October 10, 2015. This would be our last day on our Shikoku pilgrimage.
A week earlier my mum, Anna Firman, suffered a stroke in Winnipeg. Her condition worsening, it was imperative that we make our way back home to be with her. Three days after our return, mum gently passed away with me, my brother, Stewart, and sister, Katherine, at her side.
On October 9, Gail and I were making our way along the Pacific Coast of Shikoku. Waves pounded the shore. Waves far larger than I had ever seen before. Deep bass thuds of collapsing curls of water punched through the air. The hot sun burnt our faces.
We were trekking 76 kilometers along the lonely ocean coast between Temple 23 and 24. Sixty kilometers were already under our belts. Only four more to our night’s rest at Minshuku Shiina. A text arrived from my sister: David, can you contact me as soon as possible. I’m sorry to say that Mum is worsening.
I sat there at a rickety wood bench as I placed a Skype call to my sister. The Pacific hammered wildly in the background as I got the bad news.
It was a solemn four kilometre walk to our minshuku. We had our usual baths and a fine dinner before retreating back to our room to make travel arrangements for our rushed return to Winnipeg.
We were in the most isolated corner of Shikoku, a mere 12 kilometers from Cape Muroto, a wild, rocky outpost buffeted by wind and waves. Our return would require a walk to Cape Muroto, a local bus ride to Nahari, a commuter train to Gomen, a limited express train to Okayama, and a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo before catching our new return flight to Canada.
But, first, we thought it appropriate to walk the last 12 kilometers to our next temple and pay tribute to Mum. So we woke early and headed off along the shore. We stopped by the Mikuradō Cave where Kōbō Daishi, at age 19, meditated and underwent a mystical experience. “The morning star which shines in the sky entered my mouth,” he wrote.
And then we climbed the final 200 metres through the forest, up to Temple 24. It was the most beautiful of the 24 temples we had visited. A peaceful, quiet, gentle place that seemed so much to reflect the spirit of my Mum. A group of Japanese pilgrims in their bright white vests and conical sedge hats chanted in front of Kōbō Daishi’s Hall. For a while, I sat under a canopy of trees, listening to the pilgrims, as I composed my thoughts and wrote them down on one of my paper nameslips. One of the rituals when visiting a temple is to write a blessing on a nameslip and deposit it in a container at the foot of the Main and Daishi Halls. These are later gathered and burned by the monks as a spiritual offering.
Gail and I wandered through the temple grounds, lighting candles and incense at the Main Hall before heading to Kōbō Daishi’s Hall, off to the side. There we left our sedge hats – the end of our journey for now – and I deposited my nameplate tribute in the glowing steel receptacle.
As a final tribute to our mum, here is the simple blessing I wrote and left at the top of a mountain in Japan:
David Firman, age 63, son of Anna Firman, age 89. Anna suffered a stroke earlier this week and is not expected to live much longer. So I finish my Shikoku journey here, at Temple 24, and offer this blessing for her long life as the most wonderful mother to me, brother Stewart and sister Katherine.