Deep rumbling chants rolled out of the cedar temple, pushed by the rhythmic precision of the perfectly timed drums, as the Buddhist monk led the daily dawn service. The morning air was crisp and carried the scent of pine and earth from the remote Japanese mountaintop. Prayer beads wrapped around my left hand, 108 plastic balls reminding me of my earthly sins, I knelt Japanese style in a dimly lit temple wondering if feeling would ever return to my feet. Gold ringlets hung from the ceiling, radiating above a thousand armed statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion sitting directly in front of me.
One hour later, my prayers were answered. The monk concluded the ceremony and encouraged us to relax our legs before he spoke about the Buddha’s teachings. Sighs of restrained relief and pain filled the dim temple as seven Japanese pilgrims sitting on either side of me shifted their legs on age golden straw tatami mats.

The Buddhist monk, dressed in flowing purple, orange and vermilion colored robes bowed his shaved head and said in impeccably polite Japanese, “Welcome to Senyu-ji, The Temple of the Hermit in Seclusion.”

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“Where have you travel from?” he inquired of everyone. He quickly put everyone at ease by commenting on each hometown and making short conversation. However, he only nodded when I mentioned I was from the USA.

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Pleasantries dispensed with, he began.

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“I hate America,” he intoned, letting the force of his words pound into the still air.

“If it wasn’t for America the world would be at peace. America has ruined all chance for peace in the 21st Century,” the monk preached into an increasingly silent room.

I heard every eye turn towards me. The temple’s intricately crafted joints creaked and moaned as the harmony, so valued in Japanese society, raced out the sliding wooden shoji doors.

Twenty days earlier, I arrived on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, and home to the country’s most popular pilgrimage route. For over a thousand years, henro (pilgrims) have visited 88 Buddhist temples that ring the island, traveling in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Born on Shikoku in 774 AD, he wandered the island performing acetic rituals, leaving a steady stream of miracles in his wake.

Each year only one percent of pilgrims (out of an estimated 100,000-150,000 henro who perform the route by bus, car, train or bicycle) actually walk the 750-mile route. They hike footpaths that plunge deep into isolated mountains, through villages dominated by evergreens and rice paddies, and along a weather beaten coastline assaulted by frequent typhoon. Dressed in road worn white, they peer out from under conical straw hats that protect from sun and rain. Bell topped staffs steady their tired bodies as they transform Shikoku into a constantly moving human prayer wheel.

A pilgrim reaching the top of the long steep path to Senyuji

Like millions of pilgrims who came before me, I climbed the worn mountain path to Temple 58, Senyuji, on the 19th day of my pilgrimage. Clinging to the top of a mountain The Temple of the Hermit in Seclusion affords sweeping views of the Inland Sea below. A lazy summer breeze wound its way through the meticulously sculpted temple grounds as I sat under the large iron bell waiting for my breath to return.

The Inland Sea

I chanted Buddhist sutras, and received a smoothly inked kanji (Chinese character) and a vermilion stamp in my pilgrim’s book as proof of my visit. When the book is complete and filled with all 88 temple kanji I will be guaranteed to enter nirvana upon my death. Who else can claim they ensured their eternal salvation over a summer vacation? I was ready to move to the next temple when a short bald man, his face crinkled in a perpetual childlike smile with clothes deeply soiled by the earth, caught my eye.

“Would you like to stay and help me with my work?” asked Mukai-san, the temple’s groundskeeper.

Mukai-san

Taken aback by such directness, but infected by a smile that split his face in half and swallowed his eyes, I agreed to stay and help. Replacing my walking staff with a shovel and hoe, I spent a long but gratifying day under the hot sun helping to build a traditional forge for sword making.
The next morning everything changed as the old groundskeeper sat behind the monk and beat the drum that penetrated my soul. The Bodhisattva of Compassion looked over all of us.

“I don’t hate Americans, only your country and what it represents,” the monk continued into the awkward silence of the temple.

Taking little comfort in the monk’s attempt to clarify, I sat through the remaining hour planning my escape.

