We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.
Marcel Proust (1871 - 1922)
One of the greatest engineering feats of the perfectionist-minded Japanese must surely be the monolithic bridge connecting the island of Honshu to Awaji island at Akashi. The Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge also known as Pearl Bridge, is a suspension bridge that crosses the Akashi Strait as part of the Honshu-Shikoku Highway. It is the longest suspension bridge in the world to date, as measured by the length of its center span 1,991 metres (6,532 ft), substantially longer than the second longest suspension bridge, the Danish Great Belt Bridge. Its total length is 3,911 metres (12,831 ft).I felt every inch of that distance in the tensest of ways on the day I set out on my pilgrimage on July 11th of 2006. The problem was the wind.
In order to successfully complete the circumnavigation of Shikoku, a distance of about 1300 kilometers, throughout a one year period of monthly pilgrimaging I would need to cross this bridge a lot. Since I would progressively start each month farther away from the previous as I travelled South in Shikoku, public transport to reach my starting point would be very time consuming. I would have to take trains and buses and even taxis to get to some of the far flung areas of this island just to start off from where I had finished the previous month.I thus bought a motorcycle to reach my pilgrimage point every month and on this day I was full of excitement and anticipation about the prospect of officially becoming a pilgrim with my very own 'log book' called noukyou log. In this would be hand written and sealed the proof of having been to each temple. Of course many thousands went by car, by bicycle or by tour bus and would still get the stamps. But earning them on foot was surely the best way to go about being a pilgrim. I guess even at the age of 55 I was still very much like the 18 year old standing at the Dover docks on my way across the English channel and onwards to Katmandhu. The road ahead, being unknown, is far more attractive than the one you have already trodden. Who knows what might happen?
I should have read the signs rather than just looked at them. In kanji next to a symbol of a car being blown over it said 横風 meaning strong side winds on the bridge and roads ahead. For cars that is not a real problem unless the wind is very severe. I decided to ignore this very important information because there was no way I was not going to start walking from temple number one in Tokushima. I was ready. I was willing. I was finally a pilgrim. You never turn back on a new journey especially.
You get used to strong head winds on a powerful motorcycle but being hit from the side is totally different. For the entire, almost interminable crossing of that bridge my knuckles were white from the tension and I seriously doubted I would get across without accident. It is a miracle of design that bridge, with three wide lanes that seem to sail over the whirlpool rich seas below, a long way below. As soon as I was on the left lane, the slowest, and the wind hit me as it flew up the narrow channel we were all crossing I realised the meaning of the warning signs. I was steadily and surely being pushed into the lane to my right. Going slower should help me I surmised. It did nothing of the sort. I could not stop on a suspension bridge. The only thing to do was litearlly grit my teeth and grab those handlebars as fiercely as possible and to will that motorcycle back into the left lane with every blast of wind pushing me to the right. I prayed. At any moment a particularly strong blast could easily send my miniscule weight (relative to and heavy trucks speeding paston my right) straight in front of a very ugly end to my pilgrimage. Imagine what happens when a truck hits a motorcycle and then consider that the impact could literally eject my body over that low barrier on my left and down hundreds of feet. I remembered that Discovery channel special about falling into water from heights. There is a long standing superstition amongst high bridge workers that if you have a heavy tool in your hand and drop it under you as you fall, then the hammer or the spanner will break the surface tension of the water and thus allow the plummeting body to avoid instant destruction. Water is of course not soft as any one who has ever had a bad landing on a dive at a swimming pool knows. But the Discovery channel hosts had tested dummies with and without tools being dropped and the height was a mere 15 meters or so. All the dummies, weighted to be as close to possible as an adult, were smashed to bits.
The thought easily crossed my mind as an experienced traveller, 'Difficulty at the beginning' straight out of the I Ching. I pondered even as I wondered at how slowly I seemed to be progressing across this masterpiece of horror now... so this is to be the first test of commitment then? This is how I get treated from the very start? Do I really want to get to that island and walk for hundreds of kilometers? I glanced at my hands through a plastic visor now in the process of being ripped from the front of the helmet from the force of the wind. White knuckles were beginning to freeze the entire backs of my hands from the tension, meaning I would eventually lose control of the clutch and accelerator as well as the front brake, quickly folowed by a lack of ability to steer at all. Left into the low barrier and off for a high dive, or right into a moving mass and the sure probability of being mangled alive.The prospects looked very grim and I suddenly realised that I had no idea what I was getting myself in for. Much later I was to see that any real journey is only partly a physical one and is far more psychophysical in nature than any of us really want to recognize. That is why all cultures began to take root when we stopped being hunters and gatherers, and very short lived ones at that, and started to stay put via agriculural communities. From the point of view of fate it is far easier to get at a human being who is moving through an unstable environment than in the shelter of a walled community. In short shit happens a lot more easily when you are on the move...