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Aki Meguri Shikoku Logbook:

November 13th, 2001 (Tuesday):
Temples 87 and 88

Note: In the original Aki Meguri pages, the Shikoku stage had no journal entries.  Rather, my thoughts and feelings were incorporated into the "Logbook," so you won't find separate journal entries here, as in the Old Tokaido and Yamato stages.

 
Another day of kindness from strangers.  And my LAST DAY of new temples.

Yes, brothers and sisters, I made it to Number 88 today.  I still have two to go, but I've been there before: Number 1 to close the circle, and Koyasan to say goodbye to the Daishi.

Temple #87: Nagaoji (The Temple of the Long Tail)
Honzon: Sho Kannon (Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva)
Gallery

An easy train-ride, a short walk, and an extraordinary gift.

Located near Nagao station, this temple is spread out in front of a wide open space--unfortunately used, as so many are, for parking.  There were more chrysanthemums to be seen, and a few walking henro to chat with.

Here's one of them.  This 50-year-old man from Fukuoka (in Kyushu) seemed to be more permanently "on the road" than most henro.  It made me realize that if a homeless guy got a backpack and a straw hat and came to Shikoku, he'd probably get much better handouts than by sleeping in a Tokyo train station.  I have seen people begging on the path (there's one in front of the gate in my Gallery shot of Number 68), and they looked like henro.  Hey, what if they were just homeless guys walking the pilgrimage?  And what, exactly, is the difference?

When I went in to have my book signed, I had a nice surprise.  First the usual questions ("Where are you from?  How long in Japan?" etc.)  Then--for only the second time--a waiver of the 500 yen fee as o-settai, a gift to a henro.  Then two pieces of candy--also not unusual.  Then the kindly old priest handed me 500 yen!  Remember, a significant part of a temple's income comes from signing these books.  This guy just paid me 500 yen for the privilege of signing my book!

It's also a peculiar role-reversal--the religious institution usually takes cash in exchange for "spiritual favors."  It seldom gives cash.  It happened once before, at Yugyoji in Fujisawa on the Tokaido leg of the trip.  I was stunned then, too.

All my research showed me that the only ways to reach Number 88 were to take a taxi or walk almost 13 kilometers, much of it uphill and on a rough trail.  Which do you suppose I chose?

I didn't do any further research "on the ground"--and I should have.  For one reason, this was my most expensive cab ride ever--4,000 yen, nearly forty dollars.  For another, as we pulled up to the temple's gate a bus was leaving!  A city bus goes straight from Nagao station to the gates of Okuboji.  Damn, damn, damn.  Live and learn.

But my friends, this temple is worth the price.  What a stunning place.  Even without the significance of being MY LAST TEMPLE, it would be overwhelmingly impressive.

Temple #88: Okuboji (The Temple of a Large Hollow)
Honzon: Yakushi Nyorai (Baisajya-guru)
Gallery

To start with, the "hollow" of the name is a hollow in the mountains, a small area virtually surrounded by sheer cliffs.

Here's a different angle of the hondo than the one in the Gallery, showing the rocks behind it.

Right from the temple yard one looks up at rocks like this, and down at sweeping panoramas of mountain valleys leading all the way down to the sea.  The fall leaves were in full force, with a huge yellow gingko tree towering over the yard (and a guy sweeping leaves as a result).  Hmmm...sweeping panoramas and sweeping leaves in one paragraph; I love English.

I've written before about why this temple is Number 88; more specifically, I've written why Number 1 is first, so it follows that this would be Number 88. But there's another factor.  It is said (and who knows where these rumors start) that the Daishi left his staff here, the one with the rings at the top that he brought back from China.

So pilgrims leave their walking sticks here, the "Daishi" that has accompanied them around the pilgrimage course.  (Just as I didn't buy my stick on Shikoku, I also chose not to leave it here.)

I have read several times of the "piles" of crutches at temples left as the result of healings--and never saw more than a few.  I also read about the "mountains" of walking sticks left here.  Perhaps these things are more apparent in the Spring, the most popular season for the pilgrimage.  But this is the second-most popular season, and they say that the sticks are burned in a ceremony "at the end of the year."  So where are all the sticks?

