[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 57: The Last Stamp

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It was an early morning for everyone at the temple for the morning ceremony at 6am sharp. Guests are invited to attend, although I don’t think it’s mandatory. Still, it was something I did not want to miss, so I got up at 5:30 after a very restful sleep.

The ceremony consisted of the monks chanting their prayers. Of course, I understood none of it, although at one point, I thought I heard the Heart Sutra or some variant of it, maybe, having heard the Heart Sutra numerous times during the pilgrimage.

Then, each guest had the opportunity to offer incense in front of the altar while the monks continues to chant. I felt stiff and awkward while doing it but think I managed without making any Buddhist deities angry.

After, the head monk gave a short sermon, first in Japanese and then in English for us foreign guests. Then it was breakfast time.

We were ushered to the dining room and were served another delicious vegetarian meal.

At 7:30am, I had finished my meal and excused myself, saying my goodbyes to some of the other guests I had chatted with last night and this morning. I had to visit the Okunoin and then return to Osaka to pick up my extra bag, then head to the airport to catch my evening flight back home. I was e haunted just thinking of it all.

I returned to my room to pull on my white henro vest for the final time, then went and checked out and left my backpack in the luggage storage room.

As I walked through town, it was amazing how easily I slipped back into the henro mentality after my week off. I know simply dressing the part wasn’t enough to make you a henro, but somehow, putting on that white vest and carrying my staff was enough to make me feel like I was strolling through Shikoku all over again.

I made my way through town and found the famous cemetery. I bowed at the first bridge, the traditional entrypoint, and walked. I passed by numerous gravemarkers and memorials. Most looked (and likely were) quite old. Some had information boards next to them, indicating which feudal lord’s grave it was.

I walked slowly, taking it all in. It was peaceful and quiet. It was still early, so I supposed most people hadn’t started touring around yet, and I only came across the occasional person or small groups of people. I passed by many henro who were leaving after laying their respects at the Okunoin. All the henro were cheery again and greeted me with big smiles. Again, I felt like I was back on Shikoku.

At last, I found the Okunoin, the final resting place of Kobo Daishi. According to Shingom Buddhist belief, Kobo Daishi never died but is on eternal meditation in the Okunoin on Mt. Koya. Consequently, it is the most sacred spot for the sect.

I offered a candle, incense, and osamefuda at the main hall and offered a quick prayer. Two monks were there and I felt awkward in front of them, so I didn’t linger for long except to buy two good luck charms – one to replace the one I lost weeks ago, the other for a friend.

I moved on to the back of the hall, Kobo Daishi’s actual mausoleum. It was intensely quiet. I offered another candle and more sticks of incense and prayed. This time, I took my time, offering my silent gratitude for everything. And then I sat down on a bench and simply took it all on. A nun came buy to pray. A man was walking hurriedly nack and fortj between some other point and the Okunoin, chanting as he went, probably in hopes of having his prayers granted. A couple of tourists came and went, and I wondered what they thought of it. I’m sure that if I were just a regular tourist, before the pilgrimage, I probably wouldn’t have understood what the huge deal was. As for me, I had an odd sense of finality to everything.

Still, the lack of emotion surprised me. The tears did not fall. Maybe I had already accepted the end back at Ryozenji.

Still pondering, I left and made my way back to the front of the hall to leave. I was stopped by a procession of Buddhist monks, who settled in the hall to chant what I recognized to be the Heart Sutra.

I, along with a bunch of other tourists and a few other pilgrims, watched for a while and I enjoyed listening to the soothing chanting, knowing it would likely be the last time  (at least for now) I would hear it. After maybe 5 or 10 minutes, though, the chanting showed no signs of stopping so I decided to leave.

I walked back into town and decided to stop by Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism. It was near the center of town and I had a bit of time to spare. The monk who checked me in at Rengejoin told me that the Garan was worth seeing but it was on the other side of town and I guessed I only had about an hour to spare. So, Kongobuji it was!

I went to the main hall and offered a candle and some incense. Then I paid the entrance fee to see the temple’s collection of painted sliding doors, then returned to the office and got my book stamped. The lady who stamped my book flipped through my book quickly and congratulated me on finishing the pilgrimage.

After, I returned to Rengejoin and picked up my things, then hopped on a bus to Koya Station and took the cable car and train back to Osaka.

It took me slightly longer than expected to get back to the city so I had to rush to get my extra bag from the coin locker and reorganize my things in my bags so everything fit and complied with airplane rules.

I took an express train to the airport and was able to check in quickly, thank goodness! I was also able to check in my trusty walking staff and the airline even gave me a box to put it in. I had to bring my sedge hat with me, though, and I got plenty of looks!

My last meal was a conveyor belt sushi restaurant at the airport. Sadly, the quality of the sushi was really disappointing but I ate enough to fill my stomach.

