Should I bother talking about breakfast? Does it even make sense to mention that it’s lame? Would it be redundant? There is actually one new feature to the repetitive buffet breakfasts; cold saucy meatballs. Deeeelish.
Our vans take us to a Lawson’s (7/11 like store) to pick out our lunches. We are given another ¥1,000 ($10) as our spending money. Dad and I try to find some vegetables or fruit but there’s not much to choose from so I buy an onigiri and a salad. Dad gets yoghurt, packaged mini-croissants, strawberries, and a bunch of other stuff. We’re really TRYING to enjoy the whole convenience store lunch thing but it’s not super easy.
We drive up to the fourth temple on the pilgrimage and we begin our hike from there. Hike is a loose term, because we’re still walking on flat pavement through towns, but alas, this IS the pilgrimage trail. There are signs to prove it and everything.
By the time we’ve made it to Temple 8, it’s time to stop for lunch. I eat my pre-packaged “convenient” lunch beneath the shade of a wisteria tree. Unfortunately the wisteria isn’t in bloom, but it’s branches are twisted and knotted around a tall arbour, making it the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.
The temple is up a set of stairs, and as we reach the top we are so lucky to discover that we’ve arrived just in time for a group of monks to begin their chant. This is part of the pilgrimage tradition, to chant at every temple, and Ted has been doing it on our behalf every time, but this is something special. About 30 monks and widows chant in a beautiful hypnotic tone. Some are carrying conch shells and blow them at different times during the chant, making it even more magical. This moment is surreal. I am surrounded by beautiful cherry blossom trees, at an ancient temple, listening to monks chant while some of the petals from the cherry blossoms float down in the wind. I feel like this is something I will never forget.
As the chanters start dispersing, Dad sees the main monk walking towards him and instantly assumes he’s in their way. Instead, however, he has come over to ask us where we’re from. He exudes such a powerful presence of calm and confidence. Dad tells him that we are from Canada, “Oh, Canada”, he says in broken English. Then Dad also points to Tim, who is standing next to him, and says that he is from America. “Oh, America”, seeming enthused. He then smiles, points to himself and says “Japan”. We all laugh hysterically. It feels a little bit like talking to a celebrity, or the Dalai Lama. It just feels SO exciting to be having a conversation. He continues on with his gaggle of monks and widows following close behind, all smiling, bowing and saying “konichiwa” as they pass.
We’ve been walking for a few hours now and I have consumed at least half of my three-litre platypus…it’s time to pee. When we get to temple 9, I make a B-line to the closest restroom, which unfortunately for me, is a squatter. If you’re unsure of what a squatter is, just think again. It’s pretty self explanatory. I don’t totally hate them, I’ve gotten pretty used to them in fact, but they aren’t my first choice. I miss heated toilet seats.
There is one side pocket in my white pilgrimage vest, in which I have placed my cellphone for easy access to a camera. Whilst squatting over a deep dark scary hole of doom, my cellphone casually falls out of it’s pocket, bounces, and lands about a millimetre shy of where it would have otherwise plunged to it’s death. I don’t care that it’s waterproof. I would not have retrieved it.
Temple 10 is the last temple of our day. I look forward to what comes next, which is stopping at a real onsen on our way back to the hotel. We walk along paved roads that are slightly less central to the town, until we see our vans parked at the bottom of a long set of stairs. The climb up the stairs is nice, as it is shaded by trees and a change from the flat cement. Every time we reach a plateau I think we’ve arrived at the temple…but the stairs just keep on going. Even once we have in fact reached the temple, there are still more stairs to climb. I ring the giant bell just outside the temple, and continue up to wherever these stairs shall lead me.
The top isn’t too much further, and once we get there I am overwhelmed bu excitement. There’s an absolutely wonderful view of the city and distant mountains, veiled by a little bit of mist (or pollen or pollution. It’s hard to know).
We spend some time lounging up here before heading back down to the vans. Onto the onsen! We are taken to a REAL natural outdoor onsen on our way back to the hotel. What a treat! It’s so nice to relax in the hot water after a long day.
As a final stop before returning to our hotel, we stop at a grocery store. This is an upgrade from the usual 7/11s, and I am much happier being able to choose from multiple fruits, and to pick up boxed maki that I can trust to be fresh. We go over our ¥1,000 ($10) provided budget in order to pick up some stuff that would be suitable for breakfast too.
We meet in the lobby of the hotel at 6:45 to go for dinner. After the terrible meal we had last night, Ted has arranged for us to eat at a local seafood restaurant instead. I am skeptical, because it seems that Ted and I have different meal expectations, but I am optimistic that it can’t be any worse than what we ate yesterday.
We walk 10 minutes to a local seafood restaurant with the most welcoming staff in the world. All 16 of us get a “HELLO!” “IRASHAIMASEI” (please come in) shouted at us on arrival. Fun! We sit at a traditional Japanese table and order our drinks. The menu is entirely in Japanese and without any photos, so Ted takes it upon himself to order food for the whole table to share. Again, I’m a little skeptical. Some edamame arrives; always yummy. Then tempura sticks of some type of root. I don’t know which root, but the delicious kind.
Next, a HUGE plate of fantastic looking sashimi is placed in front of us; beautifully presented and scrumptious-looking. Salmon, squid, shrimp, crab, tuna, sea urchin, scallops, it’s all there. There is one mystery fish on a long skewer, head in tact and everything, but I’m pretty sure it’s just there for decoration because I try to make Dad eat it and he physically can’t cut it. We eat all the edible parts of the dish up in minutes.
After that we get an order of sushi, and I try the weirdest looking one: salmon caviar and cucumber. It’s actually tasty though. I made a friend eat it once at a cheap little conveyor belt sushi joint in Banff, Alberta, and he was violently ill a few hours later. So we’ll see what happens to me…but I’m willing to chance it! You gotta try everything once.
Tonights meal experience is such a fabulous change from the mediocre food we’ve been eating over the last couple of days (with the exception of the monastery). I knew Japan had some delicious stuff somewhere!