Day 58 – 72

Day 58: Catsushi

We leave our room only for breakfast in the dining room, lunch with cappuccino in ‘our’ coffee house and dinner. Outside the sun shines all day, but there is a cold wind. We work mainly on our travel schedule for the last few weeks of our stay in Japan, because a lot of things have to be (re)arranged yet. One of us occupies the only chair (why is there always only one chair in a double room?), the other sits with half a bottom on the bed’s rim.
Just before six we go down for dinner, but no tables have been prepared and the kitchen cupboards are used to dry yukatas on coat hangers. Kitchen is empty too. We stand there hesitating and one of our hosts arrives. I’m quite happy that she says that there’s no dinner tonight. Food wasn’t terribly good here and yesterday we passed a kaiten-sushi a few K before the hotel: a conveyorbelt-sushi-restaurant. On the facade it said kattensushi (catsushi), but we assume that was a mistake. We ask to borrow two bicycles and our host knows another kaiten-sushi, ‘a lot nearer’, but to the other direction. About 3-4 K later we’re there. It’s very lively in there, and we need to wait for half an hour. No problem at all, it’s a joy to look around. Later, when we sit in front of the belt, we see all kinds of unknown things pass by. Very nice, we’ve seen so little sushi and edamame on Shikoku. But we also see some less successful ‘innovations’: sushi with chicken nugget, raw meat sushi, sushi with mini-hamburger and mayonaise, maki with mayonaise, various fish sushi with onion rings and mayonaise. A lot of mayonaise. It’s a shame.

When we leave again around half past eight it’s totally dark already. There are no street lights along the main road and my bike’s front light doesn’t work well, the rear light not at all on both bikes. There are other problems, pedestrians and bikers (in both directions) share the sidewalk and it’s not until the last minute that I know whether the other party will pass left or right. And a Shikoku sidewalk most of the time consists of many holes, potholes, gutters with shifting cover plates, uneven surfaces, etc. And add to that the blinding lights of approaching cars (it’s very busy) and the not so considerate (for pedestrians and bikers who want to pass entrances and the like) car drivers. Several pedestrians carry a light in their hands. Smart. And the many neons help as well. And every now and then it’s just taking a chance…
Back in our room we get working again.

Day 59: Moshi, moshi!

At half past eight Yoshitake Tamaoka and a regional manager of his pharmaceutical company that provides my perfusion arrive at the hotel. The doctor in the Shikoku Chuo hospital is startled to see me again after a year’s time. Proudly I show my Japanese hospital card. And Yoshitake Tamaoka tells him with a smile that I’m planning to walk the pilgrimage every year.
After hospital we have coffee and cakes in ‘our’ coffee house. Yoshitake Tamaoka tells us about the situation in Tokyo: many families with children are moving to other parts of the country, farther away from the leaking reactor. But of course, only if there is an opportunity to do so…
The sun shines brightly and the mountains are inviting, but today we stay where we are. Back in our room we work again on the ceramics travel plans and only leave for lunch (in ‘our’ coffee house; we even receive a stamp card) and dinner (in ‘our’ kaiten-sushi). Mels arranges an interview with a ceramic artist by phone. (Or really: he is able to ask for and get her mail address in Japanese and then mails her and gets an appointment…)

Day 60: Monkey!

Last year we visited temples 65 to 71 from hotel Mild, this year we follow the trail from temple to temple. Just before eight we leave for an easy programme: 19 K, with some good climbs however, and one temple visit. We’re both a little stiff, as mostly after a day off, and our speed is quite low. Some rain has been forecast for this afternoon and tomorrow, but for the time being the sun is shining and it’s hot, in spite of the wind. We first walk along narrow streets towards the mountain range and then climb about 300m up over narrow asphalt roads to temple 65. Almost there, we smell a strong animal scent and we’re looking around for monkeys, keeping very still and hiding ourselves. But the only animals we see and hear are singing birds, butterflies and a dead mole. Only later we realise that the scent comes from a big chicken farm. No monkeys this time…

Slowly we climb higher and the view gets wider and wider: down below in the plains is Mishima, part of the Shikoku Chuo area. From afar the tall chimneys catch the eye. It’s very hazy and Honshu can’t be seen, and some small islands just in front of the coast seem to be floating in the blue nothingness.

In less than two hours we reach temple 65. At the bottom of the long stairs to the temple buildings a taxi driver gives us a bottle of water. Osettai! And the two ladies he transports are nice as well: one gives a sweet, the other a scent bag and says ‘Welcome to Japan!’ Pictures! All of us!
Temple 65 is a ‘silent’ temple with beautiful buildings and old trees, among them an enormous cherrytree. It’s past its bloom now and its heavy branches are supported by poles. It’s the largest cherrytree I ever saw. At the stamp office I see a beautiful orange staff in the rack. Those staffs are the prerogative of guides. I am surprised, its length is a lot less than that of my staff. I ask the man in immaculate white on the bench next to the staff whether it’s his. And yes, that’s true. He has done the pilgrimage five hundred times he says, of which ten times on foot. (That’s 490 x 3 weeks + 10 x 2 months = 1550 weeks = 31 years, Mels calculates later…) He gives us a gold brocate osame-fuda, we offer very modestly our white ones…
The stamp monk runs up the long stairs when we are in front of the office. He speaks a little English. Oranda he knows: tulips and soccer (Johan Cruijff!). We stumble down the stairs again, over the steps which are far too high for us, and resume our walk. He is down already, talking to someone. How do they do that with those short legs?

For a long time we walk over a narrow asphalt road that meanders along the slopes at an altitude of about 300m. A lovely, shady road along the woods with deep down a varying view of Mishima. I have seen many fern variations on Shikoku, and now I see
a new one, a tongue fern(?) next to a brook.
The road now descends slowly into the next valley. In a rest hut we join some other henros for lunch and eat our onigiri, which we received from the hotel. A couple from Osaka walks for the fourth time now and they include the bangai-temples. Another henro’s staff is worn to such an extent that part of the sutra text is missing now. We don’t dare ask how many times he’s walked.
When descending a little later and changing the road for smaller trails, we’re surprised to see a Camino de Santiago-sign: a small plastic road sign. At a beautiful bangai-temple we have a short rest and then proceed by the main road that slowly climbs to the next pass. The wind gets stronger and in the bamboo forests we sometimes hear a dead one break with a loud snap. During a short rest in a rest hut, I read in the guest book. And there I see a Camino-group sticker (Gruppo Dada: Unidos por el Camino, jimmys@osk2.3web.ne.jp). Did they put the sign up I saw earlier on?

The rain that has been forecast doesn’t come and in the course of the afternoon the temperature has risen even more. Even the wind feels warm. We slowly follow the climbing road. We’re quite early and we choose not to follow the road through the tunnel to the next valley, but to cross the mountains over narrow asphalt roads and dirt trails. On the trail however it’s even hotter. Our speed goes down dramatically and we drink lots of water.
After the pass we arrive in an intimate valley with ricefields, some houses and slopes at both sides, which have all kinds of lichen green and light red brown colours of budding trees.
A few K before our stay we join the main road again. Minshuku Okada consists of a few scattered buildings in a village. We arrive just before four, at the same time as some other henros. It’s a popular ryokan, because it’s the only one before the enormous climb to the next temple that we’re going to do tomorrow. The room is 6 tatamis with tokonoma/wardrobe. Our joyfull and nice host cleans my staff and puts it on a small cushion in a woven basket in the tokonoma. It’s the first time that we see a bench outside a ryokan. A smoker’s bench, but we use it for a beer in the sun. For a while there is a short pause, for the ofuro. After that we enjoy the small garden again with an old, tortured pine and rows of bonsai. When we need to get up for supper at six, a spider is busy making a web between Mels and the table.

