[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 15: The Test

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I slept heavily but woke up a few times throughout the night. I think I was just a bit anxious about the day to come. The Shikoku Pilgrimage has sections called “henro kogorashi”, which translates roughly to “pilgrim falls down.” These sections are the parts of the trail that are difficult, such as steep inclines/mountains, that often cause or tempt henro to give up. Today’s journey would take me through not one but two “henro kogorashi.” I did not know if I was physically ready for the challenge.  Today would test both my physical fitness (especially my knees, which were still not 100%) and my resolve.

I got up, went down to the dining room for breakfast, then packed up and was on my way a little after 7am. I was the first pilgrim to leave the inn that morning, but when the trail became steep, the others quickly caught up to me. After my break in Kyoto, I felt my lack of fitness on the climb.

Like the climb up to Shosan-Ji (Temple 12), the mountain trail was beautiful but exerting. Again, I was passed by pilgrims who had to have been in their 50’s or 60’s, but again, I told myself to take it easy and go at my own pace. “Slow and steady, slow and steady,” I reminded myself. Someone had thought it a good idea to place stairs into the mountain trail. On the one hand, it made the trail somewhat safer. On the other hand, the stairs were quite tall in places. There were at least a few that were as high as my knees! These required quite a bit of effort to climb.

I reached Kakurin-Ji, Temple 20, around 8:45am or so. This temple was also quite peaceful being so isolated in the mountains. Legend has it that this temple was founded by Kobo Daishi when he saw a pair of cranes guarding a Jizo statue. Accordingly, two crane statues flanked the main hall. After catching my breath, I offered some quick prayers at the main hall and explored the grounds, taking photos.

I got my book stamped then took some time to rest. My knees had held up fine but I did not know how well they’d take the descent down the mountain. Still, I was happy with my time so far. It was still early in the day.

When most of the other pilgrims left, I decided to press onwards, as well. The descent down to the valley below was, like the ascent, steep and all dirt trail. I went very slow, especially when going down stairs, not wanting to injure my knees any further. Then, at one point, the trail flattened out a little into a gentle slope down, so I quickened my pace a bit. Unfortunately, I slipped on a loose patch of dirt  and felt my right ankle twist painfully. Although I had managed to stay upright, the pain was so intense, I gently lowered myself to the ground.

It took all I had not to cry. The pain was bad. I wondered, too, why I was having such rotten luck. First my knees, now my ankle. What else could happen? If I could not walk due to my ankle, I would have to give up on the pilgrimage for sure this time. Also, there was no one in sight and I was in the middle of nowhere. If I couldn’t walk to find help, I would have to wait until someone found me.

I waited a couple of minutes until the pain subsided a bit. No one had come by. I decided to test things out and stood up. To my surprise, my ankle could take my weight. I tried taking a few steps. Still good. I decided to keep going as long as my ankle could support my weight. I took it as a good sign.

I continued slowly down the mountain and into the valley. As I stepped out onto the road, another henro caught up to me and called out to me. He told me I had his walking staff. True enough, the staff I had taken had more engravings o it than mine had. I apologized and gave it back to him, and he gave me a plain staff with Kakurin-Ji’s name stamped on it. “A rental,” he said and continued onwards. I looked up the mountain. Either I had forgotten mine up at the temple or someone else had accidentally taken mine (as I was sure I had taken the only staff with a blue covering on it). Either way, I had no inclination to climb back up the mountain, especially since I had to climb up Mt. Tairyuuji to get to the next temple.

I decided to keep going. At a road intersection, there was a rest hut where the other henro I had seen today were resting and having snacks. I, too, decided to join them. A female walking henro (one of the few I’ve seen; most are old men) gave me a piece of orange chocolate, which I accepted gratefully and ate right away. I wasn’t too hungry but still broke up a package of cracker nuts and ate about half of it. An elderly pilgrim approached me and asked, in English, if I had food for lunch. I told him I did and would be fine. I took a minute to take off my sock and ankle wrap to assess the damage on my ankle. It didn’t look too swollen (yet) but was tender on palpation. I silently prayed it would hold up at least until Temple 21.