My flight left at 6:55pm, bound for Hong Kong, where I would fly to Vancouver, then fly to Toronto. I bid goodbye to Japan, wondering when I would visit next. I felt it wouldn’t be for a while. However, I was still so grateful for all the wonderful memories it had given me.

[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 56: The Road to Mount Koya

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I had debated with myself for days about how I would get to Mount Koya, the final stop in my pilgrimage image as well as my trip as a whole. Most people take the trains and cable car, but a traditional pilgrim trail still exists, called the Choishi Michi.

The Choishi Michi is named for the stone markers (most of them still the original ones from hundreds of years ago) that mark the mountain trail, as a “cho” was an old form of measuring distances (something like 109m) and “ishi” meaning “stone”. So, the distance between each stone marker is roughly one “cho”. They are numbered from 1 to 180 (in Japanese), with 180 being located at Jison-in Temple at the base of the mountain and 1 being located within Mt Koya. The whole route is about 23.5km.

My main problem was my luggage. I had more clothes and souvenirs with me now and I didn’t fancy lugging that up a mountain. Also, did I really want to climb yet another 800m mountain? Hadn’t I had enough of that?

Apparently not.

On the proddings of former henro and still-current blogger, Athena, I decided to go for it. My knee was feeling better and I felt like it would be a great way to end my pilgrimage. A part of me also missed the challenge of the mountain trails, though I had read that the Choishi Michi is mostly a gradual sort of climb compared to the likes of, say, Yokomineji.

Unfortunately, I slept poorly the night before. I was no longer accustomed to going to bed early and waking up early. I also had a lot on my mind, what with the end of my trip coming up.

And then my roommates came into the dorm room around midnight, turned on the lights, had whispered conversations, and decided to go through all their luggage until about 2am. One even went to shower and blasted K-pop presumably from her phone while doing so. I had the urge to smack them all.

So overall, I think I managed a meager 3 hours of sleep. To say I was unimpressed would be an understatement. When I woke up at 5:30am to my alarm, a part of me wanted to make noise while I got ready as revenge for last night, but in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to do it and got ready as quietly as I could.

I was out the door by about 6am. I made my way to Namba Nankai Station and went to find the coin lockers to stash my extra stuff in. I would be returning to the same station to get to the airport anyway. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough change so I went to buy my train ticket to break a large bill.

It was so confusing. There were many different ways to get to Mt Koya and I had no idea where to start or how much to pay. I took my best guess then returned down to coin lockers and stashed my carry-on bag inside it.

I then went back to the platforms and couldn’t find a platform that said it was bound for Mt Koya. At this point, I was wholly frustrated and grumpy and went to ask a staff member for help. Eventually, he explained that I would have to transfer at Hashimoto Station, so I had to take the train bound for there first.

All of that back and forth took time and I ended up taking the 7:04am train, a touch later than I wanted. I transferred at Hashimoto Station and got off at Kudoyama Station, the station closest to Jison-in Temple.

I became less pleased when I found out the frame of my sedge hat broke, probably when my backpack fell on it for the nth time. My backpack does not stand upright well, so it frequently falls over, and if my hat is tied to it, well…I guess the repeated stress to it finally broke its delicate frame. I used a bandage from my ample supply to try to tape it back together, then tied my hat on over my hachimaki.

The walk to Jison-in was short and uneventful. The Temple was built for Kobo Daishi’s mother and women go there to pray for pregnancy and easy childbirth. As a result, people donate breast-shaped plaques to the main deity there.

The start of the Choishi Michi trail begins at the top of a long set of stairs at Jison-in. The trail starts off easy but quickly becomes a steep incline and takes one through a large orchard (growing what, I’m unsure). There were plenty of spots to look out over the town of Kudoyama and it really was quite a sight. The stone markers show the way but aren’t always right by the path itself, so other signs are present to help guide the way, especially for the trickier parts, like in trail forks. To my pleasant surprise, the henro route stickers also made a comeback and I saw them here and there. To me, they were a sign that somebody cared enough to mark the way.

However, it was another hot, sunny day so I had to take frequent breaks to catch my breath, wipe sweat from my face, and drink some of the Pocari Sweat I had bought.

Thankfully, the path eventually became a dirt hiking trail through thick forest. To my relief, the trees provided ample shade and the path flattened out, more or less. All was not easy, though. The trail was still slick and/or muddy in many places from yesterday’s rain, and the hems of my pants and my shoes were quickly thick with mud. I had to step carefully in places because whatever tread my shoes did have, it was now pretty well gone after weeks of walking.

I had expected to see many henro along the trail, as it was henro high season and a beautiful day, but only ended up seeing two: an older woman who fell behind during the first incline and a young man who was tall and long-limbed and got ahead of me in the span of a couple of minutes despite also having a large backpack. His walking staff was worn down very short and looked almost comical compared to his tall height, as if it was a child’s staff. The only other people I saw were a couple of Europeans (I couldn’t quite place the language) out for a hike but they, too, outpaced me eventually.

