[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 22: Slow and Steady

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I woke up a bit later than I wanted it still managed to be out of the hotel at 6:30. I had left my belongings behind, planning to make the climb up to the temple, then return to my hotel to check out and pick up my backpack. Temple 35 was on the side of a mountain, thankfully not at the very highest point, but still required a short climb. The less I had to carry my backpack around, the better.

It was a bit painful, though. I had developed a big, painful blister in an inconvenient spot – the underside of my second toe on my left foot, right where the joint was. I did my best to bandage it, but it was in such an awkward spot that the bandages were uncomfortable. I wanted to drain it but didn’t have sterile tools to do so.

The socks I had bought specifically for this trip were made to specifically fit the anatomical shape of one’s left and right foot, thus they were marked with an L and an R appropriately. In my sleepy haze yesterday, I had accidentally put on two right foot socks, which caused the sock on my left foot to bunch uncomfortably underneath my toes. I had apparently failed a pre-school level test and with painful consequences. Funny how one little mistake could leave someone in such pain.Lesson learned.

My right ankle was also sore and stiff, but I was hoping I would be able to walk it off.

I made my way to the temple, Kiyotakiji, and as expected, it was a short but intense climb up. The dirt/rock paths near the top were still a bit slick from yesterday’s rain. However, I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the Niomon gate, something that the car road bypassed. There were no other walking henro around, so I took a minute to enjoy it and take photos.

The temple was really nothing that special,but it did have beautiful views over Tosa City. The sun was use coming up fully and clearing away the remnants of the morning mists. It was really quite pretty. I made my rounds around the temple, and I overheard a man speak in English to a female walking henro. I would later learn that the temple offered tsuyado, or free accommodations to walking henro (usually without any meals or supplies, though; it was literally just a space to stay with a roo over one’s head), so I figured that is what she did. Smart lady. The man asked her where she was from, and she said Hong Kong.When I peeked over, she had a huge backpack on her shoulders, which looked even bigger due to her small frame. I was curious about her, too, as solo female walking henro are very rare (she was only the second I had seen so far) but the man was still talking to her, so I didn’t interrupt.

A little before 8:00am, I got my book stamped and headed back into town. I took the car road this time, fearing the slick dirt path. Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite managed to walk off the soreness in my right ankle. Even the stamp office lady had asked me with concern if I was ok, as she must have seen my limp. I would have to take some medication for it when I got back to my room.

When I got back into the city proper, I spotted the Hong Kong henro. She looked tired, bent over a little from the weight of her pack.I pointed to Thea henro sign I had passed by a few feet back, telling her it was pointing us left, not straight, but she said she was going to find somewhere to get breakfast. I told her central Tosa had lots of options, then headed onwards, waving goodbye to her, hoping to encourage her a little.

There was a cafe/bakery right next to my hotel that I wanted to try.I only had about 10km to walk to the next temple and my lodgings for the night were right near the temple. I could relax today and take my time. I hoped my ankle would survive, but I was beginning to learn its limits. Perhaps 15-20km a day. Most henro average 25-30km a day, though. I would have to make up the difference with public transportation.

I ate breakfast at the cafe, enjoying the time I had (and the honey toast I ordered). Although staying in hotels was a bit lonely, I liked having the option of choosing my meals and check-out times sometimes.

Close to 9am, though, and I knew I had to get going. I went back to my hotel room, put the last items back into my bag, then checked out. The sweet lady who checked me in yesterday was there again at the front desk and sent me off with a smile and a “kiotsukete”, which is something like, “Take care.” I hear it a lot from others locals and henro as a form of encouragement and well wishes. Every time I hear it, I feel like I am being gently pushed forward. I don’t think they know how that short phrase has such an effect on me.

I head out, but I’m only about a couple of kilometres out when I’m hot and sweating. The sun had come out and the clouds had parted. I stopped to put my backpack down and remove my soft shell layer. About a kilometre later, my shoelace becomes undone, necessitating another stop to fix it. I was a bit frustrated, but I quickly let it go. I didn’t have the energy to waste on getting angry. There was no point.

I rested at the next rest hut. I wasn’t tired but the path from there turned into a hiking trail up a small hill(about 200m elevation) with steep dirt paths, according to the elevation profile in my guidebook. Again, I had plenty of time, so I wasn’t in any rush. A lady came by shortly after to empty the trash and recycling bins. She chatted with me for a bit and then wished me well as I put my backpack on and headed out.

Despite having climbed up to four mountain temples and walked up an uncountable amount of stairs, I still found ascents difficult. Why? I knew my body was stronger, but not nearly strong enough. I cursed myself for my weakness, but continued on, slow and steady. Still, the trail wasn’t as steep as I thought it would be. It seemed to alternate between spurts of steep stairs or slopes and gradual inclines. At one point, an elderly couple, who had to have been in their early 80’s, passed b in the opposite direction. They didn’t look like they were struggling at all!

