route of the Camino de Santiago in France.

I admit to him that I’m scared of his method. I want to want to be slowed down by a partner in real life. I want to be slowed out of love and compassion and strength, not because I’m lonely or weak. JP appears troubled by this, though it’s not clear if I’ve made him feel judged, or if he thinks I’m missing the point entirely. In retrospect, my walking style likely warranted the latter opinion.

“Be careful making that assessment too early, or too frequently.” JP pauses – we’re both transfixed by the layers of light streaming out from under the clouds. “Everyone is fighting their own difficult battle,” he finishes. I wonder what life experiences lay behind his words of caution. Maybe I had been like Kristen all along, leaving people too soon because I couldn’t see their faults for what they really were: my lack of patience and compassion.

I realize the sun has long ago set. The wind picked up, and it’s too cold to stay outside much longer. I begin to get up to leave, but first look over to see JP’s eyes closed; I do the same. It becomes impossible not to see my subconscious decision to race through the pilgrimage as analog to my life choices. While pressing forward on the easily measurable metric of kilometers walked, I’m sacrificing relaxed time spent writing, reading, connecting with people, savoring the food… anything really. I’ve been optimizing for something easy to explain, versus something that makes my heart sing. I’m not even sure I know how to make decisions for my heart.

First thing’s first: I vow to cap my distance per day, to take several long breaks to read and to record the experience, no matter where it leaves me trail-wise. I’ll more closely observe my choices, to make sure they’re aligned with how I want to look back and have walked this walk, to have lived this life. Because, in the end, the Shikoku pilgrimage doesn’t change, but how each pilgrim does it can differ vastly. I can’t change the pilgrimage, but if I’m not careful, I won’t allow it to change me.

By the next morning my resolve has already weakened, and I make sure to leave before JP and his companion are ready. I slip my personalized osamefudas into their shoes at the entryways, thanking each for the gifts their presence gave me. I’m energized to reevaluate the last third of the trip. But first, 20kms before lunch time…

3. The Dome

Hiroshima is a short ferry ride across the inland sea from Matsuyama, the largest city in Shikoku. I had not realized it was so close – and had not planned or intended to see Hiroshima – in fact I knew almost nothing about the city. All I knew is what we all think when we hear “Hiroshima.” To not pay respects, while this close, on such an ancient reverent errand, seemed wrong.

The ferry port is on the other side of a mountain from Temple 52 – Taisanji. Reaching it by foot means a kilometer long tunnel with no shoulder, or a steep ascent through unkempt forest – the choice is easy. I set off on a slippery hike that seems ancient and un-trafficked. Fighting through underbrush and invisible cobwebs during the ascent, I’m soon rewarded by the choice: a spectacular vista of Honshu Island. It rises from the sea as quickly as Shikoku falls, and hundreds of ships of all sizes traverse the sea leading to the port. I quickly descend to the port, and find DJ-sized lockers in the ferry terminal where I stow my backpack, walking stick, and sedge hat for the first time in over a month.

I opt for the half-price “slow ferry” and find a spot in an empty carpeted lounge near the bridge of the vessel. After the ship leaves port, a slight man with a shaved head, jeans, and a Nintendo Switch sits down next to me. We exchange pleasantries, and in perfect English, he tells me that he’s a monk at Temple 66. He’s taking his mother to Hiroshima for its famous oyster pancakes (okonomiyaki) on his day off. When he discovers I’m a Henro, he offers me free lodging at their shukubo. He offers no clues as to what, if anything, my visit to Hiroshima as an American means to most Japanese, and I’m afraid to ask.

I’ve been fortunate (and eager) to travel to many countries with raw, complicated histories: South Africa, Israel, Pakistan, and Vietnam. As an American grandson of a WWII Pacific theater pilot, Japan was a complicated** topic growing up. But wounds heal, and many prejudices scab over and disappear, if simply through generational change.

A charming streetcar connects the Hiroshima ferry terminal to the downtown area, which is split by the Motoyasu river. In the middle of the river is a large island where the epicenter of the blast occurred. Pre-WWII, this was the bustling commerce center. Now it is made up of four square kilometers of parks and monuments, and anchored by the Hiroshima Peace Museum. It’s late afternoon, and though I won’t have much time before the Museum closes, my curiosity prevents me from waiting until tomorrow.

