People warned me that if I walked this trail long enough, I’d become superstitious. I think it’s being close to nature, away from technology, and constantly aware of the odd coincidences and natural serendipity of life. Chance meetings start to appear destined, lucky finds become gifts, a near-injury in the woods becomes the will of forest spirits, angry or pleased with your presence.
And so it was, that I encountered a woodland trickster-apparition that I couldn’t shake for several kilometers.
In Japan, the idea of gods or spirits being “good” or “evil” isn’t really inherent in the concept. They exist. We exist. Sometimes the spirits do things that help us, sometimes not. We can offer things to them, respect them, and be wary of them, but worshiping them as a “God” the way that people do in the West is really not what’s going on. It’s a good example of attempting to cram a Japanese concept into a western word and accidentally merging it with a bunch of extraneous and inapplicable meanings.
But you should still be careful, for example, of going into the woods if rain is falling while the sun shines: you might accidentally stumble upon the fox-spirits’ wedding procession. They’ll make you regret discovering them, I’ve heard. And in my case, be careful of a guy running towards you in a small town saying “Pilgrim: stop stop!”
I mentioned before that the Japanese respect privacy and value peace and quiet. I have walked with fellow pilgrims for almost an hour without anyone saying anything. But everything has its opposite, and sometimes the exception proves the rule. (Aside: I HATE that saying). For example, at Sumo matches you are forbidden from drinking alcohol, eating, taking pictures, or throwing your cushion at the ring if the Ozeki loses. All of these things happen regularly. I have watched Japanese people run red lights like they were from Rhode Island. The highways and byways of the pilgrim’s path have a shocking amount of carelessly discarded trash.
Back to my trickster-spirit, who runs over to me and wants to talk and ask lots of questions and he does not mind that I’m walking because he’s going to walk too he’s from Osaka but boy isn’t Kochi prefecture beautiful and the place is great for surfing and did I know that he was a surfer because he is a surfer and he is also Buddhist but he doesn’t follow any organized Buddhism because Japanese Buddhism is corrupt so he follows his own and lives his life between life and death every day which is how everyone should live because we could be killed at any time just by a passing car and isn’t it beautiful here well except for the Tsunami walls those are ugly but it can’t be helped and he has lots of friends from around the world did I want to see them they are on Facebook.
That was the first couple of minutes. It was followed by him running into the road to pick up dead raccoon-dogs and lay them to rest in the woods nearby and did I want to see his tattoos?
Tattoos are also a strange topic in Japan. For centuries, they were marks of lower-class people and symbols of poverty or criminality. Tattoos aren’t exactly legal here – but they aren’t exactly illegal either. Japanese tattoo artists are treasured around the world, but have been the subject of numerous and even recent crackdowns here in Japan. You cannot stay at many hotels or enter most onsen baths or gyms if you have a tattoo. This guy had A LOT of tattoos and he was proud of them. I got to see them. All of them. I didn’t even have to ask.
I might not have mentioned that this guy is apparently descended from a Samurai family and is a modern-day Samurai, trained in kickboxing and other styles. It was a long trip – we walked together for about 4 km on the road to Muroto along the ocean. I have no idea where he came from but he was going to have to walk that whole way back, I think, though he didn’t seem to mind.
I wondered if I hallucinated the whole thing. Fortunately, I took a picture to document the whole experience.
The fun part about the pilgrimage is that, even when you are alone, you are never really alone. Someone else is ahead of you, and other maybe behind, though out of sight. In the coming days, I would sit with other pilgrims along the road, and eventually someone would ask “Hey, did anyone met that crazy guy from Osaka?” Then, one after another, someone would share a story about him. Since I had a picture, some people who managed to get away before he captured them even recognized his photo.
It’s a little cruel to call this guy crazy, and strange too, since I was sitting with a bunch of people who had decided to put on white coats and walk, on foot, along a 1200 year old path for weeks on end, even in the driving rain, past wild snakes, boar, bears, deadly stinging bees (also NOT a joke) – a fun topic of conversation was how many blisters you have and where (in Japanese, a blister is a 豆、”mame”, which is the same word as “bean”). I personally had several, including two the size of Chicken McNuggets (Morningstar Farms Nuggets, for my vegan friends).
While I’ve been exploring the fascinating world of foot-tape and bandaging techniques, I’m not exactly qualified to call someone else crazy. But crazy is fun, if you are crazy together. And we are crazy together, sharing stories of the people we met and things we saw along the way, and learning that others had the same experiences.
Early on, for example, while walking alone through a tiny village, the last thing I expected was for a young boy to run over and beckon me to come into his school. But that’s exactly what happened. I was walking in my pilgrim’s gear but clearly recognizable as a foreigner.
When I arrived in the courtyard, another pilgrim was already there – they must have corralled him a few minutes earlier. Of course, I recognized him. I had stolen his kongo tsue by accident at an early temple, mistaking it for mine. Since then we had joined two other pilgrims for dinner and breakfast the next day at a local inn along the road.
The children launched into a presentation about their community, local fruits and vegetables, and local industry. I got to sample a local fruit juice and grilled mushrooms – which, I have to say, were kindof delicious. The kids seemed to be about 5th grade, but did a great job with their presentation – like all Japanese explanations, theirs included posters and diagrams. A few have the potential to be successful newscasters; the Japanese news always seems to employ physical charts and exhibits, finding them more compelling than computerized displays for some reason.
Then they invited me to stay for one more presentation – a demonstration of their local version of the Awa-dori, a popular Tokushima festival dance. The Awa-dance is part of O-Bon and literally draws over a million people every year. It is famous for its exuberance, energy, and frankly, pure chaos. The lyrics to a famous Awa-song go:
“The dancers are fools
The watchers are fools
Both are fools alike so
Why not dance?”
When they invited us to dance with them, I couldn’t very well say no, could I?
That was two weeks ago, and just yesterday I discovered, by accident, that the children had corralled another pilgrim I know just a few minutes later, and told her the story of the Japanese-speaking American lawyer who had visited with them. In a world without constant TV and noise and the fast pace of daily life, these stories become the connections between all of us.
Probably every few days, the process resets, and as pilgrims move on, new pilgrims start walking again, sharing their stories and experiences with one another, building connections and learning from each other along the way. Soon our stories will fade and new stories will come, just as they have come and gone for over a thousand years. Those that came before, and those that will come after, will know only the spirit of the pilgrimage itself, which will outlast us all.