Friday, 24 April 2015

to be a pilgrim

On the way to temple no. 45 we pause for a breather at a lay-by.  A farmer's truck pulls up and an old man gets out and says hello.  He reaches into his cab and passes us a couple of oranges before getting back in and driving off.  Fabulous - we can't afford to buy oranges all the time even though they're delicious.  It's only when we eat them that we realise he probably thought we were on the henro, the pilgrimage.  Down in the town below the temple it's a lively Sunday at the michi o neki.  This road station has a big shop selling local produce, a cafe, a tourist information and a man busking.  There are carpark guardians directing arrivals and departures.  No, don't put your bike here, put it over there.  Our bikes don't have stands and we can't hang them on the bike rack put out for the road cyclists out for a Sunday spin on their lightweight Italian bikes.  No, we'll just lean them up against the post, thanks mate.  The car park guardians are all quite old and might be volunteers.  Just before, we stopped at the public toilets which are spotless. Heated seats, endless bog roll, soap and fresh-cut flowers.  I feel like moving in.  In many villages we come across little old ladies with rubber gloves giving everything a clean.  We guess they are volunteers too.  

Teddy Bears At Work - this one is clearly a fan of The Smiths
There's a hill to climb after our break here, of indeterminate height.  The main road drills right through the mountain to reach Matsuyama.  But cylists are directed onto the old road over the top.  Happily the climb is not fierce nor too long.  We are stunned by the view from the top, looking out over a sprawling city to the Inland Sea - we feel so high up.  This sense of height is exaggerated by the steep descent.  The road is fairly quiet until we join the main road appearing out of the mountain's backside.  Hurtling down and around one of those loop-the loop roads that the Japanese road builders are fond of, buses and trucks and cars breathing down our necks, we suddenly break off down a single-track lane which swoops down the remainder of the mountainside.  We know it's a good route because we pass pilgrims in their white clothes and we're heading for Temple No. 47 too.  It's set on the edge of the urban sprawl in a peaceful neighbourhood, on the edge of a hill and where fields and small reservoirs are dotted between the houses.  

It's incredibly peaceful.  Behind the temple is the biggest cemetery we've come across - a spread of marble graves over the hillside.  Most of the time we find small cemeteries dotted about the place here and there, but this one is on a city-scale.  After visiting the temple and doing a bit of laundry Gayle scouts out a camp spot on a tree-lined ledge above the cemetery.  There is a small and tidy hut for pilgrims to sleep in, and one of the temple guardians who is sweeping the grounds asks if we are sleeping there.  But it's a small room and we are happy in our tent, we explain.  He then motions to the vending machine and offers to buy us cold drinks.  We say thanks, but no thanks, really, but he's insistent despite our efforts and in the end gives us a 1000 yen note (about £5) to get something.  We are very embarrassed but feel obliged to accept.  Oh dear, does he think we are doing the pilgrimage by bicycle?  Do we look like down-andouts doing our laundry in the car park?  We push our bikes up the hill and eat our tea with a classy view over the land, sun setting over the sea in the distance.


Number 48
The morning brings forth yet another glorious sunny day - we feel we have finally escaped the clutches of the spring rains and are determined to make the most of the sunshine because we know Japan's rainy season is ahead of us.  We eat breakfast at a table set on a lawn by some graves.  One plinth has a stone dog sitting loyally by its owner.  One has a marble Hello Kitty.  We follow the way-marking signs for pilgrims along back roads and quiet lanes through fields and Japanese suburbia to reach Temple No. 48.  The temples all have names but I like the numbers.  It's mid-morning and there are some weary walkers already seeking water and shade inside the temple grounds, whilst the majority of visitors are getting in and out of their cars in the car park.  Each temple has a small collection of buildings.  We are not afficionados, but one is the main shrine, some look like they could be used to host ceremonies, and some look like residences for monks or visitors.  There's always toilets, a nice garden, a large bell, sometimes ornamental ponds.  Just as we are leaving a man hands us oranges from a large boxfull he is taking inside.

such good-looking pilgrims
We skirt the city and find our way to Temple 49 where we meet Gabriel and Jeff just moving on.  We spotted these two Aussies a couple of days ago, at the end of the day, with their rucksacks and rollmats, and we thought they were probably Spanish or Portuguese.  And then again the day before at a rest stop, we saw Jeff and thought, oh, he's a Japanese pilgrim with a tan.  But now we finally get to chat to them and get their story.  They are passed halfway on their pilgrimage - something Gabriel wanted to do after teaching here a few years ago.  He persuaded Jeff to join him and they've survived the rains and managed the route without having to pay for accommodation.  For like us, Japan is only affordable if you're not paying for transport and accomodation all the time.  I don't know if it's a testament to their strength and speed or our slothfulness, but they have managed to ovetake us on foot within a matter of a day and a half.  Happily, we learn they slept in the hut at Temple no. 47 last night, so our decision to camp meant they had the small space to themselves.

no, that's not our laundry
After visiting one more temple, one that is being used predominantly by locals, we ride into the city centre and have a look around.  It's the biggest city we've been in since reaching Japan and we're surprised at the big roads and spread of the city.  The good news is how most of the traffic seems to be bicycles.  Sitting outside a supermarket with the bikes while Gayle disappears for a long time to shop, I watch shoppers come and go.  Before we reached Japan, we expected to find lots of cool and trendy Japanese in whacky clothes.  The reality is that so far, we have seen a rather homogenous group of people who all seem to dress in the same muted colours, casual but very smart, kind of utilitarian.  Disappointingly dull, really.  Clearly we will have to get to Tokyo to see the really cool Japanese.  But as I watch I come to the conclusion that everyone here is cool.  They are nearly all riding bicycles, and the bicycle of choice is the mamachari - literally old lady's bike. Males and females of all ages, all stripes, are cycling.  We have seen the same in all the towns and cities.  Kochi felt like Stockholm.  A young guy with badly dyed hair and saggy jeans lights a cigarette, sticks his shopping in the basket of the crappiest bike in the lot, and pootles off looking like the hip-hop gangsta he surely is.  A young woman in high heels and tight skirt suit hops off her bicycle and steps into the store in one smooth action.  A middle-aged business man is mooching off in low-gear and has to stop suddenly as an octogenarian spinster in trademark apron and bonnet zips across his path. Kids in school uniforms pass by in droves, rattling along the pavement.  Every single person is sitting too low on their seat, Easy Rider style.  These Japanese folk are cool.

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