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Forty-two. The perfect age to set off in search of the meaning of life, the universe and everything, and to rebel against the straightjacket of conformity.

Ignoring the midlife crisis jibes with a toss of her curls and her distinctive wry smile, she’d fought with her editors to arrange a three-month sabbatical – and here she was, jet lagged in Japan, carefully re-packing and paring down the weight in her backpack for one last time.

Outside, in the moonlit night, the weather gods were warming up for action. The approaching typhoon already raged with gusto. The churned-up sea pounded the coastal shores. Rain spattered hard and fast, in uneven squalls, against the windows; and the wind-whipped trees created a violent shadow-puppet show that fueled her pre-pilgrimage nerves.

It wasn't the 1,600-kilometre journey, or even the months of walking alone in a foreign country, that scared her. She was looking forward to the heady freedom of her own company and breaking free of the deadline-driven mania that punctuated her life as a freelance journalist. She yearned for solitude and the simplicity of walking. Nothing required, except putting one foot securely in front of the other.

What scared her witless was the thought of the public statement she was about to make. Dressing in the white oizuru, the traditional Japanese funerary wear of a pilgrim, and strapping the bulging 20-kilogram red-and-grey pack to her small frame… That final statement of intent scared her and gnawed at her insides.

The conspicuousness. The looks. The thoughts. Starting out was going to be the hardest part. Keeping going, once she'd gained momentum, that'd be easy enough, she reckon
 
Forty-eight hours later the ocean was calm again. It whispered secret mantras as it sidled over the sandy shallows and onto the shores at Wakayama, her first port of call, 55 kilometres away. She’d planned to arrive there early on the third day of her walk, with the sea mist reaching out to her like welcoming clouds of incense.

But she never reached the bustling port town, to catch the ferry to Shikoku Island, to follow in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded the 88-temple pilgrimage that circumnavigates Japan’s third largest island. She never got to see the sights that she’d desperately wanted to see ever since she’d supported her partner, Bob, as he walked the trail. She’d kept things ticking over at home and walked with him in spirit. Now it was her turn; she was due to set off in the morning.

That night, eight hundred meters up in her Zen-like temple lodgings on the sacred mountain of Koyasan, she’d dreamt she was back in the Oku-no-in Cemetery walking among the ancient trees posted like sentinels between the carefully tended old gravestones. She imbibed the peace, feeling a deep sense of spirituality; but as she approached the temple office the cool autumn air turned frigid and she sensed a dark shadow watching her.

The grey-haired woman behind the heavy wooden counter hissed with displeasure, showing yellowed teeth, at the sight of her. Gnarled fingers gesticulated as the woman shouted an incomprehensible string of angry Japanese peppered with the odd "gaijin". No interpreter needed. It was clear the interloper was not welcome. A foreigner could not be a real henro, a welcomed pilgrim.

A priest, dressed in dark navy work clothes, calmly interjected. Sharp angry retorts, followed by composed replies, volleyed back and forth, back and forth between them, until the old woman stormed off throwing a final curse in her direction.

The priest apologised in broken Japanlish and methodically placed newspaper between the absorbent pages of her nokyo-cho, the special book pilgrims use to collect stamps from each temple they visit. He applied inked brushstrokes and vermillion red seals with great composure, as though nothing had happened.

She woke shivering, as the priest aimed a hairdryer at the page to dry the ink. She switched on the light and stared at the first of many stamps she planned to collect. She wished for a half-measure of the calm composure of the priest, and idly wondered what she’d done to upset the old woman, as she drifted back into a disturbed sleep.

When she woke again a little later there was a nervous nausea in the pit of her stomach. Finding no relief in postponing the inevitable, she uncurled from the warm safety of the duvet-covered futon and dressed slowly into the dreaded white pilgrim jacket.

Her just-worn-in hiking boots felt stiff and unwelcoming as she pulled at the laces. Next she hefted her overweight pack and shifted it awkwardly on her shoulders, closed the belt buckle with a tight snap, and picked up her traditional walking stick.

In days gone by the stick was used as a grave marker for pilgrims who didn’t make it. Like Bob’s kongo-tsue she’d selected one with a brass bell that jangled with every step. It was supposed to scare away bears, and serve as a constant reminder to focus on each moment – although the repetitive noise would probably drive her crazy.

She wasn’t sure if there really were bears in the forest. Four years earlier, when Bob did this pilgrimage, there’d been a yellow bear-warning sign tacked to a tree at the start of the path down to Wakayama. It was no longer there. She remembered being mildly concerned about Bob and bears, but didn’t feel a similar twinge of concern for her own safety.

As she left the temple accommodation, she tried to will herself to look even smaller, feeling the acute self-consciousness she’d anticipated – except this time it was on steroids. A kindly priest looked up, bowed slightly, and said, "Ah! O’henro-san." A simple acknowledgement, followed by “Ganbatte!” This translates roughly as stay strong, keep going, don’t give up, or do your best.

