Chance Encounters

My non-fiction piece entitled "Shortcut"appears in an anthology entitled Chance Encounters, published by Go Travel Press, and edited by Janna Graber.


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Read it here:

Shortcut

“You must go to Temple 24,“ said the naked stranger at the Kuroshio Baths on the island of Shikoku. “It can’t be skipped.”

We were the only two customers in the women’s section of the hot springs. For nearly an hour, we had been soaking and chatting, neck-deep in a steaming pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“Sorry?” I said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”

My Japanese was functional, but nuance was a long way off. Was she giving me travel advice, spiritual advice, or something more? Why was she suggesting that I add to my already strenuous walking schedule? 

“You absolutely must go to Cape Muroto, to Temple 24, “ she repeated.

“Doshite? Why?” I asked, as politely as I could.

“Because Cape Muruto is a very special place,” she said, with conviction.

“Have you walked all the way down there, yourself?” I asked.

“Walked? Oh my goodness, no. I’m not a walker. But I’ve visited Hotsumisakiji many times by car.”

She was a Japanese woman in her early fifties. I gathered that she was married, lived nearby, had time on her hands, and came to the hot springs regularly for an afternoon of relaxation, the way some people might go to the cinema or play golf.

I was a American woman, in my late sixties, trekking around the island of Shikoku, following the 1200 kilometer pilgrimage trail known as The Eighty-Eight Temples. I had a husband, family, and friends back in Connecticut.

Unlike the stranger, I had stopped at the Kuroshio Baths as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had been reading billboards for several days touting the virtues of these hot springs. As a tired and sweaty hiker, I couldn’t resist. But the Kuroshio Baths were a detour. I would soon be back on the pilgrim trail, ankle deep in either dust or mud.

“You will not regret it,”  said the stranger, stepping out of the bath and reaching for a towel.

Her wet black hair was piled on top of her head.

My guidebook had made it clear that walking all the way to the tip of Cape Muruto was problematic. The trail was isolated, with almost no accommodations for forty miles or more.

“You cannot have come all this way and not see Cape Muruto,” continued the woman, drying herself off.

She had known from the get-go that I was a pilgrim, an O-Henro. No doubt she had seen my identifying uniform, the traditional white vest and conical straw hat, hanging in the outer room of the bath.

 “That is very unusual. A foreign lady, alone, doing the Eighty-Eight Temples on foot,” she had said. “Quite unusual.”

She didn’t add “at your age”, but perhaps she was thinking it.

I had explained to her in my halting Japanese that I would be spending the night at Yakuoji,Temple 23, not far from the Kuroshio Baths. I had already called and made a reservation with the temple monks.

“A reservation? That’s not hard to change,” said the stranger, now partly dressed and running a hairdryer over her straight hair.

“They are expecting me for the evening meal as well as lodging,” I said.

“My husband knows those monks at Yakuoji very well. He will explain that you are not coming.”

“Sumimasen, ga, excuse me, but….” I said.

I tried to explain my decision once again. I had already soaked away most of the afternoon in the baths. At best I would arrive at Temple 23 before dinner if I didn’t dilly-dally. Then the next day, instead of heading straight south to the Cape, I was planning to take a bus west into northern Kochi prefecture and start walking again at Temple 28.  I would leave Cape Muruto and its sister temples, numbers 24 to 27, to more hardy souls.

I wasn’t sure the woman heard my explanation over the whish-whish of the hairdryer. But when she turned it off, she smiled at me and said.

“So it is settled, right?”

I tried to parse the sentence. Settled? What was settled?

I finished getting dressed, putting on fresh underwear, a clean tee shirt, and my dirty hiking pants. I only had two pairs with me, both dirty. I finished off with the white vest and conical hat.

 “Are you Buddhist?” she asked.

I didn’t have the vocabulary to clarify that I was a Unitarian.

 “No, I just respect Buddhist culture,” I answered.

