[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 23: Friendly Faces in the Rain

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I took my time waking up in the morning, but still couldn’t fall back asleep around 7. Waking up at such an hour is still pretty late for a henro. Most are up and out walking by northern. Still, breakfast didn’t start til 6:45am and I had decided, after much deliberation, to take the ferry across the harbour, and it wouldn’t leave the nearest port until 10:10am. I had thought of walking around the little bay, but thought the ferry would be fun (and relaxing) to ride.

I ate a quick breakfast, then returned to my room to finish packing. When I inspected my feet, the blister on the underside of my toe was still unbroken and tender. However, bandages simply weren’t working in such an awkward spot on my foot, so I cut out a piece of moleskin and placed it on the ball of my foot, hoping it would at least relieve pressure from the blister when I walked.

When I went to check out and settle my bill, the man at the desk (I’m assuming the manager) asked where I was staying, noting my henro gear. I told him I was staying near Nakamura Station, taking the ferry and train to get there. He told me that two other henro that morning were taking the ferry (and they had similar plans to mine) and he was driving them to the port. He offered to drive me, too, and returned my room key to me, telling me to please relax until it was time to leave around 9:40. I was so stunned I barely knew how to respond. He continued on and pulled out the train schedules for me, interpreting the kanji as he went. He also gave me tips about walking Cape Ashizuri, the next step in my pilgrimage. I almost cried, feeling like I didn’t deserve this much help from someone who I was sure was busy doing his job.

His attention was eventually pulled away by a couple of other customers, and I waved him off, assuring him I was fine. I bought myself some coffee from the vending machine, then returned to my room to relax for the next hour.

At 9:40, I returned to the lobby. Two other older male henro were also waiting. We piled into the hotel staffer’s van and he drove us the ~5km to the port. I gave him an osamefuda and thanked him profusely. I wanted to give him more but didn’t really have anything else. I understood why this hotel came highly recommended in my guidebook.

When we boarded the ferry, to my surprise, the female henro from Hong Kong was also there! We greeted each other and chatted. I learned that she was also experiencing a lot of pain from the walk and decided to take it easy for the next few days, using public transportation to get around. It felt great to commierserate on the pains and sufferings that came with the Shikoku pilgrimage. I reassured her that I did the same after experiencing a few injuries and setbacks myself.

I learned that she was actually having a harder time than I was. She knew next to no Japanese, didn’t have a phone that could make phone calls (data only), and she would often use wander around places until she found a place to stay. She was carrying a huge bag, including a sleeping bag and a tent she had only used once (due to the cold nights). She had done the Camino de Santiago but was struggling significantly in Shikoku. She said that, in the Camino, she always had people to walk with and there were lots of places to stay the night. Comparatively, Shikoku was a lot lonelier (especially with the language barrier) and lodgings were not always easy to find (especially in Kochi Prefecture). She said she felt like quitting every day. I told her that I, too, thought of quitting all the time, but for some reason, kept going every morning.

When we got off the ferry, it was raining a little. I put on my sedge hat, put the rain cover over my pack, and waited for the Hong Kong henro, but she urged me to go on ahead, as her leg pain was slowing her down. I told her that, if we met at Susaki Station and she wanted me to call a hotel or inn for her for the night, I would be more than willing.

With that, I set off. The other male henro were ahead of me, but I eventually caught up with them and passed them. I was quite happy that my knees hadn’t pained me in a long time and my ankle wasn’t sore. I hoped things would keep up this way, and my spirits were high despite the rain.

I stopped for a break at the Susaki rest hut. I wasn’t really tired but it felt good to get out of the rain and sit. I snacked on the last of the nuts the lady had given me at Temple 12, which felt like ages ago, while the two male henro caught up and also stopped for a quick rest. I marvelled at the hut, which clearly saw a lot of traffic and was maintained with care. Someone had pinned a poem and blank osamefuda to the wall. The poem read:

Inviting the wind to carry

Salt waves of the sea,

The pine tree of Shiogashi

Trickles all night long

Shiny drops of moonlight

                            — Basho

I wondered how many henro had come here seeking shelter from the rain, or to simply have a break, or even to sleep the night with a roof over their heads. Thousands, probably, had sat where I sat, grateful for a place to rest weary, blistered feet, and many more would come after me. It was an endless cycle, just like the pilgrimage itself, which is one big circle around the island.