Pilgrims are common in the remote temple village of Koyasan – and that was the most attention anyone paid to her on her half-hour walk through the village to the imposing crimson Daimon gate and the start of the footpath down to Wakayama.

An ancient pathway between two temples, the Choi-shi-michi sidles steeply down Mount Koya for 24 kilometres. Her boots crunched on the beige-brown gravel as she descended deeper into the forest. The leaf-strewn path was wet and slippery from the typhoon rains and she adjusted the balance of her pack as she moved. It was the heaviest load she’d ever carried, but she had to be self sufficient – maps and guide books, tent and stove, sleeping bag and insulated pad, a couple of days’ food, and clothing that would see her through into winter.

As she walked, her mind wandered back to the temple shop where she’d bought her henro outfit. It was crammed floor-to-ceiling with religious objects – from oversized statues to subtle incense. The amulets drew her attention and her fingers lingered over a dorje, a short double sceptre with crystals in the two claw-like ends, with a matching tiny gold-coloured bell. She had wondered if the thunderbolt of enlightenment was too pretentious a good luck charm, but she chose it anyway – or did she let it choose her? She’d tied it below the patterned handle cover of her kongo-tsue and it jangled in time with the bear bell, bringing her back to the present moment.

She’d been on the Choi-shi-michi for about fifteen minutes and was just starting to smell the pine trees, and notice how the dappled light danced, when her right foot slipped. She lurched to the left to avoid falling but the top-heavy pack pulled her over, twisting her as she fell. She ended face down, pinned under her pack, in an involuntary prostration with the taste of blood and soil in her mouth.

 It was cowardice that kept her going. Got her back up on her feet. Forced her to hobble further down the soggy forest path. The imagined humiliation of limping back to Koyasan was too great. And the thought that all her preparations and planning were about to end in an aborted trip numbed out all reason. The only option was to keep going. She couldn’t… wouldn’t… give up.
 

The pain from her left ankle made her wince, but it was bearable, just bearable. She knew not to take her boot off. She’d never get it back on again; so she shuffled forward grandma-like, leaning heavily on the kongo-tsue. The dorje hung limply, the bear bell acknowledging every laboured step.

She kept going – only stopping briefly to touch the cold, mossy surface of each stone marker, greeting some with tears, and some with a weak smile. Most were ancient, dating back to the 1260s; a few were modern replacements. They all stood three metres high, almost double her height, with a five-tier pagoda on top, representing the five elements.

She’d seen many of these pagodas in the Oku-no-in Cemetery. They’re traditional grave makers, called gorinto. The square base represents earth. Balancing on that is a sphere, a triangle, and a half-moon on its back, for the elements of water, fire, and wind. The jewel-shaped symbol for air at the pinnacle reminded her of a teardrop. There’d already been a lot of those today.

She dabbed her eyes self-consciously on her sleeve as two hikers passed, with a friendly “Ganbatte” and quickly moved out of sight. She decided to time herself. The 180 stone markers on the Choi-shi-michi are placed 109 metres apart. She was walking at roughly one-and-a-half kilometres an hour. She knew that meant she was in trouble, but she still wasn’t ready to give up. The literal translation of Ganbatte means to stubbornly persevere – and that’s what she did.

The Choi-shi-michi crossed the sealed road to Wakayama twice, but she kept going. By the third time she reached the road it was early afternoon. She sat heavily on a bench. When she tried to start walking again she recoiled in pain, unable to put any weight on the swollen ankle. She was forced to concede that her pilgrimage was over.

Tears of frustrated disappointment, which she felt more keenly than any physical pain, blurred the events of the next few hours and days.

A couple on honeymoon gave her a lift to the medical centre back on top of Mount Koya. An X-ray showed a fractured fibula. Someone arranged accommodation for the night. A western nun who’d made Koyasan her home came to visit. The nun had also injured an ankle just days before she was due to embark on a pilgrimage. The nun told her not to feel rejected or punished by the gods, or to feel that she’d been judged and found unworthy.

The thought that the gods had rejected her hadn’t occurred to her until that moment. The well-intentioned advice backfired and the idea took root, joining the deep, unsettling disappointment that left her hollow – almost dead. The painkillers eventually numbed it away into a fretful sleep.

She dreamt of forests and cemeteries, of old lady’s curses, unlucky charms, and the wrath of the gods, of falling and twisting, and breaking an ankle on the trail.

Namu daishi henjo kongo. Namo daishi henjo kongo… slowly entered her consciousness. The mantra from the early morning temple service. She thought it was time to set off on her pilgrimage, until she moved to stretch. A deep pain warned her to keep still and reminded her that the last 24 hours had not just been a bad dream.

Life’s journey continued, but the destination and the person had changed.