Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The 88 Temple Adventure – Starting and stopping

Dear Friends

My first letter was basically a warning about how difficult the 88 Temple Route is. But don’t be put off too much. I also wrote: “Walking the 88 Temple Route was a great adventure. It was a wonderful and enriching experience. I grew to love the people, my fellow pilgrims, the stunning scenery, the pilgrim traditions, the peace and solitude, the hours of quiet reflection and times of fellowship with others at the end of the day.”

If you are thinking about walking this epic route you will have lots of questions. Among my top 10 were the following: Will I be ok on my own? What if I become ill? How will I cope with the language?  

Little did I know that shortly after setting out I would have answers to all of them.
The Shikoku adventure began some months before the late October departure. Last year was a very busy one in Santiago and I knew I needed a break. Following hours of reading on the internet I was hooked. Japan here I come. Then I made what turned out to be the best decision ever. Stephen my best friend and frequent walking companion had been in Santiago for most of the season helping with the various projects. He was due to leave when I gently suggested that instead of returning to boring old London he might like to come to Japan and walk 1200kms. If I tell you that Stephen will not eat sushi under any circumstances you will realise that he was not persuaded at first. However when he read about the route and its mystical beginnings with the founder of Shingon Bhuddism in Japan, Kōbō Daishi in the 8th century his interest was piqued. Then like me he got drawn into the excitement of the impending adventure. Flights were booked and the guidebook ordered.

Buying the guidebook translated by David Moreton and available here was the second best decision I made. However it did not appear so at first. Although the introduction and pages of notes on the history of the route was interesting the “guidebook” appeared to me to simply be a book of maps. Where were the walking instructions: “turn left at the arrow on the oak tree”, “keep straight on to the bust stop and turn right”? Also there were no suggested daily stages with clearly written summaries of the accommodation available.
I was also vaguely conscious that we were going to a land where we didn’t know one word of the language. I must confess that I was blasé about this. Although I speak reasonably good Spanish I know that tens of thousands of pilgrims walk in Spain without a word and manage. We would be fine. I was sure.
Being busy, time passed quickly until the projects closed and the last volunteers went home. Around then my trusty old Blackberry telephone started to play up. I went off to the phone shop and without knowing it I made the third best decision when I bought a Smartphone. One friend told me what to buy so I didn’t need to take a separate camera and charger and another showed me how to download a translation app. Just in case.
There was little time for any other preparation save packing our rucksacks and  setting off on the long flight. Our plan was to study the guidebook on the way and practice a few phrases in Japanese. Fortunately our friend Kat (Letter 1) had helped book our bus tickets from Osaka airport to Tokushima from which it was only a short train journey to Temple One.
Within minutes of landing reality started to set in. We couldn’t understand a word of what people were saying. We couldn’t read any of the signs. We had difficulty working the cash machine until we found one with an English option so we could understand the withdrawal limits. Fortunately we understood the symbol for the toilets and Starbucks.
On arrival at the Station Hotel in Tokushima we were greeted by Sanae, the owner, who had a few words in English and what she didn't know she simply spoke into an app on her phone and it translated it to English. This sometimes had hilarious results, but we managed. Sanae proved to extremely helpful which we found to be typical of all of the Japanese people we met  For example I needed to buy an adapter to charge my telephone. Sanae gave us directions to the shop and we set off. A few moments later she appeared on her bicycle to show us the way. She had closed the hotel in order to come and help us. On our return she was more than happy to telephone ahead to book the next few nights accommodation for us.
Ravenous we went off to eat. I wanted to embrace Japanese culture and that included food. The Big Man is much more discerning in these matters. We found a restaurant and didn’t understand a word on the menu. We managed to convey to the perplexed waitress that she should bring us anything she wanted and we tried to help by flapping our arms and making chicken sounds. She got it. The chicken was served with noodles in a red hot skillet and just before I raised my fork the waitress poured a raw egg on top of it. “Oh well”, I thought, “in for a penny...” and I scoffed the lot. Delicious.
In the morning we were up very early ready to start the Great Adventure. I felt a bit queasy but breakfasted well and we set off. At Temple Number One I thought I might have flu as I was shaking and felt chilled but we carried on to the temple shop to buy the ubiquitous white tunic, stole and sedge hat of the Henro as pilgrims are called on Shikoku. Because I still felt unwell we shopped at the store in Temple One not realising that there are other shops very close by with better, more reasonably priced, goods. We donned our traditional pilgrim gear and packed our Pilgrim Records, the books in which we would keep the stamps received at each temple, in nifty white shoulder bags. Next came the pilgrim stick, held to be the embodiment of Kōbō Daishi himself. Because of this it is respectful to care for it and in many places innkeepers wash the foot of the sticks and put them away carefully before tending to the guests.