All 8 henros just fit into the small dining room, together with our male and female hosts who visibly enjoy having guests. The walls are full of pictures of their guests, every time taken together with our male host. He is 82 years old and a born performer. After dinner he provides copies for all of us of the path to temple 66 and the next ones: tomorrow’s trip. Details have been highlighted with coloured pencil. Temple 66 is at an altitude of 1000m, the highest one we will visit. He clearly explains where we can go with some speed, where terrible abysses are, where to have a good meal, etc. We miss out on most of the story, but enjoy his enthousiasm. And there is a long discussion about tomorrow’s weather: an all-day rain has been forecast. And that’s bad for climbing and even worse for the descent. Our host has shown many books as well: one full of osame-fudas that he received from guests, books with pictures about the sights on the trail and a scientific report (Keio university) abour walking henros. We only understand the graphs: 70% of the walking henros is male, 30% female. 45% Of all henros is male between 60 and 70 years of age; 14% is female between 30 and 40; those are the main male and female categories.
Mels and I sit folded in a corner near the table, waiting until we can get up without being rude. Cramp in legs, foot pain… We (mainly me) try to innoticeably shift a little on our cushions at the long dining table. It’s not before a quarter past eight that the cosy meeting is over. ‘I will never again complain about those henros who leave the dining table so early any more…’, Mels says. We get into bed at once. Our host – daughter of the house – has to spend some hours yet to clean up…

Day 61: Hiding with Kukai

Already at 10 to 7 we are in front of the ryokan, of course we’re the last to leave. We give osame-fudas and business cards to the host and his daughter and pictures are taken. They walk along for a while to show the way and wave for a long time. Such nice people!
There are 15 K and a 700m climb on our programme, visiting one temple. We will climb from about 250m to temple 66 at 1000m and after that descend again at the other side of the mountain.
First we follow the valley a while, over narrow asphalt roads through some hamlets. Soon we get to a path that goes up steeply. There is no rain but it’s hot and tacky. In 1,8 K we climb 400m. Sometimes we need to walk on our toes not to fall backward. Like so many henro paths, this one is worn and deepened in the course of centuries – like the hollow roads in Dutch Limburg -, and this has been aggravated by the enormous amounts of water that flows down during the rainy season. Sometimes we walk between 3-4m high walls, and tordated trees hang over the path.
Then the path meanders along mountain slopes for some time, before it ends at a narrow asphalt road that goes up – a lot less steep than before – the mountain. The wind groans through the trees, as if big turbines are working. We rest on a bench next to an old cherrytree with an enormous trunk; the cherry blossom towers over the surrounding sugis. We walk on and see many more old cherrytrees, still blooming. It rains petals. An ant carries one to its nest. In the middle of the road a snake lies, roadkilled.

Already at ten we arrive at temple 66, known for its many Lakham: life size stone sculptures of the representations of Buddha. It’s very quiet up there, during our visit we only see a few groups of bus henros who have taken the ropeway up. Next week that will be different, in the Golden Week, Japan’s main holiday week, which is for many the moment to do a stretch of henro-michi, walking or driving. In the hondo (main temple building) a woman points out a bundle of ribbons to me. It’s connected (by way of the ceiling) with a cord to the heart of the Buddha, via his hands. If one holds the ribbons, the prayer goes directly to his heart. Im emotioned when I hold the strips…
We join some lady bus henros for a picture and walk to the ropeway station for icecream, dried apricots and chocolate. On a bench next to the station we enjoy the sensational view over the coastal area and the sea. It’s very hazy, we don’t see too many details. The islands a barely to be discerned and Honshu is not visible at all. Far away we still see the tall chimney near hotel Mild where we slept until yesterday. There are dark clouds now and the wind is getting colder, so we don’t stay too long because we want to be down again before the rain will start.

We leave the temple area at the other side of the mountain and we discover another army of Lakham there. How many are there over here? Are these the Buddha’s 1000 faces? It’s a pity that I don’t see any woman between all these sculptures…
A narrow concrete road leads us over a ridge towards the sea. It goes down slowly and it’s easy walking down. Here too, the path has been hollowing the mountain slope. Left and right there are pink azalea bushes. It’s a really nice walk and regularly we sit on one of the many benches along the path to enjoy the view: at the left mainly the coastal plains with many ponds in the foreground, and further back the city area, at the right a valley with sugi, pine and other trees. Halfway down we eat the onigiri that we received from the ryokan as an osettai, and we’re snowed under with petals. The sun is shining and it’s hot again, so we’re taking our time. We don’t expect rain anymore.

Today we almost reach the total of a 1000 K: we now have done about 990 K, excluding all extra K for shopping, restaurants, post offices and hotels or ryokans. During the walk I think about the past months. It’s the 61st travel day already (and my diary now almost has 60.000 words…) One day follows the other. I do remember many details, but many things are a blur too. When did we visit this one park at sea, at which temple was this big tree? Memories are lost, like this blog will be someday…

Whilst I’m making a picture of a log covered with mushrooms, I hear a cry. Mels has fallen down over a rolling stone. I’m glad it’s not serious. Easily we go on, further down. We feel a few raindrops however but it seems to stay dry. Then, shortly before we reach then end of the path, we hear far away thunder. We up our speed again. We arrive at a road that leads us through the valley in the direction of the sea. About two K before our stay it starts raining after all. We put up our umbrellas and take refuge a few times, because between showers it’s not so bad and we don’t like to put on our ponchos because the ryokan shoud be very near. But the wind blows and we get wet anyway, as do the fleecejacks and windjacks which are exposed on top of our backpacks.
Shortly after passing a lotus nursery we take refuge for a trird time, this time in a little shrine. In the middle is a statue, in front of it some flowers and an altar. At the wall there are pictures of an aging couple. We stuff ourselves and our backpacks between all parafernalia. It looks as if the rain will persist and even get worse and after a lot of hesitation we decide to get dressed up for rain. Before we can do that, a car halts in front. Where we’re going: Minshuku Ohira and we think that’s 500m further along. The lady tells us to hop in. The rain gets stronger and we do get into the car. The minshuku proves to be near, but at the other side of a hill. The world in the meantime has grown grey. Every now and then the lady opens the window to see where to go.

A little before four we burst into the minshuku. A lady who seems a bit withdrawn shows the way to our room: 6 tatamis with hallway, wardrobe, tokokoma. With a cup of green tea in our hands we watch the wet world outside. Dinner is with two car henros in a large room that likens an old ballroom. Large mirrors and curtains. The minshuku-couple stays quietly in the background but enjoy the exchange of stories with a smile. Mels is nicely conversing in Japanese. One of the car henros is very interested in Oranda and our walking and ceramical activities. He’s a bus driver in Aichi Prefecture on Honshu. Walking, no, he’d rather not. He prefers a car to drive along all temples. A busman’s holiday. And outside the rain gushes down the window panes.

Day 62: Question time

Breakfast may be at six, but afterwards we take two hours to write the diary and prepare some mails. Sometime at night the rain has stopped. But it’s cloudy and cold when we start walking at last at eight. The clouds look threatening. At breakfast we got two lighters as a gift but when we leave there’s nobody anymore in the ryokan. People don’t always wave…
There are 20 K planned, with a visit to four temples. We start with nearby temple 67. Walking past some buildings we arrive at a small temple area. In one building service is being held. A monk runs toward us from the main temple building and gesticulates but we don’t understand what he means until a second monk speaks a few words of English: ‘First front door.’ We came in through the back door and that’s a big no… We have to descend first, pass the hill and climb the long stairs at the other side again. Moan… However, it feels a lot better to enter through the front door. Moreover, there are a few enormously old trees at the entrance, including a centuries old camphor tree with an unparalleled trunk size. Its imposing green crown can be seen towering over the other trees from afar.

We do our rituals, descend all those stairs again and follow our trail northwest, over all kinds of narrow roads. The strong headwind tells us that we’re going in the direction of the sea again. Far away, in the greyness we see houses lighting up sometimes when the sunlight touches them. The roads we pass get wider and busier when getting nearer to the area of Kan-onji City.
It takes until eleven to find a restaurant open (…well almost: we have to wait 10 minutes until it opens). There is wifi (even for Mels’ i-pad) and cappuccino with cake, and jazz music. Mels blinks two eyes when I want to order a second cappuccino, they’re 6 euro each, but it’s my own money that I’m throwing away. We stay for lunch and it takes until half past one before we proceed with our trip.
The various buildings of temples 68 and 69 are mixed on the same terrain. The stamp monk provides stamps for both temples in one go. In the middle of the temple area is an enormous tree with a very wide base, spreading its roots weirdly over a large area. Next to the strange, new hondo that belongs to temple 68 is a surprisingly beautiful garden: around a pond and on the slope are rows of spherically cut rhododendrons which are just starting to bloom.

