The Longest Day

The last day was long and short. It was my least favorite kind of Henro-ing, being the kind on roads (in this case, I think we were walking along a highway) and we got lost a couple times. On the other hand, we only walked about 6km and the rest of the time we took the rail or the bus.

Eight days of walking. Eight days of being a stranger. Eight days of eating what food was presented to me. Eight days of not speaking the language. Eight days of sleeping on futons on tatami. Eight days of bathrooms that were really bath rooms. Eight days were one of my daily quests was finding the Western toilet.

Eight days were now at an end.

Everyone was drained. At one point or another, we were too hoot, too tired, too sore, and so on. And yet not a single one of us were sorry we did this. Most people were nice to us. A few were indifferent, but none had been rude to me. I was tired, sunburnt, bug bitten and sore. Every time I moved a different muscle protested anew, and my collar bone was rubbed raw from my pack’s chest strap.

And yet.

I think I understand why people do this more than once. It’s something quite extra-ordinary in 2008 to be able to make this kind of a journey. To quest without an obvious end goal readily in sight. To wander through a rural island on a nation considered to be little more than the glittering pinacle of the modern world. And it is, but it’s also the old, traditional ways, with gardens in backyards for food by every house and a bonsai in the yard. It is a different world, a culture that remains unfamiliar but now makes a little more sense.

To state the obvious, the Japanese are people. They can be funny, erudite, mean, nice and crude. They wear a veneer of helpful politeness as they want us to enjoy our stay in a way they think we’re familiar with, but they’re delighted when we eat new foods without fear. They avoid us at times, but accept our personal prostrations of apology when we make a mistake. Maybe this was because I walked O-Henro and I tried hard not to be that ignorant gaijin who only eats familiar food. Maybe it was just because I’m me, and a strange halo surrounds my adventures.

Things were different there, but the same, thank you Bill and Ted. I felt more human and humane than I had been for months. I was inspired to wanderlust, but I knew how content I’d been to get home with my friends, family and cats and enjoy a damn pizza. I missed TV and Radio in my native tongue, but I knew I’d miss things like a commercial where hot women in bikinis turned into dudes with goatees, still in the bikini.

You can’t make these things up.

From temple 22, we walked to the train and then up 500 meters of (mostly) stairs, to 23, back down them to the train, and the train to home. Some of us went, by train or foot, to temple 24, 70km away, but we went home. The rail to Tokushima and then a two hour bus to Kobe. Somewhere along the way I gave up on shoes and went to flipflops.

I was sad, as we reached Tokushima. I already missed the quiet, and the city felt unreal, fake, as if it was the Disneyland version of the world; a place that was only what I made it out to be. Yet there was no Disney joy or childlike exuberance. I was merely the 16th century man in the 21st century world.

I wrote ‘A Gaijin’s Journey’ once. That’s not what this became. I didn’t tour as a gaijin, or explore as a tourist. I slept on tatami, mastered a Japanese toilet, ate the local foods and enjoyed the local beauty. I’ve been to a natural spa and climbed 750 meters above sea level. I found that just because my journey wasn’t for my religion, it wasn’t made any less spiritual and moving.

There is no conclusion, no earth shattering retrospective to say ‘Aha! This is who I am!’ I’ve always been pretty aware of my self. I just hope I’m lucky enough to go back again.


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