Japan, Long-Distance Walking, The Backwards 88
Comments 22

The Backwards 88, Day 17: Under the Big Stone Hammer

MATSUYAMA, EHIME PREFECTURE

Hey, all. Well, I’m 38 temples into my journey, having visited #51, Ishiteji (“Stone Hand Temple”), the day before yesterday, here in Matsuyama, and numbers 53 and 52 yesterday. Yes, out of order, which is due to some unforeseen good fortune two days ago. What we used to call Trail Magic on the Appalachian Trail.

It was about time my luck changed. Let me set the scene.

Overall, it’s been a rewarding journey, though one of the hardest I’ve done and I’m only a couple of weeks in. I do remind myself sometimes that I’m not the 42-year-old who finished the A.T. feeling the strongest I’d ever felt years back; I’m also lugging the kind of pack weight that helped me develop stress fractures back on the A.T.

But it’s one of them thar lonesome trails you hear about, and even for me, a man used to solitude, this one pushes the boundaries at times.

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My sentiments precisely, big boy. A succinct & accurate review of today’s maps.

Doing the pilgrimage in reverse order would challenge the social life and sanity of even a Japanese person (or Japanese speaker), even in the more popular seasons such as the one beginning now. I started at one of the least popular times, and when I do meet henro walking the other way, they tend not to be the most ebullient of fellow travellers.

Here’s a picture of a henro walking in the misty woods:

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Pilgrim in the Forest.

I like the shot, and right after I took it we met, paused, and said hello. He was an older guy, his smile was genuine, and he obviously didn’t speak a word of English.

“This weather is crazy, eh?” I said, clutching desperately at the world’s most popular conversational gambit.

He smiled and agreed. At least I think he agreed. Maybe he was just smiling.

“But beautiful,” I added desperately.

“Mou sukoshi, ne,” he replied, waving behind him towards the temple he’d just left: Just a little further. “Ganbatte, ne.” Stay strong, chin up, hang in there — that kinda thing.

And he was gone.

That was the best conversation I’ve had with a henro since starting.

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I forget which temple, but it had these great modern living quarters which complemented the traditional buildings at the rear.

I did run into a fellow western henro a few days back. He was powering, head down, towards me, in the full pilgrim outfit including pointy sedge hat and big-ass pilgrim staff. He was tall and bearded and I pulled down my Buff sun-protection thing, and my shades, and offered a cheerful “Hey!”.

“Konnichiwa,” he replied, barely glancing up from that mesmerising and baking-hot tarmac. He was halfway up the hill when I next turned back. Talk about being in the zone…

So there’s the lonesome, and there’s the getting-lost-and-backtracking thing, which has probably cost me an extra 15-20 miles in total so far. Add that to the 750 and let me know — I flunked high school maths.

But the worst thing has been the nightly quest for a bed. Try finding some level ground, in one of the world’s most mountainous nations, that hasn’t already been claimed. Try doing it (my fault) in the dark. And try finding it in the dark and far enough from the road that you’re not woken all night by screeching engines, hoodlums on muffler-less motorcycles, and sweeping headlight beams.

There are numerous trail angel types and guesthouses in the guidebook, but that would require funds, organisation, and preferably some language skills. Also, I’m not packing a phone. And I like having my own space.

To sum up, before arriving in Matsuyama and not counting the internet cafe where I managed a few hours to an all-night piano-music CD accompaniment and lights with no “off” setting, or the one hotel room I paid for in Saijo but where, oddly, I still slept poorly (bed too comfortable), I’d had one decent night’s sleep on the whole pilgrimage, in this apparently home-made pilgrim shelter on a lonely country road:

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It doesn’t look like much but it was a rare terrific night.

It was blissful: a bench, a table where I could rest the laptop, the beer and the convenience-store dinner I’d walked a few miles off-trail to buy, and a nice cozy floor with a roof over it. Not a car all night, just some weird cat-fighting yowls in the darkness.

In the morning, I woke rested, savouring the novelty as I trudged to the next vending machine…

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Breakfast. Time for a 130-yen “cafe au lait”.

..and my (cold) morning brew.

I still love the mornings. Most of them are magical. For instance, that same morning, I took the header shot above, and this one of a roadside spider:

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I love not knowing what the next temple will look like, feel like, having to improvise to get a shot, sometimes a few, to suit the light and weather and setting…

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Bus-pilgrim walking sticks (they use them between bus & temple, a gruelling slog of several metres) with group prayers underway in the distance.

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And I never tire of the randomness of the walking life, the chance encounters, the glimpses of unknown and unknowable lives, human and otherwise:

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Every day is long, but some are ridiculously so. Sometimes you can knock off several temples in a day — my record is six — and then there was the longest stretch between temples, such as the 45km/27m road-trek between Temple #65, Sankakuji, and #64, Maegamiji, both in eastern Ehime Prefecture, the one covering the north-west of the isle.

(There are bigger stretches to come.)

I’d had a shitty evening the day before, getting lost and backtracking etc etc long into dark, giving up, pouring a can of hot beer down my throat in combination disgust/ecstasy, and crashing behind yet another shrine.

In daylight I found a stream, stripped off, jumped in, rinsed my raggedy rags, found the temple easily — and was quickly overrun by a plague of (ugh) taxi pilgrims:

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Enlightenment comes cheap when you can squeeze four or five into one cab.

For me the toughest task navigationally is usually finding the start of the path to the next temple. The map is so small-scale, and everything’s aimed at the clockwise-walking pilgrim. But this time I was in luck: an older local man asked if I was going to Maegamiji, and took off at once…

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Breaking the land-speed record en route to maegamiji.

..leading me at a breathtaking pace through the maze of forest and backstreet paths to meet the long, straight stretch shadowing the expressway…

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The majesty of nature along the henro path.

..where he left me to my own devices.

I got most of the way across that night, enjoying myself much more when I was back in farmland…

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The critics agree.

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Unless you’ve hiked the henro, you have no idea how welcoming & enticing one of these can appear.

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..and I slept that night, after a fashion, under a river bridge.

It rained on and off for over a week. Weird weather, but more comfortable than getting sun-blasted. That was another moody-skied morning…

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..and I was soon at Maegamiji, passing Tyrion Lannister doing something naughty by the roadside…

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..as well as some nice rural Shikoku touches:

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Mikan (mandarin) orchard.

Unfortunately the next stretch of temples was disappointing.

There was a 1970s brick-and-cement reconstruction, and a couple of rundown, neglected places. I had my hotel stay there and then set off inland for the temple considered one of the most inaccessible or remote, Yokomineji, #60, in the foothills of Ishizuchi-San.

I certainly raised a sweat in my freshly laundered rags as I slogged up through rainy, misty woods…

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..reaching the temple in late afternoon in light but persistent rain:

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Fortunately one of the no-nonsense lady staff offered me some tsūyadō — free lodging. It’s usually in a rarely used storeroom or shack; this was a powerless shed with some floor space between benches, but it was way more appealing than camping in the woods.

I thought I was set to go, planning to spend the next couple of days climbing 1,982m Ishizuchi-San, highest mountain in western Japan, mystical peak once off-limits to women, with a name that reflects its fearsome appearance: Stone Hammer Mountain.

This mountain had evaded me on my 2008 Shikoku trip, and my friend Chris had recommended it. The priest at Temple #1 had even marked the route for me in my book, having climbed it twice during his four pilgrim circuits.

But one of those random-but-not-really occurrences: I got online in my dark little digs, with the rain falling outside and the temple utterly quiet and still, and got some bad news, some terrible news. My night was ruined, and I debated quitting the whole trip.

When I split before dawn, it was to backtrack towards the coast, abandoning Ishizuchi for the second and final time, and doing 18 fast miles wracked with sadness, the pain in my guts temporarily dulled by a couple of 8:30am shots of Jack Daniels.

(Not recommended.)

I won’t go into it here, now or probably ever, but it was a hard couple of days. I’m hanging in there/here, and I did those six temples the following day…

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Scarecrow Convention.

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A pilgrim on the far bank, oblivious to his western counterpart lurking in the bushes.

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A hungry stray cat in a park that touched me with its lonesomeness. It was very wary & wouldn’t come close, but I fed it the chicken and fish that came in my bento lunch, then went to a convenience store and bought it some cat food that it sniffed at with disdain & ignored!

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Nothing more healing than a walk along the coast. When I reached the coastal highway the other evening, with its views of a placid Inland Sea, I felt a lot better:

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A tiny cliff-top shrine just before sunset.

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The world’s most beautiful petrochemical plant.

I had a terrible night, however. Wasted an hour trying to find a henro shelter marked on my map, roamed the busy road fruitlessly, and finally settled on something unconventional but promising.

An hour later I was disturbed by an old man standing silently near the foot of my groundsheet, presumably as shocked as I was. He shuffled off, and I packed up and left, cursing the book, my luck and the meddling gods.

Last time I try to stealth-camp in somebody’s garage.

So on I trudged, miserably, into the void. Settled on yet another shrine, put my tent up out of sight at the rear — and was woken early yet again by more shuffling feet stopping right outside my door.

God…damn…it.

Still, that lovely Inland Sea:

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Dawn on the Seto (Inland Sea).

I was in my second Family Mart of the morning when my eyes met those of a fellow westerner. Always weird when that happens. We got talking.

“Are you a henro?” she asked.

“I’m doing a Family Mart pilgrimage. I just go from konbini to konbini.”

“Really?!”

“Well, yes. But yes, I am a henro. Just not a very good one.”

We sat down and talked. Long story short: Danielle, originally from Quebec but living locally, was soon on the phone to her friends who run a guesthouse here in Dogo, Matsuyama, site of perhaps the most famous ancient hot springs in Japan.

She drove me here. I did one nearby temple that afternoon. I stayed the night. It was perfect. Matt and Nori are wonderful hosts. I had two baths. Began to feel pretty damned okay-ish.

Yesterday Danielle drove me back to the Family Mart, and I slack-packed with just my camera bag to two more temples, back to the springs for another bath, and back here for another night.

This damned post is taking so long, I just decided to stay one more night! Plan is to take a guesthouse bicycle into town and the Mont Bell store, perhaps buy a new tent (my 10-year-old leaks through the floor and has a broken pole), visit the famous castle, and enjoy another night of real sleep.

Things are looking up. Trail magic — o-settai — of the best kind. The human variety.

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Thanks for reading.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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22 Comments

  1. Gee Goat, life on the trail laid bare. Enticing and scary at the same time. A magnificent post… I’m glad to read you’re ok, but sorry that you’ve received unhappy news.
    May luck be with you for the remainder of your trip. Safe trails.

  2. This journey of yours seems longer than the others I read. You seemed to have a lot of patience to be able to go through all this. Have a wonderful day, night or whatever it might be at your end! 🙂

    • Thanks, Ranu — night! A good day but too much road-walking with hills. Yes, this is the longest journey IN THE WORLD. In fact it never ends ’cause when you finish you’re right back there at the beginning. It’s been a tough one for me mentally and physically, for sure. I’m really struggling sometimes with some dark personal stuff. But then I think, if I quit and went home, I’d still have those issues, but nothing as rewarding (at times) and productive (well…) to distract me (sometimes) from them…

  3. Barbara Smith says

    Thanks for writing!
    I could feel your discouragement (is that a word?) and your re-energising.. good luck and keep truckin” as they say..

    • Yup, it is! This morning I actually woke feeling strong and enthusiastic, even with a half-hr ascent before coffee! And that positivity lasted most of the day, only lagged as I got tired backtracking along two and a half hours of road as the temple was at a dead end in the mountains. Now I have a 75km slog to the next one to look forward to. Sucks having no temple to break up the day, but I’m entering the most scenic country on the whole walk, so should be some photo ops to keep me going.

  4. Danielle says

    Hello. Danielle here. Are you still in Matsuyama? Talking with you made me relive my two year journey around the world. As I told you, I’d like to walk parts of the Henro with my dogs. I’m planning on leaving from the combini sometime next week for Enmyoji. Thank you for the inspiration. I hope my dogs will enjoy their mini pilgrimages.
    Walkabout. I love that Australian word.
    Take good care of yourself, you, The Goat that Wrote.
    I’ll be following.

    • Hey Danielle, nope, left the guesthouse yesterday morning at last. I think I did five temples yesterday, was nice & energised after that rest! Slept in the woods last night in a henro shelter. Today was beautiful but hard. Did Temple 44 and then a shit-ton of road-walking out to #45, Iwayaji, which is one of the more spectacularly situated ones. But then you have to backtrack along the same route to 44 and then it’s like 75km or something to 43! The biggest gap for me so far. It’ll take two days. I’m typing this at a Circle K and I think I saw a suitable stealth-site at a nearby michi-no-eki so I can hit this place up again in the morning for coffee!

      Your dogs and you should enjoy their mini-henro. Weather’s getting kinder too, this morning I actually had to put a jacket on up in the mountains!

      Great meeting you, might be possible for me to drop back to Matsu at the end of this danged thing…

      • Danielle says

        Let me know if you come back this way.
        The pictures are so familiar and interesting.
        Bonne marche !

  5. Sorry you got some terrible news. I must admit I don’t think I could handle this kind of hike, even though the scenery is beautiful and interesting. Thanks for sharing these experiences. The collection of images is wonderful. Safe travels!

    • It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. Especially doing it in reverse. I lost half an hr this morning with a wrong turn. I reckon it would best suit couples or a pair or three of good friends etc. Especially if they’re non-Japanese as they could blow off steam together, talk, make fun of stuff they see, etc, all the stuff I have to do in my head with the whole cast of zany characters living in there.

      Thanks re the images. They keep me going. Today was very goo, photographically, looking forward to uploading the shots soon and having a proper look. Bad news sucks anytime but it just makes a tough walk tougher. Don’t wanna bitch too much though as I came here of my accord! And when it’s good here, it’s great.