This rather bizarre piece of architecture contained some, but not the forests that I had expected.  (By the way, in front of this structure--just out of the picture--is a kind of "Eternal Flame."  As I was shooting this picture, someone stepped up next to me and said in English "It is fire of Atomic Bomb" and walked away before I even saw his face.  What to make of that?)

In the stamp office at this temple, one can request a "certificate of completion"--for a fee, of course.  I did, and the 15 minutes of entertainment were well worth the price.  The priest who was unfortunate enough to have me as a customer took a lot of ribbing from the other three guys in the booth as he tried to figure out how to fit a foreigner into the "system."

As you know, Japan has its own, unique system of writing.  Though most of the characters were borrowed from written Chinese many centuries ago, another set of characters was developed here (based on the Chinese characters) to adapt that foreign writing system to the local language.  In fact, the Daishi is credited with creating the first system of phonetic characters, the "hiragana."  He--or perhaps his followers--wrote a poem that uses each character exactly  once.  It's called the "I-ro-ha" after its first three characters; I rode up to the temple in a cab owned by the "Iroha Taxi Company."

Later, a second, parallel system of phonetic characters was created.  These, the katakana, are used mainly for writing words borrowed from foreign languages (though they have other uses as well).  So this poor guy had to struggle through writing my name--"James Baquet"--as ji-e-mu-su ba-ke-i, to the evident glee of his companions.

There is a serious issue here, though.  Japan is nearly rabid about "internationalization" and "globalization."  Having entered the game late (as a result of the isolation imposed by the Tokugawa), they seem always to be aware of their status on the world stage.  And yet, a friend of mine--a Japanese woman married to an American man--is practically forced to use her family name for her kids, because the school computers gag on foreign names.  Time and again I have run up against a sort of bureaucratic prejudice against things non-Japanese.  It's not that anybody wants to exclude foreigners; it's just that the system can't handle them.

The advances made in the past 50 years or so are nothing short of staggering.  Starting with her military victory against the Russians in the early 20th century, and capped by the "economic miracle" later in the century, Japan has proven herself to be equal to any country in every way.  She has borrowed, absorbed, and improved elements of two of  the world's great cultural matrices--China in her early years, the West more recently.

But the final step has yet to be taken: the inclusion of non-Japanese into the national life.  Japanese is not such a difficult language to learn--at least in spoken form.  But it takes years to master the reading and writing of the language, for natives as well as foreigners.  The 2000+ characters in everyday use can have various readings, depending on context; even natives can sometimes only guess at the pronunciation of a word, especially place names and personal names.  If Japan wants to welcome the world into her society (and that's a big "if") she's going to have to do something about this writing system.

Oliver Statler wrote, in relation to the changed characters of the name for Shidoji mentioned yesterday, "Among the complicated charms of the Japanese language--the complications making it terribly difficult, even for those born to it, the charms making it nearly impossible for the same people to consider simplifying it--is the fact that almost every character with which it is written packs layers of meaning and allusion."

Read that ellipsis again: difficult, yet so charming that it's nearly impossible to change.  Absolutely.  Charming indeed.  What little I know of the written language bears this out.  And as for that last bit: there are layers of meaning conveyed by the characters.  On the simplest level, some sounds are incomprehensible unless you know the characters, or the context, or both.

Imagine this: Your foreign friend asks you, "What does X mean?"  The word s/he uses in place of the "X" is one with several homophones, like "to/two/too" or "there/their/they're."  So you ask him/her to use it in a sentence, or to spell it.

Now in Japanese there can be ten or twenty or (rarely) close to thirty characters for one sound.  So a Japanese person in the same situation will respond with, "What's the kanji?" asking for the Chinese character with which that sound is written.  Knowing the kanji answers everything.  When Japanese people are "thinking out loud," it's not uncommon to see them writing on the palm of the left hand with the index finger of the right, the characters are so intrinsic to the understanding of the language.

This is a "problem" we're not going to solve here today.  How can you take centuries of organic evolution, in unique isolation, that has given rise to an intricately interlocked system--and dismantle it in an effort to make it more accessible to outsiders?  Is it worth the effort?  One solution that Japan seems to have pursued is not to try to make the language accessible to outsiders, but to learn the outsiders' language instead.  This is fine if we're talking about international business, or political cooperation.  But it doesn't make it easier for foreigners to function in this society--which is the next great step in Japan's "globalization."

