This is my first trip to Japan. For two months, I deliberately choose to immerse myself in a completely foreign culture – the food, the language, the customs, the sights, the sounds – all will be beyond my ken.
My Shikoku pilgrimage offers a goal, a guidebook and an itinerary to structure my step off into the unknown. It isn’t quite Stanley’s search for the headwaters of the Nile but it is exotic enough; my search for Kobo Daishi, my quest to comprehend Japan gain a glimmer of Buddhist enlightenment are quixotic to me. I obsessed for months with a bucket of worries for this bucket list adventure.
For two months, I manage to survive on about five words of Japanese. It is my misfortune to be unable (and, let’s face it, unwilling) to learn more; it severely limits the adventure. I skim the surface, I can’t claim understanding when I can’t communicate beyond pantomime and a simple hello/please/thank you.
Most of my worries are needless. I am blessed, whether it was Kobo Daishi walking at my side, a guardian angel or a run of good fortune, I spend two life-affirming months wandering about rural Japan without incident. This strange, exotic and pleasant assault on the senses delivers infinite rewards.
Japan is safe, friendly and welcoming to tourists. There is little crime, no graffiti, hardly any litter. The trains and buses run on time, their drivers all wear white gloves. People wear small masks to ensure they don’t give their cold/sniffle to others. The water is safe to drink from the taps. Everyone is polite, I suspect there are as many ways to bow as there are snowflakes – newsreaders on TV bow to the audience at the end of their show!
Japanese hotels are exotic. They offer a simple room covered with Tatami mats, futons on the floor for sleeping and a toilet/sink. It is easy to go to bed, I just flop; getting up is a bit tougher, I’m stiff, it is all up so I do it by stages, rolling over onto all-fours, kneeling, lifting – it’s noisy and ungainly but there are no other options.
Toilets have been designed by a techno-madman. There is an array of buttons offering options to do things to my bottom that are unimaginable. I touch none of them, barely trusting the normal flush lever.
Onsen, Japanese baths, require a book to explain. They are segregated but public, very public. There is a washing then bathing regime, as rigid and scratchy as a wash brush. I get the desire for cleanliness, the communality baffled me; like the water, it is all too hot. I retreat to my room, red-faced but cleansed; I will not compromise on a certain level of personal hygeine.
Meals are definitely for the open minded, the epicurious, the omnivore and the hungry. Salad, fish bits both describable and indescribable, and enough vegetables to ensure I reach my daily fiber requirements, usually constitute breakfast.
Foraging for lunch is more familiar but still surprising. Convenience stores offer much more; full nutritious meals, fresh daily. Lawson is my favorite, fighting for turf with 7-Eleven. All offer food, most add a small place to sit down and eat, an ATM that took my bank card and wifi – an oasis of sustenance, amusement and contact with home over lunch.
Dinner offers a kaleidescope of delights for my western palate; yet if I find something I like, I can’t order it again because I don’t know what it is – thankfully pictures and plastic replicas of the menu are available for folks like me, I don’t starve. Sushi becomes my mainstay; the sushi-chef in his shirt and tie is given respectful license to feed me his choice of whatever is freshest. If a meal of any sort is served, display is carefully considered. I am advised to pause a few minutes and look at, observe, my food before plowing in; never has presentation been so artful.
The countryside is beautiful; in early April, the blossoms splash vivid pinks and whites across the landscape. Rice planting is happening everywhere, small plots now mechanically planted, immersing tender shoots in water without maiming them; infinitely better than doing it by hand one-at-a-time.
Where else would one see umbrellas protecting flowers from the rain so they may blossom fully?
Mountain paths are misty and otherworldly – enhanced by aged Buddhist and Shinto monuments standing silent by our path; reminders I am walking centuries old paths. The landscape seems littered with Temples, monuments and statues, although I suspect I have tunnel vision; it’s like spotting yellow VW’s – once you start looking, you see them everywhere.
I wonder aloud about the caps, bibs and capes that adorn the statues until someone explains that the knitware is lovingly offered up to the gods to keep them warm and save them from chills. I wouldn’t have made the connection on my own.
I do enjoy the whimsy of some of our stone deities; methinks the Buddhists might harbor a sense of humour unextinguished my lengthy meditation.
Even trees along the way seem Zen-like.
In the process of climbing small mountains, walking in forest, trudging endless asphalt shoulders to busy and not-so-busy highways, I managed to trudge my way around the Island of Shikoku. I left in pursuit of an epiphany and a book of carefully accumulated calligraphy – testimony to my pilgrimage – and I arrived at the endpoint without the epiphany but with a storehouse of vivid memories and a better understanding of Japan. It proves again that the destination is not the prize, it is all the experiences accumulated along the way.