Taking life day by day, without worrying about the next meal, or place to stay, and learning to take life as it comes can have its downsides. Like discovering that the entire prefecture is sold out of hotel, motel, inn, and share-house rooms because it’s a national holiday and several sports teams have come to practice and be watched practicing. Oops. Guess it’s back to Tokyo for me. I could hack it in a manga café or love hotel, but I have to go back to the U.S. on Sunday anyway.
I brought equipment to sleep outside, but not on a city street. It is considered slightly honorable to sleep in the open in the woods as a pilgrim. I think you’ll be provided with mandatory state-run accommodations if you try to sleep on the street in Kochi City, if you know what I mean. As it turned out, my outdoor-sleeping gear is still in pristine condition, as are a few other useless items I over-packed into my 23-lb rucksack.
It’s not that I’m snobby – Ok I mean I am REALLY snobby but I’ve dropped that somewhat walking around in Japan. This trip is not your neighbor’s visit to Japan – I’ve often walked for more than 9 hours in a day and not once seen a convenience store; the small towns and villages of Japan are a far cry from the Blade-Runner-esque edifices of Shibuya and Shinjuku. Many homes I’ve encountered are barely more than shacks in long shanty-towns on the coastline, hardly recognizable as residences. If your image of Japan is gleaming, high-tech and sparkling clean streets and homes, I can take you on a journey to see another way, assuming you don't have an aversion to blisters and exhaustion.
Along the way, I’ve stayed at some fairly low-brow places – places without a modern toilet, or proper heating (actually, most of Japan has awful heating and A/C), places you might run to if you were being hunted by a secret government faction who had framed you for an assassination and you end up on the run with the scrappy but beautiful reporter who uncovered the scheme. But, despite a few exceptions, even the lowbrow places usually have heated toilets and fantastic breakfasts. And everyone is welcoming, proud of their place along the path, and embodies the spirit of generosity that permeates this island.
Plus, almost everywhere I stayed had a washer and dryer. I mention this fact for two reasons: First, everyone else appeared to know that fact and therefore packed lightly. Second, I did not anticipate that fact and OVERPACKED. Like, a lot.
I postulate that almost every dryer in Japan is in Shikoku. I had seen dryers in Japan before, of course, on TV shows and even in large appliance stores. Once I stayed at a place that had an actual dryer. Otherwise, in Japan dryers are as rare as rudeness. Yet in Shikoku, I can stay at a place that has cigarette burns on the floor and strange stains on the tatami mats and it will have a dryer. Of course, that’s almost certainly because of the pilgrims, who wash their clothes nearly every day. I walked nearly 200 miles in less than 3 weeks and I am now an expert in foot-bandages.
Ok, so - Bandages: WTF, America? How can you not get this right? “We have the greatest medical system in the world” – yet we can’t make a band-aid or bandage that sticks to human skin. Just try the Japanese ones and tell me we haven’t failed miserably at something that should be simple.
While I’m on the topic, here’s a brief list, in no particular order, of things from Japan that I can’t believe we haven’t imported to the US for widespread use:
Well-stocked convenience stores: While I’m thankful for the wide variety of carbonated sugar water available at my local Quick-e-Mart, I’m talking about a place with an honest variety of beverages, sushi, healthy prepared meals, and desirable hot foods. We ate most meals at convenience stores along the path. I ate better than I do on most business trips.
Thoughtful hotel amenities: Even the $50/night places have a machine that will press your clothes, a shoe-horn, pajamas or a change of clothes of some type, slippers, a clothes-freshening spray, a toothbrush, toothpaste – it’s awesome.
The washlet-toilet: Ok, seriously America, there is no excuse here. The hotel Kitano in New York has them. Japanese restaurants in NYC have them. Put aside the fact that people don’t understand why a functional bidet is crucial. How are people not INSTANTLY buying heated toilet seats?! I feel like I’m taking CRAZY PILLS!!!
Onsen/Sento/O-Fuyu: I get the discomfort with public nudity, but honestly I am starting to feel like a stand-up shower stall is barbaric. In a Japanese bath you have your own dedicated place to wash, complete with a seat and full control of the water to your own personal temperature, plus one or more large, luxurious hot baths to forget the searing pain in your legs and feet.
Blankets at movie theaters: Japan has them. We don’t. FAIL.
Recycling in general and trash separation at fast-food restaurants in particular: Here, self-interest ALONE should drive this innovation. Anyone who worked at a restaurant and had to carry a trash bag full of ½ empty soda cups should love the idea of a separate bin into which to pour ice and discarded beverages. See Also: Having a little sink in the dining area to wash your hands.
Well-marked pathways: Signage is clear, often posted in multiple languages, and generally makes sense. Heck, the way through the woods on this 1200 year-old pathway is better marked than the signs to JFK in the New York City Subway.
Don’t get me wrong – there are A LOT of things that Japan does not do well, and I’m a proud citizen and resident of the United States. But seriously, we’ve got to get our act together…
Like most people who enjoy visiting Japan, there is a part of me that wonders how long all this will last. Since I began visiting Japan 10 years ago, I've seen massive changes in a short time. Even Shikoku itself has changed - in the last 5 years, giant metal towers have come to dot the skyline almost every mile along the coast, set in each village as a refuge from potential tsunami. Called Hinan Towers, these are a direct response to the staggering loss of life in the 3/11 Tsunami.
So much is changing around me as I travel this country. The diet is visibly changing - more starch, red meat, fried and fatty foods; the effect is visible. I'm still noticeably fat in this country, but I'm not the fattest guy around anymore. I find trash littering the little sideways and byways, a product of the highways and fast-moving cars that race by all day, perhaps.
Everything new has a price. Every new way consumes the old one. Knowledge is power, but it comes at the cost of wisdom. In turn, wisdom is a gift, but you trade it for youth. In the face of inevitable change, I wonder about the future of the O-Henro Pilgrimage.
I thought about that while I took one last visit to a neighborhood sento in Tokyo. It was my last night in Japan and this public bath house was just a few minutes from my rented apartment in Yoyogi-Uehara. There are few sento left nowadays; 60 years ago they were part of every neighborhood. Few houses had running hot water and enough space for a personal bath. Instead, families would head to the neighborhood sento to bathe, and talk, and meet, and share the details of their days.
As technology, wealth, and progress spread, families began to get their own private baths in their own homes, and the neighborhood sento became a thing of the past. Few public baths still remain, slowly yielding to modernity and the rising value of the real estate upon which they sit.
I visited the sento in Yoyogi-Uehara late at night - maybe 10:30 p.m. - on a Saturday, after a long day of collecting souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. The entry might have been a Tardis, because I walked into 1964 Tokyo. The Obaa-san behind the desk might actually have been there since 1964 (and clearly did not give a SHIT about anything because when I couldn't figure out where the lockers were, she just led me directly into the locker room and showed me how to unlock the locker, despite the numerous naked men standing around, who also did not notice her). The fixtures, interior, even the music, were vintage Japan. It smelled of lost times and faded memories. It made me reflect on what I had experienced and what the future would hold for Japan.
And yet, as I looked around me (carefully - everyone is naked and you don't want to see too much), I noticed something odd. All the men were young - 20's, maybe early 30's - one carrying a skateboard, one with non-Yakuza-specific tattoos, others clearly musicians or athletes or artists. I was the oldest man there by far. When I left, a young shopgirl getting off work checked into the women's section next door. Here, in this piece of old Japan, a new generation is making the place their own.
The pilgrimage, too, was a mix of young and old, Japanese and foreign - a place where everyone shared Japan's past. And, perhaps, sent ripples into its future.