We then walked the short distance to Temples Two, Three and Four performing the entry ritual at each – bowing at the gateway protected by fierce figures, washing our hands and mouth before praying, ringing the great bell to awaken the Gods to our arrival and then prayer.
The Bhuddist Pilgrims light incense and recite the Hart Sutra, a ritual prayer, at every temple. We said the Christian Rosary. Everyone leaves a slip of paper with their name and the date recording their visit.

By the time we were walking on to Temple Five the chills were back and shaking from head to toe I had to stop and virtually collapsed into a shop. It turned out to be the local Dry Cleaner. The Big Man helped me into a seat and tried to explain to the man behind the counter that I was ill. He didn’t understand a word until Stephen produced the guidebook pointed to the name of the guest house we were going to and said the magic word, “taxi”.
When I got to the guest house the owner took pity on me. She showed me to my room with a bed made up on the tatami floor, gave me extra blankets and left me to sleep. I  thought whatever it was would pass. I slept the rest of the day whilst Stephen went off to retrace his steps and visit the next Temple. When he returned the lady introduced us to what was to become the rhythm of all of the pilgrimage days to come. Men wash between 4 – 5pm, dinner at 6pm and breakfast at 6am.
I could eat nothing at dinner and I was back in bed by 6.30pm. I felt increasingly worse as the evening went on and it was clear I had some gastric illness. Just before dawn I fell asleep and I awoke to find that there had been a meeting between Stephen, a Japanese pilgrim who could speak some English and the lady of the house. A taxi had been ordered. I was to return to Tokushima to see a doctor.
I was crestfallen. This was only the first day. When we got back to hotel we found there were no rooms available. However Sanae allocated me her own room so that I could rest until a room became available. They wanted to call the doctor. I insisted on waiting until the next day to see if I felt any better. I was worse. To save time waiting for a house call Sanae accompanied me to see the local general practitioner. Once in the door of the very modern and high tech consulting rooms the professionals took over. Nurses took my vital signs and samples. The doctor took a full medical history, gave me a physical examination, then an ultrasound, then he took blood for analysis. How was all of this managed? Through them speaking into the translator app on their smartphone and me replying in the same way. The results came back. “You have bad case of food poisoning and you very dehydrated” was the diagnosis. We discussed going into hospital but they could see I was reluctant. The doctor gave me a 7 day programme of drugs and rehydration therapy and told me to stay in bed. He also asked for details of my travel insurance. “You pay bill and get money back” the electronic voice on his phone translated. It turned out that the total bill was a fraction of what I had expected but the whole episode proved the worth of having good travel insurance.
Next morning the staff of the hotel started calling into my room...”need more water?” was always the question with beaming and encouraging smiles. They brought me an ice pack, juice, asked if I wanted something light to eat...like sushi? No thanks! I curled up and slept. By next morning it was clear that the doctor was correct. I would be laid out for a week. We took the tough decision that the Big Man would go on ahead and wherever he got to I would catch up with him when I was better.

That was when we began to realise that the Guidebook had all of the answers we needed for our journey.    

Until next time.


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