The terrain actually varied immensely. Sometimes, I was walking through dry dirt path, other times, tip-toeing my way through thick mud. Sometimes, the path was nice and clear, other times it was covered with leaves and branches and loose rocks that did their best to try to trip me. Sometimes, I found myself carefully making my way through jagged rocky paths or navigating my feet around snake-like tree roots.

And so, I walked and walked and walked. My body was unused to walking over 20km, having had the last week off and even my last several days of the pilgrimage, I had taken it easy due to my knee flare-up. My feet became sore and I was getting irritated by my big, bulky backpack and purse. They were starting to chafe at my shoulders, where my loose shirt exposed some skin at the collar. I cursed myself for bringing so much. I felt exhausted and cursed my inconsiderate roommates who had kept me up until 2am.

Around the marker #50, I stopped at a rest hut and ate my apple I had bought in Osaka. All I had had to eat so far was a Calorie Mate bar and a dorayaki- not exactly anything substantial.

After resting and eating, I felt a bit better and walking became tolerable again. I was also buoyed by the fact that I was nearly there, over halfway done.

My left knee started to complain a bit again, though. While the path mostly didn’t have any major inclines or descents, it was a bit hilly and involved many small inclienes and descents between the flat sections, which my knees did not like.

It took me about 6.5 hours to reach the Daimon Gate, the traditional entrance to Mt Koya. I was intensely relieved to see it, as I was exhausted and sore, and the last ~100m was a steep climb. I snapped some pictures, then bowed and made my way into town.

It was a bit funny seeing other tourists’ reactions to me. On Shikoku, if you are dressed as a henro, everyone knows what you’re doing and why you’re dressed so strangely. Although Mt Koya is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism (the sect that the pilgrimage belongs to), I guess not every tourist is acquainted with the different sects of Buddhism in Japan or even aware the pilgrimage in Shikoku exists. I actually expected to see many henro out and about but only saw maybe two. The rest were either locals, who paid me no mind, or tourists who usually did a double-take.

My original intent was to climb to Mt Koya and use the remaining day to visit the Okunoin, the most sacred site of Shingon Buddhism and where I would receive my final stamp after thanking Kobo Daishi for a successful pilgrimage. However, it was already 3:30pm, the Okunoin was another 3km on the other end of town, and the temple I was staying in was also about 3km away and I had to check in by 5pm. Did I also mention I was sore and tired?

So, I chose to go straight to Rengejoin, the temple I would stay at overnight. I could visit the Okunoin in the morning.

I found the temple on the northern edge of town and checked in. The monk who checked me in and showed me around spoke a bit of English and I was relieved. He was surprised to see my henro walking staff and said that he had never been to Shikoku but wanted to do the pilgrimage.

I settled into my room and relaxed, stretching my aching muscles and placing a medicated patch on my left knee.

There was a meditation service led by the head priest at 5pm and guests were invited to attend. The head monk spoke some English but was heavilt accented, so it wasn’t always easy to figure out what he was saying. I found the whole thing difficult. You are supposed to stay in one seated position and focus on taking seep breaths, controlling each one. My legs were sore from the hike, so I kept getting distracted by them past the first 10 minutes or so.

All in all, we meditated for about 30 minutes…or at least, tried to meditate. I saw at least a couple of other guests squirming uncomfortably about halfway through too.

After was dinner, which was traditional temple food – that is, all vegetarian and no garlic or onion. Even still, everything was delicious and I devoured it all, having hardly are anything throughout the day.

I was seated in a room with all the other foreign guests. The Japanese guests had another room. I found it intensely amusing when the other guests, apparently not used to traditional Japanese meals, looked to me to figure out how to eat it. I told them that I had simply spent a lot of time in Japan, and that I could very well have gotten things wrong. Still, I reassured them that no one had yelled at me yet, so that was probably a good thing.

We were told stories about the temple, Rengejoin, about Mt Koya, and about Kobo Daishi by the head priest’s own mother, who said she was 97 (but looked to be in her 70s!). I knew most of the stories about Kobo Daishi and Mt. Koya already from my pilgrimage readings, but it was nice to hear about it from someone’s personal experiences, especially during the WW2 years.

After dinner, we hurried over to a small ceremonial room to watch the goma fire ceremony. Truth be told, I haven”t had the opportunity to look into it at all so I actually can’t tell you much about it. I assume it was some sort of purification ceremony. The deity overseeing it all was the fearsome Fudo Myou  (whom I can recognize now after seeing the huge Fudo Myou statue at Temple 45, Iwayaji).

With that done, I washed up and tool a nice soak in the temple’s communal bath. My muscles needed it! But as usual, I didn’t stay in the bath too long, for fear of passing out again! I bid the others goodnight and headed to bed.