 “Then you will never regret going to Hotsumisakiji. “

I knew that Temple 24 had historical significance. Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, had achieved enlightenment in a cave somewhere in the vicinity of Hotsumisakiji sometime in the 9th century.  In fact, the prophet’s common nickname, Kukai, probably refers to the meeting of the sky and the sea that he experienced at Cape Muruto. Temple 24 certainly sounded like a cool place.

Too bad I was going to miss it.

I was still confused as to why my bath companion assumed that she had gotten me to change my mind.

I ran a comb quickly through my hair, but the humidity of the hot springs had left me with wild curls. I put the comb back in a recycled plastic Lawson’s bag, on top of my dirty tee-shirt. I checked to make sure I had all my belongings. Living out of a backpack isn’t complicated, but I had learned to always make sure that I didn’t leave behind any of the items I depended on. My cell phone, my poncho, a map, band aids, safety pins, and my journal.

The friendly stranger was still talking to me non-stop while she primped in front of the mirror, carefully applying a fresh coat of lipstick and dabs of moisturizer in strategic places.  Finally she was ready, dressed in a simple, but elegant, beige silk pants suit, with a coffee-colored scarf. We returned our towels to the matron at the main desk. Then I picked up my wooden walking stick , which I had left outside the door, and I was just about to say goodbye.

“Please wait here for my husband,” said the woman. “He is finishing up in the men’s bath.”

And in fact, in a few minutes, a Japanese man with a boy’s face came out of the building. He looked benign and relaxed, like a dolphin who had spent the afternoon in a lazy lagoon.

“Yes, of course,” said the husband after the wife had taken him aside. He bowed and in a mixture of English and Japanese explained their plan.

 “We will be delighted to drive you to the Cape Muruto temple. This is a good thing.”

“You mean, you will drive me to Temple 24 and then drive me back to Yakuoji where I have a reservation?”

“No, no. We will stop at Yakuoji and tell them you are going to the Cape Muruto temple with us, and the monks will be pleased for you.”

I assumed that the couple were devout Buddhists who wanted to share their practices with me.

I had no compunction about hitching a ride with these kindly people, but I didn’t want to get stuck at a distant destination with no shelter. Cape Muruto was known for fierce winds and sudden storms.

“That’s very kind, but you see, I have no place to stay down there.”

“Afterwards we will drive you to our home. We have a guest room and many pilgrims have slept there. You would be most welcome.  Please, come.“

I could see an exciting detour being dangled in front of my eyes.

Both of them looked at me with gentle smiles. I had a good feeling about these people.

“Really? You would do this for me?” I asked. “Doozo,” said the husband.

He gestured to a shiny white Mercedes parked in a shady corner of the parking lot.

Although the pores of my skin were probably the cleanest they had ever been, my hiking pants were covered with grass stains and traces of lunchtime onigiri purchased at a convenience store. I couldn’t remember if these were also the pants upon which I had spilled a bottle of Qoo, a fruity beverage which I frequently found in Japanese vending machines. The soles of my Gore-Tex boots were corrugated with mud. I hesitated before getting in.

“Notte kudasai, please take a seat,” said the husband, politely, relieving me of my backpack and stick.

The minute I stepped into the car, little flakes of mud fell onto the floor mats like shavings of chocolate on a vanilla ice cream cone. Neither the husband nor wife seemed to notice. Nor did they pay attention when I knocked my conical hat askew on the door. I caught a quick glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. With my hair frizzy from the steamy bath, I looked vaguely buffoonish, a cross between a bag lady and Coco the Clown.

I reflected on the elegance of the wife’s outfit, her clean fingernails, and well-coiffed hair. I thought of her saying that her husband knew the temple monks very well. Perhaps the husband was a high-ranking Buddhist priest. I glanced at him as he was coming around to the right hand driver’s seat. He was wearing an open-collared sports shirt, chino pants, and soft leather shoes.  He looked more like a tennis player than a man of the cloth.

“Are you a bokushi?” I asked, as soon he as was nestled on the white leather seat.

“Me? Oh, not at all. Me, a priest?”

His wife giggled. Then they started to laugh heartily. Obviously I had made some sort of joke.

 “But you know the monks well?” I continued.

“I know everyone in Kochi prefecture,” he said. “And almost everyone in Tokushima prefecture as well.”

