Shikoku, Japan 2008
“…constant rain…soles feel like they have been pounded by hammers. They throb at night like whalesong…really not enjoying this now…”
I scrawled the above in my diary about halfway through the 88 Temples pilgrimage in Japan: 1200 kms around the smallest of the four main islands, mostly on unforgiving asphalt through towns and villages punctured and stalled by dwindling populations. Past long-closed schools and rice fields where the old farmworkers would straighten up to silently witness this foreigner march by, hunched with pack, like he had any idea of what enlightenment was or could be. I had lived for three years on the island previously and the pilgrimage seemed like a natural conclusion to my time there.
It has existed in some form or another for over 1000 years. Unlike 1000 years ago though, most modern day pilgrims travel between temples on air-conditioned buses that ease into the temple car parks with barely an exhalation of their hydraulic brakes. Traipsing down anonymous rain-pummelled highways, it was easy for me to work up a good amenable contempt for them. Look at these mindless ones my brain muttered as they queued to buy the stamps that showed which temples they had been to.
There was no Japanese inn waiting for me at the close of day, no hot spring, nor cup of warm sake to dispel the clouds before sleep. I often had to pitch my tent illicitly in parks, playgrounds and on beaches. Sometimes, I didn’t use it at all – just unfurled my sleeping bag in picnic huts or bus shelters. But spending nights in the open left me at the mercy of my senses. Most mornings were started shivering awake from a thin puddle of sleep, the clamour of birds right in my head. Their racket was the first sign that soon the sun would be bolting itself irreversibly to the day. No more elemental pleasure than feeling its heat slowly penetrate through my clothes, the hard contours of the night gone at last.
I was carrying a pack of about 18 kgs, overloaded with outdated camera equipment and film, and after the first couple of weeks my body was a loose constellation of pain threaded together by self-pity and disdain. But isn’t there a direct correlation between suffering and enlightenment? Wasn’t this the whole point of it all – to cleanse the ego through sheer bloodyminded endurance?
Then, one day, I am sitting in an okonomiyaki restaurant as a rare treat, when Bridge Over Troubled Water comes on the radio. That crashing piano that slowly subsides, Art Garfunkel’s voice as pure as a bell. A song so familiar I had ceased experiencing it as a piece of music a long time ago. If anything, I was slightly dismissive of it: The glossy production, its mawkish grandiosity. At that point though, my body and spirit flagging, I couldn’t summon up the energy to intellectualise anything. I just listened. And suddenly, without expecting it, the song was raking through my insides. It felt like someone directly reaching a hand out, to me alone, offering comfort and respite.
Truly phenomenal is the engine power of self-righteous indignation; it can keep you walking for months. But the pain in my body had hardened into an endless cycle of recrimination in my mind: Of myself, other pilgrims and the Japanese in general. Churning over the same thoughts only established the pattern and made it easier for them to gain traction the next day, until they had become embedded in each step I took. The only real consequence being that I was increasingly weighed down with an utterly purposeless negativity.
I wasn’t allowing myself to appreciate the moments of beauty and acts of generosity I came across. For all my walking, I was missing the pilgrimage. Some of the areas I passed through are amongst the poorest in Japan. Every day bread, onigiri, fruit and drinks were pressed into my hands by strangers. A random dog walker opened his community hall for me to stay in. It didn’t matter what was offered because contained in each transaction was a basic human acknowledgement. Sitting in that okonomiyaki restaurant, trying to hide my glassy eyes from the owner, I realised it is an act of selfhood to not permit yourself a safe distance, to surrender your thoughts up completely to the moment.
As I neared the end of the pilgrimage, after almost 40 days of lone walking, I had progressed to trying to perfect the opening quatrain in my own throttled falsetto. Over and over again as I lumbered on. Although I never quite reached the high notes that perhaps only Art Garfunkel can, the song acted to reassure me that, in spite of all my isolation, I wasn’t alone.