Day 14: Hospitality

I woke this morning at 5 a.m., although my alarm was set for 5:30. My body is still getting used to sleeping on fairly hard tatami mats and futon pads that are traditional beds in Japan. After a long day of walking and climbing mountains, my body needed more comfort than that.

Last night when I finally got to take my socks off, I found the blister on the ring toe of my right foot had spread across the entire circumference of my toe. And then proceeded to pop and peel off. I had about 3 inches of skin dangling from that toe, which would explain why the hike up to Temple 24 was even more painful. At least the pads of my feet have calloused over enough now to no longer cause discomfort. It’s hard to prevent blisters from forming when my feet routinely get soaked by rain or sweat or a gross combination of the two. I try to stop a few times a day to let my feet dry out, but that’s not always possible.

The 10 or so henro that stayed in the temple last night were invited to a private prayer ceremony by the head monk at the temple. We were led down a hallway in the temple lodging area to a small prayer room. The temple grounds lodging facility is very modern with plenty of windows to allow you to look out at the incredible scenery that surrounds this facility.

The private prayer was a bit disappointing, as for some reason I was anticipating a lot more show. Instead, the head monk led us all in the recitation of the heart sutra (which I found out my cadence and rhythm has been off the whole time), and then he apparently discussed a cave nearby where Kukai had trained for some time. The monk then gave us a tour of his private quarters. We then met for breakfast and feasted on another huge meal. Not pictured is also bowls of rice and sashimi. I had my first experience with natto, which are fermented soybeans. I had read they smelled and taste awful. They’re depicting in the square styrofoam container in the top right of the photo. In that container are the fermented soybeans which have a tight plastic seal over the top, as well as a small packet of Japanese mustard and soy sauce. Hesitant, but willing to try anything while I’m here, I opened the seal and was greeted with a much less subtle aroma than I expected. It still didn’t smell great, by any means. I applied the mustard and soy sauce and stirred the mixture, which was the sticky consistency of when you make rice krispies treats, except not delicious or as appetizing. The mustard and soy sauce helped mask the flavor. It’s hard to describe the flavor because I couldn’t get passed the weird sticky consistency. I gagged several times as I forced myself to try to eat a few scoops-ful with my chopsticks. Fortunately, I’m still terrible at using chopsticks, so I didn’t actually eat very many. The rest of the meal was delicious, if not overwhelming. 

Following breakfast, we packed our belongings as I still continued to gag on the thought of the natto. Anyone that knows me well knows that I have a terrible gag reflex, and several times per year will throw up in my own sink as I brush my teeth, which means I get to brush them again and risk gagging again. I’m really great at parties. Fortunately, I haven’t thrown up yet in Japan, but for about an hour following natto, that is the closest I have come.

Kazuhiro, Feliz, and I proceeded to go back to the main temple hall for the process and so Kazuhiro and I could collect our stamp since the office was closed by the time we got in last night. There are two ways down the mountain for walking henro, straight west down a steep slope or further first south and toward Kukai’s cave and then adjacent along a major road to where the shorter route drops you off. Kazuhiro said he wanted to go see the cave, so he took the longer route. Feliz and I decided we’d go the shorter route, since we had 22 km to go to get to the next place we wanted to stay. We said goodbye to Kazuhiro at the fork in the road and Feliz and I proceeded to take the more challenging route. We started off walking by several small farms and eventually somehow got off the route, taking small narrow passages through fields and trees. Eventually we ended up on the further, southern, route, sliding down rainslick rocks and dead, dead leaves and climbing over, under, and around fallen trees. We saw a snake, but it looked harmless enough. It’s the second one I have seen so far, the first one having nearly scared the crap out of me. 

Eventually Feliz and I made it to the roadway fairly unscathed, although my toe hurt like hell. We walked for a mile or two until we got a shop she wanted to visit to get some yuzu to take home with her. I decided to sit near the beach with my socks and shoes off and make some phone calls to my family while my feet dried out. I told Feliz I’d probably take a bus most of the route today to give my toe a break and she pushed on. After an hour or so of watching the waves crash against the rocky shore, I started walking again and made it a couple miles before a bus came by and picked me up. I took the bus about 15 km and hopped off, planning to walk the rest of the way. I walked by a bakery that smelled like heaven so I walked in and decided to sample a few of the different offerings. I ordered a roll which had pieces of ham wrapped around green onion and covered in cheese (not that great), a roll with a yellow custard that ended up neither being sweet nor tart, and a roll filled with piped whipped cream, sort of similar to a filled doughnut. This last one was surprisingly sweet. 

