Name: Kathryn Piper
Location in Japan: Shikoku, Tokushima Prefecture, Komatsushima Shi
Place: Tatsueji, Temple 19 on the 88-Temple Shikoku Pilgrimage Route
Description: A glimpse at life on the Shikoku Pilgrimage Trail, and the kindnesses received from people who live along the route.
Anyone embarking on a 1200 kilometer hike through rural Japan might anticipate a lonely journey. My husband and I, preparing for the 88-Temple Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage, envisioned an almost feral existence: trudging in and out of villages without so much as a shrug from the locals.
But the pilgrimage is far from solitary. In legend, Kobo Daishi, the pilgrimage’s founder, is the companion of all henro. In reality, it was the gifts and good wishes of every neighborhood on the henro michi that spirited us from temple to temple. Often we felt briefly accepted as community guests; never more so than our night under the flowering steps of Temple 19 in Tokushima.
Unlike some of her exotic sister temples, which perch atop steep mountains or nestle into rocky caves, Tatsueji seems almost homely from the street. Once we entered the temple grounds, however, we discovered a peony garden in full glory. Every plant in the courtyard sagged with ruffled pink blossoms and fat, happy bumblebees buzzing from bloom to bloom. Tucked among the flowers were hundreds of folded white paper slips representing prayers from temple visitors. I could see why people would choose to make their wishes in this fairytale place, and I added my own among them.
Aside from its beauty, Tatsueji is alluring for some dark and mystical history. As the story goes, in the early 1800s an unfaithful and murderous wife traveled to Tatsueji with her new lover. As she rang the temple bell, her hair tangled in the rope, yanking her from the ground. She prayed and repented as she dangled there. The bell released her, but not before tearing her hair from her scalp; hair that is on display at the temple to this day. Though I have no such colorful past, I was a bit nervous tugging on that bell rope.
One of the challenges of being a henro is finding a place to stay at night. With evening upon us, we asked a temple worker if we might camp in the parking lot. He sucked in his breath between his teeth, looking doubtful. “Well, maybe it’s not a good idea. . .” He said.
Dejected, I nodded and began to turn away. But Zach stopped me as the man continued “. . .because it will rain tonight. Perhaps you could put your tent underneath the temple stairs instead?”
And that is how, on a drizzling April evening, Zach and I came to have this mysterious jewel of a temple to ourselves. As I settled in my sleeping bag, trying not to think of the 200-year-old hank of hair in the next building, we suddenly heard footsteps, and a voice calling: “O-henro san!” Did someone suspect us of trespassing?
No. A neighbor lady and her daughter had come to bring us treats, and to make sure we didn’t miss a rare sight: the temple’s statue of Kobo Daishi was illuminated until 8:00, and it was almost 15 minutes until lights out. The four of us shared plum candies and gazed at the statue together, while the peonies, ghostly white, bowed under the raindrops. It’s a rare and wonderful treat in this world to be looked after by so many strangers in one day, but to a pair of lucky henro standing in a moonlit garden in the middle of Shikoku, it was a natural part of the journey.
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