The wind gets colder, the clouds more threatening. Since lunch Mels has a difficult time: tired, sore knees and feet… We progress slowly. For a long time we walk along a busy road parallel to a wide river. The river splits in two and a narrow road leads us between both arms. At the right between both levees are large fields of flowering rapeseed, bordered with golden reed; left are rice fields and a house now and then. Far away we already see the temple 70 pagoda. It’s a nice temple with many beautiful buildings and large trees again. Amidst all this are some copper green statues of horses.
Around four we go on, north, for the last 7 K, mainly along busy route 11, sometimes taking parallel roads. We pass a few large ponds, of course all well set in concrete. Sometimes there are markers which point the wrong way. These markers may be commercial – shops, ryokans – who want customers their way and for us foreigners it’s not always clear to know the difference. But we also suspect there are some overzealous volunteers who want us to have a touristic sideway… In the meantime it’s not easy to wave back to all car drivers who nod or wave, without elegantly or not so elegantly fall on my face again. My blue eye after all these week has its normal colour again and I’d like to keep it that way.

About 500m before we arrive at our stay it starts raining. With our umbrellas up and a good pace we arrive soon at minshuku Chitose. It’s half five already and our host is waiting for us anxiously. A nice, easily laughing woman who brings us quickly to our room (a large carpet over the worn tatamis). I go through the house a bit in my yukata, waiting until I can – after Mels – get into the ofuro, and I see that the table has been laid for three people. Apparently there is another guest. I’m just checking my weight (moan, too many icecreams and cakes…), when two women enter the back door. ‘Good evening’, the oldest says. She speaks English and we chat until Mels leaves the bath and I jump in. Her husband is a potter too, ‘but not so good’, she says…
When I return, she sits there with met Mels. And when I join, it seems she is the third guest. It becomes clear to us that it’s no coincidence that she visited but that things have been arranged. To keep us busy and/or she likes to speak English with foreigners, we don’t know. Our host joins us, but it’s not done that she eats or drinks with us. But she enjoys herself very much. The other woman’s name is Toyoko Maruhashi and both are best friends, she is 65 years old, our host 67. Together they were in Russia 35 years ago, the only foreign country they know. The Japanese government thought that young Japanese should get to know different political systems and that way a hundred people from Shikoku could travel to Russia. ‘Very strange system’, she remembers.

Toyoko offers to answer our questions, she understands that we can rarely ask something because almost nobody speaks English. Would we like to know something about food? Eh no, there are other subjects that interest us. Mels asks why almost all statues wear napkins. She moans and sighs for some time. Deceased children will arrive in a kind of nobody’s land at a river. Mothers may recognise their children only from the smell of their napkins. That way they will be able to find their children… I would like to know whether all those statues along the road are boddhisatvas. Moaning again. ‘Japanese people don’t know much about buddhism’, she admits. Might she tell a little about the Shinto-religion? There is a river god, a mountain god, a sky god… But that we already knew…
But about the Japanese kanji she is eager to tell us. She has been a teacher and with pencil and paper she draws several fool’s bridges. We have a very nice evening together. When Mels tells them he made a joke, they both hold their bellies laughing. And our host’s laughing is quite contagious. She peels some more oranges. And we make pictures.

Day 63: Bad message

Just before we leave, Mels discovers that it’s not 24 K and visiting 5-6 temples today, but 28 K and 7 temples. We planned – just like last year – to stay at hotel Toyota. But last year it was already clear that she didn’t like having us and this year making a reservation wasn’t possible because she said they don’t want foreigners. Instead, the travel agency has made a reservation at a hotel (because of the Golden Week we had all stays arranged for the last week) which is not on the trail. That means additional kilometres. And the last temple we need to do before five (and preferable before four, because some temples close at four or four thirty). Ai!At half seven we say goodbye to our host. We hug times and again. She shows where to go. And runs back home. Getting her reading glasses, Mels concludes. But she returns with a handmade map. Another hug. And she stands waving for a long time. And I try not to fall down waving.

About one and a half K before the first temple (nr. 71), it becomes clear that we need to climb some 200-300m. We’re happy that the last part is in the shade because in the sun it’s become quite hot. The temple buildings cover the whole slope and have many, many stairs. Mels didn’t remember but this time counts the steps: 567… Slowly we get higher and higher, along enormous boulders which provide a foothold for small trees and even giant ones. In the rock, statues have been cut. At nine we arrive at the upper temple building. For the Daishi Do we need to go down a few stairs and some more down and up again for the stamp office, the last one on socks: a slippery wooden inside staircase. Behind are old grottoes. With ‘study in bumping’ is indicated: danger of collapse. When almost down again we pass a little shop. The owner offers green tea. Osettai! In the shade of the mountain are long benches, where a car henro couple are already drinking tea. We receive also some large sweet bean cakes. And another cup of tea. It’s lovely to be here. Our enthousiastical and interested host shows a stack of carton strips with haikus, made by henros. ‘This is a haiku-café’, he says. We’re invited to write one on a strip, with brush and ink. We take our time, even if we don’t have it: ‘If in a hurry, take a detour.’ And of course we leave our osame-fudas and business cards.
The short climb to the next valley isn’t really worth mentioning. The path down is full of leaves and treacherous. The bamboo in the forest that we pass cracks dangerously in the wind, which gets stronger now. And there are two more short climbs over narrow asphalt roads. At eleven we arrive at temple 72 and at a quarter past twelve at temple 73. We meet the same group of bus henros at all three temples. The climbing causes us to fall back and at temple 74 they have already left when we arrive. We’re now halfway the day’s trip. ‘Theoretically we should be able to make it today’, Mels says. I start believing too…
On our way to the next temple we meet a female walking henro, whom we already saw at minshuku Okada. Near temple 75 – it’s one thirty now – we find a lunch restaurant. There is wifi and I quickly check our mail. And there is the message that Herman, Mels’ half brother, passed away yesterday after suffering a stroke… It’s a hard blow. The world comes to a standstill for a moment.
Later we walk to temple 75, an enormously large temple area. Kukai’s birthplace. There are many busses on the large parking. It’s a holiday today – Green Day, the start of the Golden Week – and on the grounds are masses of people. Children jerk the bell rope. There are stalls everywhere with amulets and food, and there is even a section for plants. In the middle of all this stands an enormous tree. Mels lights a candle for his brother. Tears keep coming. On our way we talk about the Mels’ memories of Herman. He will not attend the funeral, he decides, but it hurts… At a quarter to four we leave temple 76 and we have to do another 4-5 K to the last temple today. Just before temple 77 a man is waiting for us. He has tiny, handmade ceramical statues. He wants to give one as an osettai. We take our time and write an osame-fuda each. And at last – it’s four thirtyfive – we arrive at temple 77. A monk is already emptying the money drawers, but the stamp office is still open. After getting our stamps we first sit down on a bench – next to another henro whom we know from minshuku Okada and before – and drink at least a litre of water. The stamp monk brings another two packs of ice-green tea and two cakes. Osettai! Our rituals we do stumbling about. We have another look at the hotel voucher and conclude that no dinner is included. Enough alibi to enter a Joyfull just past the temple and have a pizza and french fries with a steak.
Now it’s another 6 K to hotel Okura at the coast. It’s getting dark quickly now. We walk along the busy road through the area of Marugame over a covered gutter that goes up and down all the time, not only for entrances but even for every front door. Very tiring. But we keep up speed.When we leave the main road for our hotel, we ask directions from a woman who walks her dog, because the hotel isn’t in our guide book and Mels has found on the internet where it should be. She brings us past a maze of little streets. We then walk over a narrow road along the river, in the direction of the sea. A beautiful walk. At both sides of the river we see lights. ‘Your heart’s content’, says Mels. ‘you like to walk in the dark don’t you?’ Yes I do. I enjoy it.We arrive in an industrial area. And go right and left again until some traffic flagmen at a large stadium – with flashing red batons and harnesses – tell us to go straight ahead, and we see a large white building far away. It’s a few K more, probably we did some 30 K today. We arrive at 10 to 8. Both our suitcases are there, as well as gifts (tie pin and fan) and letter from Toyoko and the tickets for the journey to Honshu on May 8th are waiting at the front desk. The 8th floor room (double bed, desk with chair, seat, bathroom and cable) has a splendid river view. Far away we see the lights of large bridges and highrises. Mels is busy for hours mailing family; I plan and mail for the rest of our trip. We make an appointment for the next morning with Mie Ozaki, president of a non-profit organisation that wants ro promote Shikoku – NPO Shikokumuchuji (http:// Muchujin.jp) – and she speaks French. Tomorrow we have an appetizer for the ceramics part of our trip. We will first visit a potter with her and then we’ll take the train to Bizen, one of the Six Old Kilns. Mels has been sleeping for hours when I get into bed at last at half past twelve.