I went to the restroom and came back out to find a glass of iced tea waiting for me, as osettai from the cashier. I asked the cashier if I could stay for a couple hours to work on my computer and she indicated that would be fine. After an hour or so, the apparent manager or owner of the bakery brought me an iced coffee as osettai. The people here are wonderful. I finished up my work and started walking toward my place I would be staying, first meeting Udensiro (the Japanese gentleman walking with Feliz a few days prior) enjoying an ice cream cone on this hot day at a Lawson’s convenience store. He indicated he would be walking to near the beginning of the hike to Temple 27 and finding a hotel to stay at there. He wanted to save himself the 5 km walk Feliz and I would have in the morning. We said goodbye and I walked a few more kilometers to my place of stay for the night, a beautiful Henro House owned by an energetic Japanese woman named Misono.

Earlier in the morning, Kazuhiro said he would try to phone Misono and make reservations for Feliz and I for the night. He was unable to reach her when we separated, so I showed up hoping he had been able to make the reservation. I walked in and Misono greeted me with a big welcome and spoke very good English. I learned she was a former English and math teacher, but now runs this small inn out of her own home. For 3,000 yen per night (roughly 30 US dollars), henro get a private room with access to laundry and baths. For an extra 700 yen, she takes the henro to the nearby onsen and gives them a ticket for entrance. Breakfast is 700 yen and dinner is 1200 yen. I told her I would like to take a nap while waiting for Feliz before we went to the onsen so Misono wouldn’t have to make so many trips. I fell asleep for an hour or two before Misono woke me up concerned about Feliz. I told her it would be alright and that Feliz probably stopped at more shops. Another hour came and went without any sign of Feliz and Misono was getting worried about her. She told me to go with her to find Feliz, so we drove the 20 km back to where I last saw Feliz at the shop that morning with no sign of her. On the way, we stopped and talked to a very tired Kazuhiro. Kazuhiro had grand ambitions of walking the 30 km to the base of Temple 27’s climb, hiking all the way up and back down, and then catching a bus to see his family in nearby Kochi City. When we found him, he was still 10 km away from Misono’s house, having a very rough day. He refused to accept a ride, wanting to continue to push on, but there was no way he would make it before the temple closed. Misono and I went back to her house to see if Feliz had arrived, which of course she did. It was really sweet and uplifting to see a stranger so worried about one of her guests. Misono took Feliz and I to the onsen and told us to spend a few hours there and she would pick us up. 

The nearby onsen was a beautiful facility. This onsen felt like a community center, with areas for families to play ping pong, a small library, and plenty of furniture to relax or meet at. I got naked with more naked Japanese men and scrubbed myself down, sitting on an impossibly small bucket. This onsen had a sauna, cold tub, hot tub with reclining seats with jets, a big super hot tub, and an outdoor area. I decided to try to take a nap in one of the reclining seats with jets when a young Japanese boy came in and started running around the place and splashing water all over. I can’t fault him for having a good time, it was just a bit alarming from the peace and quiet to suddenly being splashed with the ice water from the nearby cold pool. It was also super uncomfortable being naked around a naked child. As I went outside to find more quiet, the young boy was sliding on his stomach down the marble separator between the cold pool and the reclined seats in the hot tub. At the foot of this marble separator is a drain with a metal grate over the top. The boy went down the “slide” dozens of times, each time getting closer and closer to the metal grate. He was one particularly memorable slide away from a much less pleasurable life after a trip over the human cheese grater. I dried off and left. 

Back at Misono’s, Feliz and I found Kazuhiro had arrived to also stay the night. Misono shared with all of us the sushi and other takeout she had purchased at the nearby supermarket, even though none of us ordered or requested dinner. This was her osettai. Misono, Kazuhiro, Feliz and I stayed up for several hours talking and getting to know each other even better. Feliz and I remarked how funny things have a way of working out in the world, where we met by chance a few days ago for a brief moment and then Kazuhiro and I joining up with her again the next night. The energy in the room was incredible, and it’s funny how good food and shared experiences can bring people from different worlds together. I went to bed feeling very satisfied with the day, toe be damned.

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