May 18, 2016

Are you experienced, pilgrim? (Part II)

Day 3: Payback
We made a tactical error by not finishing at temple #10 on day 2.  Not being able to start the day’s hike there added a few kilometers to day 3’s tally as payback.  So Dad and I were out of the hotel and back at the gates of temple #9 quite early. Pitter-patter—we had to hoof it.
Dedicated scientist that he is, pop had calculated that a walking speed of about 5 km per hour would be necessary to reach the next temple by a decent time figuring in the distance and available daylight for the day’s expected journey of nearly 30 kms. Thus, we hauled ass across Tokushima city’s comparatively flat terrain and rivers that lie in the valley between its northern hills and the mountains to the south.
We got lost near temple #10, further complicating matters.  I went over to ask an elderly farmer, who was serenely tending his field, for directions, but when he looked up he was so startled to see a Caucasian guy asking for something that I could almost see a giant “WTF!!$?”dialogue bubble form over his head. He probably didn’t expect that when he woke up that morning! After recovering his stoicism, we all chuckled and he pointed out the right way.

Pop and I pressed on. Ate a perfunctory lunch at temple #11 and headed up the steep mountain trail, which was brutal. We were facing up to 600+ meters elevation from the valley floor, quite draining after about 17 kms done crossing the city that morning. Kept on going with the right amount of rest stops and water.
Luckily, the weather cooperated, and we were smart about it: not too fast, not too slow, so confidence levels and morale remained high. Took in some panoramic views of Tokushima’s cityscape but then we turned into the mountain’s guts and climbed toward our goal,  temple #12, Shosanji, and its hilltop shrine.
We saw only a few other hikers on this trail. Some of the people we’d chatted with said our goal to reach #12 that day was a ‘temple too far’ and pushing the envelope of good sense. Yes, it was bullish but we had little choice—our lodging was booked but still many clicks away on the downslope of Shosanji. So we just kept going, laughing sometimes, conversation flagging on the steep parts because we had no extra breath for chitchat, then back to talkative on the flat parts. Looming fatigue.
When sunshine broke through the dense forest foliage,  I’d hear an internal soundtrack in the quiet spells, and occasionally Jimi Hendrix would make an appearance—appropriate given the mystical element to our hike:
Are You Experienced?
Ah! Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have.
Finally, after the third steep section of the trail that crested the mountain passes, we made it to temple #12. Hallelujah! Dad rang the bell at the shrine, informing Kukai and God that we’d made it. It was the highest point of our trip, the closest we got to the heavens, as it were. Time to rock the Kasbah.
Then we descended down the trail to a traditional Japanese inn about four clicks from the shrine. We arrived, bathed and soaked our tired dogs, then were slightly chastised by innkeeper for not coming to dinner at the appointed time—within 5 minutes of the cowbell rung at 1830! He sported wild Beethoven hair and a manic demeanor, but the dinner was a sumptuous set course of super-healthy Japanese fare.

Day 4: Blisters and Bliss
Despite the path to semi-enlightenment I’d been following, I’ll admit to checking my email and the weather over a canned coffee the next morning. The kooky proprietor popped his head into our room doorway ("hey, let’s go. breakfast.") just after the other guests – also pilgrims from the look of them – obediently went to breakfast. Huh? So we artlessly downed the calories, packed up, and started down the highway toward the next temple.  My feet were not amused by the cumulative punishment delivered the previous days, but we got into the rhythm again quickly. Dad and I followed the route that we'd planned along the highway but only after some 10 kms did I realize I goofed slightly by taking a southern route. ZOINKS. I had been a moderately successful navigator so far during our hike hither and yon but this was a pure misread that added 4 kms to the journey.  But, in so doing, we avoided some major up and down trails. In any case, it was another slog to get to temple 13, but we completed the 20-odd kms in a few hours. Stopped at a 7-11 and cleared the mechanism. Temples 14, 15 and 16 all held their own charms, but for me, it was all starting to blur together. Dad appeared to be moderately less into it, too. Temples became like fine wine: the first one was like a Chateau Lafite 1961, but after a few glasses of other vintages, it all started to taste like a Carlo Rossi jug plonk. The standout feature was this funkadadelic private trucker’s wheels—zowie
Finally, thankfully, we made it to our "final" temple, #17 a.k.a Idoji. It was the last time, so I paid more attention to the rituals expected: first bowing at the temple gate, then washing my hands and mouth with the purified water near the entrance, and Dad’s announcing our arrival to Kukai by ringing the temple's bell. Lingered there a bit longer than the prior four, taking it all in, but it was clear the walking part of trip was over. A pleasant numbness tinged with humility. It’s a cliché, but there was a tangible sense of accomplishment to complete what we had aimed to do. Dad rang one more bell to signal our triumph. I can only imagine what it must feel like to walk the entire pilgrimage to 88 temples. Maybe one day I’ll find out.
This isn't Idoji temple, but is the best Batman and Robin photo of us 
What I learned:
- (Re-learned) that it’s good to occasionally bite off more than you can chew
- Parent-child bonding remains important even when the child is middle-aged!
- Take a good map and guide book on the 88 temple pilgrimage
- Nothing beats one-on-one time with your parents to get better insight into each other’s lives
- Healthy outdoor activity does put things in perspective

I could conclude with a steaming pile of father-son bonding bromides. I won’t.
This ending is simple, Spartan, apt: Dad, you da man.

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