I could see a slice of his big grin in the mirror.

I tried to imagine what kind of person would know a lot of people. A politician? A drug-dealer? A yakuza?  Did criminals know monks well enough to call them on the phone?  The man looked more like a mischievous school boy than a person with connections to organized crime.

“We like to help the walking pilgrims,” explained the husband. “To share Shikoku with them.”

“Have you ever done the Eighty-Eight Temple Pilgrimage?” I asked.

“Never on foot,” he said. “I am too lazy. But I have visited every single temple many times by motorcycle. I love motorcycles.”

It turned out that he owned several businesses all dealing with motorcycles and motorcycle parts. He also admitted that he traveled  occasionally to the United States.

“You go there to work?” I asked.

“Oh, no. I’m not that kind of businessman. No suit or tie. No briefcase. Never.”

He looked at me in his rearview mirror and his eyes were smiling.

“I am ‘casual guy,” he said in English.

“I go to California to surf,” he continued. “And Hawaii too.”

“But you can surf quite well here in Shikoku,” I said, gesturing out the window at the Pacific.

“Yes, but like you, I need a change of scenery now and then, right? “

“Yes, of course.”

“Travel is a way to exercise the body and feed the soul, no? That’s perhaps why you are walking in Japan also?”

He continued talking for a while in rapid-fire Japanese, probably assuming my comprehension was better than it was. I understood about a third of  what he said to me and almost nothing of what he said to his wife. I eventually concluded that together they were speaking a local dialect.

Mostly I just sat back and let the words flow over me as if my brain were a smooth rock in a stream, slightly mossy and cool.

The Mercedes air conditioner was working nicely.

The wife was already planning dinner.

 “We’ll stop at the fish market on the way back. You can eat ALL Japanese food?” she asked me in standard Japanese.

“Yes,” I said enthusiastically. “But, well, the only thing is….I don’t really like natto (fermented soy beans).”

“I am Japanese and I don’t like natto either, “ said the husband with a guffaw from the driver’s seat. “It smells like baby diapers.”

It’s moments like this that I travel for. Not for museums or spectacles or the Seven Wonders. But for conversations with strangers who have a sense of humor.

I tried to imagine what my family back home would think if they could have seen me whizzing across the Japanese countryside with two people whose names I didn’t know, but whose spirit I would never forget.

Sometimes I looked out at the car window. We passed appliance stores and baseball diamonds, nurseries and supermarkets. Then there were small wooded areas, and patchwork farms, all bordered by volcanic hills and the blue Pacific Ocean.  From time to time, the wife identified vistas or places, or the husband told stories of their drives around the island.

We were in the car for at least two hours. When I looked on the map, I was not sure why an eighty kilometer journey took so long. Later I realized that we must have eventually taken the Minami-Awa Sun Line, a scenic highway which winds its way through spectacular countryside. Macaque monkeys played along the side of the road. Very few cars or trucks passed by in either direction.

When we reached the tippy tip of the Cape, the husband parked the Mercedes and we walked up to Temple 24. The famous Hotsumisakiji.

Much to my surprise, neither the husband nor wife rang the temple bell or clapped their hands in “gassho”. They spent hardly any time reciting the sutras or lighting candles.  When I started to dawdle near the gold statue of the reclining Buddha, the couple urged me to hurry along.

“The temple will soon close,” they explained. “We can’t linger.”

I was puzzled that we had driven so far and yet spent so little time. Surely they would have known that the temple closed in the late afternoon.

“We’ve got to run to the Nookyoosho and get your temple book stamped,” said the husband.

In the excitement of arriving, I had almost forgotten this pilgrimage ritual. At each of the Eighty-Eight Temples, one pays a small fee and receives a stamp to indicate that he or she has visited the temple. We went back to the car and I took my small pilgrim ledger out of my backpack and waited at the Temple Stamping Office.

Meanwhile, the husband went off to find a vending machine. A few minutes later, he came back with some welcome bottles of spring water. I was still waiting in line. A bevy of chattering “bus” pilgrims had preceded me. Finally, after a wrinkled old monk stamped Temple 24’s emblem into my book and signed the page with a beautiful calligraphic hand, we were ready to go.