Day 64: Yakimono

Early in the morning I try quickly – standing up – to read my mail and dislocate my back doing so. But it’s not too bad, lying down for a while and some paracetamol work miracles again. For breakfast we need to go to the dining room at the second floor. Before we leave our room, we quickly put on our hotel slippers, obedient like we are. But at the entrance of the dining room we’re stopped: it’s shoe territory and we’re sent back to put on our shoes… Back at our room the telephone rings. Mie Ozaki: whether we might take a cab to the highschool. She will wait for us there. Quick breakfast – as far as possible in an enormous dining room full of people with a disorderly biking (=buffet) – pack and grab a cab. At the highschool there is no Mie to be found. However, there are children everywhere on the playground, playing all sorts of musical instruments. Mels walks around the whole area, but Mie isn’t at any entrance. Calling her with a public phone, it becomes clear that she went to the hotel by car because she was afraid we might have too much luggage with us. A quarter of an hour later she arrives and we’re invited into her house, next to the school. In the living room, traditionally furnished, she tells us about her project. Every year she takes a different theme and invites five bloggers for a more or less free trip to Shikoku, on the condition that they publish about their visit. This year bonsai and tea ceremony are the topics. We tell her about our ceramics plans. Maybe we may support one another.
Our taxi follows her sportscar (Mercedes 230 SL: 2 seats) to the outskirts of Marugame, where we will visit a potter who works within the Bizen-tradition. We are lucky. Akiyama Wako is firing his woodkiln. The temperature is 660 C now. He fires his noborigama (multi chamber kiln) one to two times a year, with one of his sons. We’re welcomed nicely and he likes to talk about his work (Mie Ozaki interprets), and more so when he understands that we’re potters too. We drink coffee at the table next to the noborigama in the large barn. A little later we visit the first floor workshop, the garden wood stock and the gallery. I see beautiful pieces and I’m hesitating to buy some small wine cups. Mels warns me: prices can be skyhigh here. And taking ceramics back home in my suitcase is very risky…
The afternoon we spend in Bizen. When leaving the train, we see the many angular chimneys in the village. Logs cut to size are stacked near the kilns. About 400 potters are working in this area. We start visiting the Modern Art and Pottery Museum. Our nice female host gives all necessary information and we will stay in contact by mail about pictures for a future article. After having visited the museum collecrion we have a look at the space of the local potter’s association at the first floor of the train station. They have a large showroom with work by local potters. I buy a set of chopstick supports, little dogs like at the temple entrances, in typical Bizen-colours: matt dark red brown. We have a walk through the village to visit thebremains of an old noborigama. There is ceramics everywhere, even the Shinto temple entrance dogs are made from clay. Old rooftiles and other ceramical remains have been used in garden walls and have been plastered with adobe. Old draining pipes are sometimes used in barn walls. Everywhere there are Bizen-ceramics shops. We’re flabbergasted by the prices. We know that a cup made by a famous Japanese potter may cost 30 to 40.000 Euros, but in these shops also ‘ordinary’ ceramics are expensive: Tiny cups cost thousands of Euros. Low priced ceramics we don’t really see. A really tiny cup – we would think to give it to a thriftshop – has a price tag of almost 10,000 Euros.When we pass a workshop, we enter with interest. Several people are working, but in no time someone tells us to go away. Mels tries again saying that we’re potters too, but the man is adamant and crosses his arms to show that we must leave. We’re surprised, until now we have been welcomed everywhere when entering and not here. After walking around a bit more we have dinner in a sushi restaurant and take the train back to Marugame. Twilight has made the world silvery grey. In the beautiful evening light we ride over the long, tall bridges between Honshu and Shikoku. Hundreds of islands float in the still water. Busy ship traffic has ceased to be. From afar we can see hotel Okura, a lone large building at the right hand river bank.
At nine we have a drink with Mie Ozaki in the hotel restaurant at the 12th floor, with a nice view over the river mound. The needle like highrise at the other side has blue lights, yesterday green. It means rain tomorrow’, Mie explains. ‘The colour adapts to the forecast.’ Mie has put us – with picture – on her: http:// Muchujin.jp, click: 2011/4/30:陶芸家カップルの遍路旅. We can’t read the text either… She tells us that a journalist of the Asahi Shimbun, one of the largest newspapers of Japan, wants to interview us in Takamatsu. We will pass that city during the coming two days. She informs him of our stays during that time.We don’t get to bed before twelve. Rain bashes our window…

Day 65: Error

The last week starts. Another seven days walking the north-east of Shikoku and then it’s done… We oversleep and it’s half past seven before we get up. The dining room supervisor nods approvingly when we arrive, in walking boots. This time we enjoy more what Japanese and Western style food is offered. Some more mailing to do, having the suitcases sent and we’re off at a quarter to ten. Half an hour later we’ve joined the trail again. Today we will go a total of 19 K, visiting 2-3 temples. Easy. Rain has stopped, but the clouds look threatening. Hot and sweaty weather. We leave to the east, all the time through housed areas: Marugame, Utazu and Sakaide chain along the northern coast. An hour later we already arrive at temple 78. A woman behind a spherical rhododendron that is just blooming is reciting endlessly the Amida name – namu Amida butsu; reciting this is said to cause Enlightenment…- until a young monk starts to chat with her. From the loudspeakers we hear music, a bit sad. Mels lights incense for Herman. Sadness. In a large cellar at the main temple, lit by lanterns are thousands of little statues. Often dedorated with tiny bibs. And everywhere we see small children’s gifts: cuddly dolls, plastic playthings, yakult, candy, soda. So much sadness…
We have a short rest on chairs in front of the stamp office. Sweat drips from my face. And then we proceed to the next temple. Shortly after we find a nice restaurant, but it’s closed and only an hour later we can have coffee and lunch in a somewhat dirty shack. We cross the street and at the other side there is a man in a long, thin, lightgreen coat waiting for us. From his cycle bag he’s taken two cans of ice-green tea and two packs of tissues. Osettai! We have a chat.We have a short rest on the outer verandah of the stamp office of temple 79. The grounds are a bit chaotic, but charming, and the buildings are scattered around a Shinto temple with an enormous tree. A woman comes to the office with four large tempex containers with tempura: deep fried battered seaweed and other vegetables. She would like it to be given away as an osettai. The stamp monk offers us two portions of rice, mixed with fish and later tempura a few times. The other henros who arrive to get their stamp, leave with their hands full of tempura. We are getting full and have to say no in the end… When we leave I give a few coins to a begging henro. I receive a beautiful felt pen drawing in return. He wants an osame-fuda however. Mels does his best in kanji. But that wasn’t what he meant, it should be in English! For some time we follow a road along a busy railway. Just when we want to cross it, an elderly woman comes running toward us. She wants to offer us something, a coffee perhaps? ‘Hotto?’, we ask to be sure. But no, it should come from the vending machine. In that case we choose coke. She is full of emotion and slides two 1000 yen notes into my bag. It moves us. I rub her shoulder. A younger woman comes from the house with two little cakes. So now we walk along, our hands full.
A narrow road leads us along a river. And then we follow – on the sidewalk – the wider and busier route 11 over a pass. Short before our stay near temple 80, we take another narrow road. A snake slides over the asphalt. I hurry to get my camera but the felt pen drawing is blown away, towards the snake. No picture. And my staff serves to get my drawing back.Our stay – ryokan Ebisu-ya – proves not to be before temple 80 but after. And it’s not four thirty yet so we decide to visit the temple. The money drawers are being emptied already. At the large bell it says: 100 yen for sounding it once. At the main temple the boxes with candles are being emptied. The cleaning ladies throw candles which have just been lit into the water. I decide to wait a little lighting mine. Mels notices that one of his lit incenses has disappeared… When leaving the grounds later on, the gates are almost closed already. And it’s not five yet. It seems to be very commercial over here…
When we arrive at the ryokan, we seem not to be on the guest list. Indeed, when checking our hotel list it becomes clear the we’re sleeping somewhere else: in ryokan Azusa, half a K further down the road. This was the alternative when the first ryokan turned up to be fully booked. Forgotten to change the plan… Our nice host is already waiting for us, but ryokan Azusa is a bit derelict, next to busy route 33 and the railway. The room is 12 tatamis, has a toilet, wash basin and our own entrance with bell man: a beautiful, soft husky. The meagre meal is in our room.

