April 8, 2017
It would be a hard day.
We knew this before setting off from Haruna Spa. Comfortable beds, refreshing hot baths, filling meals are all fine reasons to spend the night here. But it is off the henro path and, at the outset, adds two kilometres to this day’s trek. We had originally planned to stay the night at Tosa City, five kilometres further on. But no rooms were available so we had to choose the spa as an earlier stop. That’s an extra seven kilometres, stretching today’s walk into the thirty-kilometre range.
When we do reach Tosa City, another reality sets in. The usually reliable trail signage is now vague or non-existent. We soon lose the path as we make our way through town to Kiyotakji, Temple 35. More time, more footsteps are added to this day’s ever-lengthening journey.
After a modest climb, Kiyotakji rewards us with its fine setting of temple structures tightly clustered around the rocky terrain. It’s another wet day but, up here, the morning fog adds a layer of mystery to the scene. A large bronze statue of Kōbō Daishi looms, enshrouded by mist. A tracery of flimsy limbs laden with soft pink cherry blossoms cross the light grey backdrop of trees and temples.
The trip back through town is no less easy. We manage to lose the trail as we make our way along the twisty roads of Tosa City. The usual arrowed stickers on posts or plackards with the cute red henro figure are nowhere to be seen. We rely on our guidebook with its accurate but miniature-scale maps to guide us out of the city. Another half hour is lost. Maybe a kilometre or two are gained. Eventually we get onto Highway 39 where the direction is obvious. The walking is flat and fast.
We reach Temple 36, Shōryūji by mid-afternoon. A humbling climb up stone steps leads to the temple complex, past a small waterfall, past the wash basin before we arrive, breathless, at the foot of the main hall. This is yet another standout site. Set high up a hill, the various structures cling to the wooded slope along a platform of stone paving. It’s still raining. There’s a murky ambience that’s becoming all too familiar.
On this day of navigational misadventures, we have one more test. Leaving the temple, we set off on the wrong route, adding yet another few kilometres to our travails. But we are soon back on the highway, heading towards our night’s accommodation.
Highway 47 is noted for its breathtaking views from steep cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Today we are greeted with dense fog. Not only are any distant views out of the question but approaching cars are all but invisible save for their twin white beams gradually growing in size and brightness. Soon we are donning our own headlamps, something we bring on all our walking trips but rarely use. Today, their added weight is more than justified.
Time is also on our minds. I calculate that we should arrive at our minshuku at 6:30 pm, still not dark but, in this dense fog, not ideal for two walkers hugging the shoulders of a winding road. And there is the cultural deadline as well. Lodgings offering dinners typically have an unwavering schedule: guests arrive no later than 6:00 pm, they bathe before dinner and they eat, at the very latest, by 7:00 pm. Assuming we arrive at all, we will certainly meet with the disdain of our host by arriving late.
Instead, our innkeeper saves us. With an hour or so still to be walked, a set of headlights approaches, slows down and stops along side us. It is our hostess who has come out of the fog to find and retrieve us.
For two hardcore walkers, accepting a ride would normally be frowned upon. But time is not on our side. The foggy road is dangerous and we are completely soaked. We gratefully load our wet gear into her small Daihatsu and head off to her inn, Minshuku Micchan.
We walked 37.5 kilometres today with still 5 kilometres to go when our hostess picked us up. The last couple of kilometres would have been a steep, winding descent from the highway down into Ikenoura Port and her minshuku. If we had walked, we would have arrived at 7:00 pm…or later…in the dark.
After settling in to our expansive Japanese-style room, we head off in our yakutas for a Japanese bath, starting with a warm, soapy shower followed by a long hot soak in the tub. It is a ritual we are now well-acquainted with and take great pleasure in.
In the meantime, our hostess takes it upon herself to dry our waterlogged boots and wash and dry our wet clothes. Supper is pretty much on schedule, a banquet of rice, sashimi, miso soup and other delights. She tries so hard to converse with us, she in Japanese, we trying to catch the gist of her unfamiliar words. But it is her wordless help and wonderful dinner that speak volumes.
After a long day punctuated with rain and wrong turns, this extraordinary yet very typical act of Japanese courtesy makes today’s walk a memorable adventure.