I was so exhausted that I had no trouble falling asleep.

[Japan] Days 53-55: Food Adventures in Osaka

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On April 24, I bid Kyoto goodbye and moved on to Osaka. I mostly wandered around Kyoto for a bit and took the train to Osaka in the late afternoon.

As expected, Osaka felt utterly overwhelming. Kyoto had felt big and busy compared to quieter Shikoku, but Kyoto had nothing on Osaka, which is known for being a large, modern city that is a little crazy and a bit different.

When I checked into my hostel (Khaosan World Namba), I was informed they would be having a takoyaki-making party later in the evening. Perfect!

I met three other tourists there – two Australians and an American. After having our fill of takoyaki, we headed to Dotombori to walk off some of the takoyaki and maybe find some dessert. I ended up buying a massive ice cream that, including the cone, was probably about a foot high! I had to eat it quickly because it was leaning precariously to one side.

Everything was starting to wind down even in Dotombori, though, so we didn’t stay long.

The next couple of days were mostly spent wandering around. I bought a carry-on size bag to bring some of my souvenirs back home, though I still had no idea what to do with my sedge hat, which was too big for either my backpack or my new carry-on bag. I also purchased a new wallet to replace the one I had accidentally thrown out in the beginning of my trip during a big purge of my backpack (I had simply been carrying my cash and cards in my purse).

As for food, I was spoiled for choice. Osaka is known for good food and good shopping, and I definitely ate. Okonomiyaki, takoyaki, Kobe beef, matcha shaved ice…it was all delicious. It was a shock when I found out I still fit into my new pants, which were a size down from what I wore before. I thought I would have gained the inches back!

My last full day in Osaka was a rainy one and the staff at the hostel suggested I see an indoor attraction, like the aquarium or the ramen museum. I had seen the aquarium during my first trip to Japan but a ramen museum? Yup, had to do that. Maxine had visited the one in Yokohama and said she enjoyed it a lot, so I wanted to try it, too.

I took the train there, not really knowing what to expect. I learned that the man who created instant ramen was actually from Ikeda, a suburb of Osaka, and that was where they chose to build his museum.

The museum itself is actually tiny with only two exhibition halls. Luckily, admission is free and even the audio guides only require a deposit that you get back when you return the pack.

The real draw is the ramen factory, where you can build your very own cup ramen. It only costs ¥300 so I went for it. Basically, you buy a styrofoam cup and then decorate it. One of the staff provided me with a sheet with the cup ramen mascot in different outfits and poses, so I picked out and swapped out his hat with the henro hat and gave him a walking staff.

After, you head over to the factory counter and give your cup to the staff, who then put the noodles in (though you get to turn the lever that moves the conveyor belt). Then you get to choose your soul base and four other toppings/ingredients. I’m not very creative so I chose the original soup base with little fish cakes (in the shape of the mascot), corn, green onions, and pork. Then the staff seal the cup and put shrink wrap over it. Then you get a little inflatable bag to store your cup ramen in so it doesn’t get destroyed. You inflate it yourself, too!

The whole experience only took me about an hour, so I took the train back into town to eat dinner.

Overall, there isn’t a whole lot to see or so in Osaka unless you like to shop and eat (in fact, I saw many tourists from China whose primary goal seemed to be to buy tons of Japanese cosmetics, bags, and clothes), but it was still a great place to chill and relax rather than run around tourist sites.

[Japan] Days 51 & 52: In Limbo

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For anyone who might be reading and wondering what I’ve been up to in Kyoto, the answer is simple: not much! So despite combining the two days into one post, this will be kept short.

After talking to Lawrence, I decided that I really should try to rest my knees and I have been trying my best to not push them hard. I have mostly been wandering through streets and shops, browsing and shopping and picking up food and drinks along the way. I haven’t even done much sightseeing because it is tourist high season in Kyoto right now and the crowds are massive and I can’t be bothered with the packed buses that make up the bulk of Kyoto’s public transportation system. I stick to anywhere I can get to by subway or bus or on foot.

Today (April 23), I did actually take the train to Arashiyama to visit Togetsukyo Bridge and the Iwatayama Monkey Park. On my first trip to Japan, my sister and I had decided to see more temples (Adashino Nenbutsuji and Oyagi Nenbutsuji) after finishing Tenryuji and the bamboo forest rather than the bridge and monkey park. I had meant to visit them on my second trip to Japan but the day I wanted to go, it had poured rain all day, so I used the day to go souvenir shopping instead.

I didn’t know when I would next be in Japan, so I figured I would use my last full day in Kyoto to see some monkeys!

