Typhoon #2 (#29 for Japan this year) is smashing Pacific waves into the rocks of the Muroto Cape outside my room, so I’m not going anywhere today. That said, I decided to write for the first time on this journey.
About 1,200 years ago, Kobo Daishi is said to have sat in a cave on the Muroto coast of Shikoku, called the Mikurodo Cave, chanting relentlessly for weeks until he reached enlightenment. As it happens, I’m just a 5-minute walk from there, also trapped alone with my thoughts in a shelter along the ocean. It’s the second typhoon of my journey but this time I’m not in a big city – I’m in a tiny hotel along the highway surrounded by, well, ocean and highway.
I tried to walk to Kobo Daishi’s cave, but the wind was literally so strong I couldn’t reach it. The sedge hat, which is iconic for pilgrims and is a cone-shaped hat that you’ve seen in countless Asian movies and cartoons, is a brilliant piece of engineering – protecting me from sun, rain, and the occasional blasts of road-dust flawlessly, yet remaining breathable and comfortable. However, it also has a bad habit of catching gusts like a sail, and I decided that rather than Mary Poppins-ing my way into the ocean, I’d come back to the hotel.
I walked through the start of the first Typhoon. It rained all day, as it had for days, and when I finally reached my hotel I was soaked through. The relentless rain had made everything wet, not least of which my hands, so when my phone went sliding out of my hand and into a puddle on the stone steps to a statute of Kobo Daishi on along the way to Shosanji, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The path itself is called the Henro-korogashi, which basically means “pilgrims fall.” Still, I realized as I quickly powered it down and wrapped it in a handkerchief (thanks Marie!!!) that it was a hint to put away the smartphone and start experiencing the Henro experience.
Still, I think everyone should try to explain to a guy in a store in a tiny mountain village that you need a small bag of rice into which you plan to insert your phone, so that the rice will absorb the water, and do all of that in Japanese, and then watch the look on the guy’s face as you do exactly that. I’m certain that he believed me to be COMPLETELY INSANE.
But the phone works now, so, joke’s on him, I guess? Since then, however, I’ve tried to keep the devices stashed deep in my bag and instead attempted to experience everything as it came, save for the days spent fleeing typhoons.
Fortunately, the contents of my Goruck-brand backback were bone-dry (hooray Goruck!) but the contents of my Hazard4 satchel were entirely soaked (boo Hazard4!). Ok - to be fair the satchel was never intended to be water-proof, water-resistant, or even water-soluble. But all pilgrims carry a little satchel, which is part of the kit if you will.
The standard Henro pilgrim’s gear includes:
Oddly Creepy Mannequin, modeling a Henro Pilgrim's kit, outside temple #1, Ryozenji.
1. The hat (mentioned above), called a Sugegasa. Brilliant, useful for lots of things, as mentioned.
2. A Hakui – which is a white vest or jacket that, for my martial arts readers, is basically a Gi top. Most have a Sanskrit phrase written on the back. The chief advantage of it is that if you die on the trip, you can be buried in it right on the spot. That is not a joke.
3. A Staff – called a kongo tsue. This is essential gear, much like the hat. First of all, walking up and down steep mountain ranges all day is brutal enough and the staff is your best friend on those. Plus, it came in handy when I met a GIANT BLACK WILD BOAR in the middle of the woods. Slamming that staff on the ground a few times send him bounding off up the mountain. Also good for shooing away snakes, which I had to do as well.
4. A Bag of Holding – or fudabasami. Ok it’s not really a bag of holding but you carry a bunch of quasi-magical items in it, including incense, candles, and a few o-fuda, which are name cards. You leave one at each temple, and also give them to anyone who gives you Ossettai.
So, Ossettai. How to explain this? People have been walking this pilgrimage around Shikoku for over 1200 years. Pilgrims sometimes died along the journey. Helping pilgrims is considered to be virtuous – and you never know what you will get. My first gift was a banana and a hard-boiled egg that a nice old woman gave me. She could not have known that, on this planet, there are two smells that will literally drive me fleeing from a room in revulsion: Bananas, and hard-boiled eggs. I smiled and thanked her in the traditional: “Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo” (Homage to teacher Kobo Daishi).
The next Ossettai I received blew my mind. A woman in a parking lot ran over and gave me a tiny envelope and then ran off. It contained the equivalent of $20. Since then I’ve received a can of juice, fruit, tea, and a container of ginger candy that I LITERALLY CANNOT GIVE AWAY. No one can eat more than one. I’ve tried, believe me. It’s been in my bag for a week. Want some? I’m certain I’ll have some left when I get home.
The island is full of huts and rest areas for pilgrims. Some are just a bench along a wooded path. Some are multi-story wooden structures suitable for spending the night. I visited one run by local retired women, offering tea and snacks and light conversation to pilgrims. Others have blankets and mats for sleeping.
The welcoming spirit of this island is infectious. I’ve stayed at all sorts of places along the way – business hotels, traditional inns, guest houses – everywhere, pilgrims act like they are part of a family. While the Henro is a lonely prospect, setting out on your own to walk for almost 2 months around an island, it seems like pilgrims make connections all along the way. I’ll write more about that later, I think. For now, I need to get some rest. Tomorrow is at least 9 hours of walking along the coast and I need some rest…