Japan is beautiful. Very few people I've met here would contest that with anything but modesty. The Henro Experience reveals something beyond the beauty, which is, yes, you've guessed it, beautiful too.
The weekend trip started with rushing, as all my journeys seem to. Having overslept to the extreme, my friend Stephanie and I cycled to Takamatsu station and caught a train to Zentsuji. Well, actually, I'm not going to be hugely helpful on the directions or the locations of where most of this trip took place, but those are details, I'm giving you an impression. Like my paintings, I focus on the colour, not the lines (or at least that's my excuse for it looking a bit blurry). There were other Henroers (as they shall hence forth be known) on the train too and we sat near them, though they were both bald (or lacking in hair) so naturally I kept my distance (this is my humour, I know, I know, it needs some work)
At Zentsuji (I think) station, we grabbed some food and met the rest of the Henroers, including the lovely organisers/leaders/people-who-later-translated-a-lot Lindsey and Chris.
Then we hopped onto a bus and caught it to the top of a mountain, where there was a reconstructed ancient burial tomb, where a pair were buried. It's not known as to whether the pair were a couple or a mother and son or a leader and their second in command or...
The views were spectacular and the weather was perfect for seeing our next destination a hill/mountain away (does Japan really have hills? or are they all mountains?)
We caught the bus back and had a little history lesson in a very elaborate building, which resembled a state home in Europe. (I wish I had my notes at hand, but I unfortunately don't, so the name and history shall be a mystery to you, one worth exploring perhaps with a Henro Experience)
Then we were given our outfits. The tradional pilgrimage attire. Something I'd been looking forward to quite a bit. Everything was novel and fun, the hats (my favourite bit) the sticks, the white gown-like tops, the bells and the little purple sash. They've all beautiful Japanese names, which we were told and given handouts about, so for those that wanted to, there was plenty of opportunity to learn each garment's name, but I was too busy wanting to get into the spirit of things and march off into the distance, all dressed up.
We visited many temples, trekking between them, just far enough to feel you've done some work, but not so far as to feel exhausted (well, maybe a little exhausted). Their names and their histories were beautiful and I'm glad I was given handouts about them as well as the oral translations from our guide as my memory is like a sieve. There was a museum full of ridiculously old treasures, all beautifully encased in glass, viewable for free.
We stayed the night, the Henroers (about thirty of us, give or take) in the temple, Zentsuji. There was a lovely Onsen, a really elaborate meal, with about 12 separate dishes used (I would not want to be doing the washing up afterwards) all vegetarian and meant to purify the soul/body. The Onsen was incredibly relaxing and refreshing. The evening was a chance to unwind after all the walking and to get to know the other internationals on the Henro, which was lovely as I made quite a few friends and a heck of a lot of laughs. Then we went to our dorms and slept, at nine. Uncharacteristically early. Because we had to be up at 5am for the Sūtra readings. It was hard to wake up that early, but it was worth it. That morning was probably the highlight of it for me. It's hard to compare such a variety of good experiences, but chanting with Buddhist monks at 5.30am is not something you get to do often and it was very relaxing and moving. There was definitely something in it that lifted the spirit. Then came the best experience of all.
It was terrifying and it was strange. It made me giggle and it made me shudder. We were led under the temple into the underground tunnels beneath. There the two at the front were told, and then told everyone else, to put their left hands on the wall and to follow it, into the darkness. The tunnel wall was hard and smooth and soon vanished from sight as the darkness wrapped around us. I shuffled my feet along, nervous, but excited. It was amazing. Something so simple and yet so delightful. I cannot recommend it enough.
Also, as a little end note, Japanese people are incredibly generous, especially to those who are on a Henro. We received a lovely little statue of a monk with (perhaps) a prayer inside and also a beautiful cloth that can be hung like a tapestry (and mine is doing just that, over the archway of my door and looking brilliantly Japanese). We had a chance to light incense in one of the last temples as well. Stephanie and I also received a gift from two ladies at a stall in a market we visited. Charcoal bamboo shoots, good for uneasy stomachs and fertilising plants. I may use some for the tomatoes and courgettes I'm trying to grow.
Here's my poor attempt at a Haiku to capture the feeling of listening to the monks and joining in on the chanting (sorry it's a bit feeble):
Words settle like sakura
Petals in our hearts
Left hands stroke dark ancient walls
Close your eyes and walk
and one final one, a little cryptically about a game some of the Henroers played at the temple:
Games in Zentsuji
Lynching and lying are rife
Try to save your life