I went directly to the Togetsukyo Bridge from the train station, bypassing Tenryuji and the bamboo forest. I had seen them already and didn’t think it was worth fighting the crowds to revisit them. The bridge was busy, too, but the river and the surrounding mountains were quite beautiful, especially on such a nice day. It was sunny with a bright blue sky but with a nice breeze that countered the heat of the sun well.

When j found the entrance to the monkey park, I found out that it was about a 20 minute uphill climb to an elevation of about 160m. I was glad I had worn my trail runners and not my new flats that killed my feet yesterday while trying to break them in.

The trail started with a long flight of stairs – a bit steep and got my a little out of breath by the end of it, but certainly not the worst I’ve faced. From there, the trail became quite a bit easier and I practically skipped up the rest of the way.

Looking at online comments about it is interesting. Most people comment on the hike’s difficulty. I guess just a few days of rest wasn’t enough to completely decondition my body. I was glad.

The monkeys were certainly fun to watch. There are strict rules in place to protect visitors as the monkeys, while used to human contact, are still wild. For example, you cannot stare them in the eye because they will take this as a challenge/threat. You also can’t touch them (obviously) or show them food because they will take it. You can go into the little visitor hut and purchase a small baggie of food for ¥50 and feed the monkeys from behind the wired cage.

The monkey park also affords a wonderful view of Kyoto with the mountains serving as a beautiful backdrop and frame. It’s quite scenic.

After finishing up there, I made my way down and was happy that my knees barely complained at all. The rest days must have done them good.

I returned to town and did some more shopping, namely a new purse to replace my fraying, worn out one that looked ready to split open any day now. It had put up with a lot during my trip but I guess it was time for it to retire.

I brought my purchases back to the hostel, organized my things, threw out my old purse with a touch of sadness, and then played cards with Lawrence and two other guests staying at the hostel until bedtime.

Tomorrow, I move on to Osaka!

[Japan] Day 50: Shopping Spree in Kyoto

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One of the reasons why I chose to stay in Kyoto again after the pilgrimage was because I realized that I would be able to visit the Toji flea market that occurs every 21st of the month. I love the flea markets of Kyoto. They’re so lively…and a perfect place to cheaply feed my kimono collecting obsession.

As well, Toji is one of the three important sites related to Kobo Daishi. The other two are Mt. Koya (where I had Temple lodgings reserved for my final night in Japan) and Zentsuji, Temple 75 on the pilgrimage circuit, which I had visited already. Since I was going to Toji anyway, I figured I might as well get a stamp from there. The pilgrimage stamp books contain three extra pages for any other temples one might visit, and I got the idea from another henro’s blog to use one of those pages for Toji.

So after a restful sleep, I forced myself out of bed around 6:45am, which felt late for me, got ready, and headed out. I caught the subway to Kyoto Station, then walked the ~15 minutes to Toji.

Toni’s grounds were already full of people and busy vendors. There was a variety of goods to be found, but as usual, I soon found myself spending my money on kimono-related items and food. I also picked up a few souvenirs for people back home.

As I passed by the different halls, I offered candles and incense (I had lots to spare, so why not?) and got my book stamped. The man who wrote mine out took such great care and probably took the longest to write from all the 90 stamps I had collected so far. Not that I was complaining. I remember one stamp I received was done in such a rush because the poor woman at the counter was inundated with books and scrolls from a large tour bus group. This was a nice change.

After seeing all the vendors to my satisfaction, I left the temple and bowed on my way out. I’m pretty sure a few people stared as I did so, but it now feels so strange not bowing before entering and exiting a temple.

My next stop was the nearby Aeon mall. I was tired of switching between my only two outfits that now hung loosely on my thinner body. Being active/travel wear, they were also not very fashionable. And while my shoes were fine for walking, they were dirty and the Goretex meant they simply did not breathe. I was also frankly tired of doing laundry every 3 days.

So I shopped! I mostly stick to big chain stores, like The Gap and Uniqlo, because they offer a wide range of sizes. Despite losing weight, I was still bigger than the average Japanese woman.

I ended up buying three bottoms and two new tops, plus a pair of flats and a light cardigan. I wanted a new purse, too, as my small messenger bag was getting worn out and frayed, but the ones I saw were far out of my price range and my bags of purchases were already quite heavy. I would have to shop elsewhere.

I stopped at an okonomiyaki restaurant at Kyoto Station for a late lunch, then headed back to the hostel. I tossed all my dirty clothes plus my new ones in the laundry and relaxed as I waited for it to finish.

By the time my laundry was done, I was restless again. My knees were still giving me issues but I felt like I hadn’t walked enough yet. I was so accustomed to being on the move all the time that it felt unnatural to be relaxing in one place for a long time.

I dumped my freshly laundered clothes on my bed, pulled on my sweater, and went out. I decided to walk to Pontocho, at atmospheric alley full of restaurants and bars and also one of the five geisha districts of Kyoto. I had actually never been there at night so I wanted to see what it was like. Plus, it was about 2km one-way, a perfect distance for a stroll there and back.

