A Gaijin’s Journey?

I jokingly wrote ‘O-Henro – A gaijin’s journey that does not end in enlightenment so much as family peace’ on the cover of my first moleskin. At the time I intended to write about what it was like to be a Jewish, American woman in Japan. In the end, I came to realize that none of that mattered in the least. To everyone I met, I was just another pilgrim on the trail. To the rest of Japan, when I had the chance to explain ‘O-Henro oshimasu’ (I am walking Henro), they were equal parts impressed and polite. Most wanted to know if I was really walking (as opposed to taking a tour bus) and how many Americans knew about Henro. The answers were ‘Yes, I’m walking as much as I can’ (about 90%) and ‘No, not many know about this at all’.

I was in Japan for 12 days, including 2 on either end for traveling and exploration of the cities Ageo and Tokyo. The other 8 days were spent hiking through towns and hamlets, on roads and trails, in woods and between rice patties, on the small island of Shikoku, following the path of Kobo-Daishi.

To get to Shikoku from Ageo, we took a regular commuter train to Tokyo. While I had taken the train in from the airport, this was my first chance to get a look at the high-tech and highly social system. While the rail systems (and there are more than I took time to count) are all a little different, they have very basic rules that only work because the culture doesn’t allow for social screwups. The social engineer in my father brought my brother and I to discuss the many ways we could break the system and ride for free, but no one in Japan would even think about doing such a horrible thing.

For example. If someone on the train has headphones on, you have to afford them the virtual privacy that the overcrowding does not provide. But by that same token, if the headphone wearing person goes to buy coffee and does not remove the headphones, they’re being rude by pushing their personal space into the barissta’s. We do that similarly in the USA, but I suspect with a much lower success rate.

And the fact that the trains are clean, efficient, on time and fairly energy friendly makes the US system look stupid. Of course, the cost is a lot higher ($10 a day, easily, to get into and out of Tokyo from Ageo, depending on which rail you take), but the longest I waited for a train past it’s planned arrival was 3 minutes.

The tech on the trains is a mix of super hi-tech and plain old paper. One can buy a ticket with your cellphone and then beam the info to the turnstile to ‘pay’ with your cell phone account, or you can buy paper (from a person or a machine) and feed it into the turnstile, or you can get a smart card and swipe it. You can upgrade from American ass-to-elbow subway crowded, standing room only, into comfortable Amtrak seats, and there are reserved trains that run express. And then again, it depends on what type of train you’re on and what time of day it is. The options were mind boggling.

I see I’ve already gone back on my word to tell this as a story of just my Shikoku adventure. Melvillian aspirations aside, you have to appreciate the delicate balance of Japan’s duality if you can ever hope to comprehend Henro for the modern city girl. Tokyo, for example, is not as modern as downtown Chicago, but by far it’s more technologically advanced. Unlike American cities, there’s no zoning, so a house is beside an office building and a Starbucks and so on. Also they don’t tear things down quite so often, so your view from Tokyo Tower is a patchwork quilt of generations of buildings.

While Shikoku is the least technologically advanced islands of Japan, as near as I can figure, as well as being the smallest, it still sports the dichotomy particular to Japan: Feudal Science. To those of us familiar with Manga or Anime, this makes perfect sense. Giant robots (science) fighting with swords (Samurai) in space (science again). The nation, at it’s heart, appears to want to be in a simpler, more OCDly organized way. At the same time, they understand how isolated they are, and that to survive, they have to adapt.

After you take the high-tech express train to Kobe, there’s a more 1950s bus to go to Shikoku. We went to Naruto, to start at Temple #1. I learned later that a lot of peopel start at Mount Koya, where Kobo-Daishi is buried, but our O-Henro Sensi, Sone-san, said we should start at the first temple: Ryozenji .

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