Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Saigoku Pilgrimage

(July 20-August 16, 1999)

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August 1, 1999
I didn't sleep very well last night; I wasn't sure why. But I got up and out by ten o'clock, and walked the short way to the Nan-endo temple... it's actually closer to Nara station than the Todaiji -- the giant Buddha. As I was wandering through the temple's gift shop, I saw something with my name all over it; remember that 'Bakabon' comic book story I was talking about yesterday? The one that was on display at Mimuruto temple? Well, it turns out it wasn't part of the ongoing Bakabon comic series... it was part of a one-shot comic book about all the temples on the Saigoku Pilgrimage Route; and the gift shop had that book. No fool, I grabbed a copy... I don't know when I'll see something so specific again, eh?
With the temple I came here for visited, I set out to go see the Todaiji again; and, as is impossible to avoid in Nara Park, I ran into a cluster of their famous tame deer herd. How tame? Venders sell cookies for 150 yen to be hand feed to the deer, who'll cluster around any handout. Heck, even without the cookies the deer will let you walk right up to them and pet them; I got a few -very- close shots of one buck, who sniffed the camera, and then settled for a good back scratch instead of a cookie (I didn't buy any).
The Todaiji was another kilometer walk away, and though there were many modes of transport available -- bus, taxi, and this is the only place in Japan I've seen rickshaws -- I, being a tightwad, opted to walk, and was soon there.
I know I keep mentioning how amazed I am at just how BIG so many of these things seem, but Dang! the Todaiji is BIG! Did I say three stories tall yesterday? It's actually 48 feet tall, so closer to -five- stories, and that's just the main statue in the building; the building itself is much larger. It has support pillers that must be about five foot in diameter, and made from one tree... they don't make 'em that big anymore! The building contains not only the giant Buddha, but two more statues about half its size sitting on its left and right hand sides, as well as two eighteen foot statues depicting two of the four Dragon Kings, who protect the world from demons and monsters. While there, I bought postcards for my family and pulled a fortune -- according to it, I have good luck as long as I remember not to piss off any gods; something to think about, when you're visiting other peoples' religious sites.
On my way out of the Todaiji I was approached by two young girls, no more than age nine or ten, who proceeded to ask me a series of questions in English -- they were reading them off of a sheet -- to which I gave very simple English answers, and helped them with a word or two they found difficult. I think their teacher was intrigued, because she came over as I was writing my name on the girls' pad for them. I got to practice some Japanese as I explained that I was here on vacation and learning Japanese; and when she saw I had put my email down after my name, she was very excited at the idea of having the girls email me in English (they all liked the email name -- Oniko, of course). Dunce that I am I didn't get their names; but if they email me, I can ask.
By this time, I knew I was feeling off; I would normally have gotten the girls' names without thinking. Also, I was a little irritable back at Todaiji until I got the timely fortune. And last night my back had been killing me, and today I sort of hurt all over. And now that I was thinking of it, I hadn't yet had breakfast, and wasn't particularly hungry... then it hit me. I was sick.
I guess I've been pushing too many late nights; and it certainly explains why I've been craveing a lot of fresh water over the past two days. But I don't have time to hole up in a hotel for a couple days... so, instead, I decided to go straight to a hotel after today's second temple, rather than pushing on to be near the next place. This would give me one night when I could just sit and relax early, drink lots of water, and get a good hot bowl of ramen (which is mostly soup). This usually gives my body a chance to kick out whatever's bugging it. So, achy and tired, I pushed on to Hasedera.
Hasedera is about an hour away from Nara, all told... and I had to transfer to a non-JR train to reach it. I got caught for an hour at the station past it, waiting for a train that would actually stop there; guess it's not as popular a stop as some of the other temples I've been to have been. Once at Hasedera station, I dumped everything I was carrying -- I'm definitely mailing a box home tomorrow -- at a coin locker, and set off with just my camera and stamp book.
It's a good thing I put everything in that locker... Hasedera is yet another mountain temple; more stairs. Stairs to get down to the town's main road from the station, and stairs to get up to the temple from the road. I was starting to seriously drag my feet by this time.
Hasedera temple's most distinguishing feature is the stairway, actually. It's completely covered by a wooden ceiling with open walls, and the ceiling and pillars are covered with stickers that past pilgrims have left on them. These stickers are at most of the temple gates, but not in the same sheer abdundance as at Hasedera (I still haven't seen anywhere to buy these yet, so I'm curious as to where they come from). I pulled my way up those stairs, one inch at a time -- literally, since about half the stairs are only about two inches tall, which was killing me in and of itself... but when I was done visiting the temple above, it sure was a leisurely walk back down.
I'm starting to hit temples where foreigners are more of an unusual site now; it shows in how people react to my presense. Some ignore me, others freeze for a moment in surprise and are then okay with it. And boy, the looks on the faces of the few who realized I was carrying a pilgrim's book was absolutely priceless! Of course, there are some who do not appreciate my presence in their towns, but that's nothing I can help.
I hit the public toilet on my way back from the temple, and that made me feel a lot better; my body definitely wants to get rid of bad stuff. I walked back to the station, stopping only to pick up some fresh mochi rice cakes, made in the shop I bought them at. Mochi is a sweet, sticky dough made by mashing up the right kind of rice under the right conditions, and it, along with sweet beans, are a stock item in many Japanese treats and deserts. I can't get it this fresh in California, so I wasn't going to pass the chance up.
I climbed back up to the station, pulled on my stuff, and crawled to the train's boarding pad where I did something that proves I'm sick... I sat down. I usually stand at all times while traveling, except on train trips over an hour long, and when I'm in a room. When the train finally arrived, I sat there also... and it was an effort to not be lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the car as it rolled back to the JR station in Sakurai, the place I'd decided I would try to crash for the night.
I looked around... it's got a used book store and plenty of hotels and ryokans, so it's just what I need,and about as far as I care to travel. The first two places were full, but I found a room with a pretty little ryokan on a back street; I dropped everything there, and explored the neighborhood's shopping area briefly to find the one thing I really wanted at that point... and find it I did: RAMEN! And what ramen it was!
Egg noodle ramen is served in a big bowl that takes both hands to lift; it's basically half al-dente noodle and half soup, and the most common version has a little pork, to add flavor to the soup, with green onions and bean sprouts... but every restaurant is different, and often an unusual type of ramen will be a minor claim to fame among the ramen restaurants. What I got was delicious, and exactly what I needed. The cook had started with the standard ramen recipe with just three diferences: he added milk, sesame seeds, and so much garlic it reeked! I took one look and whiff, and knew this would knock whatever bad was left in me right out. Slurping loudly -- I've been told you need to suck up noodles fast for them to taste best -- I finished off everything in the bowl in no time.
Having fed, I wandered a little more before returning to the ryokan to type this. I kicked on the sunday night cartoons on the TV, took off my clothes and switched over to the yukata -- evening robe -- that is traditional for customers to wear at ryokans, and started up my computer to type this and see where I should head tomorrow.
I've now visited thirteen of the thirty-three sacred places of Kannon; if I can average two a day -- and there are a few temples that will have to be done on their own as full day trips -- I should be able to manage the pilgrimage by the 13th or so. Mind you, I'm running through these at a hideously fast rate; ideally, a pilgrimage should be more casual, but I have limited time and never a guarentee I can ever return. So next on the list: Oka temple, famous for a pond with a dead dragon at the bottom, and Tsubosaka temple, which is supposed to be very scenic with arcitecture more like India than Japan. Guess I'll see if I can get two after I take care of mailing stuff. Night.

Onwards to August 2, 1999

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