If every other Henro from our hotel hadn’t been on the same bus, I might have felt a little guilty. But. We’d all had a shit-kicker of a hike, followed by a painful night with no AirCon (AC to me), a morning that started at 4am with a rooster I promptly named C’oq au Vin, and we were pretty much all pooped. Obaa-san (the little old lady) and the young strong guys were all with us on the bus, and we Henro filled up the bus when it came. Thankfully we were all clean and had been able to wash our clothes.
From Temple 12 to 13 was 13k on it’s own, but the bus zipped us along a welcoming river where, even at 8am, families were camped out trying to beat the heat. There were innertubers and swimmers, people setting up coolers and barbecues, and then, of course, folks just relaxing. Even from the bus we could see the trout jumping while the swans and cranes got their feet wet. I was struck by a mad desire to get out and walk, just to better admire the day. My father wanted to go fly fishing. Neither of us did these things.
At Temple 13, we four became six and change, when our friends from the last hotel decided to hike with us. Obaa-san and the young man, as well as the fellow with swollen feet, and another young man who was camping outside everything, walked with us for the entire day. This was normal, to pick up traveling companions as you went along. The walking was much easier, even though it was hotter and less windy. I didn’t even mind we were walking through towns. Most likely it was because there were no hills, but also the company was nice. I began to think of the day as a stroll. On the hike to Temple 12, I’d had no idea how far I’d gone or how long I’d been walking far, or how far we had left to go. I had existed in a little, surreal, bubble. Now I was easily measuring distance, time, and my own pace.
Still, the heat was painful on our joints, and we stopped frequently to pick up cool water at every opportunity. At one such 7-11, the owner insisted we stop and partake of his fresh, home-grown, tomatoes. We ended up carrying them along in our packs, as we couldn’t eat that many.
After having been to only one temple the day before, the subsequent five were so close that we zipped past them in almost a blur. Temple 14 was the moon landing temple, and was only a half kilometer away from temple fifteen (which had been newly rebuilt after burning down). Sadly, at this point we ran into hordes of bus and car Henro.
We lost our hiking companions between 16 and 17, because we made a pit stop at our hotel. Most minshuku are open from 3pm to 9am, and they’re much more like a B&B than a hotel. You get 2 meals, bathing privileges, and a room with tatami floors and thin mattresses. The problem was that since we’d taken the bus partway, we were hours too early. It was only noon! The rooms weren’t ready, and we didn’t want the owner to fuss over us. We did leave our bags, as a promise to return and stay there, and went on to get lunch in town.
This was the first, and only, time on Henro that I did not eat Japanese food. Instead, we had Chinese. The only real difference between Japanese style Chinese food, and American style Chinese food, that I noticed was the food was less saucy. It was wonderful, though, and as chance would have it, our walking partners caught up with us! Since the restaurant was empty, we politely waited for them to eat and cool off before taking them to Temple 17.
At lunch I kept thinking that nothing I had read or been told sufficiently prepared me for Henro. Even having read Oliver Statler’s Japanese Pilgrimage after my trip, I feel like the only thing I know about Henro is not enough. By this point in my journey, I’d walked two-thirds of our intended route along the Dojo of Awakening Faith. I had to begin accepting the possibility that I, a self-professed writer, was unable to explain or prepare anyone for Henro.
The devout Buddhists I asked told me that Henro was simply Henro. The pilgrimage is a private journey, and while anyone can tell you what to pack and how to travel safely, no one can tell you what to expect on an internal voyage. When my time is shared with my brother, we learn about our shared loves — comics, TV, RPGs, and music. We trade stories about school, life, religion, our father and his wives. But while we may spend an hour or five talking, we spend at least equal time in our own silence.
And that’s what I can’t explain.
At Temple 13, I talked to the fellow who was camping outside everything. He was about my age and planned to visit all 88 temples. He and I chatted about religions and America, while we waited behind a woman who was getting books stamped for the dozen people in her tour group. He wanted to know how many people in America knew about this (few) and if we were all Christians (mostly), and why I was there. While we parted ways at Temple 17, I spent a lot of time thinking about his questions.
Temple 17 was frustrating and really interesting at the same time. There were hordes upon hordes of tourists there. While I cheerfully accept people who choose to bicycle, drive or motorcycle Henro, the bus people who were being led by guides bothered me. It’s not that it’s an invalid way to visit O-Henro, and in truth I’m thrilled that these people are getting out there. They were just so damn noisy. It was almost like being back in the US again, with the sound of chattering and gossiping, and then sometimes prayer. All the serenity was sucked out of the experience. We took time to look down the well where, if you don’t see your reflection, you’ll come to a bad end soon. I wanted to bring some of the water back for my cousins, but Dad reminded me I’d never get the liquid past security. Instead, we talked about imagery, reflection and dream visualization, pulling in Helen Keller and The Who’s Tommy as our references.
The day ended up being a cooker, in the high 80s, with no humidity, and it sucked the life right out of me. The hotel’s bath was so hot, I could barely get in it and had to soak my body by degrees. The rooms were huge, though I later found out they’d given us two rooms due to the hotel being mostly empty. Even with a good, long rest at Temple 17, we were still at the hotel a little early, and ended up showered and soaked with two hours to go. I didn’t feel as tired, but I ended up falling asleep before dinner. After dinner we watched baseball.
Dad’s favorite team is the Tigers, who are a mix of the Cubs, Indians and Red Sox — everyone loves them, and they always lose. Two or three years ago, they had the best record in baseball, and lost the series in four straight games. And they lost big. We’re talking 10-2 and 13-4 big. The game went very fast. They start at 6pm and have to be done by 10pm, so everyone can catch a train home and be at work tomorrow at a decent hour. They’re by far superior to the current level you see in the US, and yet they have rules limited the number of gaijin you can have on a team because it’s an advantage. If they only knew.