“You must see the view! This is our favorite part,” said the wife.

“Yes, it gives you the good feeling of being alive,” said the husband. “Please enjoy it.”

We bounded down to the overlook across the road. We stood on the precarious edge of the cliff at Cape Muruto and faced the thrashing Pacific. Sky and sea, Kukai, indeed. The fierce blue heaven arched seamlessly into the equally fierce blue ocean.

It was pretty spectacular.

“We need to get to the fish market,’’ said the wife, suddenly.

“Right,” said the husband.

We scrambled back up to the temple just as the gates were closing.  After the husband dropped a few coins in the collection box, we got back in the Mercedes and drove a half hour to a town whose name I didn’t catch.

The fish market was doing a brisk business.

“Not that one,” said the wife to the fishmonger, as she chose fish after fish, six varieties in all. “That one over there.”

Nearby was an American-style supermarket. The husband maneuvered the shopping cart as if it were a motorcycle, happily turning corners at top speed, while the wife selected vegetables and fruits slowly and methodically.

We headed back out to the countryside, pulling up to a beautiful home, where they showed me the guest room. There was soon an immaculate white futon spread out on the floor. 

As the wife prepared dinner, the husband talked to me about growing up on Shikoku.

“I grew up right here in Kochi. We didn’t have much money,” he said, fiddling with the remote control on his wide-screen television. “And I wasn’t a very good student. So I have been luckier than anyone ever imagined. I exceeded my parents’ expectations. And my in-law’s expectations as well.“

After a delicious dinner with much laughter and lively conversation, I got up my courage to ask why they offered perfect strangers such hospitality.

“Not perfect strangers. Pilgrims only,” said the wife, as she cleared off the dozens of delicate little porcelain plates from which we had eaten.

“It is just what we do,” said the husband. “We have so very much. We are fortunate to have this home and cars and leisure time. And we care a lot for Shikoku. It is our birthplace. Why not share these things?”

I pressed them for their address so I could send a thank you letter and gifts from the States.

“No need,” they said, “We are just happy to have met you.”

“But….” I tried to plead further.

“Just consider this day and evening as osettai, the Shikoku tradition of charity.”

They refused to give me any other information.

I decided later that the temple this couple really showed me was not physical or touristic or geographical.  It was metaphorical.

We didn’t need to spend a great deal of time at Temple 24. My hosts took me to a much more significant sacred space.

Devotees of the great religions have built impressive places all over the world. I’ve been fortunate to have visited many of them and taken photos and read their histories. How Chartres was Built. The Mysteries of Stonehenge. The Story of Machu Pichu.

But after that chance meeting at the Furoshio Baths, I learned once again that, for me, the most important sacred spaces are not in the guidebooks. They are the sacred spaces created when human beings reach out to other human beings and pull them into their lives, even for just a short time. Who hasn’t felt enormously blessed when a stranger offers a meal, a smile, a conversation or a shared laugh? What traveler hasn’t felt privileged, even awed, when a native extends an invitation to his home?

During the day and night I spent with this delightful and unusual couple, I felt as if I were sheltered in a sort of holy building, something with a dome or a nave or a minaret. A place built entirely on trust and good-will. A place which existed only because of a sort of grace. Like a rainbow or a sunset.

The next day, we ate breakfast together in the kitchen and then the husband took off on his motorcycle. The wife proceeded to drive me to a nearest point where the pilgrim path intersected with the road, so I could continue my long, quiet, and sometimes lonely journey.

“Before noon, you’ll be at Temple 25 and by mid-afternoon, you’ll be at Temple 26,” she said, “Ki otsukete. Take care.”

She waved and she was gone.

I stood by the side of the road and bowed gratefully into the warm Shikoku wind.

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Gabriella Brand

Gabriella Brand is a writer, adventurer, and educational consultant. She can't stop teaching and learning foreign languages. She would like to walk on all the continents (three more to go!). Her husband is extremely patient and her children are, fortunately, all grown up.

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