Immediately after the sermon I packed up my belongings. I was at the top of the steep mountain path when Mukai-san caught me and said simply, “Shall you stay another day? There’s lots of work to be done.”

I was torn between my insulted ego and the open generosity before me. I searched the face of the man who had renounced all of his possessions seven years earlier, dedicating himself to the temple. He received nothing in return except room and board. In that moment, I understood what it means to accept without judgment and I left the monk’s words behind in the temple.

Hard at work

Tired after work

I spent the following days working with Mukai-san. In the evenings the head monk would join us under the stars next to a ceder filled camp fire. We drank sake and ate various processed meat products. Mukai-san politely refused all but the vegetables and juice. We never talked about the monk’s speech, nor did politics come up again. However, in the haze of broken Buddhist dietary vows the monk and I came to a silent understanding of simple acceptance.

I left the mountain two days later with a light heart, certain I had met the true hermit in seclusion, disguised as a simple groundskeeper.

In November my sister visited Sri Lanka, so we grabbed some friends, packed up the car and headed back to our favorite lakeside cabin, the Castlereigh Family Cottages in the hill country. You can see our previous adventures here. This time we decided to go on a hike rather than spend our time on the porch the whole time.
Rather than go on an established hike, we decided to pick a mountain and climb it ourselves. We chose this mountain across lake where we could use the tea trails to reach the top.
We drove around the lake and parked in front of a Hindu temple.

I guess this is the way. This would not be the only time we asked the locals for help.

The tea trails.

Two tea pickers on their way to work. The long sticks are laid across the tea bushes. Only the leaves above the sticks are picked to make sure the leaves are young and fresh.

As we wound our way up the mountain the lake began to reveal itself.

Life in the fields.

On the way up the mountain we met a group of women hiking to the nearest town, Maskeliya, to go shopping. They walk the whole way and the trip takes them four hours.

Our cabin is across the lake.

A group of children out for a walk with their parent’s helped point us onto the correct path. Kay fit right in with them.
After a two hour hike we made it to the top.

Adam’s Peak in the distance.

Our friend called his driver and made sure we had cold beers waiting for us at the end of the hike.

Resting sore feet and soaking up the views.
It has been a busy few months and I have not posted to Todd’s Wanderings in some time. The following few posts will help close out my experiences in 2008 before I turn my attention to the new year.

In September, Kay and I took a weekend trip down to the secluded boutique hotel the River House just south of Bentota. In October, we headed down to Galle for the city’s annual Art Festival in the old Portuguese and Dutch era fort section of town.

The common room of the main house overlooks the river and invites nature inside. The hotel has only five bedrooms for seven acres of tropical gardens. There was only one other couple staying there so we felt like we had the place to ourselves.

A view of the main house from the garden near the river.
The garden below.

We stayed in the bungalow by the river. The other four rooms are up in the main house leaving us with our own house on the water.

Our room…we managed…somehow.

We had a great veranda overlooking the water where we ate all of our meals.

Kay and I took out the two person kayak and explored the river. Luckily Kay did need to use the life jacket.

Fish traps
The lizards are huge! Monitor lizards are related to Komodo dragons, and we ran into them everywhere on the river. A 4 foot long hostile lizard with sharp claws and teeth swimming next to you tends to help put a little extra effort into your paddles at the end of day.

Two cranes.
In October, we hit the road again and visited Galle for the town’s annual art festival. The festival was held in the old fort and uninhabited Portuguese and Dutch era houses were opened up as galleries for various artists. It was a great chance to take a peek inside houses that are normally closed to the public.
This beautiful old bull decided to relax in the fort as well.

A tight squeeze.

Inside a renovated building.

This Ministry, located in the fort, seems to be an expert in just about everything.

What you don’t see from the street.

A rooftop view of the fort.

My favorite exhibit was this intense color inside a completely white house. The artist, Mahen Chanmugan, adapts images of Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom and the Remover of Obstacles, to modern themes. A price listing can be found here.

Ganesha with fruit
We need a little peace these days.

Content with his place in the house.
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