23 May 2008

In, out, and between - pt 3

Koyasan is a bit of a strange place in that the town, with the exception of the Youth Hostel, has no hotels outside the temples. The main street, filled with cafes and souvenir shops, closes at sundown, when the tourists retreat to their temples for baths and dinner, and the town of Koyasan appears to go to bed early.

Figures of Kobo Daishi at Okuboji, #88

But running parallel to the main street is a smaller road with restaurants and a convenience store for the locals. The Youth Hostel wasn't offering meals that evening (it appears the cook may have been on holiday), so the three of us wandered into Koyasan's Chinese restaurant, where we were greeted loudly by the grandmotherly owner and a table of boisterous monks, who proceeded in a display of loutish manners to roundly appall Toshiyuki and Akira. I was myself a bit taken aback. The group was drinking beer, smoking, and talking in loud, exaggerated voices. Mid-meal a larger group including several women staying at one of the nearby temples joined the monks. Their volume increased, as did the cloud of cigarette smoke, and Akira suggested with leave.

Mountains of Shosanji, #12

Neither he nor Toshiyuki said much more about the incident, but I'm pretty sure it set badly with them. Both had made sacrifices, worked hard and saved money to make their henro trip. They had walked every last kilometer of the pilgrimage. Along the way Akira was offered a job related to the henro pilgrimage and Toshiyuki took an interest in meditation, planning to sit up all night at the site of Kobo Daishi's grave. They are young and earnest, eager to learn, to practice, to find new ways of living. They were wonderfully inspiring, everything that table of monks was seemingly not.

A collection of used walking staffs at Okuboji, #88

But like the old lady, the monks were simply playing out their lives. How many causes and conditions brought them to that place and time, taught them to behave in such ways? And how could those possibly be undone? They are what they are. Perhaps in their own minds they're struggling with being more accepting, or being more sensitive to others. We've all had bad days. And really, what were they doing that we found offensive besides vibrating the air? Our annoyance, really, was based on our own preconceptions and preferences.

And this points, I believe, to a larger lesson of the pilgrimage.

When a group of walking henro were together, it was not unusual to hear them speak derisively of bus henro or car henro, people playing at being pilgrims, spoiled moderns complaining about having to climb a few flights of stairs, or even worse whining about blisters! We made fun of them for carrying walking sticks and felt sorry that they were missing all the life between the temples, passing up a meaningful experience by not making sacrifices for their pilgrimage.

Golden Week tourists playing henro at Zentsuji, #75

But with the same attitude a pilgrim of 100 or 200 years ago might scoff at today's walking henro. The old guys hiked in wooden sandals or thin leather-soled shoes. Sometimes maybe even barefoot. They had no telephones to contact their families, no convenience stores to pop into for a quick bite, no waterproof gear to keep all their stuff dry, no public transport to rely on in emergencies, no ATMs for a quick cash infusion, no detailed maps of the route, and very few markers to help them find their way. Today all you need is the time, a little gear, an ATM card, and the ability to put one foot in front of the other and you too can walk the Shikoku henro michi.

The pilgrimage, then, is not about what form of transport you use. I can image doing it by car or bus in a way that is meaningful and purposeful. I'm sure some of the people we laughed at must have been doing their pilgrimage sincerely. Conversely, not all walking henro are saints. I knew more than a few concerned with getting as quickly as possible to the next hotel for a bath and a beer, some more concerned with finishing in the fastest time possible.

Lone henro, Fujiidera, #11

What makes the pilgrimage meaningful is what makes everyday meaningful – it's how you convey yourself while circling the island of Shikoku, or this even smaller island of life.



Matt said...

Wow, what a journey. A great read as always as well. Thanks for documenting your travels, I've really enjoyed them. I have a few questions.

1. You mentioned some people were doing the pilgrimage in sections. Are you saying they would travel part of it, go home, come back later and do some more?

2. What's with all the hats on everyone? Is that tradition?

3. Why would a walking stick be looked down on?

Jeff said...

Hi, Matt. Always good to hear from you. I hope we have a chance to meet someday.

1. That's exactly right. You may remember Natsumi, whose picture appears in my companions post. I received a message from her a couple of days ago that she finished this time at temple #76. As I recall, she's been walking for a number of years in 7-10 day increments. It looks like she may be able to finish on her next vacation. Bus henro also do the same. Travel agents offer packages that divide the trip into halves, thirds, or quarters.

2. The sedge hats are indeed a tradition. I was intending to purchase one, but as with other hats (and shoes) in Japan, I couldn't find one my size.


3. Because it was being carried by people who weren't walking. They rode into the temple parking lot in a car or bus and then took their walking stick with them, a kind of religious accessory. The bus henro were particularly amusing. When the bus pulled into the parking lot and opened its doors, the first one off was a female guide with a wire frame stand, one that you most often see outside shops in which to put your wet umbrella. But the one the bus guide takes out and sets in front of the steps from the bus has 30 or 40 walking sticks, which the henro pick up as they exit. When they get back on, they leave their sticks where they got them, and the guide loads them back on the bus.

Matt said...

All much more clear now. Thanks for your answers. I don't know if I ever mentioned it, I was led to your blog(s) by Dave Farnell. Just so you don't think I'm some random weirdo. If you ever see Dave tooling around in an goofy looking red and black bowling shirt that is my fault.