Well, on with the account of my day.

I had two choices (again) for getting back to the train at Nagao.  One was to wait a couple of hours for the 3:11 bus.  The other was to walk at least part of the pilgrim trail back toward Number 87, knowing that it would be dark before I made it, and that the last bus would be long gone before I reached the highway.

But I really wanted to walk on this, my last day.  And I had a cell phone and Iroha Taxi Company's number in my pocket.  (In fact, I can recite the number even now, 12 hours later.)  And actually, I had time to start up the trail, change my mind, and still make it back to the bus.

So off I went.

The trail led straight up for about two kilometers, to a beautiful mountaintop view.  And that two kilometers straight up was the easy part.

Enjoy these pictures, please.  They were brought to you at great effort.

First, a view of the ultimate switchbacks.  In this shot, I am looking back down on a little portion of the trail.  The red line marks the path I've just come up.

Here's the payoff: a view back over the last few days' travel.  I could actually make out several places where temples are situated, including the easily recognized Yashima island (too small to see in this photo).

Just below the peak, a terrible shock: the trail is in places about a foot (30 cm) wide, and nearly vertical, and all rock.  I kid you not: I have hiked in California's High Sierras and all over the American Southwest, and I have never seen a trail like this.  Thank gods I was going down the trail; I pity those few I saw toiling up it.  Again, the trail--this time looking upward--is marked in red.  Really.

That torture lasted only for a hundred meters or so; after that it was the usual downward plodding.

When I reached the vicinity of Maeyama Dam--about 7 or 8 kilometers from the temple--darkness was descending, so I found a pay phone and called Iroha.  Minutes later someone came honking into the parking area, calling out "jamus, jamus."  Hey, that's me.  That cab was fast.

Wrong.  Remember that my old friends Kazuyoshi and Michiko had left me their phone number at a temple a few days ago?  Well, I hadn't called them.  (I planned to call them tonight.)  But they had tracked me on the homepage, guessed my approximate location, and Kazuyoshi came out and cruised up and down the road until he found me.  Unbelievable!

I called and cancelled the taxi, and Kazuyoshi took me to their home, where they wanted me to spend the night.  But I explained that my bag was at the hotel, where my room was already paid for.  So instead, they took me to a nice Italian restaurant in Yashima (Michiko joined us) and then dropped me back at my hotel.

An astounding and extremely fitting finish to my pilgrimage.  You may recall that I finished the Tokaido portion of my trip alone and without fanfare (except for that extraordinary gift from that young lady at Sanjo Bridge).  But I finished the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage in the company of friends from the road, treated to an excellent dinner, with people who really appreciated what I had done, as they are doing it themselves.

Remarkable.

A final note: While struggling up to the mountain peak above Number 88, I had a most unusual meeting: This young monk, of the Rinzai Zen Sect, is named Fugen.  He is 26 years old, and from Chiba.  He has been a  monk for 3 years.  After reaching Number 88, the end of his pilgrimage, he will go to Nagoya to visit his grandparents.  He will give them his completed stamp book as a gift.  I cannot begin to imagine ever parting with mine; his non-attachment to this material thing is exemplary.  Then he will continue his studies--not sure where.

They're still with us.  The exceptional men (and, one presumes and hopes, women) who give their lives to the search for connection.  Perhaps in my next life I can be one, too.

In 31 days I have met no foreign pilgrims.  I have met men and women from all over Japan, a surprisingly large number of them walking the entire circuit.  I have met the elderly traveling by bus, the middle-aged by car, and the young by public transportation.  Some were "weekend henro," some had left things on hold back home, and some had actually closed chapters of their lives to undertake the pilgrimage, with no idea of what will happen next.

I'm pleased to report that the quest for connection, the search for spiritual fulfillment, the impulse toward enlightenment, is alive and thriving on Shikoku, in Japan.

I planned to rush through Number 1 and stay on Koyasan tomorrow night.  But Fate again took a hand; the Youth Hostel on Koya is full tomorrow, but has a space the day after.  So I will dawdle around Number 1, hopefully staying with my old friend the priest at Number 2 (I have to call him tomorrow).  Then on Thursday I can take my time reaching Koyasan, visit the Daishi before dinner, and set out fresh Friday morning, my mission accomplished.

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