First Day Walking

I wake up on the floor of the Ogaga guesthouse in Tokushima a little before seven and it is *cold*.  The heater in the room stopped in the night, must have some timeout feature, and even though most of my body is cozy in my futon my face and a few of my toes are icy.  I flip open the laptop and the weather says 3 degrees.  Camping will be rough.

After showering I double-check a few directions, say adios to Bob the Ogaga proprietor, and head toward Tokushima Station.  The first temple – and the beginning of the trail – is a short train ride from there, but I also intend to stop into the mall next door to pick up a few odds and ends.  When I get there it’s 8:30 and a security guard tells me it doesn’t open until 10.  Nothing I need is worth sitting around for an hour and a half so I jump on a train.

The train’s a tiny little branch line thing, two cars and one is locked up, not enough people to justify opening it up, only about twelve people on the car I’m on.  I throw down my hefty sack in a wheelchair/pram section and lean against it and immediately a woman sitting across from me hastily starts shuffling things around and says “Please, you can sit with me.”  There are plenty of open seats so I insist she doesn’t have to make a fuss but she continues to do so and makes it clear she isn’t taking no for an answer so I oblige.  Her name’s Lisa, she lives near Hiroshima but used to live in Montreal, she’s in Shikoku on business and wants to know what I’m doing so I give her the rundown.  When she finds out I’m doing the Henro trail she opens her purse and gives me a bag of candy – I’d heard about this, that when you’re pilgrimming people very often give you gifts and it’s apparently extremely rude to turn anything down.  Pretty good that I’m getting free stuff and I’m not even at the starting point yet.
I get out at a little railway siding called Bando in the middle of a little town of the same name and flipping open my little notebook (paper, not electronic) to check my directions, I start walking.  I find this sign within a few minutes and after two more blocks I’m there.

It’s a nice joint.  There’s a woman selling religious trinkets, a dozen people praying here and there, some others lighting incense.  I’m standing around like a goon because I’m not real keen on praying – not a Buddhist – and don’t know what else to do.  I take a few pics.

One thing I would like to do is get myself a nokyo-cho, an 88-page book that’s used to keep an inscription from each temple on the route.  There’s a shop just outside the temple gate selling all sorts of religious bric-a-brac so I give it a gander.  Here and there are surprisingly Caucasian-looking mannequins in full Henro attire;  I can appreciate the idea but I’d feel like a phoney in the full get-up.

I buy a nokyo-cho but I also find a killer English guidebook for the route, lots of high-detail maps, descriptions of every temple, accommodations and some details on decorum and protocol for templing.  I should’ve read up on this stuff beforehand but hey, whatever.  I sit down and flip through the introduction to walking (many people bike, take buses, etc)…

“You need to be in good physical health.”


“If carrying sleeping gear and cooking gear, do not go over 8-10 kgs.”

The bundle of all my worldly possessions is about 21, maybe 22 kg.

“Ring the bell upon arrival.”

I can do that.  I throw my shit on my back and head back into Ryozenji and come onto the bell, getting a few looks.  Nice.  Okay let’s get this stamp.  I throw down 300 yen and whoomp, there it is.

Only 87 more to go.  After a quick consultation of my guide book, I start walking – it’s still only 10 am so I’ve got lots of daylight to burn.  Given my schedule I’m aiming to do 20 km a day (a lot less than the 25-30 many people aim for), but being early days I don’t mind falling under that pace a bit while my back and feet get used to the grind.  If I can get through the first 6 or 7 temples today – all within the first 18 km according to the guidebook – I’ll be on a pretty good pace.

I have to admit the scenery is a lot more suburban than I expected – I’m not in the middle of the city but there are houses all around me.  It’s not like I’m walking on the side of a highway, there’s very little traffic and everyone who walks past is smiling and saying konichiwa so it’s very nice, but a little bit unexpected.  I haven’t met a part of Japan I haven’t enjoyed yet though; many of the houses I was walking past were beautiful things like this:

Less than a kilometre and a half from the first temple I entered Gokurakuji, the second.

After a quick walk around and climbing a few flights of stairs I decided that I’m going to leave my bag at the bottom of stairs from now on.  86 to go.  Another quick look at the guidebook and I’m back on the road.  Literally, right next to the road – and now I’m sort of even next to a highway.  It’s still not bad though, the houses are beginning to get more spread out and it’s a gorgeous day, 12 degrees and sunny, no bugs.  A handful of farmers are burning in the fields but not so much that it’s annoying.

The third temple, Konsenji, takes a little bit longer to get to but it’s a cool spot, surrounded by burial plots in all directions.  In addition to the conspicuous Henro there are a lot of people here who seem to be paying their respect at the graves so while I still give the bell a ding I don’t come right onto her For Whom The Bell Tolls style.

