Masters of the Understatement

In retrospect, I’m really glad that I hiked the 10 miles to Temple Twelve. By this point, we were doing 10-12 miles a day, so the distance was never the issue to me. The mountain was my issue. To tell a tale out of sequence, I’m currently in Physical Therapy to fix my right knee, because of this mountain. Essentially all the lateral (side to side) motion on my knee tore the cartilage under my kneecap, and forced the knee muscles to do the work my ankle and thigh should have been doing. Beth, my Therapist, is having me strengthen those muscles now. I’m 31, in decent shape, I can walk for days on end, and the mountain shredded my knee on the downhill.

The night before, we had an option to send our packs on ahead to the next Minchuku (hotel), and hike more easily. Or at least, a little lighter. The problem was the timing. We’d gotten to our Minchuku a little late that day and in order to get the packs sent ahead, we’d have to get up at 5am, walk down a couple miles to the train, send them ahead, and then after hiking the mountain, hike a few miles past that night’s hotel to the train station to pick them up. We decided it was too much of a pain and didn’t do it. I think part of that was my stupid idea. Then again, I think the extra walking would have been worse (for me) than the extra weight.

The first four miles were up a gentle, rising slope. While we weren’t making our usual 15 minute miles, we were going at a pretty decent pace. I knew it was just about 10 miles to the temple and another couple down to the hotel, so I thought that a total of 12 miles wouldn’t be that bad. At the first rest point, we met the little old lady from the night before, as well as a middle-aged man with swollen feet. They were taking a long break (it was only about 9 or 10am) and eating the lunch the hotel had given us. We sat long enough to cool off, drink some water, and carry on.

It was there that we also met Fern (no photo available). Now, his name wasn’t actually Fern at all. He was a 63 year-old retiree and told us he liked to hike up this mountain every day in clear weather. I misunderstood him and thought he meant that he did the whole hike from Temple 11 to Temple 12 every day. As he explained, he hiked the 6k (3.5 miles) to the top of the 600 meter mountain, and even then, only in good weather. Why do I call him Fern? In the second season of the reality show The Amazing Race (TAR), my favorite contestants Danny and Oswald met a teen girl named Fern who ditched school to help them on the Bangkok leg. From then on, any helpful native guide is a Fern. Boone, who also watches the show, caught the joke.

Fern talked to me and Boone the whole way up to the 600 meter altitude. He told us about the history of the mountain, how he’d had hip replacement and this was his therapy, and about anything else that came to mind. He showed up a part of the forest that was ‘dead’ (it didn’t get enough sun), and was happy to point out good photo ops for me. Essentially, he was a great guy. We went well under his normal pace, and many times suggested he go on ahead, but Fern was determined to stick with us. Finally we had to part ways, but from the vantage point he pointed out Temple Ten, miles away, across the rive and the mountain we’d crossed yesterday. Already we were that much higher, and could see three miles away with ease.

After Fern left, the hike got nasty. While we had Fern to distract us with stories about his life and the area, the hike had been pretty easy. The road was gentle, the view majestic, and the path was straight forward. But after those first six miles, I wanted to die. Between the heat (nudging 90F), the packs (7kilo), the humidity (88%) and everything else, I got way too overheated. It was at the point that my sweat stopped being salty and I couldn’t figure out where my sunburn ended and my skin started. In the end, I slowed down, sat down on a rock, stripped off my Hakui (the jacket) and chugged as much water as I could without making myself sick. Dad was sure I had heatstroke, and I probably was only moments away from it, to be honest. But I sat still until I could breath without gasping, then I stretched out. After fifteen minutes, I clipped the hakui to my bag, turned my pants into shorts, and started walking again.

The thing is, once we got to the temple, I bounced back pretty fast. I drank a cold (ice cold) bottle of water, another half-liter of coolish water, and then poured water over my legs and arms. As soon as my skin cooled down, I regained that ability to control my core temp. You don’t know how important it is until it takes a piss. I had promised my brother ice cream, so we went and found some ‘Crunky’ ice cream bars, and a woman insisted we have some green tea as well. The hot tea worried me a little, but the store had AC, so I didn’t mind at all. As we sat in the shade and relaxed, I felt vindicated, good and strong.