I set a brisk pace, enjoying being on the move again. It was dark at this point but the streets were still full of lights and people. It was such a difference from the quieter towns of Shikoku. Heck, it was nice (though a bit strange) to walk on actual sidewalks!

I found Pontocho and slowly strolled through it, browsing the different menus on display and enjoying the red lanterns with plovers on them, Pontocho’s symbol. There were still lots of people around, though, so it probably was not as atmospheric as I would have liked. Still, I just wanted to walk, so I couldn’t complain.

I exited Pontocho from its north end and then stopped for a quick light dinner at a little restaurant, choosing udon with a small side of karaage (fried chicken).

I then returned to the hostel, though perhaps a little slower this time. My knees were a bit painful and my stomach was quite full.

As I relaxed in the common area, I ended up chatting with a woman from Australia and a man from the UK. Both were playing their trips to Japan by ear, but were struggling on finding accommodation during Japan’s infamous Golden Week, a week where many Japanese people get time off work and go travel or visit family. As a result, trains and hotels fill up fast during this time. I would be leaving a few days before Golden Week, so I was, well, golden (har har har).

I helped Colleen (the Australian woman) figure out the train system around Japan and gave Lawrence (the British guy) some of the anti-inflammatory patches for his ankle that he twisted a while back but hadn’t given proper time to heal (I could sympathize).

We chatted about a variety of things until it was about 11pm and I excused myself to go to bed. 11pm still felt very, very late to me, even though I could sleep in tomorrow as I had nothing planned (and really should have been resting the knees and feet). It really is difficult to break habits.

[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 49: Orei-Mairi

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Habits are hard to break, I guess. Despite going to bed late and struggling to get to sleep last night, I still woke up at 6:30am. I stayed in bed for a while, enjoying the luxuxury of not having much to do.

Finally, after catching up on messages, eating a snack, and dozing a bit, I got ready, packed, and checked out a little before 10am. I immediately went to the train station and bought a ticket to Bando Station. I recalled my first day of the pilgrimage, where I missed the train by five or ten minutes and had to wait over an hour for the next one. Now I knew to take a picture of the train schedule ahead of time.

On the train, an older man sat beside me and when he saw my henro gear, started talking about the pilgrimage and asked me all sorts of questions. He spoke really fast and I couldn’t understand the vast majority of what he was saying, but smiled and nodded a lot. I had said, “Gomen nasai. Wakarimasen” or “I’m very sorry. I don’t understand”, but it didn’t stop him from chattering on and on.

At one point, he talked about the temple stamps but I couldn’t get what about them he was referring to,’so I pulled out my stamp book so he could possibly show me. He flipped through the pages quickly and seemed pleasantly surprised to see that it was full.

Before long, we arrived at Bando Station. At first, he seemed worried that I didn’t know the way but then remembered I had been to Temple 1 before and I was simply returning there. He waved goodbye and I thanked him anyway, still a little perplexed by him.

Despite the fact that it had been nearly 50 days since I first fumbled my way to Ryozenji, the route there felt very familiar and I found the sign pointing the way in no time.

As I neared the Niomon gate, I saw numerous people with new henro gear milling about, posing for photos and such. While I was ending my journey, numerous others were just starting, and still more were in various stages of the pilgrimage, scattered all around the island. And it would continue on like this in one continuous cycle as it has been for over a thousand years.

My first stop was the little shop that sold henro supplies. Unfortunately, I had run out of offertory candles at Temple 88. I could have just prayed without but at this point, it felt wrong, especially at the very end. So I sucked it up and bought a whole new package of candles, plus a couple of keychains as souvenirs.

I then made my way to the temple grounds proper and took the familiar sights in. At the main hall, I had to cut my silent prayer of gratitude short because tears finally came and I couldn’t stop them. I walked around a little in an empty part of the grounds to compose myself, then went to pray at the Daishi Hall. Again, I offered thanks to whoever was listening for allowing my to finish the pilgrimage safely.

Then I sat down on an out of the way bench and let the tears out. So much had happened to me since I had first visited Ryozenji, so many difficulties and hardships, but also so many great experiences and encounters. It had been an unforgettable journey, but like anything, it had to end. I was done.

After the tears stopped, I made my way back to the shop that doubled as a stamp office. The man took my book and asked if it was the last one. I nodded yes. He nodded and flipped to the last page, which was reserved for the temple a henro started their journey with. He took great care in writing out my stamp while I stood there sniffling. With my stamp, I also received a little black rosary-bracelet.

With that done, I left the temple, bowing deeply as I left the gate, then returned to Bando Station and just caught the train back to Tokushima.

