Greetings, folks, from rainy Kan’onji City on the western fringes of Kagawa Prefecture, Shikoku. If you’re the kind of weirdo who prefers kanji (Chinese characters), I’m here to help: 観音寺市. It’s the name of both the city and one of its two principle temples (the suffix -ji means temple).
Kan’on or Kannon is a Buddhist goddess of mercy (and pets, apparently), much venerated along the Shikoku pilgrimage route: 29 of the 88 temples are dedicated to her. One unusual thing about this temple, #69, though, is that it adjoins #68, Jinnein, which meant a delightfully easy double whammy with which to start Day 8 today.
I’m presently squandering that advantage by sitting here on my Z-Rest outside a 7-11, typing this long-overdue post and stealth-charging laptop, wifi hotspot and one of my arsenal of camera batteries. I haven’t tapped into a convenience store’s power outlet since I last wandered through Shikoku in 2008…
(I don’t like supporting the evil 7-11 Corporation, currently in the news in Australia for ripping off their student workforce, but their stores are the only place in Japan I can reliably obtain cash from my account, and a MasterCard in Japan is practically useless — you may as well carry a dog biscuit in your wallet.)
(Though at least a dog biscuit could keep you alive in an emergency.)
Anyway, things are good. After a slow start following the night drinking with the boss priest at Temple 1, I spent all of the following day trudging towards Temple 88 and the kick-off proper of my journey.
That was Day 1. It was a long way, and at nightfall I still wasn’t there. On a whim I deviated off-trail for a hot-spring bath, and slightly and enjoyably hazy-headed from the hot water, beer, and sessions with two different foot-massage machines, I decided to improvise…
I need to stick to the script.
I ended up climbing up the road on the most lonesome mountain pass I’ve ever walked, with a half-moon and stars so bright I mostly didn’t need my headlamp, no cars in a couple of hours, no idea if I was going the right way but mellow enough not to care.
It was a relief to descend into farmland, but I couldn’t find anywhere to sleep. The farms and villages were dead-silent and my footsteps seemed unfeasibly loud. In desperation, when I saw a little torii gate at the roadside, I entered the tiny country shrine and cowboy-camped on sacred ground a few feet from the road.
No cars all night, till a sole farm truck around dawn. Half an hour later I reached 88 and I was on my way.
That wasn’t even the only shrine I’ve crashed in. In fact the following night was awful as in desperation, with rain coming down, I ended up on a steel-mesh platform used to burn trash at a large and scary shrine complex. Hey, it had a roof — it seemed like the Hilton to me. At first.
Finding accommodation is the most stressful part of most days — apart from getting lost (see below). Around 5:00pm I start scoping out options, preferably free, but that coincides with beer-hunting time, not the best confluence of priorities. There are free pilgrim shelters here and there, but I always pass them too early in the day.
So far, here’s my list of digs since starting:
Day 1: Small country shrine: tentless
Day 2: Garbage-burning pit, bigger shrine: tentless
Day 3: Muddy vacant lot: tent
Day 4: Under the eaves of a temple out-building next to the vending machines & toilets: tent
Day 5: Under a highway overpass: tentless
Day 6: In a semi-rural internet cafe (it had a shower & unlimited soft drinks & ice-cream!)
Day 7: In a park: tent
I should add that the park last night seemed great apart from the mosquitos. Then a stray dog found me and spent hours yelping outside, while I lay in there plotting its murder. Fortunately in Japan nobody ever tells dogs to shut up, let alone investigates the source of their disquiet. In time it lost interest and I lost consciousness.
My days always start with a Quest for Caffeine. Fortunately that’s easily done in Japan as you’re never more than 25 steps from a vending machine (or 10) and 50 from a convenience store. It ain’t always world-class, and often comes teeth-strippingly sugared-up, but it works.
The rest of my day is spent temple-hunting. I managed six yesterday, but that’s super-rare. After this, I’ll have to spend most of the day reaching Temple 67. Day’s end sees me scanning the horizon for either a convenience store or a beer machine, then the shelter-hunt. I always plan to write a post, but once that big can of beer kicks in, exhaustion quickly follows, and the show’s over.
My other frustration has been my tiny English-language guidebook. Three days in a row I lost 1-2 hours in getting myself lost and un-lost, mostly in the urban or semi-rural sections around Takamatsu, where the street signage is also lacking.
I read online that the Japanese version has way better maps. Many’s the time I’ve almost chucked the thing in a river, but I don’t suppose I would’ve gotten this far without it.
Photographically I’m having a blast. I love Shikoku, the stretches of farmland, the sections of old trail in forests, the green hills and paddies. I’ll have more to say about the capital-P Pilgrimage soon, but my own personal pilgrimage is artistic, if that’s not too wanky.
I set myself the goal of taking at least one good shot at each temple. They should all be different, not too obvious, and capture some interesting aspect of the place. I don’t leave till I have my shot.
Sometimes I get there half an hour before closing time (5:00pm) — that is a very intense and challenging scenario, but I love it. The Japanese pilgrims, both the car-users and far rarer walkers, do their half-hour of sutras and rush off without even touring the grounds, looking at the trees, monuments, flowers, etc.
The picture-taking is my quality temple-time, my chance to dump the pack and find some peace and stillness, and it looks much more fun than reciting prayers and burning incense…
I’m saving my best temple shots for now as I have a project in mind for them, but I’ve included a random assortment of shots from the walk so far to give you a hint of its flavour.
Alright, my laptop’s reached a 100% charge and my camera-battery charger light has gone out: life doesn’t get much better than that for the lonesome high-tech pilgrim.
I really hope to post more frequently and less wordily, but the other source of hold-ups is that I only get to edit a few pictures at most each evening before I pass out. We’ll see.
Only 67 temples to go! On with the quest!
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote