Latest Posts

Is There Anybody Out There?

Hi, all. This is a note to any surviving subscribers to this, my old blog. You have surely noticed that I stopped posting years back, as I have a new site that is still (very) active (too active?) and takes up all my free time. It’s also far more centred on photography etc — though I continue to miss the name of this blog, which was surely its finest feature!

Anyway, I kept this original blog floating through deep space largely as I’m attached to it, and as a resource — for myself if nobody else. It’s good to have it there to check things I’m vague on. However, I’m still sporadically getting new subscribers to this drifting space-hulk, and I’d rather have them/you over on the shiny new site!

I’ve decided to render The Goat that Wrote invisible to all but me in a few days’ time. So if you’d like to abandon ship and join me over on Goat Track Photography, here’s the link. You can sign up to follow the blog part of the new site when you get there.

Thanks for your support!

Goat  ~ 山羊 ~

Making Tracks: My New Site Is (Sort Of) Ready!

Hi, all.

Thanks for your patience. I’ll keep this short. This will be my final post on The Goat that Wrote. I’ve spent the last few months working long days, seven of ’em a week, preparing the new site, which is quite a lot more than “just” a blog — hence all that work.

As well as that, I just finished my first paying job as a photographer — well, really as an editor — assisting a photographer at the Indigenous Games, a four-day sports event for indigenous youth from over 30 campuses nationwide.

It was hard work but satisfying, and Paul and I worked well together. The vibe was great, but at the end of each day I could barely focus on anything further than a few metres away, such was the eye strain from staring intently at my laptop screen all day. And I’m sure the experience of sprucing up images of outdoor touch football and volleyball, plus indoor basketball and netball, will prove useful…perhaps.

Anyway, I still have to look into the process for migrating subscribers from this blog to the new site. Assuming it works and you find yourself receiving updates for new posts that you no longer wish to receive, I won’t be hurt if you elect to pull the plug.

For everyone else, thanks for sticking around. I could blather on about the new site here, but I’ve already summarised its layout in my first post over there. You’ll note that I actually published it four days ago — I really thought I’d be announcing its birth that day, but all the basketball and stuff got in the way.

Ok, I’ve earned a (-nother) glass of wine. I hope you enjoy…

Down the Goat Track

..at my brand-spanking new domain iangfraser.com

Cheers!

~ And that really, but really is all the Goat wrote

 

 

The Blog Kept A-Rollin’

Hey, folks,

Just checking in with some exciting news.

I’ve spent most of my waking hours over the last month, and even many of the sleeping ones, building my new website, which I’m hoping to unleash on an undeserving world within a couple of days.

Mind you, I’ve been telling friends the “couple of days” line for a couple of weeks now. There are not many areas in my life where you’d call me a perfectionist, but this is one. I had a couple of weeks of anguish getting the basic framework set up, but lately I’ve been mostly fine-tuning the actual content.

I’m enjoying myself with it now, but still want it all to end. And by end I mean begin. It still works via WordPress but is hosted externally and required a new domain name, and though supposedly easy to customise and generally tinker with, it’s been an exercise in controlled madness getting this far.

Anyway, I wanted a platform to display my pictures more attractively, and move the emphasis from the word to the image. There’ll still be a blog with my latest doings, to which you can subscribe, but a ton of galleries as well. Getting the colours, fonts, layout, sizes, slideshows, performing monkeys and fireworks to meet my exacting standards has been a weird mix of fun and agony, but I’m nearly there.

Apart from all the 10-hr days hammering the new site into shape, I’ve been doing mountains of photography, still sticking to my 5-mile days, spending three hours in a coffee shop every morning slaving over the new project, sleeping erratically, and thoroughly enjoying a much-overdue transition into genuinely autumnal weather after one of the cruellest summers ever.

Every day now is gorgeous, clear, warm but not stifling, and just cold enough around dawn to chill my complaining fingers. The kind of weather that makes a man take a walk outside, gaze adoringly at the sky, take a deep breath, and slump back inside to his damned computer.

Anyway, this will be my penultimate post on TGTW. The next and final one will contain the details of the new site, and then I make the jump. Those of my readers who’ve stuck around during those months of radio silence: I thank you for your patience and hope to talk to you again soon!

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

Merry…Solstice!

Hey, all.

Well, I’d started another flashback-to-Japan post from the last trip, but it was so bleak and un-Christmasy, even for me, that I’ve decided to spare you such an un-festive come-down until my next post. What a way to kick in the new year it will be!

Happily, I was reminded by the ABC weatherman this morning that today is the Summer Solstice in these parts — “when the Sun’s track across the Australian sky reaches its highest point. It is the day that has the most daylight hours of any in the year.”

That news provided the impetus to throw together something lighter and sunnier, so here are 30-something chronologically presented shots from the last two or three weeks, all from the local area, the majority created in that beautiful few hours before and just after dawn when conditions are so good for walking and taking pictures.

My sleep patterns are still crazed, and I’m surviving on around five hours per night/morning. My stoopid brain has lately settled on 2:00-2:30am as a good time to wrench me awake from invariably vivid — often even lurid — dreams, but I don’t complain much.

I generally get in over an hour of walking before sun-up at around 4:50. I’ve resumed bigger daily averages — managed almost seven miles today — and after an hour of deep sleep on returning home, it’s usually time for the library with its air-conditioning, proximity to good coffee, and safe distance from a tempting bed.

I’m also doing half an hour each day on a new exercise bike, feeding an ever-increasing clientele of grateful birds, and doing weekly photo trips to slightly less local settings.

Work on the Japan pictures proceeds nicely, but the daily photography closer to home and the editing of those pictures has been a welcome break, and in fact I’m enjoying a creative spree of late. I strongly believe that creativity comes in waves that can be nurtured and prolonged.

Here’s hoping I can ride this one a while longer…

Enjoy your holidays and your own waves, and I’ll see you soon.

mmm

A RAINBOW APPEARS ~ The bossiest and bravest of our regular rainbow lorikeet visitors takes prime position at the verandah breakfast station.

mmm

MORNING CRUISE ~ Heading downstream at dawn, Cabbage Tree Creek mouth.

mmm

TABLE FOR THREE ~ Surely no introductions are necessary.

mmm

THE PERFECT SUMMER HEADWEAR ~ Liberties are increasingly being taken by certain members of the tribe.

mmm

DEPARTING BAXTER’S JETTY ~ Getting a tad crowded there anyway.

mmm

PANDANUS & PELICANS – A favourite spot on Cabbage Tree.

mmm

STREET TOUGH ~ I “met” this guy in Shorncliffe a week or so ago, and he/she’s still wary. But let me get closer this time.

mmm

RAINBIRD ~ Braving a shower in the hope of payoff by the Guy With the Food. Sadly it wasn’t worth it, but I made up for it the next day.

mmm

SMILING KITTY ~ This guy, further up our street, often goes into a sort of ecstatic state while rolling & writhing on the driveway.

mmm

HEADING OUT ~ A “tinny” — small aluminium boat with outdoor motor — heading into Moreton Bay on a recent delightful, placid morn.

mmm

HARD HATS ~ A few days of showers brought some nice fungal visitors who only hung around a few more days.

mmm

BEFORE THE FIRST TRAIN ~ Sandgate station well before dawn.

mmm

TWINS ~ A backyard creeper early in the day.

mmm

THE GANG’S ALL HERE ~ Clustered round the tripod waiting for breakfast.

mmm

DISTANT SPRINKLERS ~ I spent a crazed half-hour chasing/being chased by those rotating jets of water, but didn’t like many of the shots I got, so I retired to the security of the group.

AN EXPENSIVE PERCH ~ I always specify "claw-resistant" when I look for a new lens.

AN EXPENSIVE PERCH ~ I always specify “claw-resistant” when I look for a new lens.

mmm

MY RED-HEADED FRIEND ~ I now know his name is Flesh — seriously; he was named by a young kid. Sweet guy, though one morning he switched from enjoying a nice chin scratch to shredding my hand with all four paws and several fangs. It damn near ruined my morning. Cats are about 35% adorable and the rest is A-hole.

mmm

OUT OF THE BLUE ~ I was down in the mud, I mean seriously in the mud, squatting most precariously and painfully as I took the following shot, when I happened to glance to the left…and fluked a shot. Prawn trawler returning downstream on Cabbage Tree, the junction of Nundah Creek at rear.

mmm

THE BEAUTY & MAJESTY OF MUD ~ This barge anchors here till it’s needed out around Shorncliffe for the work on the pier restoration. With the mud, the mangroves, the crabpot and the glorious sunrise, you have a classic South-East Queensland scene that was probably worth almost getting mired for.

mmm

BIG GUY ~ A fabulous  — and very tall — eucalyptus in the park next to Shorncliffe station, dawn.

mmm

GETTING BEE-ZY ~ Agapanthus in a Shorncliffe garden just after sunrise.

mmm

WINDOW SEAT ~ A zamioculcas, perhaps the world’s most indestructible indoor plant (I have four or five) enjoys the morning sun in my living room.

mmm

I’VE GOT THE BLUES ~ As soon as they put up these new walls on the local Salvation Army op-shop (thrift store) recently, I knew they’d be perfect for shooting at night. This was around 4:10am.

mmm

THE UNSOLVABLE EQUATION ~ I have no idea what this title means. Well, I do but I can’t articulate it, sorry.

mmm

AFTER THE BAPTISTS HAVE GONE ~ The old Baptist church on the Sandgate waterfront at dawn. Nowadays it’s a childcare centre. Stingray hole, front left.

mmm

BUTCHERBIRD LOVE ~ This pair owns the waterfront turf near the church.

mmm

AGAVES & WATCHER ~ If I’m ever crazy enough to try online dating, this will be my profile pic. That oughtta save me some work.

mmm

THE INTERLOPER ~ Three of my best pals & some guy.

mmm

ONLY ONE REMAINED ~ When the meat runs out, there’s usually one romantic dreamer who sticks around in case I pull a pleasant surprise.

mmm

VEGETARIAN OPTIONS ~ A noisy miner, widely regarded by many urban birds as the biggest arsehole on the block after crows, drops by for some crumbs. This one has gotten quite bold — now eats from my hand, though if Gilligan the butcherbird is nearby he’ll chase him off and steal the crumbs. It’s called entitlement.

mmm

THE SUBTLE ART OF XMAS DECORATION ~ Last night in my sister’s street not far from here.

mmm

SERPENT AT THE GATE ~ Same house, same power bills.

mmm

MORNING TIDE ~ Walking Lovers’ Walk, hand in hand with myself, half an hour before dawn this morning.

mmm

ON THE ROCKS ~ Stranded seaweed, Shorncliffe.

mmm

BABY SHOOT ~ I did wonder why they were bringing their baby to the seaside at around 4:30am today…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

Handsome Little Devils: The Water Dragons Revisited

Hey, all.

I’ve bitched about Summer on here more than once: the energy-sucking heat, of course; the harsh, high-contrast, drama-killing, colour-draining light (photographically speaking); the insanely early start required to reach the waterfront or creek bank in time for sunrise (just made it this morning by heading out the door at 4:10am); cricket; bad TV (I mean badder than usual, and not in a good way); Christmas…

So why bludgeon you with more of the same? Let’s focus on the good side of the Sweltering South-East Queensland Summer: the basking. Not mine — I don’t bask well, except in my own glory.

I’m talking about the lizards:

mmm

I’m still slogging through the pictures from Japan and have completed the editing of half a dozen days’ worth from that 47-day epic, plus several shots, at least, from each of the others. When Day 28, for example, starts to drive me crazy, I jump over to Day 13 for some variety.

At least six hours a day goes by like that. When my eyes start to hurt, I leave the library air-conditioning behind and step outside so I can refocus on something more than 18 inches from my eyes. It feels so good

Other than that, on a good day there are afternoon storms (a possible one forecast today)…

mmm

..the magpies at home or in the park are a nice diversion, as are medication-induced naps enlivened by vivid and entertaining dream-sagas, and lately there’s Gilligan, my little grey butcherbird buddy here in the other park, who drops by daily for a few bits of meat while I enjoy my morning coffee in an ever-shrinking oasis of early shade.

A few days ago, though, I headed into the city to break the monotony with a few hours in the beautiful library there, and when the worst of the heat and light seemed to have passed, wandered back to Roma Street Parkland…

mmm

So disrespectful of all that incredible horticulture!

..to revisit the eastern water dragons I love watching and photographing:

mmm

I hadn’t visited Roma Street since last Winter, which, though typically mild, was chilly enough to send the resident reptiles underground. I asked a gardener, who confirmed that hibernation explained the disappointingly lizard-free environs, adding that I “might be lucky”.

I suppose I was: I found one, a halfwit, I suspect, who, like me, was wondering where everybody had gone.

mmm

Purple butterfly bush.

So it was great to be back in Dragon Country. I had a couple of enjoyable hours strolling the always-immaculate grounds of the Spectacle Garden and surrounds as the sun slowly sank behind the apartments leaning protectively over the lawns.

The shots here feature perhaps eight or 10 of the numerous mini-saurians I stalked. All were shot, as always, sans telephoto, which means I had to do some reptilian belly-crawling myself, inching as close to the beautiful big buggers as I could.

mmm

More than once I was charged by a big, burly male, presumably responding territorially to the spiny brute reflected in my lens, or perhaps because he just didn’t approve of harassment by the paparazzi.

Either way, a relic from the Age of the Dinosaurs bearing down on you from above is always startling!

mmm

For the camera nerds: this one and the last shot were taken with a cheapo 16mm pancake lens plus an ultra-wide adaptor on an old Sony NEX 5N. The others were all shot with a Sony a7 or RX1.

I also witnessed an impressively violent tussle between two testosterone-charged males: it was like one of those old Ray Harryhausen plasticine-dinosaur spectacles. But in colour.

One thing I love about these dragons is the backdrop of flowers. Dragons plus floral colour is a weird but somehow very Queensland combination for me. You’ll notice that shades of purple dominate at the moment — also nicely complementary with the shimmery streaks in that delightful dragon leather.

mmm

Not sure what this plant is — couldn’t find any signage. Anyone help?

Alright, nearly outta shade. I’ll leave you with the pictures and see you soon.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in previous dragon posts, you can try here (from back when my camera skills and equipment were rather more basic) or here for the first part of my “Dragon Trilogy”.

mmm

What’s with the toe?!

mmm

A Study in Paranoia.

mmm

mmm

Petunias in the Topiary Garden.

mmm

This was the loser in the territorial battle I witnessed (but was too slow to photograph). He bailed for the security of a mondo-grass verge.

mmm

And the winner is…

mmm

Purple agapanthus.

mmm

“Flat-out like a lizard on a rock” ~ Australian expression. “Flat out” is Aust slang for really busy.

mmm

mmm

On the Tiles.

mmm

mmm

White butterfly bush.

mmm

In a cotton-tree thicket at a edge of a pond. As their name suggests, water dragons are as happy in the water (they can stay submerged for over an hour) as on the land — or in a tree.

mmm

mmm

Agapanthus-lined pathway.

mmm

mmm

mmm

mmm

mmm

White agapanthus.

mmm

Just before leaving, I tried to capture the activity on the lawn below, where exercise junkies were punching and throwing balls at each other on the left, while a couple posed for wedding pictures on the right. A security guard appeared and asked if I was aiming my lens into those apartments beyond the lawn. I told him it was a wide-angle, and that those apartments looked “like they’re five miles away”. But he did give me an excellent idea for future posts, and when I do purchase a nice long lens, I’ll be back to give you something truly memorable.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

All Creatures Great & Just Plain Awesome

G’day, all.

Lately I’ve been buried beneath a pile of virtual images from Japan over 5,000 shots deep, and am briefly surfacing for air and to check in with y’all before I take a breath and dive back down.

As well as working on my shots from the Henro, I’ve been messing around with pictures that are a lot older, deleting mercilessly, shuddering with embarrassment at certain images that seemed decent at the time but now look like crap (basically 90% or more of my shots from Korea), and generally getting my photographic affairs in some kind of order.

Between sessions at the Big Mac back home, and on the Little Guy here at the air-conditioned library or at my picnic-table “office” in the park before the sun gets too bright, I’ve done a bit of strolling and taken a few thousand more shots, most of which will undoubtedly end up on the virtual trash-heap…

When I need a break from shots of temples, pilgrims, mantids, trees and Japanese coastal panoramas, I fiddle with some of these recent shots, and I’m sharing some with you here today.

All of them are of animals in our yard, street, the waterfront or neighbourhood — wild, semi-wild and domestic; they’re in chronological order. I tried to avoid including magpies, since I’ve done some maggie posts lately and have another couple coming, but finally included a few that didn’t suit those posts.

Hope you enjoy them.

Before the critters, though, a quick shout-out to my friend David, a Frenchman living in Tokyo whom I briefly met on Day 41 of my Shikoku pilgrimage walk:

mmm

Pocari Power. David returns to the road after our convenience-store breakfast.

David was nearing the end of a cycling trip up and down and around the length of the country. We shared a michi-no-eki campsite near Temple #23, a beer, a dessert (“I’m French so I need dessert”; “I’m not French and I need dessert”) and a hot-spring bath. Both of us were sad to see our adventure concluding but excited about future ones.

He just emailed me to tell me he was back in Tokyo after 160 days and 10,167km of riding. Like me, he was struggling a little with a return to a relatively settled life. I’d mentioned the attacks in Paris and he said he’d been back in France at the time:

And then the unbelievable cowardice and horror happened, for the second time this year, aiming at the youth simply enjoying the end of a hard week at work, spreading fear and violence in my mind and in my country … Luckily enough for my own life, I took a train to visit my parents in Lille just a few hours before the attacks started … Mixed feelings and emotions, I read and watch a lot (probably too much …), trying to understand and to know what to do, even though I cannot possibly do that much … I really hope all the positive talks, debates, acts of fraternity, wishes for changes will last for long, but I’m not very optimistic I must say … 

Dark times. Oh, to be furred or feathered — even tentacled — and happily oblivious to all that shit.

Remind yourself what you once were/An animal without much fur/Then you’re dust ~ Robyn Hitchcock

Talk to you soon-ish. Promise!

Vive la France!

mmm

For some reason there are at least four additions to the feline population of our street. I’ve befriended and tried to photograph a few of them, though I often bump into them in the near-darkness before dawn, and the less timid ones are so friendly they won’t keep still but keep head-butting me affectionately as I try to focus…

mmm

Among the Sow-Thistles.

mmm

Crows: An Unholy Trinity.

mmm

Snack Alert. Ma & Pa Magpie, our “house magpies”, know a good thing when they see it. They have two fledglings that have just left the nest and sit on neighbouring branches screaming for sustenance. So this pair will load their beaks with as much as they can fit, fly up to the babes, cram some scraps down their gullets and swoop straight back down for a top-up.

mmm

Lonesome Crow. Barking territorially before inevitably being chased off by the flock of magpies that start each day here.

mmm

Ibis Flock After Rain. It’s like the Serengeti here following an afternoon storm.

mmm

Early Bird. Despite the worm, Ma (I think) still thinks she can handle some more food.

mmm

Bush Turkey, Just Before Dawn. Actually this was around 3:30am. Hard to beat sunrise to the waterfront at this time of year.

mmm

Faded Warning.

mmm

Pelican Love, Cabbage Tree Creek, Dawn.

mmm

Baxter’s Jetty, Not Long Before Sunrise.

mmm

Take to the Skies. Flying foxes by the thousands take off at sunset for a night of foraging. We have a colony in the mangroves on our street that merges with others each evening, a spectacular sight.

mmm

Back to Base. In the morning, the bats return to their roosts. Hard to capture with my equipment but I got lucky here.

mmm

First Out of Bed. One of my magpie tribe takes up position not too long before dawn.

mmm

Seeking Cover. The same guy from the top picture gets playful.

mmm

Rippled Sand. A Leaden sea-snail egg mass on the mudflats before dawn.

mmm

Morning Meeting. A small sample of the local dog population and their humans gather near my office.

mmm

Candy Legs. A golden orb weaver outside my living room window.

mmm

Among the Agaves.

mmm

Creek Bank Arachnid & Passing Boat.

mmm

Evil Eye. Wary crows briefly take possession of a bench in magpie country.

mmm

Mutual Fascination. A friend’s dog, Inca is enthralled each morning by the turtles in the local lagoon. Presumably they can’t tell a canine face from a human (and potentially food-bearing) one.

mmm

Breakfast Stop. I have another pair of magpies in this park that also have a raucous juvenile to feed at the moment. They sometimes drop by the office to check the offerings.

mmm

Aerobatics. These are two of our three house butcherbirds chasing a scrap of meat thrown from the ground. The one on the right is a juvenile I call Whiny, incredibly agile in the air.

mmm

Ma & Pa Drop By Again.

mmm

Beached Jellyfish, Dawn. A gorgeous sunrise at Shorncliffe.

mmm

Receding Wave, Shorncliffe. Same morning. The reconstruction of the pier in the distance.

mmm

The Whistler. This butcherbird, seen from the upstairs verandah, is a superb songsmith and will whistle happily for hours.

mmm

The Whiner. Our juvenile butcherbird cries on and off all day for a snack, despite being a skilled predator.

mmm

Sidewalk Reclining. A nice spot in the sun on a recent morning.

mmm

Peepers. Latte, a beautiful 16-week-old whippet, at the local farmer’s market last Sunday.

mmm

Commotion at My Desk. A noisy miner hassles one of my office magpies one morning.

mmm

Stalker. Magpies regard an intruder warily.

mmm

Footpath Redhead. She’s a real sweetie but hard to keep still for a shot.

mmm

Grey Butcherbird. Our house butcherbirds are pied butcherbirds. The greys are a distinct species that apparently diverged from their pied (black-and-white) cousins five million years ago. They have completely different but still exceptionally beautiful songs. This little guy dropped from a calistemon tree the other day to seek a snack, utterly unafraid, at my table/desk. It’s been back a few times since, occasionally with its mate.

mmm

Invisible Eyes. Paul Neil, a Sandgate photographer I often meet on my morning coffee run, with Guri. He’s laughing at my attempt to focus on his dog’s eyes — the range of focus in portraits of people or animals is optional, but eyes have to be sharp. Paul’s the same age as me. I recently learned that his father was my high-school Latin teacher decades back — apparently one of the last in the country.

mmm

There it is.

mmm

Picket Fence & Ginger Kitty. She leapt over the fence this morning to say hi.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

Back Among My People

G’day, all.

The standard apologies for the long time between posts, the tardiness of my response to always-appreciated comments, and for just generally being an awful human being.

I’ve been back in the Bayside suburbs of Brisbane for a couple of weeks now, and am pretty well adjusted (by my standards), though there’s been a fair deal of lonesome soul-searching…

mmm

Why are we born to suffer and die? What is my purpose on the Earth? Toasted banana bread with my morning long black, or blueberry? The big questions that can afflict the lonesome drifter.

..and I do miss the feeling of short- and longer-term purpose that a multi-week walk provides, not to mention the simple daily routine of morning coffee, walking, vending machines, convenience stores, photography, nightly beer, and eating anything I damned well please in between.

(No wonder I actually put on weight despite walking around a thousand miles in those three months in Japan…)

I also miss the constantly rewarding 88-temple photographic project, though the editing and displaying aftermath of the actual picture-making is keeping me busy, as it will for several months to come.

Meanwhile, there are occasional storms to keep me entertained back here in the subtropical Summer — including one predicted for tonight — and I’ve resumed a far saner daily walking regime.

The downside has been a return to the dark world of insomnia. I’ve been medicated for about six months now (about which I’ll talk in a forthcoming post), and a side-effect is a nightly lurch into wakefulness.

Before Japan, it was happening around 3:00am or 3:30am, but since getting home it sometimes kicks in earlier. With dawn showing its face before 5:00 right now, I sometimes surrender and hit the streets at an insanely early hour to get in some pre-sunrise walking and shooting:

mmm

Early Risers. Fellow insomniac magpies on my street at 3:40am.

mmm

Pre-Peak Hour Sandgate.

Studying the light is as rewarding as ever. Rambling on the mudflats, I’m sometimes bathed in the cool blues of twilight…

mmm

Wader, Early Evening.

..and sometimes in the fiery oranges and pinks of sunrise over Moreton Bay:

mmm

Flames on the Flats.

One of the downsides of my style of leisure is that I’m usually short of human subjects, so I apologise for the heavy dose of selfies I’m hitting you with in this post. Television is even worse than it was before I left, and I have to find amusement somehow.

Please join me on one of my twilight tours:

mmm

More soul-searching. Actually, I don’t believe in “a soul”, although some folk certainly have soul, and I do enjoy some soul music on occasion.

mmm

Fellow sun worshippers paying homage. I observed to a passing senior citizen, “They must have a better tripod than I do,” and he replied, “You don’t know, maybe they’ve got a cheaper one.” Then I stated the obvious: “Beautiful morning.” And he replied, “They’re all beautiful if you wake up for them.” That guy had all the answers.

mmm

Siamese Jellyfish. Yes, they were joined — I checked. Just when you think you’ve seen it all…

mmm

The Goat Ghost checking progress on the Shorncliffe Pier reconstruction (slow — the Japanese would’ve had her done in a couple of weeks), with the lights of the Port of Brisbane beyond.

mmm

Footprints & Blown Highlights.

mmm

From the Sea We Crawled & to the Sea We Shall Return.

mmm

Wreaking havoc on a soldier crab settlement.

mmm

Into the Blue Dawn.

mmm

Sea turtle corpse, torn apart by either sharks or propellor.

mmm

Looking Back on Sandgate.

You get the picture.

Meanwhile, Halloween came and went without bloodshed but with even more commercial overkill than last year…

mmm

The Morning After.

mmm

Garbage Bag Witches, Before Dawn.

..and I predict that within a year or two we’ll be celebrating July 4 and Thanksgiving as well.

Oh, and it’s bush turkey nesting season! Down on the waterfront, much mess is being made of lawns and garden beds:

mmm

One rainy dawn recently, as a turkey destroys some beachfront lawn.

It’s jacaranda season, too, and there’s a fair bit of floral colour around, though I do miss the thickets of roadside cosmos that were thriving in Shikoku when I left:

mmm

Jacarandas, Sandgate Town Hall.

mmm

Even invasive plants have their pluses.

mmm

A backyard climber my mother tells me is a relative of jasmine.

mmm

Jacaranda Blossom Windfall.

Another plus of life back on dry land has been catching up, with the odd humanoid friend…

mmm

With old friend Chris at the Cardigan Bar, Sandgate. Chris was also travelling while I was in Japan: America, Canada and Iceland, about which I hear good reports.

..and with certain feathered acquaintances, including the magpies and butcherbirds that drop by several times each day…

mmm

Butcherbird enjoying a snack in the driveway. A magpie pair and I suspect one or more of the butcherbirds had some offspring while I was away, and it’s hilarious watching the magpies cram as many snacks as they can fit into their beaks before flying back to the nest.

..and my magpie tribe in the park up the road.

Here’s a sample of some shots from recent visits to the gang:

mmm

The tribe is enormous now — this is just a part of it. There are a dozen or more boisterous juveniles.

mmm

Morning Song.

mmm

Grumpy the Crow watches enviously.

mmm

Bench Mates.

mmm

Erm, that’s a $300+ viewfinder, but help yourself.

mmm

Best Seat in the House.

mmm

Sometimes it’s like American/Australian Idol, but with better melodies, and far more attractive contestants.

mmm

The juveniles can get obstreperous when the snacks come out (they know which compartment of my pack I keep them in). The resulting fracas is a little like the crocodile-feeding show at Australia Zoo, only far more dangerous.

mmm

The hand of God attempts to restore some order.

mmm

Air Show.

mmm

Competition for top-row sets can get pretty intense.

mmm

Sometimes I lead exercise classes.

mmm

Eyeballed.

mmm

Preachin’ to the Choir.

mmm

Bursting into Song.

mmm

Goalpost Serenade.

mmm

A Study in Anticipation.

It’s great for the old self-esteem to be back with this ever-enthusiastic and appreciative bunch. I read recently that scientists have “proven” that certain birds have individual personalities (“birdalities”?) — any bench-sittin’, bird-feedin’ loner could have told ’em that.

You can expect more Magpie Madness in forthcoming posts, in between flashbacks to Shikoku and samples from my pilgrimage project. I’m also planning some changes to the blog that I’ll talk about soon.

Alright, time I left the library (within the Town Hall in the jacaranda shot above) and headed home to the big Mac — nope, not the fast-food variety, the slick newish machine at my stand-up desk, where I do a few hours daily of photo editing.

But first, I believe it’s nap time.

Talk to you soon!

mmm

There’s always someone who tries to spoil the fun.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

The Welcome Committee

There were some things about getting home that were a definite improvement on Japan…

mmm

Cultural adaptation begins in the airport toilets.

..but overall, this was the toughest time I’ve ever had leaving a country.

Hey, all.

Yup, back in Brisbane, as of Friday, and I’m just about recovered from the jetlag, lack of sleep on the plane (aisle seat + apparently weak-bladdered co-passengers = much annoyance) and I suppose the accumulated effects of all that walking.

I’m still a little rundown, my walking speed has plummeted, and I’m pretty damned down over the end of another adventure. But all of those negatives are tempered by being home with my folks in a good place, and the satisfaction of getting so much done in those 88 days, including:

  • My Daisetsuzan traverse in Hokkaido
  • Climbs of Iwaki-San and Hakkoda-San, beautiful old volcanoes in northern Tohoku
  • My first ascent of Yatsu-ga-Take, despite the cruddy weather
  • A three-day return to the South Alps starting with Kita-Dake, Japan’s second-highest peak
  • Lots of walking in and around the old capitals & temple heartlands of Kyoto & Nara
  • Temple-rich Koya-San in Wakayama Prefecture, site of the tomb of Kukai (renamed Kobo Daishi after death), the monk-saint-folk hero in whose shadow the Shikoku pilgrimage developed over a thousand years or so
  • Two multi-day segments of the Kumanokodo, the ancient pilgrim-route network in Wakayama Prefecture: the Kohechi & the Nakahechi
  • My 47-day gyaku-uchi (reverse order) circuit of the thousand-year-old Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage, a long-held ambition
  • A 70+ km crossing to the Honshu “mainland” via the Shimanamikaido, a bicycle- (and walking) friendly series of islands and bridges traversing the Inland Sea
  • My first visits to the famous old writer’s town of Onomichi and Hiroshima, which was, ironically, one of the most peaceful and calming corners of Japan I’ve found
  • Lots of time to (re-) explore Tokyo
  • A photographic journey of my own devising which though challenging was even more rewarding and soul-soothing than I’d hoped
  • A lot of great (if often not exactly high-end) food
  • A ton of hot-spring baths, surely near the top of Japan’s greatest gifts to the traveller
  • At least 10 nights in capsule hotels, where I rarely slept well but always enjoyed the security and privacy of my plastic pod, which would be no surprise to former girlfriends
  • 23 — TWENTY THREE! — encounters with praying mantises, my second-favourite insect after dragonflies

I’m gonna be hitting you all with a lot of posts about the Henro (pilgrimage) over the next several weeks, plus others about other places and topics including those mentioned above.

I also owe you some reflections on the big walk, and perhaps even some history, since I got started with so little preparation, and found blogging-on-the-go so demanding, that I never really had time to go into the whys and whens and whos.

Meanwhile, I have resumed work on the virtual mountain of images I made over there, with the goal of putting a collection together that I can share, hopefully on paper, celebrating (and occasionally, no doubt, critiquing) that 88-to-one circle.

I’m hoping all that hard work, plus the depressing thought that I need “real” employment to pay for all this, will stave off the demon dogs of post-adventure depression.

Will keep you posted.

Meanwhile, here’s a summary of what I did since my last post. Talk to you again soon!

~ GOAT, Brisbane, Australia

*          *          *          *          *

After leaving my friends at their Matsuyama guesthouse…

mmm

Matt & Nori on the guesthouse roof in Matsuyama: Excellent times with Excellent people…

mmm

..drinking Excellent beer & just sitting around being Excellent.

..I was back on the street…

mmm

Street self-portrait before returning to the road under an inviting sky.

..and then the trains, and then in Imabari, Shikoku, through which I’d walked weeks earlier.

Located the start of the Shimanamikaido and met a cyclist called Mike, from San Diego, almost at once. He was on his way back across the Kaido. Like me, he was soon to depart Japan for an uncertain future in the West; like me, he was painfully reluctant to leave:

mmm

Mike on the first of several bridges as we crossed the Shimanamikaido towards the Honshu mainland.

He left me behind after a chat, and I enjoyed the afternoon autumn sunshine and the spectacular Inland Sea below and all around:

mmm

Island-hopping via a smorgasbord of bridges.

mmm

Traffic on the Inland Sea, Day 1.

mmm

Sunset, Day 1 (those lights on the right are a ship slipping under the bridge). Now, where the hell to sleep?

Who should I find as I slunk around in the dark that night, looking for a campsite, but Mike, who’d already located a recharging point and a place to fit a tent (or two) reasonably safe from road noise and bright lights, which we agreed was the big challenge of camping out in Japan.

Next morning…

mmm

Mike gets all he-man as he prepares to resume riding on Day 2 as I dry off the night’s condensation on my tent. We met again soon after at the nearby Circle K for breakfast.

..we said goodbye again, and I had a good day of bridge-walking and island-hopping…

mmm

Day 2 was mantis heaven: six of the critters in all, bringing my total for the whole trip to 23.

mmm

I had to keep stopping to photograph & then scoop to safety a succession of mantids. Some would cooperate, some were darned ornery.

mmm

Sunset on the Inland Sea, Day 2, before I sought and finally found my first ever saltwater hot spring.

mmm

A sliver of moon on a gorgeous sunset Inland Sea.

..culminating in a walk to the northern shore of Omishima, a hot-spring bath, and my final night tenting at a deserted michi-no-eki (“road station”).

I thought about spending another night on the road…

mmm

Day 3. Returning to the south of the island & the Shimanamikaido route. The sign warns of inoshishi — wild pigs. I saw little gaggles of piglets twice in Shikoku.

..but started feeling the pangs of pre-departure anxiety and instead sped it up for several fast hours of road-stomping across the final bridge, onto a ferry and into a hotel room in Onomichi, Honshu.

Half a day there looking at (more damned) temples and photographing the local cats…

mmm

With a friendly, purring temple cat (in red bib & bell) in Onomichi. I have an interesting sunglasses-tan from the previous day’s walk.

..and I got a local train the 70km or so to Hiroshima, where I enjoyed a magnificently clear and calm evening strolling and taking pictures around Ground Zero:

mmm

Homeless man, dusk, Hiroshima. The iconic “A-Bomb Dome”, which was right beneath the atomic bomb detonation in 1945, is on the right. 140,000 people were exterminated in a circle spreading out from this point.

Next afternoon it was onto a shinkansen…

mmm

A more contemporary hazard, Hiroshima Station, where I caught the shinkansen up to Tokyo.

..with a beer or two and a window seat for the lightning-fast trip back to Tokyo.

I lost all sense of purpose and urgency back on familiar turf, but I needed the rest and the luxury of no specific objectives.

Inevitably, I gravitated back to Kichijoji…

mmm

A beat-up old crow in Inokashira Park, Tokyo.

mmm

Wasted in Kichijoji.

mmm

Rare good English on a sign, Kichijoji, with handy diagrams in case the message still doesn’t get through.

..and then did come up with a goal, which was to photograph some more stray cats, one of my favourite subjects, in a couple of Tokyo parks:

mmm

Setting sun, Hibiya Park.

mmm

Here comes Autumn, Hibiya Park.

mmm

Stray cat seeking a safe refuge, Hibiya Park.

mmm

A 10-year resident of Hibiya Park. Note his battered old tail.

I also caught up at last with Andrew, an old friend from my earliest days of Tokyo teaching.

We returned to Tokorozawa’s Hyakumi (“One Hundred Flavours”), the modest-but-bustling (and smoke-filled — ahh, Japan) old izakaya we teachers used to make pests of ourselves at, back when we worked just down the road:

mmm

With Andrew at a Hyakumi, watched over by a boy-band reject with terrible hair, one of the lamest advertisements for beer I’ve ever seen. Most Japanese beer posters feature a hot woman guzzling a big glass of draught beer, a far more successful strategy in my view.

I soon realised that salty pub food and five draught beers nowadays hit me with a force I seldom encountered in my relative youth.

Especially when I stupidly agreed to accompany Andrew the next morning on a trek into the mountains of Chichibu to do some research into the local wolf cult (seriously) for Andrew’s blog.

I was feeling seedy indeed and fortunately Andrew was easily persuaded to take the bus all the way from the final train station to Mitsumine Shrine:

mmm

A fellow casualty in one of my Tokyo capsule hotels, morning. Mine is the next pod along.

mmm

Early-autumn colour, Mitsumine.

mmm

Andrew on his Wolf Quest, Mitsumine.

mmm

Foggy mountain path near Mitsumine Shrine.

mmm

All you need to know here is that the red kanji means “bear”.

mmm

Probably the coldest I’ve been on the whole trip was on this mountain outing.

My final morning was spent hunting pussies in Ueno Park…

mmm

You ain’t supposed to give cats milk, right? Homeless but indulged cat in Ueno Park, Tokyo.

mmm

I hate pandas.

Typical Tokyo street scene.

Typical Tokyo street scene.

Then it was out to Narita and a seven-hour leg to Cairns, a five-hour layover (joy!) and the home stretch to Brisbane.

My father had rebuilt the kitchen cabinets and benches ruined in that flood earlier in the year, and it was a pleasure indeed to be back in my nice apartment and a large and comfortable bed.

Had a family get-together on Saturday, and I’ve also revisited my magpie tribe in the local park. I was worried they might have forgotten me, foolishly. Magpies never forget.

Meanwhile, the tribe seems to have grown while I was away. I must have had fifty of them all over and around me this morning, plus a few wary crows.

Nobody’s table manners have improved in my absence, either!

mmm

Watching as cricket pitch covers are removed prior to a weekend snooze game.

mmm

Cricket. Even the birds are bored.

mmm

On the benches with one of my magpie pals.

mmm

Crows are feared & mistrusted by just about all other species, but they’re hopelessly outnumbered here among “my” tribe.

Alright, gotta split! I feel like peanut-butter ice-cream. Don’t you?

mmm

“Let’s get the ____ outta Dodge!”

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

Going Against the Flow: Pilgrim Portraits on the Shikoku Henro

ON A HASHIHAMA-BOUND TRAIN, THURSDAY MORNING

Hi again, all. Well, my pilgrimage may be over but the journey and adventure roll on. I stayed two nights in Matsuyama, back at Sen Guesthouse right near Dogo Onsen, after a 3.5-hour bus trip across the island from Tokushima.

It was great to be back there, and hosts Nori and Matt greeted me warmly. Many stories from the trail were shared. Danielle, my saviour from several weeks ago when she rescued me from that Family Mart and took me to Sen to recuperate, came over last night for a visit.

First night was spent here…

My tent on the rooftop at Sen Guesthouse, Matsuyama on my first night back. The rooms were fully booked so I got to enjoy another night in my latest little Club Mountaingoat.

My tent on the rooftop at Sen Guesthouse, Matsuyama, at dawn after my first night back. The rooms were fully booked so I got to enjoy another night in my latest little Club Mountaingoat.

..but last night I moved downstairs to a tatami-floored dorm room.

I replaced some of my gear (nights are getting chilly), sent some home, and had two more hot-spring baths while I was there, and last night we retired to the rooftop for sunset with a journalist who was in town to do a story about the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Her timing was impeccable and she nearly ran out of iPhone juice recording my rambling answers to her questions. Matt kept us supplied with local microbrew beers, an Indian Pale Lager and a Pilsener, and despite her desire to eat “something local”, I convinced her that the Italian place a few minutes away was local enough.

We had our fifth beers there over pizza and salad that reminded me what vegetables were. I was pretty vegetative myself when we left but when I observed that “You can really knock ’em back,” she replied, “I’m from Seattle.”

I have a week left in Japan and with suitable encouragement from Matt, I’ve decided to conclude my adventure in style, and with no little symbolism: by walking to the Honshu “mainland”, across the western Inland Sea via the Shimanami Kaido, the 60km road/bridge chain (70km for the bike & pedestrian versions) that island-hops between Imabari, Shikoku and Onomichi on Honshu.

The route leapfrogs over 6 islands, and there are ample opportunities to detour off the road and explore whichever ones take your fancy. I’m thinking of spending three or four days on the walk, with some beachside camping, before reaching Onomichi and getting a shinkansen or bus up to Tokyo.

Should be a blast, and the weather lately has been sensational.

Meanwhile, I’ve finally put together a selection of pilgrim shots. One of the pluses of doing the walk “backwards” is that you pass just about every other henro on the trail. Towards the end I was on a henro freeway and got to stop and chat with several each day.

There’ll be plenty more Shikoku posts to come in the weeks ahead as I work through my images. I’ll have some posts about this next little ramble as well, and an attempt at a description of the dark side of my recent history, which made so much of my pilgrimage walk a bitter internal battle.

At the moment, though, most of my memories are sweet, and I’m immensely proud that I pulled it off.

Thanks for your reading and encouragement and I’ll talk to you soon.

mmm

Kazuhito from Ibaraki Prefecture. His daughter was studying in Australia, but he couldn’t remember where.

mmm

Kayoko, from Matsuyama, Shikoku, at Temple #5, Jizoji, under an 800-year-old ginko tree, and excited about beginning her pilgrimage.

mmm

Kazuhito from Ibaraki Prefecture. I gave him a Calorie-Mate as o-settai to go with his coffee & cigarette.

mmm

A genki henro shares some positivity.

mmm

Merinda, the first Australian I met, on the Muroto coastline with locals Prince & Diana (New Zealand). Merinda had recently done half the Appalachian Trail and a stretch of the Camino de Santiago.

mmm

Masatoshi, Yamaguchi Prefecture.

mmm

Harayuki from Yokohama gives me a satanic salute, which cheered me immensely.

mmm

Yna & Mels, from Holland, relaxing at one of the first (for them — final for me) temples as they begin their SIXTH pilgrimage circuit. They’ve done it once in the reverse direction. We had a very pleasant chat.

mmm

Taro from Osaka on a 10km climb (for him — I was on the way down). He was obviously deeply depressed about where his life had taken him.

Masataka from Gunma Prefecture, just starting out on a section of the Henro. He tolerated my half-assed Japanese for a short while, then hit me with some pretty decent English and saved us both the pain.

mmm

View from a bus-shelter lunch stop as a pilgrim passes in the opposite direction. He thought I was readying to stay there — in the middle of the day. It was tempting.

mmm

Koji & Shima from Osaka. They did the Henro last year on bicycles. This was on my final day as I approached the end/beginning.

mmm

Two bicycle henro, doctors, at a temple one rainy morning. The one on the left asked me, “Do you need any drugs? We are carrying many drugs.” My mind raced with possibilities, but they had nothing for sleep, and I settled for some medicated patches for sore knees.

mmm

Adrian (Oregon), Yuki (Japan) & Thomas (France). We shared the tiny train station at Tatsue, them on the waiting room floor, me in my tent outside, next to a thicket of cosmos flowers.

mmm

Benjamin, a French henro. With almost no English but a gift for mime, he attempted to warn me about a beehive or wasp nest in a henro goya down the road. It was excellent comedy.

mmm

Oh damn, forgot to write down their names. She had lived for 10 years or so in Washington DC, and he’s an Austrian vegan. He didn’t have a map/guidebook so I gave him my old edition. This was a hot day on Cape Muroto.

mmm

Mathias, an experienced traveller & Camino veteran (he returned to his Swiss village with a donkey!), in the woods between Temples #11 & #12. After the Henro, he’s going to do some volunteer work in the mountains of Nagano.

mmm

Sadly, I’ve lost his name, but he was very excited about Japan winning a rugby match, and explained that the change in cicada sounds signalled the end of Summer.

mmm

Matsuhiro from Yamagata Prefecture, ready to depart the “luxury henro goya” on Cape Ashizuri. He gave me 500 yen as o-settai.

mmm

Francesco, a Mexican pilgrim doing the second of a planned four sections. He comes back each year for the next bit.

mmm

Michiko from Sendai, taken from high on the tsunami-defence seawall. She said she’d thought I was a tourist because of my lack of pilgrim attire, which is one of the worst things anyone has ever said to me.

french pilgrim on shikoku henro

Alan, a French pilgrim with excellent English and a very nice guy, just starting out as I approached the final string of temples.

mmm

Takaki, from Yokohama, the first of only two gyaku-uchi (reverse) henro I met. He could only get time off for short sections, and returned home the following day.

mmm

Markus, a German with great English. We had a long roadside conversation near the Shimanto River mouth.

mmm

Tetsua from Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture,where I once worked for three years.

mmm

Mr Takeuchi from Yokohama at the “luxury” goya near Temple #38.

mmm

Shanti (“My parents were hippies”) from Los Angeles, a fresh pilgrim between Temples #11 & #12. She gave me a can of mikan (mandarin) pieces as I’d eaten my last food, a Snickers, for breakfast. In return I told her where she could plug in at the shelter I’d stayed in the night before.

mmm

A clean young pilgrim at a Kochi temple shoes off his gleaming pilgrim gear & fluorescent sneakers.

mmm

Brothers Matthew & Brendan from Geelong, Australia, pretty early in their pilgrimage. The can of beer was o-settai from me — I’d just won two cans at the previous convenience store. I doubt any pilgrim in Henro history ever received a finer present.

mmm

Mamiko from Tokyo on a sunbaked stretch of road. Note the kawaii (cute) accessories!

mmm

Organising a group picture near Temple #12. This was a great meeting: Yoshi from Kanagawa (centre) saw my Sony a7 & said, “My friends designed that camera.” He’d also been a Sony camera designer but was now unencumbered by employment. I told him that though I loved the shutter sound, many reviewers had complained that it was too loud. “I heard them discussing the shutter sound many times,” he said.

mmm

And putting the a7 to good use: Yoshi, Marie (Bordeaux, France) & Furuichi from Chiba Prefecture.

mmm

Yoshi decided I should be in the picture, and took my camera to take this. I felt it was in safe hands.

mmm

Anonymous pilgrim I snapped from the other side of the road.

mmm

A meeting in the forest on a brutally hot day.

mmm

With Zono from Kyoto at a 7-11 near Kochi City. He was doing the walk very cheaply and the poor bastard was making instant coffee to save money. That almost brought tears to my eyes so I went in and bought him a real coffee and a selection of snacks as o-settai.

mmm

You don’t meet many Turkish pilgrims. In fact this is all of them: Can (“Jan”) & Emel near Temple #13. Really nice people; I was very sad for them when the terrorist atrocity in Turkey made the news a couple of days later.

mmm

Hiro from Tochigi Prefecture. He was both excited & astonished that I would walk the Henro in reverse on my first time. It’s usually only done, if at all, after doing it at least once the “normal” way.

mmm

Rebecca & Chris from Mansfield, Victoria, Australia. This was on my final day — they’d only decided to do the pilgrimage three days earlier after finishing some travel in Spain including the Camino. They knew almost nothing about what was involved and I gave them a half-hour “Intro to the Henro” lecture.

mmm

For some reason, not many locals wanted to chat with me. Self-portrait in roadside mirror showing hot-weather attire on a late-Summer day.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

The Backwards 88, Day 47: And Then, Suddenly, I Ran Out of Temples

Hey, all!

Yes, the circle will be unbroken — thanks for asking. At 4:50 this afternoon I entered the temple gate at number 1, bringing me back to where I started, completing a 1,200- or 1,300km loop of Shikoku and a 47-day tour of 88 freakin’ temples.

I guess I’m in pretty good shape for an old bastard as my sum total of aches and pains after all that tarmac-pounding and mountain stomping is: zero.

In fact I was seldom tired for more than five minutes on the whole walk. Injuries: three missing toenails (keep your eye out), some degraded toe skin, aching knees when I woke yesterday — but they’re fine today.

I think I’m getting good at this stuff!

As Matt (a former henro along with his wife Nori) at Sen Guesthouse back in Matsuyama said when I was there, you’re just starting to get good at the whole thing and then you reach the end. A damned shame.

I have all my rituals and routines down, and have nights in my tiny tent/bedroom/ office/base camp down to a fine art. I rarely felt like I was pushing it to the limit, especially in the last couple of weeks. I took longer than I expected but a lot of newbie henro still react with shock when I tell them how “little” time I took.

You’ll notice this post is almost photo-free. I took a ton today but I’m low on computer battery juice, and in the process of getting pleasantly drunk. When I achieve that I aim to move on to unpleasantly drunk. Editing them will be increasingly problematic. But stay tuned.

I’ll be hitting you with a lot of pictures in the next few weeks (I just checked and I have 5,001 just from the pilgrimage, mostly unedited — a ton of those are multiples and I’ll be deleting like a demon, but I’ll sure be busy when I get home), plus some thoughts on the pilgrimage and an explanation of sorts of the mental stuff I’ve been dealing with.

Because, yeah, the mental shit was the hard part, especially in the first couple of weeks. And I had an epiphany the other day (it happens on long walks; I manage half a dozen per day) that it would be therapeutic to share the basics and get it out of my head.

I’ve been feeling much better, the weather’s been wonderful for walking, and this morning was unbelievably gorgeous. I woke up near a quiet road (see picture at top), was walking into sunrise at 6:00, and an hour later was leaving the first of my final seven temples.

I also encountered the 16th and 17th praying mantises of my journey, picking both up to let them crawl and “pray” on my hand, and scoot them to the relative safety of the road. It was a great day for cats too — probably a dozen, and I bought dinner for the last one.

But I had tears in my eyes off and on through the day. I don’t want it to end. Will miss the freedom and all those achievable goals, short- and long-term. The beauty and the joy of making art out of nature, chance and light.

Lately there’s the smell of burning rice stubble in the air, persimmons are hanging ripe and Halloweenishly orange on bare branches, and the sun is sweet and soothing. Been hiking in a beanie and down jacket (sometimes wear pants as well). Cosmos is blooming in dazzling pastel thickets everywhere you look.

Damn, gonna be tough to leave. But I’ve already decided I need to come back and do it in the “right’ order.

Every day for a week I’ve stopped for at least three or four great roadside conversations with henro just starting out. I’m the veteran, and a gyaku-uchi to boot.

Respect. I needed some of that.

I’ve also enjoyed lots of tips from fellow walkers for my next long ramble. Won’t be in Asia, but I’ll be back.

Alright, I’m on 29% battery and think I’ll split this michi-no-eki and stumble back to Temple #1 and set up the tent back in the parking lot — the pilgrim shelter is too close to awful Rt 12, as I found out to my detriment last time.

I can recharge there and the Lawson’s konbini is close if I need more refreshments.

I’ll be in touch. Next goal is a couple of days’ R & R back in Matsuyama. Thanks for reading, especially all the commenters. I hope some of you will be interested in the on-paper collection of temple shots I have vaguely planned after a shit-ton of work once home..

*          *          *          *          *

Oh God, a local just drove up, and on learning I’d just done the henro, backwards, said, “Just a minute, please,”, went to his car, came back with a bag of bread rolls, and said “O-settai,” as he handed them to me, followed by a paper cup which he filled to the brim with Shikoku-made plum sake.

My heart chilled with apprehension. One sip and a warm friendly glow swept away the chill in a tsunami of contentment.

He also pointed out the nearby bus shelter, and informed me (local knowledge!) that the lights go out at 9:00, permitting sleep. Then he left me, sparing me the burden of painfully slow, drunken conversation.

That would have been all too circular — it’s how I spent the last night I was at the temple.

Suddenly that temple seems a world away. I’ve done enough freaking walking, I reckon. And seen my fair share of temples.

This is my 350th post. Wishing you the happiest of trails.

GOAT, Naruto City, Tokushima Prefecture, Japan

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

The Backwards 88, Day 40: Pilgrim Postcards

[You might have received this post in your inbox erroneously titled “Day 39”. I just realised I’d lost a day! It happens on the blurry path to wisdom!]

A LAWSON’S STATION KONBINI, KAINAN, TOKUSHIMA PREFECTURE ~ 

Morning, all. As threatened, here’s another batch of shots from the last week or so, mostly of scenes and subjects encountered between temples.

I enjoy both my subject areas, the temples themselves and the stretches of road and path linking them, for different reasons.

The temple one is far more challenging. My aim is to capture a sense of the place that is different from the others, and respond to it artistically in the conditions in which I find it. Believe me, with 88 of them to deal with, that can get pretty tough!

mmm

Motorcycle henro approaching a Kochi temple. They slip on their pilgrim clothes on arrival.

As someone who doesn’t believe in anything, I’m obviously not reacting to the places in any spiritual sense. I’m interested in them as places, and judge them on aesthetic grounds, how they relate to their environment, their architecture and landscaping, historical elements etc.

Avoiding repeating myself is a challenge! I could take essentially the same shot 88 times of the hondo seen through the temple gate, or pilgrims lining up to pray etc. I do some of that, but I tend to look for smaller-scale details.

Chance plays a big part as well. I might be tearing my vestigial hair out, trying to find a new angle on a “boring” temple, and suddenly a bunch of goofy bus henro will arrive and change the whole vibe.

mmm

My beautiful little tent at the “Lovers’ Sanctuary” a few nights ago. It’s freestanding and the fly clips on, so no stakes are needed, making it excellent for stealth-camping on hard surfaces (except for the un-stealthy colour!).

Light is the other big factor. I despise harsh midday sun for most of my photography, but lately that’s all I get, unless I fluke an arrival early or late in the day. So I have to make do. Sometimes I’m stuck at a temple for an hour or more.

Some temples are just instantly magnificent, the type they show in tourist brochures. But you want to avoid taking that brochure shot. A few are dull, or neglected, or offer nothing. Catch them in bad midday sun and you just want to give up and go home.

So my other broad “theme”, the in-between sections, is far more relaxed. If the light’s crap, I might just forget the shot altogether. If I’m in the mood, I might dump the pack and wait. These random encounters are what keep any long walk interesting, and make the photography for me on this trip a joy.

I always walk with one camera in my hand. I rotate the three throughout the day, and adjust my mind’s eye to match the lens and field of view, etc, of the one I’m holding. If I see something way inappropriate for the camera in hand, I might drop the pack and dig out a better choice.

Which brings me to these ones. But first a bit of a recap.

WHERE I AM

Approaching Temple #23, which I’ll reach at last today if I ever finish this post, and my recharging, and my second coffee, and my fourth donut, and get back on Rt 55:

mmm

The circle is ominously close to completion.

As you can see, I’m back in Tokushima Prefecture, where this whole thing began. Now note that 70-odd km stretch between #24 and #23. It’s one of the longest on the henro, and it coincides with my sloppiest, most languid and laidback walking on the walk — in a good way!

It will have taken me the better part of three days’ walking to get there, even with a reasonable 18 miles on the first day. But that’s cool. As I approach the conclusion I’ve been slowing down, immersing myself in time-wasting photo sprees, sitting and chewing the fat with other pilgrims I meet.

It’s been great.

mmm

View from one of numerous campsites under bridges, this one at Iwamatsu, dawn.

I’m actually worried about finishing, weird after almost quitting a few times earlier on. But after #23, the temples are pretty closely spaced, and near the start/end you can knock off five or six in a day.

This latest stretch has been frustrating at times. After rounding the tip of Cape Muroto, the coastal road was eerily quiet, with traffic on Saturday so sparse I wondered if everyone else in the world had been vaporised. (Mixed feelings.)

Henro shelters, water sources, and above all vending machines and convenience stores are thinner on the ground than just about anywhere else on the circuit. The sun was baking hot, with little shade on offer.

mmm

A politician & other scarecrows.

But the coastline, beyond the concrete wall and tetrapods anyway, is lovely…

mmm

I’ve lost several hours trying to take shots like this. Coastal Kochi.

..and yesterday I passed a couple of the best beaches I’ve seen in all of Japan.

I had a swim in the ocean, and had a nice encounter with my first fellow Australian walker, Merinda from Melbourne, who’s just done long walks on the Camino and the Appalachian Trail and is finishing an epic journey with the Shikoku pilgrimage.

We also met a local couple, Prince (Japanese) and Diana, from New Zealand, who’s lived here for 25 years or so. As happens a lot lately, another hour of walking time was thrown away as we chatted, and once again I found myself walking a dark and lonesome road in search of somewhere to throw down.

PHOTOGRAPHIC SUB-THEMES

I’ve noticed that there are certain subjects I love, the ones that make me pull off the lens cap no matter how many times I’ve shot them before.

Offhand here are the ones adding spice to this trip. You’ll have noticed examples of several on my henro posts. I’m hoping that when I put together a collection of shots from the trip, these will break up the temple pictures and add some thematic consistency:

  • Election posters
  • Praying mantises
  • Bad English
  • Vending machines
  • Convenience stores
  • Stray cats
  • Scarecrows
  • Trail signs & markers
  • Poetic anti-smoking messages — emblazoned on outdoor “stand ashtrays” (!)
  • Clean-up-your-dog’s-shit signs
  • Spiders
  • Roadside henro portraits (planning a post featuring them soon)

Many of these are obsessions I nurtured even before Shikoku. The cat one is my favourite. I seem to have a knack for finding them. I’ve probably “lost” a couple of hours of walking time in the last few days hanging out with initially wary gangs of these charismatic guys:

mmm

A shy kitten in a temple graveyard down on the tip of Cape Muroto.

Alright, that’s enough from me. Talk to you soon, and thanks for reading!

mmm

There’s Always Hope/A Beacon of Hope/All Hope Is Lost/Hope Dashed on the Rocks: You name the caption.

mmm

Fisherman, Niyodo River. Approaching Kochi City.

mmm

There must be a salon or “cut shop”, “hair resort” or “hair & make” for every citizen of this country. So you need to find a niche, I guess.

mmm

Dawn dewdrops on a taro leaf.

mmm

Cigarette machines beckoning in the dark.

mmm

Niyodo River Bridge Through the Grass. Basic path maintenance, even sidewalks on major roads, is often non-existent.

mmm

The Halfway Point. One of dozens of road tunnels you have to walk through, this one exceptionally long. Sometimes you have the choice of climbing around & over, but I like the thrill of near-death under a screaming semi. It enhances my love of life.

mmm

Henro Footprints. My own, in a section where you could take to the beach and air out tired feet in the sand.

mmm

Foul Weather on the Kochi Coast.

mmm

A Quick Detour from the Path to Enlightement.

mmm

Henro Exiting the Underpass.

mmm

Rugged Coastline, Kochi. I walked the same stretch the other way in 2008.

mmm

Coastal Road, Kochi. The same area as above.

BLOOD MOON

On the second night of the “Blood Moon” I reached the most famous beach in Kochi, Katsurahama. That was a great evening. Tons of locals were out to view the moon over the water, and I enjoyed the spectacle of some local teens trying to drown themselves under breaking waves.

The only sad note was that thousands of fundamentalist christians didn’t vanish heavenward in any Rapture, nor did the Mormons evaporate into the apocalyptic sky as many had apparently expected:

mmm

Another Konbini Supper, Kochi. Just before the Blood Moon rose.

mmm

Crazy Under the Blood Moon. Bored teens prepare for mischief.

mmm

Playing Chicken. What could go wrong?

mmm

An Unwilling Participant.

mmm

Swamped. Shortly before a local man screamed at them to get out of there, and my photo fun was thwarted before I had to attempt a rescue.

mmm

Blood Moon. I don’t have the equipment or time for proper moon shots, sadly.

mmm

Blood Lust.

mmm

Blood Moon Lunar-cy. You tell me.

mmm

The next morning, at another superlative campsite.

mmm

The Fishing Fleet. View from that campsite.

mmm

The Japanese are big fans of blaring public announcements. They also chime (the “doorbell theme”) to announce 7:00am, 5:00pm, and sometimes other times, in villages all over the country. VERY FUCKING LOUDLY.

A CRITTER GALLERY

The usual suspects, a menagerie of roadside fellow travellers:

mmm

Wary Stray.

mmm

Hold That Pose.

mmm

Road Crab. All along this coastline, you find scuttling crabs on roads, even high in the hills and miles from the water.

mmm

The Magnificent Seven. I’m guessing these were semi-strays, as they looked well-fed, but were exceptionally nervous. I had to bribe them with snacks to gain their cooperation.

mmm

Sitting on the Fence.

mmm

Convenience Store Patron.

mmm

Tonbi on a village tsunami escape tower.

mmm

Birds on a Wire, Dawn.

mmm

Swallowtail.

mmm

Say Cheese. The same friendly mutt shown in the previous post.

mmm

Watch Those Toes. In the Shimanto area, a long way above the water.

mmm

Dawn Spider & Coreopsis.

mmm

Lone Tonbi.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

The Backwards 88, Day 37: Peace, Hope & Pilgrim Smokes

Hey, all.

Well, this one’s coming to you from a dark bench at a michi-no-eki (“road station”) called Tano-eki-ya that — so far (the night is young) — is my favourite of the trip.

It’s right on the main street of the coastal Kochi town of Nahari/Tano, but it’s a sleepy town and no trucks are rattling past. There is an elevated railway line not many metres above my head, but this is the boonies and the trains are rare.

mmm

Uwajima City. What kinda day-drunk bar is closed in the daytime? I sobbed for half an hour as I walked out of town.

The good points: dark, my tent is set up under cover right on the “porch”, there’s a Lawson’s Station konbini 50m away, toilets are close and clean (already washed today’s shirt, socks and unmentionables), and there’s this bench, with a power outlet right next to it.

I can’t tell you how rare and delightful a discovery that is. All this beauty, insight and art from the oriental road requires a certain amount of elec-trickery to make it to your device of choice.

mmm

Harvest time near the Shimanto River mouth. I abandoned my planned “private pilgrimage” (2nd one of the trip!): walking the length of this only remaining undammed river in Japan from mouth to source. I did it the other way in 2008. I walked off-trail out to the mouth but was feeling too down and unfocused that day, so rejoined the pilgrim path and haven’t regretted it.

Oh, and get this: A couple of hours ago, just after I arrived, a slightly off-kilter young bloke appeared out of the dark and rain and asked in Japanese if I was doing the henro. When I confirmed this, he started shaking with excitement.

When I told him I was doing it gyaku-uchi, he just about fainted onto the pebblecrete. Reverse-pilgrims are considered lucky by some of these superstitious Shikokuans. I think he thought he’d struck karmic pay-dirt.

Then he handed me a bag containing a bottle of Coke, a can of beer and two convenience-store hard-boiled eggs. Shazaaam: an o-settai bonanza. I gave him my name and country and he seemed well-pleased with the exchange. So was I — my first can was almost empty.

mmm

Unopened morning glories outside some temple or other.

I made myself wait till I started on it though, as beer at day’s end is blogging death of late. I’ve attempted a post a few times; last night I deleted the whole thing in frustration once the exhaustion kicked in.

But here goes… (sip).

Well, I’m sorta-kinda on the home stretch. Today, possibly my shortest/laziest on the trip, saw me scaling another one of those “difficult places”, the steep and protracted road-climb to Temple # 27, Konomineji:

mmm

mmm

That bastard nearly finished me off. It was raining too, and I was in a foul mood when I arrived. Fortunately the temple setting was spectacular, dwarfed beneath a stand of monumental cedars, but I must have looked wretched, as one of the old-lady staff came out with a cup of hot black coffee.

I realised I was borderline hypothermic (it doesn’t take much) and ended up on the tatami mats under my sleeping bag in the most luxurious pilgrim digs I’ve seen. Would’ve been nice to stay, but I was too buzzed on the coffee, and after a short nap I descended, paused to chat with a French woman and an English-Australian who were staying in a family inn down there before doing the steep climb tomorrow.

mmm

I was just lining up this shot on the coast in the rain after a FOUL night at another road station, when this pair walked into frame. “Ii tenki, desune?” I said as we met — “Nice weather, isn’t it?” — and they both laughed. I can’t wait to try it again on some more henro tomorrow.

I bitched and whined for a while and filled them with trepidation, then, my work done, I ate the mikans and banana they gave me (western women get showered with o-settai), and started off, only to be almost immediately diverted by a spectacular torii (red shrine gate) on a massive beach boulder, waves breaking at its base, and I lost another half-hour there doing pictures…

I’ve been enjoying myself mostly, and today was the best yet (despite the climb-bitch, but at least that had a tangible object) in terms of mental stability. Most days I can blow an hour, two, three, in awful inward stuff I won’t go into, till I even have to tell myself out loud what an idiot I am and that I need to change channels.

mmm

Rolling up his sleeves to get down to business & cut some freakin’ weeds.

But apart from that I wouldn’t be anywhere else, and am actually dreading finishing. Hence the slowness, though being a bit rundown probably contributes. I’ve lost a few toenails but am otherwise physically fine, and still get excited as I approach a temple, wondering how cool it’ll be, and what angle I’ll take.

It seems an eternity ago that I was seeing signs like this as I drifted down the western side of the isle:

mmm

That “Kochi” is Kochi City, capital of the prefecture of the same name. The road is Rt 56, aka Henro Death Road.

A few days ago I was there. It was hot and the sun was bright; everything seemed ugly and drab. The bleak river I followed coming in lacked only a few floating bodies. I stayed one night in a hotel and couldn’t get out of town fast enough the next morning. Funny, I enjoyed Kochi when I was here in ’08.

Well, I was going to go on at you a lot more about recent stuff, but I ended up having a lot more edited pictures ready than I can cram into one post, so I’m gonna cut straight to a selection of shots now, and follow up with another batch in a couple of days.

There’s a bit of everything here, mostly from the last few days.

Ja ne.

mmm

The one time I regret not getting one of those hats is in the rain — they come with a plastic cover!

mmm

Same bridge. Tourist boats near Uchiko Castle.

And this sequence speaks for itself. A rare friendly kitty in sleepy Iwamatsu (“Stone Pine”). I’d slept under their bridge the night before:

mmm

mmm

mmm

mmm

mmm

mmm

Pride of the Iwamatsu fleet.

mmm

Don’t point those things at me.

mmm

It’s hard to make progress when yr constantly hassled with marriage proposals by locals. I had to pass this time, didn’t wanna start a fist fight. For what it’s worth, I would’ve chosen the one on the right.

mmm

The swallowtails & other butterflies love the red spider lilies, naturalised imports from China that have been in brilliant bloom for a few weeks.

mmm

mmm

Two popular brands of local cigarette. Perhaps smoking has declined overall since I lived here, but it’s still very, very common.

mmm

A henro takes a smoke break on the Kochi coast.

mmm

My new tent, illuminated by headlamp light, after a night under another bridge. This spot was a beauty. A roof overhead means no wet tent to pack, plus space to spread stuff out as I break camp.  A woman called me Gear Explosion on the PCT.

mmm

Eight and counting!

mmm

A beautiful dog and so starved for affection. Tied up on a chain as always, but I gave her a good pat.

mmm

Silver Week banner & golden rice.

mmm

You can work this one out for yourself. He/she was the size of my thumbnail.

mmm

Nope, I didn’t do it. Henro graffiti on a 10km mountain-road descent.

mmm

I camped on a disused tennis court behind this tsunami defensive wall. There was an abandoned school there with “No Trespassing” signs — of course I trespassed, I love abandoned buildings. These walls are all along the coast in these parts. There’s a surfing community here, and a beautiful woman surfer chatted briefly with me. Watching her walk to the water in a wetsuit has been one of the highlights of my spiritual journey.

mmm

They oughtta pay me for all the plugs I give ’em.

mmm

Creek rapids at dusk as I did that massive descent I mentioned in the previous post.

henro crossing bridge shikoku

A French henro with two Japanese companions. I wondered how they communicate. Even when I asked where he was from, he answered in French!

mmm

Note the terror. The standard response in certain henro and most cats.

mmm

Gentaro Seike, 83, writes his details in my book (for some reason). He wanted to take my photo, and emerged from his house with an old-school plastic disposal film camera with flash! Note the trucker cap, the universal accessory for the modern farmer.

mmm

Tonbi (black kites) are ubiquitous in farmland and even suburbs. They are highly social, make a great call and are aerobatic masters, but they don’t like you pointing a camera at them.

mmm

Attempting a blog post last night at my stealth-campsite at a crumbling “lovers’ sanctuary”, which gave me a good laugh.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

The Backwards 88, Day 27: Beyond the Difficult Place

SOMEWHERE NORTH OF KONGOFU TEMPLE (#38), EAST COAST OF CAPE ASHIZURI, KOCHI PREFECTURE, SHIKOKU

mmm

Map by On-Chan, Wikipedia Commons

According to legend, this location was given to Kūkai by a mysterious female recluse named Hokke-sennin. Kūkai carved two Fudō-myōō statues and created this temple which is considered a hansho (difficult place) ~ from Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide, my guidebook

Hi, everyone. It’s been a while. It’s always been a while…

How long’s it been since the last post? At least a week. This post will cover quite a lot of ground in more ways than one, but I’ll try to keep ‘er lighter than that last one. Shouldn’t be too hard, since, as the title suggests, I’m in a far better condition emotionally this time around.

mmm

Locals enjoying a rare 5-day long weekend (“Silver Week”) yesterday — three holidays coinciding with a weekend — in Tosa-Shimizu. I camped in nearby wasteland & wandered down for a look before breakfast.

Firstly, for the sake of clarity, that header shot, which I’m unable to caption, is from Temple #45, Iwayaji, the place referred to in the quote above — not Kongofukuji, which I visited yesterday. Kongofukuji must also be considered a difficult place, since getting there nearly killed me, yet again.

(Once again, there aren’t many temple shots here, as I’m saving them up for some kind of Grand Temple Experience when I get home — and of course there’ll be a lot of editing needed before then…)

Also, I realise that for non-henro, it might be tough to visualise the route, so I’ve included the handy map above. As you know, I’m in the extreme minority (haven’t heard of any others this season) in walking this thing “backwards”, from #88 to #1.

mmm

Beautiful forest soon after Temple #44.

Actually, I started at #1 as it was easier to get to. Clockwise pilgrims usually continue from #88 to #1 at the end to complete their circle but once I reach #1 my circle is complete and I won’t have to return to #88 — luckily, since that first section to #88 was a killer!

I’ve been really enjoying my pilgrim days since the abyss I’d sunk into when we last spoke. I have a few dark spells each day, particularly when I’m tired, but I’m getting better at overriding them.

mmm

Aiding in my return to positivity has been great weather — generally sunny with lovely, clear-skied mornings and just a hint of autumnal melancholy beneath the blue. I thrive on the stuff (you might have noticed) and I’ve always thought of Japan as the most melancholy place on earth.

I’m also talking, however briefly, with a lot more henro, generally the true, aruki (walking) kind, now increasing in number as Autumn is a far more popular pilgrimage season than Summer. Each day I meet perhaps six or 10 on the road; if I’m in the mood and they don’t look too terrified, I might attempt a conversation and take their picture. I’ll include a few in a forthcoming post.

Finally, since entering Kochi, I’ve been enjoying some of the best scenery of the walk. I’m on the coast now…

mmm

Cape Ashizuri scenery, yesterday afternoon.

..a nice change after all those damned mountains and rice paddies!

The only downside lately has been the distance between temples. I’ve had a few two-day stretches between temple fixes. Photographically this hasn’t been a burden, though, as the scenery, plants and animals have delivered lots of attractive subjects.

To summarise, I ended up staying for three nights at the Sen Guesthouse near Dogo Onsen…

mmm

Outside the historic Dogo Onsen, where I had four hot-spring baths over three days. The relaxed atmosphere is emphasised by the yukata guests often wear as they stroll to and from the baths.

..the last one on the roof in my new tent!

It was tough to leave such a calm, friendly oasis.

When I did, I managed half a dozen semi-urban temples in quick succession, and then I was back in the boonies:

mmm

Shikoku is scarecrow country. This beauty was just before dark on Day 18, my first after leaving Dogo.

I had a hilarious henro encounter late that afternoon as I headed into the hills. I was on a farm track when I saw a distant walker on the road above me, going the other way of course. He was tall and seemed to be wearing skin-tight knickerbockers.

He was almost out of sight when he saw me across the fields. I waved. He waved back.

“HELLOOOOOOOOOO!” I shouted.

“HELLO!”

“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”

“DENMARK! YOU?”

“AUSTRALIA!”

“ARE YOU GOING TO 45?”

“44. I’M DOING THE WALK IN REVERSE!” (44 was actually closer at that point.)

“OH! HAVE A NICE TRIP!”

“YOU TOO!”

And we went on our respective ways. It’s always fun to have a nice conversation in English on the trail.

I was looking forward to #45. I’d actually been there before, in 2008 — it was the final of a short string of temples I visited as I meandered for 30 days across this island, not as a henro but as a lost soul recuperating from a knee injury, a failed attempt to walk the length of the country, and getting dumped by a Japanese girlfriend in Nagoya.

On that trip I was walking the opposite way. All the temples of the last few days, and perhaps the next two or three as I head north, were/are revisits. And #45, Iwaya Temple, is one of the best-known and distinctive due to its remoteness and spectacular setting against a backdrop of cliffs:

mmm

I got three hits of o-settai (alms, or generosity to pilgrims) that day: a little baggie of candy from a passing motorist, a 1,000-yen note from a lady at the temple, and a bottle of hot bancha tea as I sat outside a convenience store that night.

Unfortuntely I had to backtrack for a couple of hours to #44 — oh, the pain — and after a night camped at a michi-no-eki (these “road stations” are fantastic drivers’ rest areas with restaurants, clean toilets — often with soap! —  souvenirs and a casual attitude to transients bunking down there), a male nurse on vacation brought me onion soup and coffee.

A string of great days followed. Here’s a sample just from that day:

mmm

Chestnut orchard, early morning.

mmm

Plantation forest & a stretch of old pilgrim trail.

mmm

Decrepit ladder.

mmm

Leaf shadows.

mmm

Old stone pilgrim markers.

mmm

Forest fungi.

mmm

I entered this gorgeous area of immaculate little orchards, almost western-style farm buildings & vegie plots. It could have been along the Appalachian Trail. When I met this goat, I realised I was in some kind of Japanese hippy community…

mmm

..a suspicion confirmed when I met this little group, on their way to visit Yagi-San (“Mr Goat”). I told them my nickname was “Yagi” (sort of). I don’t think the mother believed me.

mmm

A beautiful little henro rest stop in that same area.

mmm

mmm

You don’t often meet ponies as you walk through Japan.

mmm

Cans piled high for recycling in a quiet village.

mmm

Self-portrait & old graves.

mmm

It’s rice harvest time & I often passed scenes like this.

mmm

The kind of place where an old dog can just stop & rest in the middle of the road.

mmm

First of four mantises I’ve met on the road so far.

mmm

Politician devoured by creeping weeds. How apt.

mmm

Every day I scan the roadsides for these guys. I love how you can see them watching you, but if you get too close, they charge the camera! I suspect they see their reflection in the lens.

mmm

Neglected building equipment. In Japan, vines quickly reclaim unmaintained territory.

mmm

A kabuto-mushi or similar type of rhinoceros beetle. These are fearsome critters & popular pets in Japan. I scooped this one onto the roadside after this. Didn’t want it overturning a car & devouring its occupants.

There are tons of bus pilgrims at most temples…

mmm

..but we rarely chat.

T’is a lonesome and challenging life, being a gyaku-uchi (reverse order) pilgrim. At least I seem to spend less time getting lost these days. And I’ve stayed in several o-henro-goya (pilgrim shelters) of late, always alone.

The view from one the other morning:

mmm

And as I climbed from it into the mountains…

mmm

..and back into the forest:

mmm

..before venturing with some trepidation into this old single-lane tunnel (of course a car had to enter while I was inside)…

mmm

..and emerged in Uwajima City — the rustic fringes thereof, anyway.