The woman who does my calligraphy at Konsenji (there are three of them working simultaneously) is amazing.  She greets me with a massive smile and it doesn’t leave her face the whole time I’m standing there.  Her English isn’t great but she tries her best to ask me a dozen questions and her eyes blow up like saucers at everything I say.

On my way out of the temple I see a little sign in English letting walkers know they should be looking for small red arrows to indicate the direction of the next temple.  Super handy, they’re all over the place, saves throwing down my bag and pulling out my guidebook.

The guidebook remains invaluable, however.  I notice the trail seems to pull away from the road on my way to the fourth temple, but not before a quick diversion off the path can take me to a place with fried chicken.  Embracing the ascetic lifestyle of a religious pilgrim, I eat the greasy slab of poultry sitting on a piece of cement in the parking lot.

After a short diversion where I lose the path and am forced to backtrack, I find it again and for the first time I’m not walking on asphalt, but a combination of dirt and gravel.  It leads me through some graveyards, citrus orchards, fields and bamboo forests.  I’m still within view of houses but it’s nice to be away from the traffic.

When I reach Dainichiji, the fourth temple, I notice multilingual signs all over the place saying that the office will only stamp or sign books or articles of clothing after individuals have prayed at the main temple, and specifically prayed using the Heart Sutra.  Urrrgh.  That sutra is kind of key to this whole pilgrimage but I don’t have any excerpts in hand so I sort of go around and make it look like I’m praying but mostly I’m just mumbling DMX lyrics.

When I walk into the office a guy who’s clearly a monk is handling the signatures. He says “Hello” in English and I respond with “How’s she going there fella”.  Where the hell did that come from?  He looks confused and asks me if I’ve already finished praying.  Ahh, yeaaaaah.  I hand over my book and he asks me about walking, if it’s my first day, and tells me he’s working on completing the whole thing but has been doing it piecemeal – a segment here and there when he gets time off from the hectic monk rat race.  Up to about 65 temples at this point.  He tells me I might want to reconsider my bag, apparently the section between temples 11 and 12 is a killer.  My guidebook shows it’s only a little over 12 km but the profile is the most severe of the first half of the track.  No time to get to trail-hard for it either – barring unforeseen circumstances that’ll be day three.  The monk wishes me good luck as though I’m in dire need of it.

It’s a quick walk to temple five, Jizoji.  I really come onto the bell here, nailing it so hard it bounces back and hits a second time.  Looking around I’ve underwhelmed; it’s day one and I’ve still got 83 temples to go and I think I might be getting templed out already.  Good thing it’s really about the walking and the temples are effectively mileposts.

At this point my dogs are howling so outside the temple I find a bench and kick off my boots and socks.  They’re all soaked with sweat so I put them out in the sun, lie back and flip through the guidebook for a bit.  It’s about 1:30 at this point and I need to start thinking about where I’m going to stay tonight – it’s still too suburban to really camp rough around here and the guidebook doesn’t show any proper campsites handy.  It looks like the path continues through suburbia for a while as well…  Some of the temples (including #6) will let you stay the night provided they’ve got space but they aren’t cheap, they often run around 8000 yen apparently.  The guide doesn’t show much in the way of other places to stay anytime soon either.  I make a mental note to keep an eye out as I begin walking the five kilometres to temple six, Anrakuji.

About halfway there I notice an older fellow in full Henro gear slowly catching up to me.  When he reaches me he smiles and says hello and we start talking as we’re walking together.  His name’s Yasuhiro, a retired navy officer from Chiba, he’s really curious to know where I’m from and how long I’ll be walking – he’s stunned that I quit my job to go on this trip – and tells me he’s doing the trail piecemeal.  On this stint he’s planning to knock off all the temples in Tokushima Prefecture, which (I think) is about a quarter of the trail, still a pretty decent haul.  When we reach Anrakuji he excuses himself to pray.

From here it’s a short jaunt to the next temple, less than a mile, and it looks like there’s a place to stay shortly after that, but one shortcoming of my guidebook is a lack of prices (understandably – that kind of thing could change a lot).  It does advise that most places listed are between 4000 and 8000 yen though, which is potentially a lot more than the 2800 I was paying in Tokushima.  And if I backtrack ten minutes there’s a bus stop that’ll get me right back to the city.  Kind of a no-brainer, I hoof it back and figure to take the bus back to this spot tomorrow to pick up where I left off.

Not a bad day in all.  Knocked about 17 km off the trail (including getting to the trail and deviations probably 23-24 km in all) so slightly under pace but so far no blisters and my legs feel fine.