[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.

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