And so it goes.

mmm

A single drop of perfection.

I had to travel a seriously knee-busting, lonesome, winding mountain road to reach #38, about 90 mins up and another 90 down into the dark, before an endless trudge up the coast to my improvised campsite on the Tosa-Shimizu waterfront.

I tried to use a mountain path yesterday but felt light-headed, weak, and broke at once into a cold sweat. Pushed it too hard the night before. Backtracked and took the twisting, narrow road down the west side of the cape. Lots of henro skip the west side and just backtrack on the east — shorter that way. Perhaps even saner.

I want to tell you about cats before I let you go. I keep meeting them: domestics, semi-strays and outright ferals. Most, as in Korea, flee from me in terror. But there are exceptions, encounters I relish. I think I must be getting old.

Yesterday as I sat outside the konbini having breakfast and charging my electronics, I met this young gal, who was either heavily pregnant or had just had a huge breakfast:

mmm

She was a sweetie, very affectionate, and I bought her a can of food which she quickly demolished:

mmm

Leaving the temple yesterday, I was crossing a bridge when this malnourished little guy actually approached me, meowing in distress:

mmm

He was so young and so skinny, with a wound on his shoulder that seemed to be healing. Great set of kitty balls, though! I was overcome with pity, dumped my pack, and rummaged through my food bag looking for something to feed him. Tough, unless he was vegetarian.

I squeezed out, rather dubiously, some of the Vegemite I’ve been lugging for my entire trip. To my amazement, he loved it, and wolfed it down straight from my fingers:

mmm

A cynic might suggest that this is an appropriate reaction to consuming Vegemite — but actually he enjoyed it. I guess starvation will do that.

Then I tried him on carbs — he ate a whole walnut bun and then a slice of bread, which I shredded, smearing each chunk with Vegemite. All the while he was miaowing and rubbing against me and soaking up the attention.

I loved the little guy. It was so unfair that he had to live as a half-starved reject. I couldn’t leave him there, and though I knew it was impossible, experimented with lifting him onto my shoulders (he wouldn’t stay put), and fitting him into the top of my pack (ditto).

It was hopeless. And even if he were to accompany me along the way, what about at journey’s end?

Moving on was hard, leaving him there on the bridge with some more bread and a final pat:

mmm

I just hope some passing pilgrim or tourist takes pity on him, he really was a sweet little guy.

And then suddenly I found myself here…

mmm

..a roadside o-henro-goya with everything: drinks machine, sinks, toilet, washing machine, tables, soft beds, power, lights, a hot shower in the house behind, and ample places to plug in my rechargeables.

All free.

It took all of five seconds to dump my pack in wonder and relief.

I still felt guilty about leaving that hungry kitten back there. But I drank a beer I’d carried from a shop near the temple, let high-pressure hot water massage my aching shoulders, downed a whisky chaser, and then another, and after that things get blurry.

This morning I’ve had visits from three henro and a pair of surfer gals from Osaka. One of the henro gave me a 500-yen coin as settai. I’ve had three caffeinated beverages and am half-wired. Killed my whisky headache as well — I haven’t taken a painkiller in weeks.

Hard to leave this place but the road beckons. My Keen sandals are still good and I suspect they’ll make the whole 800 miles or so. Best footwear of my entire hiking career.

Between here and Temple #37, I’m doing a side-pilgrimage of my own devising. I’ll fill you in soon, the day’s a wastin’!

mmm

I’m guessing the blacked-out words were “complimentary foot massage and”.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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.

mmm

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:

mmm

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.

mmm

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:

mmm

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…

mmm

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:

mmm

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…

mmm

mmm

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

mmm

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

mmm

mmm

mmm

mmm

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:

mmm

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…

mmm

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…

mmm

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…

mmm

The critics agree.

mmm

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

mmm

..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…

mmm

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

mmm

..as well as some nice rural Shikoku touches:

mmm

mmm

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…

mmm

mmm

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

mmm

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…

mmm

Scarecrow Convention.

mmm

mmm

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

mmm

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!

mmm

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:

mmm

mmm

A tiny cliff-top shrine just before sunset.

mmm

mmm

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:

mmm

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.

mmm

Thanks for reading.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

The Backwards 88, Day 8: Sandal Power in North-Eastern Shikoku

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.

mmm

The head monk of Temple 1, Mr Yamato, took this shot as I finally departed in my new vest. You’ll be happy to know I ditched it a few days later. Just wasn’t me, and it was a pain when rain-soaked. I felt much more genuine and relaxed with it gone.

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.)

mmm

Mr Yamato, dressed for some temple carpentry, which he says he really enjoys. An excellent fellow all round, and a former hippy and left-winger!

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.

mmm

Lonesome country torii — shrine gate — in rice country at dusk.

mmm

Mr Tamaki’s beady vampire eyes have followed all over Shikoku. How I despise him.

mmm

My first o-settai! She followed me in her car and leapt out to hand me an Aquarius energy drink. Now I’ve dumped the vest I can probably say goodbye to a lot of free stuff, though in 2008 I was given drinks a few times just walking in my rambling rags.

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.

mmm

Beautiful mountain scenery near Temple 88.

mmm

Classic old mountain farmhouse.

mmm

Two locals halfway up the mountain behind Temple 88. He’d done the pilgrimage years before (“By car! No walking!”).

mmm

My trekking pole with Kobo Daishi adornment.

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

mmm

Farmhouse sinking into the rice ocean.

mmm

Old farmhouse roof.

mmm

Typical stone direction marker on the pilgrim path, this one in a semi-urban area in the fringes of Takamatsu.

mmm

Resting in a tree, a nice dog that actually let me approach and pet it without taking my hand off.

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.

mmm

Sunset on the north-eastern coast.

mmm

Swallowtail #1.

mmm

Swallowtail #2 at the roadside.

mmm

Climbing back into the hills in an area famed for its role in ancient wars,

mmm

Most of the surviving old path is not this nicely paved!

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.

mmm

A weird-looking restaurant settled between paddies.

mmm

Lone Fisherman on a rainy afternoon.

mmm

Ritsurin Garden, Takamatsu. I came here in 2008 and returned one wet morning for another look.

mmm

Giant lily pads, Ritsurin.

mmm

Ritsurin Reflections.

mmm

Pond Colour, Ritsurin.

mmm

Cycad forest, Ritsurin.

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.

mmm

Skanky Apartment Blocks & a Sea of Weeds.

mmm

In the bamboo forest at a temple.

mmm

Rural railway crossing.

mmm

Old stone temple lantern.

mmm

Sometimes you have to try to find these tiny henro stickers to locate the path. Good luck with that.

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.

mmm

Resting at a shrine with a can of Royal Milk Tea.

mmm

Marugame Castle. I only had time for a look at the castle wall — it’s the real deal, not a reconstruction like several which allied bombing destroyed in the Big One.

mmm

A mountain called — a local lady told me — Ii-no-Yama, near where I crashed in the internet cafe.

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!

Ja ne!

mmm

A stunningly accurate evocation of the pilgrim experience.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

The Backwards 88: The End of the Beginning, Beginning at the End

Hey, folks. How’s that for a mouthful of a post heading? But it’s a pretty good summation of where I am right now on this circular pilgrimage journey — one of the very few circular pilgrimages in the world, by the way.

(By the way, I’ve just added a new post category, The Backwards 88, so all forthcoming posts about my Shikoku walk will be accessible from the “Recent Posts” section below.)

It’s barely 6:00am and I’m recovering from one of my worst night’s sleep in the month I’ve been in Japan. Ironically, perhaps, it was here at Ryozenji, Temple #1, in a pavilion provided to pilgrims (wow, say that phrase really fast) where I was the lone guest. Unfortunately the bench I lay on closely faces a country road which, despite its narrow width, seems to funnel every speeding truck in Shikoku past the front gate.

Also, I was a little drunk on the bad wine I shared with the head monk.

Other than that, it was a great kick-off to my Big Walk. In fact it was incredible. I’ll give you the details in a little while — first, let me recap the Kumano Kodo walk and tell you how I ended up here…

*          *          *          *          *

I headed into the woods late in the afternoon…

kumano kodo path

kumano kodo signs

..after knocking off that last post, and started off down the Kohechi quite excited.

It was a shambles of a start — I was carrying a can of beer and a bag of potato chips for dinner, plus approximately (well, exactly) zero litres of water. Figured I’d find some on the way; my pack was heavy enough.

The perfect recipe for a dose of dehydration? Check. I am available for guided tours, by the way…

But at that point it seemed more likely that the local fauna would kill me if anything:

bear warning kumano kodo

mmm

“Vespa” is the genus as well as the common name over here for the Japanese giant hornet, which believe it not kills 30-40 people here per year according to Wikipedia.

Artist's rendition only -- may not depict actual bear.

Artist’s rendition only — may not depict actual bear.

It all worked out. I got an hour and a half of walking in before darkness settled and I stealth-camped next to water — some good fortune that continued for three of the next four nights:

mmm

I often find myself stealthing under or next to bridges in the mountainous backcountry of Japan. I’m always astonished at how good the Japanese are at bridge-building in some pretty tough terrain.

I loved the Kohechi. Apparently the toughest of the network of old trails down there, it was certainly quiet — I only ran into one other walker in three days:

Hirona, was, I believe, a guest at a local hotel -- his actual words were "I am hotel". Like me with Japanese, it seems verbs are his downfall. Well, and his singing. When I heard him approaching, singing along to some godawful J-pop, I thought I'd stumbled upon a bear with a paw caught in a trap...

Hirona, was, I believe, a guest at a local hotel — his actual words were “I am hotel”. Like me with Japanese, it seems verbs are his downfall. Well, and his singing. When I heard him approaching, wailing along to some godawful J-pop, I thought I’d stumbled upon a bear with a paw caught in a trap…

There were two huts provided for overnight stops, but I passed them during the day. The path is well adorned with ancient stone markers, graves, weathered Jizo statues, and the foundations of old teahouses and inns, remnants of a long-gone infrastructure that once served a thriving pilgrim trade:

mmm

You’ll never walk alone.

mmm

Old graves near an ancient teahouse site.

trailside stone carving kumano kodo

But it was the scenery that really impressed me. This was my first trip through Wakayama (and this remote, southern section of Nara) Prefecture — it’s wild and remote even today. Imagine walking here centuries ago:

waterfall kohechi

mmm

Typical mountain scenery along the trail.

spider web kohechi

fly fishermen kumano kodo

mmm

A lone bamboo stands firm against encroaching cedars.

mmm

Old-growth giants within one of the numerous sections taken over by plantation forestry — cedar, cypress — in modern times. That “fog” is actually cloud seeping through the woods! One of my favourite spots on the Kohechi.

old path wakayama

There were numerous short sections of road-walking, which I always enjoy in Japan, and some glimpses of remote old mountain villages. The path leads you through some of them — and even through the “backyards” of some farmhouses:

rice paddies kohechi

tunnel kohechi

Oh, crap. Not again...

Oh, crap. Not again…

mmm

Typical water source for passing pilgrims next to an old farmhouse.