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Off on a spring tangent on the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage

by Amy Chavez

This week 14 years ago, I finished a five-week, 1,350 km journey running the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage. One of the axioms of the pilgrimage is: “You will, and must, get lost.” I envision the great master Kobo Daishi, the patron saint of the pilgrimage, with a huge map of the pilgrimage in front of him, assigning ambulatories to go off on tangents in order to test their will power and tenacity as pilgrims. “What curveball can I throw at this young foreign woman?” he says, watching me plod my way from temple 70 to 71. “Ahhh, I know just the thing . . .”

It was a clear, starry night when I left the sento (public bath). I walked along the road looking for a decent bus stop to sleep in but, upon spying a river, decided to amble along the water’s edge instead. Parks in Japan are often built along riverbanks in an attempt to create open public spaces that don’t interfere with the flow of traffic and the construction of office buildings in the city. These green spaces are ideal for bicycle paths, quiet park benches, barbecue areas and, hopefully, nojuku (sleeping outside).

I followed the bicycle path until I saw a grassy area with a tree. Here, I laid down my rain gear to use as a ground cloth and put my sleeping bag on top. My waist pack served as my pillow, and I stretched out, looking up at the stars. A gorgeous night! Except for one thing. I smelled doggie doo-doo.

I jumped onto my hands and knees and sniffed around for the source. I have learned that the smell of excrement has special powers to move people. Back at Tomita train station near temple 58, the smell from the toilet was so bad I had to change train stations. This time, however, I found the doo-doo and was able to remove it by flicking it into the river.

Returning to my previous position on top of my sleeping bag, I stretched out again. Ahhh, a gorgeous night! Until a caterpillar fell out of the tree and onto my pillow! I gathered my things and decided to move on and find a different place to stay, one not near a river nor under a tree.

I jogged on along the roadside until there were no more street lights. As I moved out into the countryside, the streets got darker, and each time I passed a house, the sound of my padding footsteps set off dogs barking.

Eventually, I came upon a soccer field. The soccer ground itself was too wet and muddy, but the bleachers were just right. At least they were above the damp ground. I put down my ground cloth, sleeping bag and pillow again, lay down and waited for sleep. But sleep didn’t come.

Perhaps it was the whirring of the motorcycles dragging up and down the streets nearby, or maybe it was the wild dogs hanging out in the soccer field barking at me, but I just couldn’t sleep.

At 1 a.m., the wind kicked up. Although the body is very good at storing the heat from a hot bath, by now my body had cooled down and I was shivering. I had to get moving to keep warm. What the heck, I may as well set out for the next temple, No. 71, Temple of the Never-Ending Valley.

A couple hours later, I came upon a small desolate train station. The trains had stopped for the night and the station attendant was long gone. The lights were on inside, presumably for security since most country train stations in Japan are just open buildings with no doors. I laid out my rain gear and sleeping bag on the bench inside, sure that I’d be able to sleep this time. The bench was comfortable enough. But the lights had attracted all sorts of insects who now descended upon me as if I was pie a la mode. Again, I gathered my things and moved on, setting off another trail of barking dogs as I passed the houses on the dark streets.

It’s hard enough to find your way around Japan during the day, but after dark, it’s nearly impossible. Places just disappear after dark. I’m not sure where they go, but they are definitely not there. Then at dawn, someone comes around and puts the places back.

I know this is true because this is what happened when I tried to find temple 71. By 4 a.m. I was at the temple, according to the map, but I couldn’t quite find it in the dark. I walked exactly as the map told me to, which turned out to be a big mistake.

My destination was a park right in front of the entrance to the temple. But the map looked like I had to go up a path into the mountains. Like many other temples, it was possible that this temple was located at the top of the mountain. I walked and walked through the woods for an hour, and even though I could see the ground well enough on the clear, starry night, I couldn’t see where the temple was. I trudged on, but I was very, very tired. Surely it would be a mistake, at this point, to go any deeper into the woods. But to walk back out of the woods would have taken a long time, too. Exhausted and not sure what to do next, I lay down in the middle of the woods and slept.

The next morning, I walked back down the mountain. At the bottom was temple 71. It was right where I had come from! See? Now that it was daylight, someone had put the temple back. And I think I know who it was.

This is an excerpt from Amy Chavez’s recently released book, “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment.”