The only Western food I’d had since the flight (which was Asian Kosher) were the Quaker Oats granola bars I’d packed. My father had mocked me, initially, but as we all have a tendency to get grumpy when we don’t eat, and Boone is a diabetic, I felt they were needed. In the end, they were a lifesaver. All of our other food was Japanese, and while I loved most of it, I did get to be missing a bagel or some oatmeal around breakfast time. On the other hand, there was vending machine coffee that was actually amazing.
You really can’t explain Henro without the smells and sounds. The familiar drone of traffic was drowned out by the rushing water in the rice patties, the Om of people praying at road-side shrines, the caw of crows and the croaks of a bullfrog chorus. As we walked, our Kongo-tsue’s bells chimed in peaceful, if non-rythmic, harmony. Even in the 90-deg (F) heat, the incense didn’t put me to sleep, but made me feel more a part of everything. I was becoming aware of the things that were important, and not just what I wanted to think about.
We started out early, cruising through three temples as if this was something we did every day, and were in fantastic shape and preparation. The hills were long, with a lot of paved up and down, but gentle enough that we drank water and made jokes about the ‘No Swimming’ signs that looked like people were being mutated into teenage mutant ninja turtles if they tried. Temple Eight was reached as the sun climbed over the mountain, and while the temple was small, it was very well cared for. A small hondo, not related to the temple it self, was positioned in the small lake. They also had cold water for our water bottles. Knowing how hot the day was supposed to become, we gladly accepted.
One of the temples we saw that day, Temple 10, had 330 steps. It’s the temple of the weaver woman, who was (or became) an avatar of Kannon. Possibly she was Kannon herself in human form. The translation was a bit unclear, though perhaps that’s the point of it. The woman insisted on making Kobo-Daishi a new robe, and once she did, she was transformed. Maybe it’s a blessing on Kobo-Daishi for respecting Kannon or maybe for just respecting women. At any rate, it was explained that this was a temple of great importance to women and I should pay attention. We walked up the 330 steps, through a wild forest of Hortensia, just to get to the hondo.
The seven kilometers from there to Temple 11 were long and hard. The distance was short, but I was presented with the first attack of the concrete jungle. We walked across two long bridges, crossing the river twice, and marveling at the breeze (so refreshing) and the water (ditto). But the heat took it’s toll on us all, and the burning sear that rose up from the pavement worked its way into our shoes and feet, making every step feel like four. The payoff was worth it, mind you, as the temple was tucked into the foothill of the mountain and was surrounded by trees. As we’d hiked, the road of urbanity had given way to the provincial outlying area, and then finally to the trees. Suddenly, you were isolated.
The road to Temple Twelve leads directly from the back of Eleven, but that road is far, far too long to even attempt to hike in one night, unless you’re planning to camp out. We went to a hotel instead where, at long last, we connected with other people walking O-Henro. The season for Henro is the spring, but there were a fair number of hikers out in the early part of summer. A great deal more people drive (or bicycle or motorcycle) O-Henro in the summer, so many of the smaller hotels close. On the other hand, you get very personal attention when you do show up, since you’re bringing them extra money. The part I liked best was being the only woman at most of the places we stayed. While my brother had to bathe with our father, I had the smaller bathing rooms all to myself.
That night at dinner they served pork, and I had to explain that I didn’t eat pork, shellfish, or certain other foods out of religious discipline. I had decided before I went that I was not going to ask any hotel owner to make me a special meal. I knew it would be rude and imposing, and a lot of the smaller places weren’t going to have anything else to offer. Also, every meal came with a lot of vegetables, so my plan was to trade with my father. I gave him the pork and took his veggies (and some sweet potato). It was perfect to me, and I ate my fill. Our hostess noticed this exchange and declared me to be a ‘dainty Japanese girl,’ which made everyone in the family laugh. I love me some good food, and I can pack it away with the best of ’em.
Thankfully, no one was offended by my actions, especially after I told them it was due to religious choices. In fact, many people became even more impressed with me at that point and my crazy Gaijin family. My brother, being a Buddhist, only got funky looks when people realized the skinny, tall white boy was the worshiper and the other two were there because we loved him. Dad speaks Japanese pretty well now, and they accepted him right away. Then there was first timer noob, me, who stood out. Of course, everyone in Japan knows how to say ‘Mika,’ so I’ll take the funny looks.
At dinner there were few people. Our little table of four, a fellow with sore feet, a young dude we never saw again, and a little old lady. Now, you call little old ladies ‘Obba-chan’, but I couldn’t remember that and thus Boone and I named her ‘Biddy-chan.’ Obba-chan was traveling alone and was 85. Her goal was to hit all 88 temples, and I was rather impressed. We compared our sunburns and bug bites, and then went off to rest while a young fellow with a goatee staggered in, late. After dinner, she thought my room was hers and, since we didn’t lock the doors, walked right in. After a brief Mexican stare-off and a lot of ‘sumimasen’ (I’m sorry), she went to the right room and everyone went to bed before sunset.
Temple Twelve, we had been assured, was going to be hard.