I had reservations at a hostel in Kyoto but the next bus wouldn’t leave until 3:15pm and it was only about noon or so. I had time to kill. I helped an American family find their hotel and then ate curry for lunch. I felt restless from the lack of walking I had done, so I walked to the Awa Odori Kaikan, browsed the gift shop, and then walked back to the station.

I boarded the bus when it arrived. As the bus left Tokushima, I silently bid farewell to Shikoku and dozed off.

I arrived in Kyoto around 6:20pm. Again, the amount of people at the station caught me off guard, although it was a touch less busier than the last time since it was late in the day. I found the subway and took it to the hostel I would be staying in for the next few nights (Bird Hostel).

I checked in and organized my things. I took out most henro related things from my purse as I wouldn’t be needing them in Kyoto. For the first time, I pulled out all the osamefuda I had collected during my pilgrimage. It wasn’t much but they represented some of the wonderful people I had met. I took all of these items and stored them in the little locked cupboard that came with my dorm bed.

I didn’t feel like going out anywhere so I bought food from the hostel’s cafe/bar. The young Japanese woman staffing the counter showed me how to get a 10% discount by following their Instgram account. When I did, she found my account and looked at my own photos.

“O-henro-san?” She asked with surprise.

I was surprised that she even knew and confirmed that I had just finished the pilgrimage. She explained that she was from a small town in Ehime, but it was far from the henro route so I hadn’t gone through there. Still, it was nice to meet someone from Shikoku. I hadn’t shed my henro status completely yet, it seemed.

I ate my fill and relaxed a bit before showering and turning into bed. Tomorrow, I would simply be a regular tourist again, an invisible person in a crowd.

[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 48: The Last Temple (But Not Really)

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As the ryokan a little past Temple 88 was fully booked, the minshuku near Temple 88 was too close (in other words, I would arrive far too early), and the nearest lodging was quite far from Temple 88, I figured I might as well get myself back to Tokushima via bus and train.

So since I didn’t have far to go, I took my time again getting up and ready for the day. When I did and checked out, it was already about 7:40am. I gave an osamefuda to the very friendly and helpful owner, Takeshi, and even got to say goodbye to Kotaro, his ridiculously adorable son, who was showing off some toys to some other guests, but spared a second to wave goodbye and even gave me a high-five.

I took the nearby train all the way to its terminus, Nagao Station, which is right next to (surprise, surprise) Nagaoji, Temple 87. When I got there, it was virtually empty with only some groundskeepers in sight. I wasn’t alone for long, though, and by the time I put down my pack and crossed the grounds, maybe a half dozen henro had arrived.

There was a bit of a backlog at the main hall, though. The wind was strong and kept constantly snuffing out our lighters, matches, and candles. It was truly a battle to get anything lit, especially the incense, but persistence (and hiding behind a wall that mostly blocked the wind) eventually won out and I managed to get through my rounds.

With Nagaoji done, I had just one Temple left to visit: Okuboji.

I walked a few kilometers through small, rural residential streets, passed an impressive-looking dam, and then found the Henro Koryu Salon.

This centre is for henro and about henro. It doubles as a rest space where snacks and drinks are provided as osettai. One also receives a certificate of completion (even though you still have one more temple to go, haha), a pin, and a CD with photos of the temples loaded on it. It also serves as a museum, with many historical items from the pilgrimage on display. Of interest are te numerous osamefuda on display, including ones that are over 100 years old.

I also enjoyed the 3D model of Shikoku with tiny models of temples marking each of the 88. Along the outside border are the temples and buttons. One can press a temple’s button and the corresponding model will light up on the island display.

Looking at that display, I realized how small everything was in the grand scheme of things. Unpenji had seemed like such a huge undertaking, but it was dwarfed by so many other mountains in the island’s interior, and it was nearly invisible when taken in context of the whole island. It was quite humbling. I struggled for weeks with this pilgrimage, but in the end, I had simply walked in a circle around a tiny island.

In any case, I spent a solid half hour there, looking at the displays as well as resting, eating snacks, and drinking some water. It was, yet again, another very sunny day. I tied the hachimaki over my head again to absorb the sweat for the next part of the route and tied on my sedge hat.

Before I left, I decided to donate the ¥1000 osettai I had received from the kind obaachan henro who had offered me a ride from Temple 82 to 83 a few days ago. I didn’t need the money and had been racking my brain trying to think of a good use for it ever since I received it. After spending time at the Henro Salon, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the money – by giving it to a place that helped all pilgrims. The lady who had taken such good care of me at the salon initially refused it but I insisted, and she took it and bowed deeply.

The staff at the salon had provided me a map that showed the different routes between the salon and Okuboji. I had already decided on the road route due to my bad knee. I had seen Alana’s pictures of the steep mountain route (where there were iron bars in the side of the mountain to hold onto) and decided my knee probably wouldn’t tolerate that sort of stress and would probably give out. The road route was only about 3km longer but was gentler, so I figured it was a good tradeoff. The man from the salon who had given me the map told me to take care of the traffic.

