Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The 88 Temple Adventure - A long way from Galicia

One big question we always ask ourselves when contemplating a long distance walk is “will I be ok on my own?” I think this is particularly so for women who are thinking about walking solo.

As I lay in my sickbed on that first day I was very glad that Stephen had been with me when I became ill. He sorted out things at the accommodation and with the aid of the trusty translator he even phoned a taxi and spoke in Japanese! What’s more, it arrived to pick us up.

But let’s jump forward a bit to look at this question of walking companions. In our 50 days walking around the island we encountered few other Western pilgrims.  We crossed paths with three other solo walkers all of whom gave up and went home after a while due to injuries. We met a young man and a girl from France. When we bumped into the lad later on he was walking alone as his girlfriend had abandoned the pilgrimage. Whether she had also abandoned their relationship was not clear.
Louise the Intrepid 
Then we met young Louise from England. In her early 20’s she was not only walking on her own, she was she also camping each night. At this time of year the leaves were changing colour and you could see your breath in the cold morning and evening air so her pack held her tent and all the gear for a winter hike. Not only that,  Louise was visiting both the 88 Temples and also the lesser  “Bangai” temples. A total of 1400kms. 
We met together back in Tokushima when we had all finished and she said that she had encountered few problems as a woman walking alone and none she couldn’t handle. I admired her greatly for her sense of adventure and sheer guts. We very much enjoyed our encounters when our paths crossed on the way. 
Later we met Akari a Japanese girl also in her 20's walking solo and like many other Japanese henro we met she was making the pilgrimage in stages.
So I think it boils down to personal preferences.  It is perfectly feasible to walk the route solo whether you are male or female. But remember although some people in the hotels in the larger cities speak English this is not the norm. Therefore for me it proved beneficial to be walking with a friend – for companionship, for assistance when I was ill, for help finding the route, for conversations in English at the end of the day. 
But back to the sick bed...
About 7 pm that evening, just when I was feeling very sorry myself, there was a knock at the door. I thought it was yet another visit from the overactive hotel staff. I was astonished when it was the Big Man.  He explained that we had been looking at the route as a continuous line around the island without understanding the guidebook.  Basically the guide is a set of very detailed maps – like ordinance survey maps only with every detail marked on them: places, post offices, ATM machines, accommodation, restaurants etc. And because they are maps of the route in the context of the surrounding area you could also see the train lines and train stations. As it happened Stephen had worked out that he could walk 23 kms that day plus another 0.5 kms to a station where he caught a train back to Tokushima. He reckoned that he could do that for several days going forward.
The first few days of illness turned into a week before I could start to move around and even think about having normal solid food. The thought of eating the raw eggs they serve every morning for breakfast, or raw fish or raw anything, brought on waves of nausea. I had to be careful. Here the guide proved invaluable because marked very clearly were the many convenience stores and restaurants along the way which served alternatives to sashimi and other traditional Japanese fare. The funny thing is these places were always full of Japanese people eating spaghetti bolongese or pizza.
Those first days really helped us get used to walking using the maps in the guidebook. Eventually we were able to plan forward sufficiently to ask one hostel to telephone our bookings ahead, often several days at a time. There were times where this proved essential when there were many pilgrims walking on the same holiday weekend for example.

If I were walking this route again I think I would definitely stay in Tokushima for the first three or four nights returning by train in the evening. These would be an opportunity to recover from jet lag and then to start walking gently in order to get used to reading the map.
Understanding the map meant we could plan stages where the distance between accommodation was not too great.  On several occasions where public transport was nearby we booked into a hostel and returned there for up to three nights each morning getting the train back to where we had left off the night before. The map reveals the mount of kilometres until you can get breakfast or a hot drink, use the toilet and buy carry-out food if there is no other shop for miles ahead.
In addition to the map the route is generally very well waymarked with arrows and signposts. There are also special signs on the route as well as indications in the guidebook when the trail is particularly difficult. We never got lost once although there were one or two occasions when we found we were not walking exactly on the route and had to navigate back to it using the maps in the guidebook.
Another question is how much it costs. The guidebook estimates the cost at 400,000 yen or 3000€ if pilgrims use small inns or hotels. This figure doesn’t include travel to Japan. I walked in October and November of last year and I think this is an underestimate and I would advise having at least 4000€ available. This includes any emergency fund. There are ATM machines along the way including in every Post Office so it is easy to top up cash.   Private accommodation is provided all along the route at some Temples, minshuku and ryokens (family run inns) small hotels and larger hotels in the cities. In small and large hotels a Henro Discount is often available – ask for it! These larger establishments also take credit cards.
The accommodation on the route is of varying standard despite the amount charged. Whilst the beds were always clean often the rest of the places left a lot to be desired. Be prepared.
A few of the temples have pilgrim accommodation available for a donation. These were mostly bare rooms with a tatami covered floor. Along the way there are euphemistically named “pilgrim shelters” which are basically covered park benches.
All of these are marked in the guidebook along with all of the other information you will need: accommodation, language, history, communications and much, much more. It is the best guidebook I have ever used.
As I recovered I was able to start going out for walks. One of the things we spotted on the map was a Catholic Church in Tokushima. In Buddhist Japan these are few and far between and so off we went in search of Mass. We found the church and knocked at the door of what we assumed was the Priest’s House. A portly man wearing a Japanese house jacket came to the door. It was obvious he wasn’t Japanese. I asked if he spoke English. He said, “Yes” and I recognised a familiar accent. “De donde es usted?” I asked in Spanish. He roared with laughter. “I’m from Navarra originally” he explained. “Where are you two from?” he enquired. “We’re Scottish and we work with the pilgrims who arrive in Santiago de Compostela”  I answered. “My sister lives in Verin in Galicia“  he said, “do you know it?” “Yes”, I replied, “It is on the Via de la Plata which was the very first route I walked which in  many ways has led me to your doorstep.”
The Mass was in Japanese but at the sermon he asked Stephen to speak to the congregation which he did in Spanish and the priest translated into Japanese.  The people applauded their encouragement  for the “O Henro –san” who were starting the journey to the 88 Temples. At the end of Mass people bowed deeply to us and wished us well. Several people quietly pressed money into our hands. “Offerings for the Temples” they whispered.     
I got better by the end of week two and it came time to leave the Station Hotel and Sanae who had helped me so much. What she didn’t realise was that she and many other Japanese people were beginning to teach me a life lesson I had not expected.  

Until next time

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