Goodbye Tokushima. Goodbye friends.
Today we leave behind the big city and our pilgrim friends, Kanaka and Itou. They will be heading back to their homes on the mainland. We will thread our way through the messy edge of the city and back into a more rural landscape of villages, rice fields and temples.
Not that we leave humanity far behind. Our path is mostly along roads, minor and major, lined continuously with buildings and structures. So far, most escapes to a more natural environment along the pilgrimage route tend to be through the woods or up a mountain path leading directly to a temple.
Such is the case at Onzanji, Temple 18. Past a cluster of houses and what appears to be a deserted temple gateway, the trail winds pleasantly up through a dense forest before depositing us at the entrance of Temple 18. Here we find a serene world of delicate wood structures nestled under a bower of tall pines.
The temple was founded around 724-729. Some time after this, Kōbō Daishi tried to visit it with his mother. It being a male-only temple, she was not allowed past the front gates. In response, Kōbō Daishi undertook a 17-day long rite to allow women to enter the site. Mum got in after that.
While it is unknown whether Kōbō Daishi created the 88-temple pilgrimage (also known as Henro), he most certainly was responsible for its spiritual underpinnings. At the time of his birth in 774, there was only one form of spiritual following, a state-sponsored Buddhism that reflected a top-down Imperial approach. It was the Buddhism of rulers, not ordinary folk. In the 800’s, Kūkai (the birth name of Kōbō Daishi) was sent to China by the state to study Buddhism. There, it happened he was deeply impressed by a different sect of esoteric Buddhism and, on return to Japan, established the Shingon version.
Shingon Buddhism is almost impenetrable in its complexity. It purports that truth is difficult to capture, is beyond mere words and instead relies on the physical, visual and aural as conveyed through mudras, mandalas and mantras.
Mudras comprise a complex set of hand gestures designed to convey a number of virtues. Mandalas are incredibly detailed paintings depicting hundreds of Buddhas and hundreds more sages. Mantras are words and phrases from a secretive language that metaphysically moves one towards Buddhist truth. Enlightenment comes from the experience of chanting the words of a mantra without needing to understand what the words mean.
No words can contain or explain how these three tools work together to lead to spiritual enlightenment. There is no Shingon bible. There can only be a metaphysical experience.
Wandering around Temple 18, Shingon’s incomprehensible intricacy appears at every turn. And it is reassuring to know that understanding it all is not the goal. It is, much like repetitively chanting a mantra, an experiential way to enlightenment, whatever that might entail. Much like walking.
Four kilometers later, we arrive at Tatsueji, Temple 19. At the time, neither Gail nor I realize this is regarded as a spiritual checkpoint (sekisho), where pilgrims are assessed as to their worthiness to continue their journey. Legend has it that Okyō, having killed her husband, came with her lover to complete the pilgrimage. Here, at Temple 19, her hair became entwined with the bell-rope at the main hall as punishment for her adultery. Okyō saw the error of her ways, repented and spent the rest of her life as a nun.
Apparently we are satisfactory pilgrims. We manage to leave the temple, hair intact.
But we are soon to face a more severe test. It’s already well past noon and we still have ten kilometers to walk. We sit down for a late but welcome lunch at a small coffee house. Cool jazz plays in the background. The chef chef skillfully but oh-so-slowly prepares our Japanese-inspired burgers.
Within minutes of restarting our journey, a gas station attendant bursts out of his office, chasing us with a big plastic bag of oranges, offering it to us as settai. Refusal is not an option so we gratefully accept his gift, packing the heavy fruit into our already too-heavy backpacks. It is now so late in the day that we need to walk quickly if we expect to get to our destination before dark.
We press on down a quiet road, then down the busier Highway 22. That road finally flows into the very hectic Highway 16. For the next four kilometres, the two of us squeeze ourselves onto narrow shoulders as a continuous stream of cars and trucks speed past us with inches to spare. Only two lanes wide at best, the road will narrow even further as it snakes between two buildings or some other roadside obstruction. Occasionally we need to quickly retreat into alcoves or side lanes as trucks pass each other – and us. There is no room to spare for vulnerable pedestrians. In all of our pilgrimages and long walks, this is our most harrowing road.
Our path finally separates from the hellish highway. We have passed our second test as worthy pilgrims, a sekisho of the twenty-first century.
In the refreshingly quiet town of Katsuura, we check into Kaneko-ya, our ryokan for the night. It’s late. It’s been a hard day. Time to enjoy a long, hot bath, a good Japanese dinner…and our cargo of oranges.