23. Full Circle

22 Apr

PilgrimsJoining the Club: statues of pilgrims at the final port of call, Temple 88

Having dejunked the excess ear buds, combs, miniature shampoos, punctured innertubes and other paraphernalia I had collected on my journey I had lightened my load and was ready for the final push. I went all-in by booking my night’s accommodation at the Station Hotel in Tokushima to the delight of the squinty proprietor and set off extra early. By all accounts it was going to be a long day.

The first temple was up high on an island to the east of the city centre. My progress was thwarted as soon as I hit the road upwards, as a guard leapt out of his little roadside box to clearly intimate that bicycles were not allowed on the route (which was a toll road). Seriously miffed, I turned the bike back around and followed the little “henro” signs to the walkers’ route.

I had to ditch my bike and become a walking henro as soon as I spotted this ominous roadsign. The steep road upwards became a track up the side of the mountain, and I exchanged pleasantries and smiles with spritely elderly car pilgrims on my way up. I hit the temple not long after it had opened for (monk-y) business, and having a love of the surreal/bizarre, I headed straight for the Badger Shrine. Apparently Kōbō-Daishi, the original 88 Temples pilgrim, got lost in the fog in these parts and met an old chap wearing a straw raincoat who helped him up the mountain. Kōbō-Daishi later realised the old man was in fact not really an old man but actually the God of the “Yashima Tasaburō” Badgers. (Must’ve been really foggy). This badger shrine was built to thank the Badger God for his help all those years ago. Apparently the “Yashima Tasaburō” badger is monogamous, and so the God is known as the patron of peaceful families, marriages… and, er, the restaurant business..? The nearby English sign that I gleaned all this information from also solemnly pointed out that the shrine was popular for “those who wish to have babes”. This sounded rather appealing, so I said a silent prayer to Mr Badger and “set” off again on my journey.

The next temple, Yakuriji, was on a neighbouring mountain to the east; arriving there I discovered it had an embarrassingly short cable car ride to the top. Feeling guilty, but also not wanting another hill climb and being watchful of the time, I took the easy option and grabbed a round trip ticket for the visit. Further round the bay was Shidoji, from where I turned the bike southwards to call in at Nagaoji, Temple Number 87 out of 88 and a place where they definitely needed to water the grass more often.

One more temple to go: it lay deep within the mountains, of course. I took the least painful route but they were all upwards and I eventually had to climb to 600 metres to finally clap my eyes on the last temple of the 88, Ōkuboji, with a certain sense of relief. With the help of asphalt roads and the odd sneaky cable car I had successfully followed in the footsteps of the great monk Kōbō-Daishi. I paused to pat myself on the back and to take in the temple and the other pilgrims wandering around it. Did they feel a similar sense of achievement? Had any of them attained Nirvana along the way? The closest I’d come on my journey was listening to Nirvana.

My celebrations were somewhat premature, as in order to complete the pilgrimage I still needed to cycle back to Temple Number 1 to complete the loop, and the light was fading. Thankfully the journey onwards took a turn for the downward, and an hour later I was leaving the mountains for the final time and had popped out into the flat Awa Valley not far from Kamojima, the deadbeat town in which I had spent my first ever night of the pilgrimage. The familiarity of the territory spurred me on eastwards as I dodged the heavy traffic and willed the distances to Tokushima on the signposts to magically halve.

With the mileage and altitude I had covered today already I was struggling. Some of the Engrish on the passing shops raised a smile now and again, but I felt spent and pissed off as a result. As dusk approached I started to see signs pointing to the first few temples of the journey. I was close. Picking up my speed, I let out a yelp as my ankle gave way; I had strained something in my foot. Adrenaline forced me onwards and finally I pulled up at Temple 1, Ryōzenji.

I waited a while for posterity. There was no welcoming committee. No marching band. No divine revelation. No sudden moment of clarity when my purpose as a miniscule cog in the clockwork of life was abruptly unveiled to me. There was only a crap mannequin wearing ill-fitting temple robes and a slightly wonky conical hat, swaying slightly in the evening breeze. Worse still, I didn’t even feel any personal sense of achievement at completing my loop; I was simply too exhausted. And I still had nearly ten miles to go to get back to Tokushima.

I limped back over the river and into Tokushima’s city centre well after dark. The Station Hotel and its familiar squinty hotel manager were a welcome sight. It was with some satisfaction that I dismantled The Revenge and packed him away in his bag, and then soaked my exhausted limbs in the bath. Although tired, I forced myself out onto the streets to celebrate in the only way that seemed appropriate: a curry at CoCo Ichiban. Spice Level 9.

The following morning I said my farewells to the hotel manager, who promptly presented me with a disposable poncho as it was hissing down outside – such a kind gesture. I checked out and cycled off into the rain to catch the ferry over to the mainland.

Yesterday I had been too tired to expound on the events of the past few weeks, but I had plenty of time on the chugging ferry to reflect on my journey. Whilst being sympathetic to Buddhism, the experience of the pilgrimage hadn’t converted me away from my own home-made “patchwork quilt” philosophy of life, and I hadn’t experienced enlightenment. But what I had experienced was nonetheless affecting. The random acts of kindness, the hardships that I’d faced that came good in the end with a little bit of patience and thought – all those experiences had confirmed and enriched both my faith in human nature and faith in myself.

But most rewarding of all, over the last three weeks I had built an intimate affinity with every corner of a nondescript little island off the coast of Japan – a fondness that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

78 miles


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3 Responses to “23. Full Circle”

  1. Paul Wheeler 30. Jul, 2014 at 7:59 am #

    No comments yet ?? shit thats ridiculous … thank you very much for your very entertaing blog . We are going there this japanese autumn , sixth Japan trip so far , love the joint . We will only have 4 days in Matsuyama and I fully intend to spend each night at the Dogo onsen (with my wife) but the idea of Kobo Daishis pilgrimage is very appealing . We have walked on the Kumano Kodo and ended up in Yunomine ,recommended , and we’ve seen the snow Monkeys and I do think you should spend a few days in Takayama , a very nice town .All I can say is Yoku Deki Mashita .. And once again thank you for your wonderful blog .
    Very Very best Spice level number 50 Regards
    Paul and Kerry

  2. Lee Yoder 10. Jan, 2015 at 5:47 am #

    Thank you for this travelogue. As a cyclist, I feel that I should put this on my bucket list! Your descriptions of the time you spent in the saddle are spot on, some days are pure pleasure, whilst others torture your very soul.

  3. Tonie St-Onge 27. Feb, 2015 at 5:57 pm #

    It was great to read about your time on Shikoku; thank you for sharing.
    I am getting ready for my second time around (I completed the circuit on foot once before in 2010) and your stories have made me extra excited! I love that you stayed at Station hotel and ate at CoCo Ichiban too… I did the same! Thanks for this bit of nostalgia.

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