Beach & Coastal Walking, Japan, Long-Distance Walking
Comments 4

Pilgrim in a Treehouse

I was on the pilgrim path. The real one. My own personal, spontaneously devised pilgrimage through southern Shikoku had wound up the day before. But that’s another story. This one started in a ratty park in a worn-down fishing town, a secret tent-site in the bushes. An evening tour round the neighbouring shrine, with its torii gate standing guard…

..and I slunk into a tent already shuddering before a relentless ocean wind…

MID-MAY, 2008

From my journal:

Day 20, Tosashimizu City.

What a drama last night was. The wind deteriorated into near gale-force gusts; it was like putting up a tent single-handed at Everest Base Camp.

Today it’s gorgeous, clear, warm and sunny…

..and I’ve had a wonderfully relaxed morning since getting up at 4:30…

At the supermarket, an older woman hollered: “Onii-San!” [literally “elder brother”]. The ancient gentleman with her wanted to ask if I was a henro [pilgrim]— he’d done the trek himself sometime long ago. They both reminisced at length about something or other. I said “Un!” [a grunt of agreement] and nodded a lot, and that seemed to satisfy them…

Time to hit the endless road. But first, some poetry. Or is it quantum physics?

The road. It was hot and bright and beautiful, winding up and down through unspoiled hills of green and gold towards the south-western extremity of Shikoku… Of course I imagined the pilgrims of ancient times trudging up this road — of dirt — in bare feet or sandals…

My improvised route through Shikoku now coincides with one at least a thousand years older. The 88-Temple Pilgrimage or Hachi-ju Hachi Reijyo has long fascinated me. The 8th/9th-century Buddhist monk Kūkai, known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi, was a Shikoku native, and the circular route links the numbered temples associated with this saintly figure in a journey intended to help pilgrims attain enlightenment.

Today’s temple, Kongofukuji, is number 38, a three-day walk from number 37, and right on the tip of Cape Ashizuri:

Here it is, right at the bottom, on the map I carried:

My tourist map, with each night's campsite numbered.

The road is almost deserted. Then I meet…

a young Frenchman called Raphael going the other way with a big, cheap pack. He’d come from Takamatsu also but had used buses in some parts. Nice fellow, we had a good long conversation there on the road…

My first English in weeks, and it’s with a Frenchman:

Soon after, I caught up to a big 60-year-old from Tokorozawa pushing his bike:

The Tokorozawa connection was interesting [I’d taught English there]. 60 is a lucky age in Japan and he was making the most of it, doing the pilgrimage by bike. His nickname was “Gorilla” and he had a flag with a gorilla caricature by famed animator Miyazaki, who lives in Tokorozawa.

The beautiful Kōchi coast comes into view again…

..and the rugged tip of the cape…

..which has long had an other-worldly image. Cape Ashizuri, says Ian Reader in Making Pilgrimages, was a gateway

 from which ascetics in medieval times embarked in boats (in what was effectively a form of ritualized suicide) in their attempts to reach Fudaraku — the Pure Land…

From Oliver Statler's classic 'Japanese Pilgrimage'

The area is still a popular suicide spot:

The temple itself is a let-down: too cluttered with stone sculptures and a big pond. I appraise temples and shrines largely on their architecture, their landscaping, atmosphere etc. I prefer simplicity and shade:

Some car-pilgrims arrive (many modern pilgrims use vehicles):

This is Kōbō-Daishi himself, as depicted all over Shikoku:

Some rather more weathered statuary, lost heads replaced with stones:

I leave the temple unsatisfied and go up to the big statue of Nakahama “John” Manjiro

..a local fisherman shipwrecked in 1841, rescued by an American whaler and taken to the U.S. He participated in the California Gold Rush, and played a role in the “opening up” of Japan to the west. Returning to Japan, he was made a samurai. There’s a great movie in there…

While I hide from the sun with a beer, more pilgrims arrive:

A plump and cheerful middle-aged henro flopped down near me. He was a Buddhist and believed life goes on forever. We talked about the old believers that had set out from Ashizuri in little boats to certain death. He said, laughing, “It doesn’t matter if it’s not true, it’s what we believe!” He was doing the trip “60% on foot”. When he finally reached a temple and was engaged in the prayer and chanting, “I feel great! Better than talking to my parents, better than talking to my wife…”

His pack, pilgrim hat, and staff:

The beer wears off; only a cold Royal Milk Tea perks me up enough to rejoin the blazing sun as I round the cape. A string of attractive fishing villages and little coves…

..and even a pilgrim shelter — but it’s too early to camp:

A decidedly “western” roadside garden…

..and above a fishing village…

..a more typical Japanese version:

The problem, as ever, is finding a camp between water and very steep hills. Then, a map-board and katakana [characters] for “campground”. I take a steep side-road into the hills. Surprisingly quickly, I’m here. But where, or what, is here?

This is potentially the greatest stealth site ever — it’s just a matter of waiting for a woman and her two kids, and two guys and their dogs, to depart. Because as usual I don’t know if I’m allowed to camp here…

And I still don’t know. But as the sun sets, and the locals drift homeward, I know I’m not leaving this chainsaw-art menagerie, the nearby composting toilets and Coke machine.

Or this fabulous treehouse. In a stroke of genius, I decide to camp right here. Ever tried setting the timer and clambering up a tree for a shot? It takes several clownish takes, but I recommend it:

Greatest stealth-site ever:

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

Next post: Cold Night on Blood Mountain 


    • SW, this is a pilgrimage you’d enjoy, I think. It’s fascinating. A lot of road walking but the countryside is pretty quiet for Japan. I only did a section of it as Shikoku was an unplanned and spontaneous compensation for failing in the north of the country. But I think about it all the time and will be back for the whole thing…

  1. Yet again there’s some great characters in this entry. I love it! I must say I think you found the ultimate place to be pitching a tent. There’s some great vision in picking that one out 🙂

    • Yeah, problem is, in that kind of stealthing in semi-settled areas I don’t sleep well as I feel like a criminal. A friend in Japan was once woken by a farmer pulling out his tent stakes! Great memories of that day, though.

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