Most Japanese on the henro michi these days drive or ride on buses in large tour groups. They're easy to spot. They look fresh, their clothes aren't soiled, they're decked out in full henro regalia (which is not always practical for those that are walking), and they usually stay at the temple only long enough to say their prayers and collect their stamps. Walking henro tend to linger at temples. It took a long time and a bit of effort to get there and the only thing to look forward to after leaving is another long walk to the next one.
It's partly that effort that makes walking more meaningful. Anyone with a week's free time and a little money can be chauffeured from temple to temple, hotel to hotel. But to get out and walk 50km to the next temple with your luggage on your back, to hunt down food and lodging, to sleep outdoors - most people are not even willing to entertain the idea.
I know now how it feels to ride. Today I hitchhiked 80km to Kongofukuji, the longest distance on the pilgrimage between temples. What would normally be a two or three day walk was a couple of hours in a series of cars and once I reached the temple a bit of an empty feeling. I knew if I had walked here I would have been rewarded with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. As it was, I learned to let go of pride.
The view from Cape Ashizuri just in front of Kongofukuji
I no longer have bragging rights for having walked the entire route. But my leg will be the better for it and perhaps I'll be able to finish the pilgrimage.
Somewhere along the way I injured something in my left leg. I noted it at first a few days ago as just a small strain, one of many you notice when walking such distances. This one, though, continued to grow and by Monday it was getting quite red and swollen. Walking became slow and painful. The last 5km to Kubokawa were five of the most difficult I've done on this trip.
Kobo Daishi at Iwamotoji, Kubokawa
I pulled into town late and found the Maruka Ryokan, a place run by a lovely family who looked after me during my two nights there. I had decided to take a day off and let my leg heal. I slept most of the next day and my leg was a bit better by this morning, but still not in great walking condition. I went to the hospital but the doctor didn't seem to have much idea about the cause of the swelling except for all the walking I've been doing. He gave me two tubes of ointment to control the pain.
The choice was then to spend another two or three days where I was waiting for my leg to recuperate completely, or to continue in a manner less stressful to the leg and take up walking again when I am able.
And so after I left the hospital, I got out on the highway and stuck out my thumb. First ride was with a surfer, who got me about halfway down the peninsula. Then a 45-year old woman on the way to Nakamura city to discuss divorce proceedings with her husband got me as far as the city, after which I was picked up by an elderly couple coming from the city and who had fond memories of their homestay some years ago in the USA.
Interestingly, only one car henro offered to give me a ride, but he was going in the opposite direction. I rode the bus back in to Nakamura, where I'm spending a rainy night at the Tosa Inn.
Tomorrow is another day. Probably not a walking day. But perhaps another day to test my expecations and to meet a few more of the people of Kochi prefecure.