The Cave on Shikoku:Trying to Muster Meaning

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One of the best things about living in Japan—to absolutely nobody’s surprise—is getting the chance to explore the country in bite-sized portions, hopping weekends at a time to Japan’s beautiful, weird, and ultimately wonderful places scattered around the archipelago.

Many times, a 3-day weekend is more than enough time to really dig into a place, feel its vibe—enough at least, to write a blog post with a proper degree of honesty. In the span of 3 days, I was able to train across Japan’s heartland, soaking in Japan’s holiest shrine, its industrial capital, and the most incredible collection of towns I’ve ever seen, and then collect those experiences into a single post that made credible sense (it’s probably still my best blog post—read it if you get the chance!)

But after four days ‘trekking’ through roughly half the island, Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, is still an enigma to me.

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And that’s fair enough. Despite only being a short boat trip or bridge crossing away from the Kansai-Chugoku area, Shikoku remains, to many Japanese people, a bit of a mystery too. When I ask Japanese people about the island, they’ll mention the pilgrimage route, the three cities there… and that’s about it. While roads run along the outer edges, the inner island remains among the most untouched regions in Japan.

I came there with two dream-driven goals: I wanted to do (at least a portion of) the pilgrimage, and I wanted to break into the wilderness, explore on my own and discover a similar kind of storybook magic I had up in Nagano’s Kiso Valley.

This post is about how I didn’t come anywhere close to either, and why that might be okay, and even for the best, in the end.

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The Shikoku pilgrimage was created in the 800s by Kobo Daishi, Japan’s greatest spiritual leader. Its 88 temples dot the perimeter of the island, moving up cliffs and mountains and down to beaches. For the last thousand years, then, it’s been the spiritual water-mark in Japan—a “ah, so you think yer’ a real man,” monk’s bet this whole time. Although often compared to the Camino de Santiago in Spain, it’s considerably more daunting, apparently taking over 4 months to walk.

After watching a sugar-coated episode of Begin Japanology on it (a program you can find on Youtbe that takes you through the wonders of Japanese culture, from Ukiyo-e to—yes—rice cookers as 1940’s string waltzes play perpetually in the backloop), where our host Peter Barakan enters houses of smiling old Japanese people who host all these (smiling young) Japanese people partaking the pilgrimage. It fascinated me enough to put it high on my bucketlist. I knew 4 days wasn’t enough, but I could tackle a bit of it, get a feel for it, right?

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On the contrary: the one day I ended up devoting to it felt like too much. Not to say the four temples I ended up hitting weren’t fantastic: they were immaculate, pagoda-pointing beauties in the most Nara of fashions, golden Buddhas, little river gardens, sacred trees. It was the space between them that took the wind out of my sails.

I imagined wandering through sunlit dappled forests as sudden cliffs broke open views of the sea—nodding to fellow travellers on narrow dusty pathways as we coursed towards some kinda’ enlightenment. Let’s throw in some deer frolicking through meadows to complete the picture. I wasn’t expecting freeways and shopping malls and suburbia. Or how most people on the pilgrimage hire out massive party-ovah-here style tour busses to hop between the temples. There was no roadside inns with smiling grandmas, few pilgrims actually walking it, and maybe 1% enlightenment to squeeze out from it. What the Hell Peter Barakan?! 

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It makes sense why so much of the area needed to modernize. But here’s a site that’s supposed to be among the most holy in Japan; where the millions have walked with bowed heads and discovered where they’re meant to be; where it’s not about the temples checked off it’s about the journey between those. And they ran a freeway through it. Many of them. And shopping malls.

I’m just gonna refer to Joni on this one.

What’s so interesting about this weekend is that the other unfulfilled promise had the opposite problem. It’s not that the wilderness I wanted to explore wasn’t wild enough: it was too wild.

Contradictory? Definitely. But when you’re lacking a car or infinite time, there’s not a lot of options left to you.

