24Apr10: Nick Josten
I enjoy seeing the busloads of retirees disembarking in front of ancient temples, their white shirts looking fresh pressed, straw hats bobbing around as they twitter to each other. Usually when I see henro, it is these types of people, and while we foreigners waited in front of Motoyamaji for the day to start, a fresh group of retirees meandered into the temple. It is easy to forget that the Shikoku 88 temple circuit started as an ascetic practice that take many grueling months to complete. For many, it still is. When I looked past the gaggle of retirees chatting together in between chanting to Kukai, there was a somber henro whose jacket was less than white and whose entire appearance was that of a man who has spent many weeks hoofing it over these mountains with nothing but the necessities and a bowl to ask for money so he can continue on his pilgrimage.
On this last henro hike we trekked down one of the back mountain paths leading away from Iyadaniji, where you probably won't find a stray group of retirees chatting. As I carefully chose each step down the slick muddy mountainside, I thought of the somber dirty henro I saw earlier that day, and all the centuries of ascetics who spent months quietly suffering through the same areas in search of enlightenment. I had to concentrate on each step I took, lest I slip and fall down a mountain, making me block out the normal, day-to-day thoughts. That's exactly what this experience is supposed to do for a person. It's hard to worry about paying bills, or making the next lesson plan, or buying the newest manga when you are focused on where to place your foot on this precariously placed slippery rock with a five meter fall to one side. While the retirees safe in the bus traveling paved roads to other temples aren't worried about impending injury, I'm sure they are getting the same escape into a simpler life.
After completing the near twenty kilometer henro hike and feeling a sense of somber tiredness, I had to be slightly envious of that silent disheveled henro I saw earlier that morning amongst the group of retirees. His is a long and arduous journey, but I'd love to always have that free and quiet mind I had at the end of the day.