So, after leaving the salon, I found the little road that I had chosen. Most cars took the large and well maintained Route 3 so I had the entire road to myself. It was an uphill climb for the first 2 or 3 kilometers and I worked up a sweat; I was glad I had put on the hachimaki under my hat earlier. A male henro with a green backpack caught up to me when I stopped for a quick breather and to drink some water. He agreed that it was tough (and hot) but he kept going steadily up the mountain.

I eventually caught up to him and another elderly henro at a small rest hut. I stopped there, too, to have another snack and some more water. I hoped I wouldn’t run out too early. The elderly henro was eating lunch and offered me and the green backpack henro a boiled egg each as osettai. I had initially not even wanted it, but he insisted, and as I ate, I realized how much I missed boiled eggs and I was happy I had given in.

I was the first to get going, feeling refreshed from the shade the hut had provided. I told the two other henro I would see them later and went on my way.

I realized that I was likely done the hardest section of the trail. The path more or less flattened out, and even when there were slopes (both up and down), they were quite gentle.

The path eventually ended at Route 3, where I joined all the traffic the Henro Salon staff had warned me about. There was barely a shoulder to walk on. Luckily, traffic wasn’t too heavy so the vast majority of vehicles gave me space. There were still a couple of vehicles that got a bit close, though.

As I saw the distances I had left, I realized I would get to Okuboji perhaps a little after 1:30pm. The bus left at 1:30 and the next wouldn’t be until 3:51pm. So, I took my time and even took shelter from the sun for a bit at another rest hut just under a couple of kilometers from the temple.

The final kilometer was another mostly uphill walk, but nothing too stressful. Then, when I rounded a corner and saw parked cars and the eaves of a Niomon gate, I inwardly celebrated.

Even still, as I approached the gate, I hesitated. Once I stepped inside, I had officially been to all 88 temples. I lingered outside the gate for a minute, glad that no one else was around. I took pictures and pretended to be admiring its polished look, including the two guardians being encased in glass.

Eventually, though, I took a deep breath, bowed, and forced myself to go in. I walked slowly through the grounds, taking everything in. I realized I came in through an alternate (newer) entrance. A much older looking Niomon gate stood at the actual entrance.

The temple looked like just about any other temple. The only differences were a tiered stand in front of the main hall, where tour groups posed for a group shot, as well as a display of hundreds of walking staffs left by past henro. Henro often leave their staffs here (for a fee, of course), feeling that the staffs’ role is complete at this temple. I had long before decided to keep mine, both because I felt like I wasn’t finished yet (I still had to return to Ryozenji and visit Mt. Koya) and because it made for a nice souvenir. I had relied on it so much throughout my pilgrimage that the staff, in itself, was a physical reminder of this journey. I couldn’t let it go.

I made my usual rounds at the temple and got my 88th stamp on my book. Henro can also pay to receive a hand-written certificate of completion but on seeing the example on display, I realized how big it was. Regrettably, if I bought one, it would likely get crushed in my bag. Also, where would I hang it at home? Even my bachelor’s degree wasn’t hung up on my wall. So instead, I bought some cheap souvenirs, like pins and pens.

I hung out on a bench for a while, relaxing and watching other henro come and go. Many looked so excited to have made it. I chatted a little with a couple of other henro. After a while, the two henro I had stopped at the rest hut with also came by and stopped for a chat. One gave me some traditional Japanese sweets as osettai.

After a while, though, I decided to find the bus stop. At the old Niomon gate, I stopped to bow deeply, feeling an odd mix of emotions. I meandered around the nearby shops for a bit but found nothing of interest to buy, so I spent the rest of the time relaxing in the henro hut.

One henro was already there. He said he was camping out in the hut once everyone was gone, the would be walking back to Temple 1. I dug into my bag and produced the hand warmer I was give on my first night’s stay by the minshuku owners (because the heater didn’t work well) and gave it to him. Up on the mountain at night, he would need it far more than I would. He thanked me and offered me a snack in return.

When the bus arrived, I wished him well and boarded. As the bus pulled away and drove down the mountain, tears started to well up. I held them back, not wanting to embarrass myself on a bus of all places. The pilgrimage had been my life for the last several weeks, and I felt like I had left a part of me behind at Okuboji. I would no longer be walking 30km days or poring over my guidebook, trying to figure out where I would stay. I would no longer be thinking about snacks or water or walking up mountains or taking care of blisters. I was at the end.

I took the bus all the way to Shido Station, then took the express train to Tokushima. I checked into the Sun Route Hotel and was amazed at how nice it was. I felt like I was living in the lap of luxury. It even had a public bath on the top floor. After being in hostels for a while, it was a nice, if odd, change.

After settling in for the night, I had difficulty sleeping. I would be closing the circle tomorrow. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it.