Day 66: Newspaper!

I’m taking a bath when at a quarter past six there is a knock on the door: Takayama Keichi, an Asahi Shimbun reporter. He speaks English. What our plan for the day would be, because pictures will be taken. It is: 7½ K to temple 81 with a 400m climb, down to 250m, up again to 450m to temple 82 (a total of 5½ K), and back down again, about 6½ K to our stay: minshuku Momoya in Takamatsu. In total 19-20 K. So it’s a mountain day and last year we didn’t do the first bit because we came from a different direction. We gamble and say to him that it will take us 2-3 hours. He will wait for us at the first temple.

Just before eight we leave the ryokan, after stroking the dear husky. Quickly we reach the wooded slope and we climb slowly over an easy and wide path. Regularly there is a nice view over the wide plains, but we can’t see too far because it’s very hazy. Sand from China, from the Mongolian plains, an English speaking Japanese henro tells us. He walks along with us for some time to have a chat. ‘Ah, the yellow danger’, Mels jokes, but this expression may not be known in Japan… We now understand why Mels has been a bit oppressed and coughing since yesterday. I have a burning feeling in my chest. It’s not as hot as yesterday but we transpire a lot during climbing. We have a rest on a bench at one of the hairpins. A nicely striped tit comes every now and then to get sunflower seeds from one of the poles of the concrete. Shortly after we meet a couple descending. He is a bird lover who puts some seeds everywhere. I get a handful to put somewhere along the trail.

Already at ten to ten we arrive at temple 81. The journalist is waiting for us. He asks us to do our normal rituals so that he may make pictures. When he’s happy with his shots we agree on him coming to our ryokan around seven for the interview. We check whether we have mentioned the right ryokan…

After having completed our rituals we walk back to the stamp office we see two stone statues at a side temple: a monkey and a sheep. According to the Chinese horoscope, Mels is a sheep and I’m a monkey. A picture would be nice. We ask a henro who just arrives at the stairs to make our picture, put the camera in his hands and run up the uneven stairs to the two statues where we stand waiting full of anticipation. He would have liked us closer together, but then again, we can’t drag those statues away. And explaining in Japanese why we want to stand next to these statues is a bit too much for us. He accepts and takes the picture.
For a while, we sit on a bench near the stamp office. The loudspeakers produce sad Japanese music; Mels’ tears are just under the surface. Every now and then passing henro-families come to have a chat. And of course, pictures are made.
Mels likes my pilgrim’s staff with heart sutra written on its side and when he sees one which clearly has been orphaned a long time ago, he adopts it. And we hope that we may take them along in the airplane…

We walk along at our ease, to temple 82. The path goes up through the woods and then meanders up and down over the slopes, and a little over 2½ K before the temple it goes up again. We’re very surprised to see a cycling henro follow the mountain path, racing bike in hand and backpack on his back. Back on the normal road we find Michi Kusa (Road Grass) a while later, a little restaurant where we have a light lunch. Television reports that Osama bin Laden has been killed by American troops. The road is very busy, it’s the Golden Week: motorbikes and cars race past. We don’t have to follow this road for long, soon the path goes downhill and we arrive at temple 82 at half past one. The many flowering Japanese maples and other trees attract loads of insects. We go down one and up three stairs again to arrive at the main temple. In front of it is a small, rectangular inner garden, around which windowless and dark corridors lead to the temple itself. They contain thousands of tiny statues. Some lanterns provide a little light.
At the stamp office I fall asleep on a bench. Until Mels wakes me up and says that it’s half past two. We take a narrow road along orchards and shrubbery, going along the slopes. Wisterias are everywhere in the woods. The beautiful path is not on our map, we discovered it last year. Back on the main road we soon see the nice restaurant again where we have been last year too: hidden on a bonsai nursery there is a beautifully made building with many nice, traditional details. We’re the only guests. There is classical music: Bach. It makes Mels think of times long ago. And me too, the Sundays at home with my parents. One of our female hosts brings us slices of sugared sweet potatoes to go with our coffee and calls the classical music: Feeling music. She tells us that her husband has thrown the cups. He is an amateur-potter. Nice cups. ‘In every human being there is a potter’, I say to Mels.

After passing tens of nurseries of bonsai, larger trees (as much styled as the bonsai) and olive trees, we arrive in housed areas again, still belonging to Takamatsu. Shortly after, we arrive at our stay at five. Ryokan Momoya is as derelict as the previous ryokan and is at a busy road and a busy railway, with opposite left a railway station and at the right a railway crossing that sounds alarmingly and frequently (every three minutes, timed by Mels!). The room is 12 tatamis and and there is an enlargement at the front. Because of the heat, the windows at the right and left side are open. When we’re taking our backpacks upstairs, the young, silent female host offers to take our staffs. Ah, priority treatment I think. Normally my staff is cleaned and put into the tokonoma with honour. But when we arrive at the room, I find both staffs in the waste basket…

After dinner we sit in our room with Takayama Keichi. We’ve put low chairs in the room and ordered green tea. All this train noise doesn’t prevent a good conversation. He is a friendly man and very nuch interested in our pilgrimage, as well as in our coming ceramics journey. We talk about things like our motives for the pilgrimage but also about the earthquake and tsunami and how this has moved us. And that we would like to do something for Mashiko, the pottery village north of Tokyo, which has been hurt so badly. We might see him again at temple 1, at the conclusion of our trip. And when we would come again next year, we can sleep in his guesthouse and he will prepare sashimi for us. After five quarters of an hour we say a warm goodbye.

Day 67: Hello! Bye!

We have a long day before us: 24 K – mainly through the urban area of Takamatsu – with a 200m climb, visiting two temples. After a night without much sleep – sometimes it was possible to sleep in between two trains… – and a breakfast that was as frugal as dinner has been, we’re standing at the front door at seven, a bit dizzy. At breakfast there was nobody to be found – we only heard an irritated moan after calling two times and just ate what was on the table for us – but when leaving we want to see somebody to pay our bill. Stay and food have already been paid but the beer hasn’t. After a lot of calling an old woman appears. She wants to see our hotel voucher, signed by us. I have to empty my backpack to get it. The she disappears. We say goodbye to an empty house.
At a quarter past seven we walk at last along narrow roads into the silence of ricefields and quiet houses. For a long time we follow a cycling road along a river. At this early hour there are people doing sports everywhere: golf, soccer, tennis. Already at half past nine we arrive at temple 83. During the last days we have noticed the small handmade ceramic statues that a man before temple 77 was giving away, left by walking henros. At temple 83 there is a whole row of them…

After the temple visit we go along a busy two lane road for some time. It has no sidewalk or covered gutter, very annoying. We’re happy when later we can follow a narrow along a river that runs through the city in a quarter of a circle. In the dirty water we see tens of red cheek tortoises and a little later bunches of carps that are mating, with much movement and partly above water. We have lunch in one of the eel restaurants over here: fried eel, eel salad and eel omelet. We hope they haven’t been caught in the dirty river…

There are not many henro-michi signs in Takamatsu and sometimes we need to really investigate where to go. But gradually we proceed in the correct direction: from southwestern to northeastern Takamatsu. Next to the sidewalk of a road, larger and busier again, a young couple is sitting on their hunches, repairing a motorbike. The woman suddenly rises, gets her purse and gives us some coins each. Both grin and wish us ‘Gambatte kudasai’.

