Shikoku: In Praise of Flat

Nice flat paths. That is what lies between the physically demanding climb to Temples 11 and 12 and that final, mentally exhausting ascent to Temple 24.

Eight days of gentle walking. This is the first of those easy passages through forests and villages, sea coasts and cities.

Our day’s route from our minshuku just past Temple 12, Nabeiwa-sō, to Temple 13 would be entirely on pavement. Major and minor highways. Village streets. While our path is level, mountains rise all around us. Massive concrete buttresses, cloaked in green lichens and vines, hold back steeply sloped forests. Tunnels carve through inconvenient peaks. Wherever the mountains back away, there are villages intermingled with small rice fields or orchards.

The small communities we pass through, here on Shikoku, are a tightly packed melange of old and new. Traditionally designed homes and businesses, rarely more than two storeys high, jockey with newer plain-jane boxes.

Rural settlements bear the same conceptual underpinnings around the world. Visually, they may look completely different, imbued with the vernacular traditions and history of local culture. But they all share an honesty and frankness born of a need to meet the practical requirements of an agrarian life so tightly connected to the earth, the weather and the sea.

In one of those small villages we find ourselves participating in an endearing custom of the pilgrimage. We are quietly making our way down the road in Kamiyama when we hear running footsteps behind us. A young man rushes up, greets us with a bow and holds out a bulging white plastic bag. He pulls out two cans of fruit drink and a large cluster of grapes before handing the bag to us. We graciously accept, knowing that to refuse is considered extremely rude. He smiles. We exchange a few words in our two languages. Gail presents him with a white nameslip with her name on the back, the only acceptable form of payment.  He grins widely, bows once more and departs, happily running back to his home around the corner.

This is osettai. A gift willingly given to pilgrims because pilgrims are considered the embodiment of Kōbō Daishi, the founder of the pilgrimage. It is not our first osettai – we were gifted rosaries, seed bracelets and biscuits on our first day – nor would it be our last. But this one is particularly generous and most welcome.

We find a quiet rest spot a little further on and sit down to enjoy our feast. Grapes are a special treat. Large, luscious, sweet…and precious. We know, from our supermarket visits, that fruit is ridiculously expensive and that the bunch of grapes we were enjoying likely cost ten Canadian dollars.

It’s a hot, overcast day. As we finish our treat, rain starts in earnest. Reluctantly we don coats, knowing that we are in for a sweaty walking experience. Our route takes us down Highway 438, a relatively major route but the traffic is light enough not to be annoying. Then it is on to the very minor 207, a two-lane road gradually devolving into a one-lane dirt path before landing us in the small village of Nyūta. We see only three or four vehicles along the way. It is a beautiful walk through dense forests, wet and fragrant. Alongside the road, a small stream pours loudly over rocks.

Today is a reflective day and, in hindsight, I wonder if it was part of Kōbō Daishi’s plan: to stretch our bodies and spirits to the breaking point as we climb to Temple 11 and 12 and then release that stress, filling the void with several days of pure contemplative walking.

There is a sense of orchestration to the journey so far. Two days where the pilgrim is overwhelmed with a dizzying array of deities at ten temples, establishing the theme of the trek. Then a powerful crescendo as we climb to the next two temples. Then the second, slow movement. A Largo movement. Quiet. Sparse. Long.

After 20 kilometres we arrive  at Dianichiji, Temple 13 and, next door, Ryokan Kadoya. Here we rest for the night. Friends we had met over the last four days – each traveling independently – all congregate here for the evening with beer, sake and a spectacular spread of sashimi.

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