  6. Terrible to hear you suffered some bad news Goat. It’s so tough when you’re miles away from where you need to deal with it. But sometimes the miles away helps you cope too. Wishing you the best along the journey. Some truly magnificent shots. My faves: pilgrim in the Forrest Wow! , the misty tree ones, Cliftop shrine and the inland sea. Stay safe and hang in there.

    • Thanks, Paula. Feeling a lot calmer and less anguished at present, and am really enjoying the walk now. Meeting lots more henro as well, the walking kind, as I’ve entered a kind of traffic jam of white-clothed, pointy-hatted blokes (and the odd female one). I’m actually starting to realise the walk is finite now that I’m over halfway through, and that makes me sad.

      Have taken a bunch of shots I love since that last post. Hoping to share some of them soon and get a post out tonight. I’ve been thinking that for several days, though, and before half the beer can’s empty I’m ready to sleep…

      • Just make sure to focus on the experience itself, but something tangible within that, beyond the quest itself, that you can hold on to and take with you when its over. Otherwise, it will be a heartbreaking end. Good luck and stay safe. Looking forward to the next batch… when the beer runs out 🙂

      • Cheers, the store here (Lawson Station, the only convenience store in town) has just about run out of everything thanks to a 5-day long weekend!

        This has been a great trip for my love of photography. Having a theme to explore, the challenge of keeping it interesting and varied and personal, and thinking about how to present the pictures when it’s all over, keep me constantly excited creatively. I honestly don’t know how much I would enjoy this experience if I wasn’t approaching it in part from an artistic perspective. Though I do envy those who can just walk it and not try to interpret it…

      • I think you could go so far as to even compile a journal type book with those incredible photos. Regardless, good to hear you keep it exciting for yourself beyond the trail.

      • Thanks for the nice comment about the pictures ;). I will be investigating putting out something on paper when I get done here!

  7. What a beautiful journey, ups and downs alike. The images of the tall, seemingly barren trees hidden in fog are absolutely stunning, and remind me of some of my favorite moments on the trail. Speaking of which, I can really appreciate how wonderful it is to see a convenience store full of gross food you wouldn’t otherwise eat at the end of a hike. Nothing tastes better than that high-calorie food to replenish your energy and fill your belly! I wish you the best in your future endeavors, and look forward to vicariously exploring these amazing landscapes through your writing and hauntingly beautiful images.

    • Thanks for the beautiful comment! It was an uplifting surprise to find it in the middle of the night when insomnia had me awake in my tent before 3:00am.

      I’m loving the henro a lot more lately than I did when I wrote the last post. Enjoying every day as I move down the western side of the island towards the Pacific coast. Had a great few days of photography too, including this morning. Big gap till the next temple now, won’t reach it till tomorrow afternoon at the earliest, probably later, so going to have to find other subjects on the way.

      Writing this from the outside power outlet of a Lawson’s convenience store, almost sick with sweet calories and coffee…

  8. I’m catching up on your posts, ‘backwards’, like your walk. Every image superb, you are a magic photographer. Sorry to hear of your trials, it sounds like things have indeed been difficult at times.

    I hope the day has gone OK wherever you are. Thanks for the words and images. Take care.

    Rob

    • Much appreciated, it’s been kinda quiet on here comments-wise, and I sometimes wonder if I’m talking to myself!

      I only have time & energy to edit a handful of pictures in the tent each night, or occasionally, like now, in a convenience store especially if they have benches like this one, so the vast majority of my shots and almost all the temple ones have only been seen by yours truly.

      The trip has already served one of its main purposes, which was to force me into “photographer mode” for days on end and squeeze some creativity and real-world adaptability out of me in unpredictable circumstances. One interesting discovery has been that it’s the “in-between” periods between temples (ie, most of each day!) that provide the most interesting opportunities. The temples of course tend to resemble each other up to a point, and the challenge there is not repeating myself and finding some “angle” unique to that place in those conditions.

      And sometimes, like yesterday, the light is AWFUL — bright, mid-afternoon sun, yecchhhh, my most despised for walking & shooting — and then I’m really challenged!

  9. Well Goat, I think you are definitely in “photographer mode”, creating some really memorable images – and you have woven some intriguing stories through the combination of words and selected images. I think you deserve a gold star for being able to edit anything in a convenience store!

    “Mysteries lie all around us, even in the most familiar things, waiting only to be perceived.”
    Wynn Bullock.

    • Nice quote, thanks. It’s amazing what you can do in a Japanese convenience store. I never go in the things back home — no need — but they are like oases of succour on this trail, though I’m getting kinda sick of the cuisine!

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