For temple 84 we need to climb 200m up the wood covered mountain, over a wide concrete path with some steps. It starts raining a little when we arrive at the top, but the thick foliage almost prevents us to notice the rain. It’s just before half three. The view is still impaired by the Mongolian sand. It’s crowded at the large temple grounds, it even has a museum. After our rituals we have to descend at the other side of the mountain over a path that was very slippery last year after hours of rainfall. We could say this has been the worst bit of our walk. We don’t feel like going there, but the alternatives aren’t to promising either: going back the same way is several K longer, and there is a toll road for cars, but it has a tunnel and at the end of the day it’s really crowded with visitors who want to descend in their cars. We take the chance and take the path down. Sometimes on all fours. But this time it takes us only three quarters of an hour, a lot quicker than last year.

Following the valley it’s just another K to ryokan Takayanagi at the foot of the next mountain that we’ll climb tomorrow, our guidebook says. The little rain that falls is nice and cool. Through a maze of streets we get nearer to the next mountain. But we have to conclude that it’s a lot farther than we thought… And it becomes clear that we need to climb more to arrive at the ryokan. We pass a nice restaurant, which is so busy that there are flagmen with red sticks to regulate traffic at the parking. Shortly after we get to a road where we see a sign of our ryokan. Another half a K uphill. But when we arrive at the station of the train to the temple, we think that we’re wrong. We need to go down again, people say. And while the rain is increasing, we do so. At the sign there is a footpath into a recreational area, but after a few hunderd metres we decide to turn round again. Ask again. And the ryokan is opposite the sign…

The nice and joyfull ryokan owner greets us, just after six, in English. Do we understand there is no food included? No, we didn’t get that but it’s no problem because the nice restaurant we passed is quite alluring. A little later we’re on our way again, through the rain. The restaurant is large and consists of several buildings around a nice and large inner garden. Personnel communicates with earphones. Yamadaya is an upclass udon restaurant. We have a marvelous time.
In the ryokan a girl basketball team has arrived, with leaders. The find us very interesting. When going to the ofuro there are five girls brushing their teeth. ‘Hello!’, I hear five times. And going down the stairs, I see five faces appear through the window above: ‘Bye!’ In the ofuro I see later five shadows passing, each of which whispers ‘Bye!’. And when I leave the ofuro again, the bedroom door opens immediately. We have a chat and than there is five times ‘Bye!’

It’s nice to be in a clean and well kept ryokan again. The room is 8 tatamis with wardrobe/tokokoma. There is internet with a cable, in the office. Whilst Mels tries to receive mail, I go to bed early, hoping to get some sleep. Outside, the rain has stopped.

Day 68: That’s where God lives

After breakfast at half past six we’re busy writing mails and sending them later through the cable. It’s half past nine when we’re ready to leave. Our friendly hosts wave us goodbye. Just before, our male host tells us that he would like to travel to Holland. Euthanasia is possible there. We’re dumbfounded. Is he seriously ill? ‘No, no, in 50 years’, he says with a smile… We need to walk 15-16 K today, visiting two temples and for the first temple we climb 200m. We start going up from the station over a narrow, very steep path. Almost at once we’re called. In front of a house is a couple. They would like to invite us for an osettai. We expect an easy day, so we have time, and we say yes, of course… The front panels of the house have been opened and there are wide couches with cushions. Our female host comes with green tea, coffee jelly with cream and cookies. They tell us that they had the house built four years ago. It has all kinds of nice traditional details. When they hear that we’re interested in ceramics, they invite us to the back of the house. There is a room for tea. Just like at the front the outside wall can be slid open. In the middle is a traditional fireplace with a kettle hung over it. In the side wall is a small sliding door that one can only pass by crouching. Our male host explains why: such entrances have been made since old times to prevent samurai to enter, their swords would be to long… In the house we see a nice collection of ceramics. We stay for some time. Daughter Yuzuki gives us cards in a handmade envelope and shows her little dog. We get more to eat. We give a Delft Blue box, osame-fudas and business cards. And there is another gift for us: beautiful bamboo chopsticks in a textile holder. We end with pictures.In half an hour we arrive at the top, sweating. It’s very hot today. Sweat streams into my eyes. Temple 85 covers part of the hill. A very beautiful, ‘silent’ temple, now filled with people visiting for the day. It’s still too hazy to see much. We do our rituals and, curious like we are, go up several stairs. We arrive at some temple buildings and a bronze horse statue. People press coins to its surface; large carrots have been put on several places on its body. Mels helps a little girl to put a coin against the pedestal and her father gives us a compliment about our heart sutra. Apparently he’s heard us reciting at the main temple. There are more steps up the slope. We ask him where these lead and he answers that there are five hill tops that one might walk over. They say that’s where God lives… We hesitate because five more mountain tops would be a bit too much for today if we would like to complete our programme. Next year maybe. We go down again… A little further on at the temple grounds we taste some roasted Chinese chestnuts. Their unkempt outsides make me think of a certain kind of oak nuts. We buy a bagfull and some sweet beans in all kinds of sizes and colours. A man passes us and says ‘Good luck!’ Later we see him in a car at the parking, and he waves. And when he passes us later on, going down at the other side of the hill, he halts and gives us a few coins. He did the pilgrimage two times on foot and now he does it by car. I take pictures. The road goes down steeply and leads to sea. In the woods we see wisteria everywhere.Once in the valley we follow narrow streets to the south east, not far from the sea. We pass a museum, a tip from the last ryokan owner: there should be ceramics on display. We go in for a while. But it’s half one already and we would like some lunch. We walk through the village streets, hoping to find something. And we’re happy that we do, there is a sushi-restaurant. Food is excellent, but the atmosphere is bad. A marital disagreement we suppose. We feel as if we need to leave as soon as possible. But when we want to leave after a good meal, the female host and her daughter give us a citrus fruit and two tins of green tea. Osettai! Shortly after we arrive at temple 86. It’s a bit chaotic there, last year they were reconstructing, and building is still going on. It’s a charming place however. In the middle is an enormous, old ginkgo. Halfway our rituals some women approach us. They want to offer us osettai. We’re invited to sit on a stone bench in front of the temple and they give us each a service with green tea and all kinds of sweets. It moves me that people take so much care. During the whole day they wait in an unobtrusive corner for walking henros to support them this way. When we leave a little later, we wave once more.It’s still hot and where possible we buy some extra water. And we’re glad when people give us some. Like when a man on a scooter halts next to me when taking pictures of a beautiful lock in the river, and a white heron. He puts two bottles of Pocari Sweat in my hands (no, not Sweet, but Sweat!)
. Ryokan Nagao-ji is next to temple 87. We arrive at just over five and we’re being welcomed by a friendly female host. The room is 6 tatamis. And there is free wifi. We have dinner with four other henros (3 walking and one cycling) in the opposite building. It’s lively and the meal is excellent.
At night we go and sit in the room next to ours, where we find a couch and a stool. There is a girl sports team in the ryokan again. This time the leaders come to have a look sometimes. We keep their smoking room occupied…

