Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Henro Family

The henro trail is like a two sided coin — there's the internal aspect that i seem to write about often, maybe too often, and there's the external aspect, which doesn't get enough exposure here i'm afraid. In an attempt to remedy that this is about that outer aspect of walking the henro trail.

Someone once sent me an email asking if i would consider doing the henro together and doing it as a very strict religious pilgrimage. To make a long story short, i declined. Yes, i can hear many of you shouting, "What? After all this crap you've been writing about the Heart Sutra and Kūkai and oneness with life, and all that other stuff? I can't believe i'm reading this."

But, it's true, i did decline. While all of that is important to me, there is more to the walk than just that. For me there are very definitely two sides to this walk; an objective side and a subjective side. Yesterday's post called "Pilgrimage" was a typical example of how i see the subjective side. The henro trail is like an active retreat where you have the chance to look inside, deeply inside, yourself and try to understand who and what you are, to try and understand what it means to be alive, to try and understand what it takes to live, not just a good life, but just to Live. What does it mean to be "alive?" It's a gift, so what duties and responsibilities came along with your accepting that gift?

The other side of the trail is the objective side, the side that deals with all the other people you meet and all the experiences you have. And this is a big part of the pilgrimage for me. The people of Shikoku are some of the most wonderful people in the world — at least when it comes to their interactions with henro. Once they know you are a henro, you are welcomed unquestioningly and wholeheartedly. There is little most people wouldn't do for a henro. I believe there is nothing they wouldn't do for a henro in need. Nothing.

One of the daily pleasures of the henro experience is simply meeting and talking to all of these people. Do they ask stupid questions sometimes? Sure. Do they stare and make me feel like an oddity sometimes? Sure. Do they make it obvious that i'm a foreigner sometimes? Sure. Do they ever make me feel unwelcome? NO. Absolutely not. Never.

During these encounters the conversations can be short and superficial or long and spiritual. And, for the most part, the path it follows depends solely on your attitude and openness. While talking they will fete you with drinks and food, they will repair your backpack, they will give you a back or foot massage, ... they will do almost anything. The only thing they ask in return is that you answer a few questions, frequently pointed questions, like who are you, where are you from, how old are you, how tall are you, how much do you weigh, are you married (and then why not, in my case), what's your religion, why are you walking the henro trail, do you think Japanese women/men are good looking, do you like Japanese food, how many brothers and sisters do you have, and on, and on, and on...

Then there's the people you meet at the lodging each night. A handful of people, all tired from a long day of walking, all freshly bathed and beginning to relax, all gathered around a table covered with delicious looking and smelling food, many with a cold beer in front of them, all being pampered by the Okami-san (owner, and usually a woman), all with a smile on their face and a laugh on the tip of their tongue, and all with experiences that they enjoy sharing, no, that they look forward to sharing.

It's like sharing war stories: stories about blisters, sore shoulders, hard climbs up steep trails, about walking in the rain, an interesting goof-ball that stops all passing henro in the previous town, the great service at one particular minshuku, the amazingly delicious food at another minshuku. Stories about every aspect of the henro trail that each and every one of us experience. And if someone isn't willingly offering their share of stories the others will poke and prod in order to draw them out of you.

The stories are told and retold night after night over glasses of cold beer and cups of hot tea. If you happen to be staying the night with another henro you've met before, you pretend that you haven't heard their stories before and laugh right along with the rest of the other henro as if it was the first time you have heard it.

Once you become a henro, you join the Henro Family, whether you want to or not. Your acceptance is immediate and complete as soon as others know you are walking the henro trail. And if you open yourself to the rest of your new family, your henro will be immensely more pleasurable and memorable.

DHS 14/100

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