I’ve come to the museum anticipating what I didn’t know to expect when I went to the war museum in Hanoi a decade ago. In Hanoi, it was jarringly named the “American War Atrocities Museum,” and offered a graphic depiction of the human cost of American weaponry, (namely Agent Orange). Instead, the Peace Museum in Hiroshima was an experiential message for peace, wrapped in a restrained exploration of humanity’s ability to destroy itself. And an implicit acceptance of Japan’s own culpability in partaking in war.

I wind through several crowded floors of exhibits outlining life in Hiroshima before the war, each exhibit descending closer and closer to the main lobby exit. The designated path winds through the Japanese role in the war, the escalating arms race on the european front, and ends with a dramatic scientific analysis of the blast radius over a model city. I’m the last to enter the final exhibition room at the museum as it closes. The expansive room features a wide collection of charred relics from the blast: a child’s lunchbox, a desk, a small tricycle. I exit the museum as the sun begins to set, and head for what has become the symbol of Hiroshima – a UNESCO World Heritage site – the Genbaku Dome. I’ve only read about the dome, so I’m not sure what to expect. I follow the thinning crowds and tour groups.

As I walk, I try to imagine how the public discourse evolved here to ultimately lead the Japanese to choose forgiveness. I feel bad as an American, standing at the epicenter of one of the greatest civilian catastrophes in history. Did forgiveness work? US F-16s have been flying training missions overhead as I’ve walked Shikoku. I think of my time living in South Africa, and the stories of their more recent wounds dressed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Any issues I have are obviously incomparably miniscule; it’s the perspective and process of absolution which inspires me. Visiting the peace museum was like being steeped in forgiveness.

When we finally decide to address issues of hurt in our life, how deep do we allow ourselves to dig, and can we forgive ourselves for feeling the pain in the meantime? I didn’t choose to go on a sabbatical, I slowly, gracelessly burned out.

I hadn’t been able to forgive myself for leaving my friends and colleagues at the company I helped start, in its perpetual state of (maybe only self-perceived) need. For leaving my family at the end of a health crisis, and at the beginning of a long march to recovery. Or for not living up to some arbitrary standard of success I internalized somewhere in the past decade. My dissatisfaction was alive and well here in Japan too: for walking too fast, for making no friends, for learning very little Japanese, and for marching myself to the point of injury. I realized I’d been feeling worse about not enjoying my sabbatical than I did about not enjoying my life at the company I started.

A chorus of murmuring ahead snatches me out of my thoughts. I’ve come upon a crowd gathered at the shore of the river, facing a three story plain brick and concrete shell towering over its banks. The setting sun paints the sky pink, but the building casts a dull blue shadow upon itself. Bare metal rafters protrude from the brick, and culminate into the shell of a dome, like a rusted colander. It is not the Dome I expected. It’s not a beautiful, or even handsome building, but it is stubborn. This was the only building which survived the blast over seventy years ago. I sit on a bench opposite the Motoyasu from the Dome as the sun sets. Hiroshima’s history has inspired me in an entirely different way than I’d expected: not for the bomb, but for their reaction. There are scars, slivers of twisted building facades across the city, but ground zero is a peace memorial.

I wake up early the next morning and take the rambling streetcar back to the ferry port. I board the ferry and pull out my journal. Anticipating the last portion of the pilgrimage will go by quickly***, I’m determined to live my lessons in the present, instead of lamenting them in retrospect. I’ll probably still go fast and mostly alone – but how can I take advantage of the time I save? To move forward, I must forgive, and the first party in line is myself. I put away my journal, and head to the windy upper deck of the ferry to enjoy the ride for a bit.

4. Questions, Shout-outs, Varia

Thanks for your continued companionship and interest. Several of you passed these emails along to friends who have expressed interest in (or otherwise need) a sabbatical – please feel free to connect me and share at will! In particular, if you know people who have taken sabbaticals, I’m eager to talk to them….

* Cringeworthy walking pun intended

** At one point, my grandfather threatened to disown me if I got a Japanese car. As a shot across the bow, my dad bought me a Nissan Pathfinder. When my Grandfather got his first SONY TV as a gift, he referred to it as Standard Oil New York (S.O.N.Y.). I stayed within the family.

*** What could possibly go wrong, right? Riiiiiiight?