Day 69: Minus one…

After some emailing and wandering about to find a post office, our source of money, we start at last at a quarter to eleven walking today’s distance: 15 K with a climb of 500m, eh no, 600m, or no, anyway more than 750m. ‘but it’s still easy today’, says Mels. He’s a bit absent this morning; Herman’s funeral is today…It’s getting hotter quickly, in spite of the early thin clouds. Over some quiet, narrow roads along ricefields where ploughing and planting is going on, we arrive at noon at the dam where the Salon is situated: the Maeyama Ohenro Koryu Salon, with a museum and a reception area for walking henros. First we walk on a bit, to a lunch restaurant, for a very good hamburger and excellent coffee. We find the family there that told us yesterday where God lives. When we enter the Salon after lunch, I see two men in the adjacent room: apparently a walking henro’s feet are being treated by a doctor. I hear his screams… Our female host recognises us: ‘Ah, the artists!’ In the reception room we have green tea and later we have a look at the museum where all kinds of henro artefacts are on display. We leave our osame-fudas again at the small world map, a tiny part – especially for foreign walking henros – on a large wall. Most of it is taken by regional Japanese maps that indicate the origin of henros. In the meantime our official certificates are being made, ‘proof’ of our walking distance. When I return, the ‘doctor’ I saw before, stands next to Mels. He does massages and would like to treat our feet. I’m not keen on that, as my feet are preventatively taped, and also because I cannot explain in Japanese what my problems are. He does not accept no for an answer: if we do not come to him, he will bring his gear to us. Mels gets the works and he likes the result. In the meantime I pose a question that’s been in my mind for some time: Do most walking henros end their pilgrimage at temple 1? During the last few weeks some henros told me that after temple 88 they went to Koya-san as a conclusion, another went to the last bangai temple, Otakiji, the highest temple on Shikoku (946m). Our host tells us that most go to Koya-san. We’re surprised, our feeling says that the circle wouldn’t be complete that way… After our certificates have been finished it’s time to move again. Our friendly host waves goodbye for a long time.
From the Salon three 3 routes to temple 88, next to our stay tonight, are possible. Last year we’ve taken the western one, along the main road. It’s 3,5 K longer, but it goes up only to 450m. This time we choose the middle one, following some narrow roads but mainly mountain trails and climbs to almost 800m. We buy an extra liter of water and start climbing at 10 to 2: 6K up to almost 800m, 1K down again. This route has the view over the northern shore only a few times, whereas the western route has it a lot more. It is a nicer route anyway, through a narrow, idyllic valley with a brook with many waterfalls. Everywhere we find groups of small, yellow-white irises. Under the trees there is a lovely cool shadow.
Sometimes our path crosses a narrow asphalt road. A little van overtakes us and I hear from the window: ‘Welcome!’ A little later the two men drive past again: ‘Two hours to go!’ And the third time – this is no coincidence – they halt and ask eagerly: ‘Already tired?’ No, we’re not… After that, we lose track of them.We climb well and the last bit to the pass is easier: the path, worn into a long, steep, sandy ditch has a log step every now and then and a good fairy has cleared and swept the path to prevent slipping over the abundant leaves. On the pass itself I look down on the plains a last time. View with pole: there is a large high voltage conduit in sight. It’s difficult to take pictures in Japan: there is a pole or concrete wall somewhere all the time… After the pass we go steeply down again over little log steps.
Surprisingly we arrive a little later at an asphalt road leading up again and after that our path crosses two little passes as well. We baptise the first one to ‘false pass’. Apparently we weren’t there yet… Sometimes we hear cracking leaves and a few times we see a male pheasant.We climb higher and higher, ‘900m to the pass’ we read on a sign at the start of another mountain trail. It proves to be quite dangerous: the sandy path is slippery and has slid down partially, next to a deep abyss. A little further the same story, without the abyss however. The next mountain path consists of an endless number of uneven log steps, meandering over and around the slopes. At some spots, where the slope has slid down and the trail has disappeared, wooden or concrete steps have been inserted, sometimes a metal bridge along the mountain wall.
Then we arrive at another pass. ‘Ha, this is it!’, Mels says. I see two benches and sit for a while, because I suppose we have to climb more… But then I see his eyes become larger and larger: ‘the trail stops here!’ And indeed, at the other side of the benches there is only a steep and rocky slope, not a trace of the path anymore. There has not been a landslide recently because everywhere trees are growing on the rocks. There is just no path anymore. Strange, because Mels did discuss this route with the lady at the Salon. ‘Maybe nobody has ever returned to the Salon to complain’, I joke. ‘about death nobody complains either…’Mels investigates – without backpack and pouch -, but returns soon. He went halfway the slope but thinks it too dangerous to proceed because we don’t know if we will find the path again. It is now half past four and he’s afraid we might get stuck on the mountain in the dark. I’m not prepared to return over all these steps and then walk around the mountain over a much longer distance. Also then it will be dark…I propose to try to climb with my backpack on. Mels stays on the bench: ‘it’s no use if both of us get stuck.’ My shoulder bags are annoying and my backpack shifts all the time when climbing on all fours, holding my staff as well. After the first top, there is another one and one more… We cannot maintain contact. I climb on, hoping that I don’t need to return, because climbing down with my backpack is a lot worse… In the meantime Mels sits on the bench and gets the idea to compare the Japanese sign with the guide book: the sign that I have followed directs to the top of the mountain, not to the pass… I have not reacted to his calling for a long time and he decides to start climbing as well… After about 20 minutes I arrive at a small graveyard with old and new stones. There is no path yet. Would these graves be for the henros who have died here? There is a special name for dangerous stretches: henro-korogashi (‘where a pilgrim falls down’). (when asking Mels later about this name, he says: ‘Ah, I already was curious what it meant, printed next to this path in the guide book…’) I climb on and arrive at a rest hut and a sign: altitude 776m. I understand by now that there is no pass, only a mountain top because by now I know both Japanese characters. I’m happy to see a proper path down at the other side, with henro-michi sign. So we are still ‘on the trail’.I leave my backpack and bags at the rest hut and descend until we are in hearing distance. Now I can enjoy the great view. I take pictures until Mels has arrived.
At once we start descending at the other side: first the path goes up and down two times and then there is an endless amount of uneven log steps down. It’s now almost six. Step by step we descend. The slope goes 45 degrees down (sometimes more), which is a percentage of 100%. The sun has disappeared a long time ago, even at the mountain tops. It’s getting dark when we arrive at the temple, hundreds of metres lower. The illumination has been switched on by now. There is nobody anymore at the temple when we descend all those steps to the main street. A little further on is (excellent!) ryokan Yasokubo, where we slept last year as well. Apologising deeply we knock on the door at just before seven. Our aging female host doesn’t think anything of it, she’s happy we’ve arrived and shows us to our room: 6 tatamis with floral wall paper in Delft Blue on walls and doors, with our own toilet and wash unit. And there is open wifi.
We join dinner immediately. There are many people, four henros next to us, having fun. Regularly we hear ‘Oranda’ and a lot of laughing. One of them is a young woman and she asks in simple English where we will go tomorrow. The young man next to her hears the word ‘otera’ (temple) and jokes about Mels’ pronounciation. He and his opposite neighbour laugh until they alomst choke. The third man asks whether we’ve ever heard about the heart sutra and we start reciting it by heart. Our host nods approvingly; the whole room applauds. The ice is broken. We tell them that we walk for the second time. The young woman tells us how many times she and her table companions walked. ‘Minus one’, she says about the man opposite, a car henro. Her revenge for the not-so-nice jokes about us. We like that!

Day 70: Love Hotel

We’re the last to arrive at breakfast at half past six, the others have left already. Our friendly host waved when we left and now we we go back first to temple 88. At the shop opposite the entrance people offer us hot ginger tea. After having climbed those steps again, we do our rituals and go to the stamp office to have the last blank page in our stamp book filled. For each of us, we have (price 2x 20 euro) a ‘certificate’ made: ‘proof’ that we visited all 88 temples. They provide us with a beautiful tube to put the roll into. After that we walk to the other side of the grounds, under seas of blue and white wisteria. Below them, big black bees hang unmovingly in the air like small drones. Along rows of peonias, blooming in white, pink, purple, red and light pink, we arrive at large panels with thousands of small statues. And at the large glass shrine that contains thousands of pilgim staffs. Just like so many other pilgrims I left mine at temple 88 last year, to be put in this shrine. Now I look for my staff through the windows, I can recognise it because of the Y at the top. But alas, I don’t find it. We want to take the staffs we found this year to Holland. We take them from the racks and leave at nine for the rest of today’s programme: 26K to the east north east. Over wide and narrow roads we will descend slowly to the coastal plains at the Seto Sea. Sometimes we climb a little over a pass, and then we go down again. The soft, lukewarm breeze is cooling. Hour after hour we walk through valleys, mostly passing woods, sometimes along ricefields with some houses. We pass an enormous ginkgo; a sign tells us that its circumference is 16m. Once we take an easy mountain trail and we pass a rest hut where I leave my henro sedge hat in the sun: it didn’t survive today and I can’t take its remains along.

