3. Temple Trail

2 Apr

Temple of Bloom: gorgeous cherry blossoms adorned every temple

The Station Hotel excelled yet again with a huge Japanese breakfast that set me up for the day.  I carried a fully-constructed bike down the stairs into the lobby, much to the surprise of the landlady, made a reservation with her for the following day, for the trail doubled back, and hit the busy streets of Tokushima for the first time, wobbling off on two wheels in the direction of the first temple, roughly eight miles northwards over the river.

Some twelve miles later, I arrived at Ryōzenji, the first of the eighty-eight numbered temples on the pilgrimage route.  I had never ridden a road bike before and the going was so much easier than a heavy, clunky mountain bike – so easy, in fact, that with me happily flying along I missed several key turns and ended up traversing most of the outskirts of Naruto City.  Whoops! I didn’t mind my directional impairedness at the time, but I knew I would be cursing the unnecessary mileage later when my legs were smarting.

The first temple was the place to stock up on pilgrimage gear.  You could spend an absolute fortune on white garbs, sashes, hats, walking sticks, maps, guides and all manner of things, but as someone who wasn’t in it for the religious aspect and also not wanting to appear a fraud, I plumped for the distinctive conical straw henro hat – for comedy purposes more than anything else – as well as a nokyocho, a book in which you could gather stamps and hand-written calligraphy from the monks at each temple (for a fee).  I’m not one for souvenirs at all, but I felt the book would be a nice memento of my journey and the activity of “collecting” temple stamps would bring structure to what was otherwise a cycle tour.  It would also be a way to support the temples financially, as there was otherwise no entry fee for visiting them.

The first ten temples ran in a line west of Tokushima, each no more than a few miles apart, which made them a popular “mini pilgrimage” for henro on tours arriving in their busloads, stepping off the coaches in full pilgrim garb complete with walking sticks, which made me chuckle.  The groups would religiously trudge to the main temple building and chant the Heart Sutra together.  Coupled with the smell of wafting incense and the occasional toll of the temple bell, it was a real treat for the senses.

Along the way I met several fellow henro: a French buddhist, bravely taking on all 88 temples on foot, a German couple walking the first few temples as a day trip, and a young Japanese chap who was “walking… and also bus”, or so he added with a grin.  It was great to see other henro using foot power alone, but they were in the vast minority.

I had hoped to visit each of the first ten temples today, but a leisurely start from Tokushima and a desire to savour each temple rather than rushing through and ticking them off meant that as 5pm approached – closing time for the temple offices – I had only managed nine temples, and so the last would have to wait until tomorrow.

Instead I turned my hand to finding accommodation.  I had earmarked a business hotel in a town to the south called Kamojima to plonk myself down in for the night, but they hadn’t responded to my email of a few days ago (sent in Japanese, too), so I turned up at their reception armed with some hotel-related Japanese phrases, a pilgrim hat and an apologetic smile.  I blundered my way successfully through check-in and was rewarded with a tired old room, but gladly with hot water and a bath, which I put to use immediately.  Feeling a hundred times better after a good old soak, I then undertook my own modern-day cycle pilgrim ritual, washing my cycling kit and recharging my gadgets.

Kamojima was yet another step deeper into the Boonies.  Most of the shops seemed to be shuttered up, but a bit further down I discovered an inviting-looking restaurant advertising ramen noodles, and wandered in.  I had a great evening writing, eating, drinking, smiling, bowing and pushing my fledgling Japanese vocabulary to its limit with the friendly owners of the restaurant – the proprietor wandering about in his white wellies, and his wife reading a Manga book inches from her nose – as well as the regular patrons, who saw me and my hat as something of a novelty.

It had been one hell of a great start to my journey, and a successful template I hoped would be repeated in the coming weeks.

30 miles


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