When I got to the top, I was so tired thatI didn’t even notice the spectacular view through the gap in the trees at first. I paused to catch my breath and take pictures. Then I heard a group of women coming up the trail. They were a group of four and they were all laughing and chatting, barely a bead of sweat to be seen and not out of breath at all. I was in awe. Granted, they also didn’t have a big backpack on, but they were also quite a bit older than me, too. They stopped to chat with me for a bit, and they were  surprised when they found out I was from Canada and traveling alone. One lady commented that she had been to Lake Louise once. Having been there just last October, I could agree with her that it was beautiful.

I pretended to want to take more pictures and allowed them to go ahead on the trail down. I was 99% sure they would be faster than me (and I was right). Once they disappeared from view, I headed down, too.

Again, I took it slow and steady, although I was happy that th trail down this side of the hill was much less steep. Still, there were parts where the trail was quite narrow or thick with mud, so I still took my time. I breathed a sigh of relief when I made it back too asphalt road.

When I returned to the main road, a man on a bicycle stopped to point out the big bridge I would have to cross to get to the next temple. I thanked him and he went on his way. Although I had already known that information from my guidebook, it was still nice to know that there were people out there who cared enough to stop an show me the way.

I stopped at a Family Mart a little down the road. Again, I had the time so I grabbed some lunch and sat in their eating area to chow down.

At about 1pm, I decided I had rested long enough and I moved on. Another walking henro had sat down to eat, as well, and we nodded to each other as I passed by. Again, there is something of a solidarity felt betwee walking henro – the struggles of foot blisters, sweating on the road, climbing mountains, and not knowing when your next good meal will be. I know I am not technically a 100% walking henro, but I still knew how painful it was on the feet and legs. I had huffed and puffed and sweated up mountains, then limped down them. I knew what it was like to eat only a handful of nuts for lunch because there aren’t any convenience stores or restaurants nearby.

There are many ways to do the Shikoku pilgrimage, and one way isn’t seen as better or worse than the others. Walking the route doesn’t make you spiritually superior or anything compared to those who take a tour bus or drive. Even still, meeting someone. who was going through similar struggles as yours is encouraging somehow. It’s like a weird sort of community.

Anyway, my path took me across the bridge and past beaches and palm trees. For some reason, I felt really, really happy. My legs felt good, the sun was out but wasn’t too hot, my stomach was full, and I didn’t have a lot of distance left to cover. What more could I ask for? (Actually, to answer that, a driving henro stopped for me to give me an orange as osettai). I practically skipped across to Temple 36.

Temple 36 was Shoryuji. I had picked up the hint from my stamp book that it would feature a lot of stairs, and this temple did not disappoint. Resigned, I put my backpack on a bench and made my way up, I did my usual rounds, and on my way down the stairs, came across the henro from the Family Mart. I stuck around to take photos of the temple’s beautiful grounds while he got his book stamped. We sat on some benches to relax after I got my stamp. The other henro tried chatting but he knew basically no English. What I did manage to find out, though, was that he was from Nara and was staying at the same hotel as me.

He left ahead of me, but I was determined to make today a relaxed day, so I stayed a few minutes more. When I decided it was time to find my hotel, I wandered around a while, trying to find the path to no avail. Finally, I bit the bullet and went back to the stamp office to ask the. lady there. She spoke only in Japanese, but she pointed out the little path behind the stamp office that lead to the Okunoin. I knew the hotel was near the Okunoin, or inner sanctuary. She said it would take about 20 minutes, but judging from the look on her face, I guessed it would be difficult.

Damnit, I was right.

The little paved path quickly became a dirt path through thick forest. I could occasionally hear cars rumble by on the nearby road, but I couldn’t see it. At one point, I was faced with a near vertical set of rocky “stairs”, and for the first time, my staff became a hindrance, as I had to use my hands to climb up.  I quickly worked up a sweat, and my legs were already tired from the two short climbs I had done earlier in the day. It was short, but tiring. When I finally got to the road, I still had about a 100m uphill walk.

My reward, though, was a stunning view of the coast and cliffs. The hotel, Kokumin-shukusha Tosa, was right next to a restaurant called Santorini, and appropriately, said restaurant was styled after the very famous white buildings. I spotted the henro from Nara checking in, but I stopped to take some photos. Then I went in and checked in.

The hotel was expensive, but it had been the third (out of four) lodgings I had called the previous night. The first had closed (if I got my Japanese right) and the second hadn’t answered. The view alone seemed worth it, but the hotel also served up a nice dinner and they had a lovely bath. They also had rabbits in cages in the lobby. The cages were small, but the rabbits seemed friendly and I enjoyed taking a few minutes after dinner to sit next to them.

After dinner, no one came by to with bedding, but I eventually clued in and found some behind a sliding door, in a closet. There was enough bedding for at least three people, so I decided to be greedy and piled two mattresses on top of each other for more comfort. Heaven! Still, I somehow had difficulty getting to sleep. I had such a relaxed day that I simply wasn’t as exhausted as I usually was.

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