Central Shikoku, mainly the Iye Valley, is considered to be the most untouched area of all of Japan. It’s soaked in myth, with the spot being the rumored last refuge of the Heike Clan, Samurai losers of Japan’s first truly awful civil war in the 1100s, depicted in a book considered to be Japan’s Iliad. So here’s a clan who grew up being essential rulers of Japan, retreating into the booniest of boondocks; using vine bridges to rope across, retreating so deep into the mountains no one finds them again; losing their nobility, reduced to killing boar while even peasants elsewhere can at least harvest rice. When they’re “discovered” in the Meiji era, little had changed since those Heike days; little has changed, I’m told, even today.

If that sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings to you, you wouldn’t be alone. I saw it and I thought yes, that’s my adventure! Well the thing about being hard to find, is that it’s hard to find, isn’t it? Getting to the bridge swinging heart of the valley would mean two trains, and then relying on a bus that only comes three times a day. And even if all those lined up, what would I actually do there? Wander aimlessly until I found the road again? There was only one way in, there was only one way out.

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The recreation bridge at Takamatsu’s “Shikoku themepark” (yeah, that’s a thing), to make up for not actually getting to it

So halfway through the trip, I ended up having to scrap the two things I’d been most excited about with Shikoku. And as I see it now, it was only once I moved away from those expectations that I could start really seeing the place for what it was.

Kochi’s not a town I expected to fall in love with. Nestled down against the southern edge of Shikoku, it’s one of the poorer regions in central Japan and doesn’t exactly rank highly on Japan’s various ‘must-see’ lists. With a population only a little larger than Tottori, I was expecting something pretty similar: an aging factory town and its rusting buildings.

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Now, maybe there’s a part of that that turned out to be true. But there’s something special about Kochi that goes beyond demographic descriptions like that. Instead of its remoteness making for cold people and closed doors, the sheltered, near-tropic coast makes for what seemed like Japan’s long-lost surfing town.

It’s not something I noticed at first looking down its wide, quiet streets with old coca-cola billboards hanging over its six story buildings. But then a tramcar will pull up, or I’ll turn down a narrow street filled with cafes hip enough to probably do okay in south Shibuya, or I’ll wander through its gorgeous grounds surrounding its—that rarest of Japanese birds—preserved original castle.

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There’s a kindness here that immediately made me feel at ease. It didn’t make me feel like I often do in Tottori, where people stare at you in a way that makes you feel like you’ve gotta account for why you—a goddamn foreigner—are snooping around here. In Kochi, you’re pulled into a community. This is most apparent at hiromi, a massive enclosed area filled with near a hundred shops and bars, where you grab some food and drinks and then sit down at the long tables to quickly make friends with the people across from you, whether they be Japanese or Spanish or a damn Canadian.

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I’d never expected this kind of openness in Japan, and being a part of it forced me to reconsider what I knew about the country and the people I’d met here. I didn’t completely understand at the time why I was feeling this now, so late in my time here; why I wandered through the castle grounds, umbrella in my hand as the April rain battered down over me, smelling the rolling hills of violet flowers, and it felt like home to me. Wasn’t everything supposed to start feeling like an ending?

I started to get it the next day when we went to Muroto Misaki, Kochi’s southernmost tip. Jutting out against the coast, it felt like trespassing into another world. A single lane road curling around the coast. The great climbing mountain with trees that felt like that could belong to the Paleolithic age—curling vines, wide, low-hanging palms, cacti poking through the leaves, and trees with branches so thick you’re walking for miles with a natural roof over your head. The unencumbered, uncut horizon, the grey stormy sky meeting the swirling, churning waves.

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It was an older world there, one that had been around before we came, one that would still be there after we leave. It had been more-or-less abandoned by people for a couple of decades now. One time we turned round a forest bend and found a Meiji era house aging in the trees; newspapers were cluttering the porch, a motorcycle and two bikes leaned in the driveway, and a waterheater was rusting into stone, like the person living there had just drifted away one day.