The other henro began to leave, so I did not linger, either. Crossing the valley was pretty flat, and even the beginning of the ascent up to Temple 21 started out with a gentle incline. I even passed a few of the other henro who had left the rest hut before me. My ankle and knees all felt fine. I caught up to the man who had asked me about lunch and chatted with him for a bit. I learned he was walking the entire pilgrimage three times (wow!) and he would be getting to Temple 22 today. I admired his stamina and told him I’d be stopping after Temple 21.. Eventually, though, he encouraged me to go onwards, as his pace was slow, so I did.

However, when the trail became steep for the final ~1.8km, the others caught up to me again. Once more, it was an exerting climb, especially having already done a similar climb already that day. At one point, about 200m before reaching Tairyuu-Ji, one could see across the valley and see Kakurin-Ji. I marvelled at how far I had managed to go so far.

By the time I got to the temple, my legs felt like jelly from the climb up. I took a minute to rest and catch my breath before going to the main hall to pray. I silently thanked whoever was listening for helping me today. I got my book stamped and bought a new staff, leaving my “rental staff” at the temple. This time, I chose one with a red cover with embroidered flowers on it, hoping that it would be girly enough for most men to avoid (because, as I said, most walking henro were old men).

By this time, it was about 12:30pm, so I joined the other henro on the benches for lunch. I finished off my cracker nuts and ate a protein bar from home.The elderly henro from earlier joined me to eat his own lunch. He offered me a banana but I politely refused, assuring him I had eaten and was ok. Still, I was immensely grateful for him looking out for me. As I have mentioned before, I feel like there is always a friendly and supportive face every day on this pilgrimage, no matter where I am or what day it is.

My inn for the night was at the base of the Tairyuu-Ji ropeway, so I was still quite early, too early for check-in.So, I simply relaxed at the temple. A foreign couple arrived and I chatted with them a bit. I found out they were from the Netherlans and were mostly camping out rather than staying at inns. They said they were hoping to make it to Temple 22, but might not make it there in time, in which case they would camp out somewhere along the way. I told them about my own plans, and they were surprised on hearing about the ropeway. I warned them that it would take them far off the pilgrim path, but it was definitely an option rather than descending the mountain on foot.

It was a bit chilly up on the mountain, so at around 1:15pm, I made my way to the ropeway station and bought my ticket. The staff there were offering mushroom tea as osettai. Even though I am not a huge mushroom fan, I still enjoyed it immensely. The first ropeway car that arrived had several people already waiting for it, so I told the staff I would wait for the next one and simply rested on a bench.

When I got onto the ropeway car, it was actually a bit scary as I’m afraid of heights! The big trees I had passed by on the hiking trails looked tiny from the ropeway car. Still, as we descended the mountain, I was grateful I had gone with this option. It was really quite beautiful seeing the stretches of mountains and valleys around the area. We even had a tour guide pointing out all the things to see, although he spoke in rapid Japanese, so I couldn’t understand most of what he said.

When I got to the base of the ropeway, It was still a bit too early to check in so I rested again on a bench. At one point, the couple from the Netherlands walked by – they had taken the ropeway and thanked me for the idea. I wished them well as they left.

Around 3pm, I went to my inn and checked in. I planned out the next day and booked a hotel room, then headed to the bath to get washed up. IThey had a very nice public bath and because I was early, I had it all to myself. They also had a cooling bath, so once I was done soaking in the hot bath, I took a moment to dip my foot and ankle into the cold bath. The inn didn’t have any ice on hand, so the cold bath would have to do. When I returned to my room, I noted it was definitely swollen compared to my left ankle and immediately put a compression bandage on it.

After a delicious dinner, I did some laundry and turned in for the night.

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