From all accounts, once henro enter Kochi, the Second Stage of Ascetic Training, the honeymoon of Tokushima’s relatively easy trails is over. This stage of austerity and discipline is where henro are said to be tested. Kochi’s temples may be few, just 16 of the 88, but are far flung apart, even as much as 80 km. Just the distance between Tokushima’s last temple and Kochi’s first is a frightful 75.4 km, requiring three days of walking.
Muroto is where Kochi’s first three temples are. It is an unavoidable stop for henro following a chronological sequenced route along Muroto’s coastal road, also where the public transport lines are. Muroto was for me a lesson of sorts in ascetic training. When I first clambered into the ryokan where I was to stay, I wanted to run away screaming. Nuff said. But I learnt discipline, to bear up, to just make do with what I had, and make the most of Muroto.
When I visited Shinshoji Temple 25 it was in the busiest part of town, with a continuous flood of henro. From my ryokan, I could hear the temple bell all day. In town, apart from a few day trippers, there was hardly anyone around. The supermarket was busy, though, making me nostalgic to see flyers advertising Xmas cakes and goodies.
Shinshoji was physical discipline, walking up the usual highway-to-heaven stairs to reach the Main Shrine. The Shrine looks new, a chocolate colored concrete building contrasting with other faded wood temples in the pilgrimage. It was a humbling experience as always to see even older folks than me hobbling up the steps, so devout and determined to get to the Temple. There is also a really old adjacent temple, which seemed hardly visited.
Muroto is the kind of place for a drive or walk through, not to stay in, but I had to stay, no choice, no regrets, really. Stage Two of the Henro is after all training to heighten our spirituality, and in Muroto there was nothing much else to do. Nothing was on tap, and I even had to “book” bath times. Learning to transcend physical comforts for spiritual is supposedly what ascetic training is about. I have also realized my so called deprivations or discomforts weren’t really that bad. The early henro monks did not wear Adidas shoes and carry Samsonite knapsacks and they were not outfitted by Gap. Pain was what they deliberately sought, what they wanted, and what they got. Modern henro maybe do everything to protect ourselves from pain.
Records suggest that early monks actually searched high and low for the most arduous spots where they could subject themselves to all sorts of sufferings in order to attain magical and spiritual powers, and they found it in Shikoku. So by the time we get through Kochi I guess we will all know why this pilgrimage is regarded as the hardest of all.
So it seems the honeymoon is over, but hey, hey, hey, there might be a second honeymoon!