06 May 2008

Gaijin, gaijin everywhere

Ever since leaving Koya-san I've heard rumors of foreigners walking the pilgrimage road. Many Japanese seem to think we know each other and I get asked if I know Andy from Canada or Bill from America, as if we had made plans to travel together but got separated along the way, or perhaps as if there were a club of foreign henro.

After nearly a month of hearing about but never seeing any foreign henro (besides the one looking back in the mirror), I was beginning to wonder where these foreigners might be. Then within two days I met six of them.

Last time I wrote I was preparing to walk up the mountain to Yokomineji, reputedly one of the more arduous hikes on the pilgrimage and about which walking henro talk with some trepidation when they gather at temples and hotels to plan their walking strategy. It turned out to be not that difficult and was in fact one of the better mountain trails thus far. My leg was in fine shape and about the only disappointment was the weather, which seems to become overcast and wet whenever I head into the mountains.

After having said my prayers and collected my stamps and calligraphy, I was tucking into breakfast in front of the main temple (biscuits, an apple, and hot tea from the temple's vending machine), when a tall, black-haired man rushed by so quickly I couldn't get good look at his face. From behind, he could have been Japanese, but there was something non-Japanese in his walk and when he came back my way after collecting his stamps and calligraphy it was obvious he was one of the reputed gaijin henro.

Pilgrim introductions are rather formulaic - method of transport (usually obvious as walking henro have large bags and look a bit sweaty and grimy), toshi or kugiri (doing the pilgrimage in one go, or in sections), number of days on the road, number of times to have done the pilgrimage. Walking pilgrims then get into more extensive discussion about where they plan to go next, how they plan to get there, and places to stay along the way, but as Adam looked rather fresh (on the top of a mountain) it was fairly obvious he had other means of transport.

As he had been driving his rental car for four days and had had no one to talk with, I seemed to be a welcome face. And as I was not looking forward to the hike down the mountain and a 40km trek to the next temple, it seems the Buddha or a Bodhisattva brought us together. Adam offered to take me as far as I wanted to go along the route, I happily accepted and we spent the day blasting through two prefectures and five temples, #65-69.

With Adam at #68/69

People do the pilgrimage for any number of reasons and for Adam it seemed to be something he was doing to try and feel more Japanese, perhaps to try and fit more comfortably in Japanese society. He came here only a year ago as an English teacher in much the same kind of job that brought me to Japan 20 years ago in 1988. But what propelled him across a continent and an ocean is a love of Japanese pop culture - animation, manga, movies, and music.

Religion, Buddhism, art, or history didn't seem to be among his interests. When we visited temples he ran straight to the office to get his nokyo-cho stamped. Every henro carries one of these, a book of blank pages, one page for each temple in which a monk or other official stamps the temple's seals in red ink and over which he writes with brush and ink the name of the temple. Adam's main goal was collecting these seals and calligraphy. He didn't pray or meditate or even look around the temple grounds. Except of course on that particular day he had to wait for me to do these things and so perhaps got a longer look at those five temples than any of the previous 64.

With only a week's vacation to finish the pilgrimage, it's understandable why Adam was in such a rush. Traveling with him was a nice respite, a chance to rest my leg and to speak English again after nearly a month. It was also interesting to see how car henro experience the journey, and what I saw is about what I imagined - that time and space pass by far too quickly from a car. There's no sense of struggle or effort and so no real sense of accomplishment when you arrive at a temple. When you see so many temples in such quick succession they lose any distinction in your memory. The same is true for the landscape and the people. There is little time for reflection or contemplation and the journey starts to become more of a race or even a chore to be completed as quickly as possible.

The less taxing way of arriving at Unpenji, #66

When we reached temples 68 and 69, which are situated quite literally next to each other, we said our goodbyes, Andy with just one more day and a bit to finish 19 more temples. I hope he made it. Maybe if he's reading this, and I haven't offended him, he'll post a comment and let us know how his journey ended.

And that was just the first of the gaijin I met. But this account has already taken far more time than I expected, so I'll save the others for another day.

Om namu Daishi henjo kongo.


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