After about ten minutes of rest, I spotted a familiar figure come up the road – the Hong Kong henro! I was happy she had made it so far and in good time. We had an hour and a half to make it to Susaki Station to catch the train, and it was only about 4km away. The two male henro left. I stayed behind another couple of minutes to chat. Someone had left some maps of the Susaki area in the rest hut, and I showed the Hong Kong henro which station to go to. The next train was a limited express train, so it would bypass the smaller stations and stop only at Susaki Station. She thanked me for the information (which I myself had gotten from the hotel manager) and I left.

Again, I caught up to and passed the two male henro. I was still feeling good and my joints were holding up. At one point, though, they called out to me to stop and turn around.I had been following the path markers, but we were heading to Susaki Station, which required taking a different road. I thanked them and joined them to Susaki Station. Their pace was slower than mine, but one henro seemed to be a guide and knew the way, so I followed quietly behind them

We got to Susaki Station a little before 1:30, so we had about an hour to rest up. I was hungry but there were no restaurants of convenience stores nearby. I snacked on the last protein bar I had brought from home, figuring it was its time. I hoped there would be something at the next station.

Every once in a while, I glanced outside, hoping to see the Hong Kong henro’s figure. I was worried she wouldn’t make it in time. But literally 8 minutes before the train was due to leave, she entered the station, tired and wet but in time to buy a ticket and board the train when it arrived. The two male henro were also on the platform. The henro who I suspected was a guide told us that we should hurry at Temple 37, as the train would leave at 3:30 for Nakamura Station, our next stop. It was already 2:28.

When we got off at Kubokawa Station, the two male henro rushed off to get to the temple. I had been busy fixing up my backpack and didn’t get to see where they went. Consequently, I lost minutes trying to figure out where to go from the station, but eventually found it thanks to a road sign down the road. Whew!

I hurried to Temple 37, Iwamotoji. I’ll admit, I hurried through my prayers, keeping the other henro’s advice in mind. However, I really, really had to use the toilet, and I decided to go ahead and use it. Unfortunately, the minutes lost between trying to find my way on arrival and going to the bathroom meant I wouldn’t make the next train unless I ran to the station. I didn’t feel like running, especially with a barely-healed ankle. Besides, the pilgrim from Hong Kong had arrived a bit late and I wanted to be sure she would be ok tonight. My offer to call a hotel or inn was still up, I assured her, but she was still not sure how far she would go today. However, she said she would take the train with me to Nakamura Station, then decide whether to take a bus to Cape Ashizuri or stay in Shimanto City.

I wondered what to do with the hour of time until the next train. The henro from Hong Kong, whose name I learned was Fong, said she would head to the supermarket she saw earlier to try to find something to eat. I said I’dd wait until I got to Shimanto. She encouraged me to go back to the main hall to look at all the paintings on its ceilin, which I had missed in m initial rush. She left the temple while I returned to the hall and took in all the wonderful works of art.

When I had had my fill of art, I returned to my backpack and watched other henro filter in and out. However, it was only 11 degrees out and I was wet and chilled. I decided to find the convenience store listed as nearby, hoping to find some warmth and a snack, but when I got there, it was closed permanently. I hoped Fong had had better luck at the supermarket.

I slowly headed to the train station again, and ran into Fong as she left the supermarket. No luck there, either, she said. She only bought chocolate. I told her about the convenience store and we had a bit of a laugh. I assured her that Kochi Prefecture was the toughest area to get through as a pilgrim because of how sparse it is. The northern part of the island had bigger cities and would probably be easier to find lodging and places to get food.

We made our way to the station, bought tickets, and boarded the train. As we boarded, a foreign couple of pilgrims disembarked. I recognized them as the pilgrims who had greeted me at Temple 32, but I don’t think they recognized me, as I hadn’t stopped to chat. However, the woman of the couple recognized Fong and greeted her with a big hug. Once seated, Fong and I chatted a little as the misty mountains passed by. Fong said she had met those henro on her first day, but they walked fast and went ahead of her. I told her that I had seen them briefly at Temple 32 two days ago.

After thinking on it, I realized they must have been returning from Cape Ashizuri. They, too, must have given in and taken public transportation. It was impossible to get from Kochi City to Cape Ashizuri on foot, a distance of over 150km, in two days. Kochi Prefecture was definitely a harsh master for walking henro.

When we got off at Nakamura Station, the bus going to Cape Ashizuri was already at its platform and due to leave in a few minutes. Fong made the decision to board it and hopefully find a place to stay there. There was plenty of lodging in that area, so I figured she’d be fine. I briefly thought of cancelling my own hotel reservation and boarding the bus with her, but my growling stomach called out to me and I said goodbye, wished her well, and went to find my hotel. I bought some food at the nearby convenience store, did some laundry, and called it a night.

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