The Japanese have at least one temple in each Prefecture designated as a Nansho, or a ‘dangerous’ place. My favorite definition was that a Nansho is a ‘perilous’ temple. The idea behind it is that even in this day and age, with bus and motorcycle Henro becoming the popular way to travel, the folks all decided that each of the four prefectures ought to have at least one reminder of how hard it was to do O-Henro. Of course, the only temple I know of that you can’t drive or take a gondola up to is either 61 or 66, but that’s beside the point. We hiked up a Nansho, and we wanted to make an O-Henro t-shirt. It had taken us seven hours to do 10 miles, and now a couple more hours of hiking lay between us and our hotel.

The walk down was hardest for me, but in a totally different way. It was cooling down, so we didn’t feel so drained, and the hike went faster. It was just harder on my knees, with the constant switchbacks. I started to feel a stabbing pain in the outside of my knee with every step I took (which is why I’m now in PT). Along the way down, we stopped at the statue of Emon Saburo, which marked his grave. The man was really the reason people walk Henro. After rich land owner Emon Saburo was a total jerk to Kobo-Daishi, his sons all rolled up dead. Recognizing it as karma in action, Emon Saburo took off after Kobo-Daishi, following him around the temple circuit, to apologize for being a twit.

After a few rounds of the temple and never being able to catch up, Emon Saburo had a great idea. He’d walk backwards around the temples, and thus was sure to catch up to Kobo-Daishi. Coming up the back of temple Twelve, he had a heart attack and fell down. As he lay there, dying, who should arrive but Kobo-Daishi. Emon Saburo begged for forgiveness, and Kobo-Daishi said he was already forgiven. Then he asked what he could do for Emon Saburo’s next life, and the dying man asked to be reborn as a rich lord, but this time, he’d help the poor. Kobo-Daishi took a stone, wrote on it, put it in Emon’s hand, and then Emon died. He stuck Emon’s Kongo-Tsue (the walking stick) in the ground and a cedar tree bloomed (the tree by the statue is the second generation tree). Emon Saburo and Kobo-Daishi

Nine months later, Lord Iyo had a son who was born with his hand in a fist. A priest was brought to free up the kid’s hand, at which point they found he’d been holding a stone all this time. The stone read ‘I am the reincarnation of Emon Saburo.’ The boy grew up to be a kind and conscientious ruler of his people.

The statue has Emon kneeling before Kobo-Daishi, who is pressing a stone into his hand. Nearby is the tree.

The statue was the half-way marker on our trip from the temple to the hotel, and due to the switchbacks, it felt like a lot longer. I’m not sure if the map was ‘crow files’ distance or true foot pounder. Even though we made it in just over an hour, it felt like two. As we got in, I paused to try and get a couple photos of the koi when Boone called out “You’re not gonna believe who’s here.”

There was the little old lady! She was showered and clean, just chillin’ outside the hotel and having a smoke before dinner. I was astounded since we’d passed her up hours ago and I’d never seen her after that. We asked and, apparently, someone picked her up at the temple and offered to drive her down.

As she and I were the only women at the hotel, and there was but one bathing room, all the boys had to go get clean in a hurry so I could have a long soak before dinner. It’s good to be the Queen sometimes! I sorted out the laundry while I was waiting, and by the time I was cleaned and fed, I was about ready to fall over. There was no AC, a piddly fan (which we aimed at Boone, since he was a fussy sleeper, my knee hurt, and all I wanted was a comfy bed. Instead we got the thinnest futons I’ve ever slept on (my exercise mat is softer), and our door had a ‘window’ into the hallway, where a light was on 24/7. I don’t think any of us slept well, for all that we were in bed by 8pm.


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