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Or the abandoned stone watchtower that might’ve been a newscenter or might’ve been an army post, with shattered windows, papers and stone scattered across the floor.

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I’ve never been able to think like I could there. Sitting up on one of the rocks at the edge of the ocean, watching the waves getting sucked against the face of the rock below, I lost track of time thinking about things you don’t find words for. Thinking so hard it’s like losing the ability to think all together. I lost myself there, and though I’ve used that phrase before, I never knew what it really meant until then. Because I learned that losing yourself means, in some ways, to become completely yourself: only when I shook off the petty things dragging me down, only then did I understand.

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And that makes sense when you consider the site’s history. Twelve hundred years ago, Kobo Daishi—Japan’s most revered Buddhist saint—came to this wind-beaten coast and found enlightenment in a cave. It’s easy to see how, looking out over these cliffs, you could lose the world and eventually attain enlightenment. It’s easy to see why so many of the roots of Japan’s spiritual history starts here.

I needed to find that cave. Walking along the forest paths, I kept telling my friend “there’s a cave, there’s a cave here, we gotta find that cave.” But was there? We kept pulling further down the coast, growing hungrier and lighter-headed without seeing any indication of this big important cave. We found a pretty spectacular white statue of The Guy looking out over the sea beside a bronze reclining Buddha, no cave. Had I made it up?

It was only when we were coming back, taking the highway route to save time, that we came across a tiny little hole in the rock face blocked by pylons. If there hadn’t been a Shinto gate over the entrance we might’ve missed it; but I knew right away. We ignored the pylons and stepped in.

A tiny light from the day outside lit a wavering pathway up to a raised platform and a bronze prayer box. There was nothing; there was a force, radiating from the walls. Like a vibration, stealing into our chests. The force was overwhelming; all I could do was raise my hands and swing them together. Clap twice, in the Japanese prayer fashion. The motion had never made sense before, and now nothing had ever felt so natural.

We came out dazed, and for the next twenty or so minutes stayed silent. Nothing was said, because nothing needed to be; we both knew what had happened there, even though it would take both of us weeks to actually understand it. I think, though, of saint sites in Europe and how pilgrims have been moved to all kinds of visions while there. I never really believed in that stuff until I came to Muroto Misaki. Now I don’t know.

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Muroto Misaki sits near the end of our times in Japan: it marks the start of the last three months for my time on JET, while my friend was already gearing up to return to Vancouver. But that cave there felt much more like a beginning for both of us.

The rest of the trip, following saying goodbye to my friend, was quite a ramble getting out of Shikoku, from catching my bus out with 30 seconds to spare, getting off on the wrong stop (who knew you had to press the button?) and having to walk 20 kilometres through backyard inakas, to staying out till three in Takamatsu. And nothing could phase me.

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It was another day, another lovely Shikoku coastal city to see one damn gorgeous garden, and an amusement park of Shikoku’s preserved old houses (they had a recreation of those swinging bridges in Iya valley: it was the reason I’d come to the theme park, but when I tried to cross it . Oh well, I guess some things aren’t meant to be). In a flash I was sprinting—always sprinting—to catch the boat to catch the bus to catch the train(s) that would take me home.

Looking out across the sea, sun shining the waves scaling up the boat’s sides, I saw Naoshima, the art island I’d travelled to last Novemeber with the only person I’ll probably ever truly love during my time in Japan. Separated just across the bay, it was like looking in on another time, another life that had happened to someone else. And to the right the whole sea was out there before me—giant Chinese freighters rocking past tiny Japanese fisherboats. Holding my hands against the rails, letting the wind rock me back.

I’m not making any closing statements about Shikoku: all I have are a collection of snippets from different parts of a contradictory, mysterious island that moves to a different beat than Honshu. It showed me how little I really know about Japan, and myself too, probably.

Whatever this is feels right. I was ready for whatever was next.

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