At midmorning we rest a little, sitting at the roadside and around twelve we find an udon restaurant next to an onsen. During the afternoon it gets more cloudy and windy and sometimes the headwind is strong.

Out of the woods again we take a rest in a bus stop and later on a bench at a small supermarket where we buy some icecream. Shortly after I feel ill, the icecream apparently wasn’t too good. I stay ill for the rest of the day. At half past four we arrive at last at the northern coast; for a short while we visit a coffee house and proceed again. The last K to our stay are along the seashore, over a two lane road. In the hazy distance there are two rows of small, pointed islands. Over the beach some buzzards are flying. At our right is a high mountain ridge. ‘There we go tomorrow’, Mels says. Mountains? On the last day? An unexpected surprise…  Far ahead I see a large building: our hotel for the night? Another surprise? ‘Impossible’, Mels says. ‘The hotel is another K at most and in 700m there is a restaurant, because dinner is not included at the hotel.’ I’m happy when the guide book proves to be right: just after the restaurant is a large, pink building, and Mels recognises the name: hotel Ocean. Hurray, sea view!

First we have marvelous sashimi in the fish restaurant. Personnel is very interested, in the dining room as well as in the kitchen. One of them asks where we will spend the night. When I answer ‘Hotel Ocean’ there is general laughter. ‘Ahhh!’, say the others. Have they been betting?

But, afterwards, standing in front of the hotel, we understand, that’s what people were giggling about last night at dinner, when we told them where we would sleep: it’s a love hotel. The rooms can be rented by the hour. Now we understand why it was so expensive… We have a reservation, so we knock on the door. Our host guides us to our very private room, over its own garage. Each room has a separate entrance. When entering, there is a front door and little hallway. There is a double bed, two sofas, a bathroom, wash stand and toilet. There is no internet, washing machine or desk. No need for that in this kind of hotel? Lighting is a bit sparse. But there is a condom dispenser next to the bed, with two kinds (High Class Skin: flavors or sizes?). The windows have been painted shut. No sea view… Our host gives us a rebate because we’re willing to share the room… We’ll get half price (normally in Japan one pays per person, not per room) and so it gets cheap!

Day 71: Another day in paradise

We leave our Love Hotel at a quarter to eight for the missing part of the circle: the last 15K of our pilgrimage, starting with a climb of 200m (‘eh 330m, no, 327m to the pass’) and ending at temple one. We eat some cakes and bananas, bought at the supermarket next to the hotel, because there is no breakfast at a Love Hotel. Between one and two today we have two appointments at temple one, but we can take it easy, there is sufficient time.

Just at the back of the hotel we go up, over a wide, easy and shadowed path through the woods. Deep down is the coastal plain with the pink hotel. Rice fields glisten in the sun.There are some islands in the sea, far away Honshu lies hazily at the horizon. This nice walk is a beautiful ending of our trip.

Already one hour and a quarter later we’re on the pass. It’s very hot and we’re sweating a lot. The trail to the next valley is very accessible, with one exception: a number of small concrete log steps. The top of each step is filled with an excess of concrete and there is sand and a layer of dead leaves as well. Very slippery because last night it’s been raining a lot for a long time. The railing along the path is – as always – too low to be of any use.

Around us there are bees humming, they hover in front of us, and there are bigger ones, with orange stripes, looking for a spot in the earth wall for nesting. Soon we arrive in the next valley and walk on over asphalt roads, along rice fields, citrus orchards and sometimes some houses. There is a soft, lukewarm wind again but it stays very hot. Without my hat, I use my umbrella.

The valley starts to get wider and we see more and more houses. A motorway crosses overhead. On our way to temple one we pass temples three and two. We have a short rest at the first temple. Our emotions are clearly there, just like last year at the end. Mels says it’s been more difficult for him arriving at and leaving temple 88. For me, last year was more difficult at the end: I thought that it would be my last trip. Now I have hope: maybe there will be a next time. Ja mata rainen!

Mels buys a sagesa (ritual shawl) at temple two and at ten to one we arrive at temple one. We’re doing our rituals when David Moreton presents himself. He is the Canadian guy who made the English guide book. He is one of the people we have an appointment with. We say to him that we will finish our rituals first. After that we go to the stamp office to get the temple one stamps. And then we sign the book of completion, in which we have noted our departure on february 28th. We have a look at how many walking henros have started since: 503, of whom 17 foreigners; 43 in the meantime have arrived. Numbers which are quite relative we know by now, because may henros end their journey in a different way, at temple 88 or elsewhere. And most of the Japanese do the pilgrimage in parts, so they will note their arrival in a few year’s time.

With David Moreton and Nikki Bado, an American professor in religion, we have lunch in the udon-restaurant next to the temple. Nikki wants to know why we do the pilgrimage. My story about my illness and our longing for kokoro no heiwa, peace of the heart moves her deeply. She knows the problems of an unwilling body. Later, David tells us how he got involved. Because of his young family he has never completed the walk – apart from the first part in Tokushima prefecture – but he is constantly promoting it in foreign countries. Apart from the guide book he has written translations of various folk legends. He tells us that the number of pilgrims from the north of Japan has decreased dramatically since the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. That might be the explanantion why we sometimes were the only guests in ryokans or hotels, although spring is the main season. We do not know whether the number of foreign pilgrims has decreased. David says there are many Dutch walkers nowadays. He knows somebody who did it sixteen times already.

After saying goodbye Mels and I stroll over the temple grounds, a bit lost. I look for a new hat at various shops but I don’t find an acceptable one. One is too large, the other too small, sometimes it’s just like a lamp hood… Another ice cream and we go to ryokan Otorii-en, just next to the temple in Bando. We get the same room as the two times we slept here last year: 8 tatamis, bathroom and toilet.

Sitting on the windowsill in our room I hear a group of henros reciting the heart sutra at temple one. It feels a bit empty, the journey has ended. We both have an eerie feeling. Is this the empty nest syndrome? The hole between the old and the new?

We  walked 1170K on Shikoku (according to our plan, in reality it’s been more). Last year we had to do some distances by bus, train or taxi because of the problems with my feet. Anyway, I feel more proud of last year’s accomplishment, because it has been a lot more difficult and I finished just on willpower. But I’m grateful that we did it another time. It was even more beautiful than last year. It was more peaceful. Mels was less stressed out, because we knew better what to expect; I was more relaxed because I was more up to the task. Nikki said that we were so radiant and that she had noticed that expression with others who had done the walk. It makes me think of prime minister Kan who did the pilgrimage a few years ago. At various ryokans I saw his picture, together with the ryokan owners. He looked so open and relaxed! At least 30 years younger. ‘Shikoku-byoin’, says Nikki (byoin=hospital). Shikoku heals…

I fall asleep in the tiny bath. After a sumptuous meal we go to bed early. Tired. At ten to ten we wake up because of a rumbling noise. The earth shakes. A small earthquake. It starts raining. ‘Our laundry is still outside’ Mels shouts. Nothing to be done…

Day 72: Kanashii

In the morning we see that our laundry has been cared for, and put into a safe place by the ryokan owner. And he offers to bring us and our suitcases to the train station. In Japan, there is no need to be concerned, everything is taken care of…

In the car we’re almost crying. Kanashii, sadness. The sun is peeping through the clouds. It’s hot again. Slowly the landscape moves by, first in the train, after that in the express bus to Kyoto. Rice has been planted here as well; rhododendron hedges are starting to bloom hesitantly.

71 days, 1170K, 70,000 words… today we leave Shikoku. Not to go home, but to Honshu, where we will visit places of ceramic interest. But today I write for the last time in my diary. Two interviews tomorrow, we’ll have a busy time…

Ja mata rainen!

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