The deep red of the wooden torii – the gateway to the shrine – stood in a forest grove behind which the shrine itself was draped in shadow: according to tradition, I threw a 5-yen coin in through the wooden slats. For an offering to the local deity, it’s a good deal, and with a yank of a thickly knotted and scraggly old rope, I rang the bell and made my wish – much better than disc brakes or a bright reflective jacket, a blessing from the local gods goes a long way on these winding mountain roads.
Recently it seems that on almost every ride I do, there is some shrine at which I have to stop and make an offering. What used to be an occasional distraction has, over time, become a fully-fledged ritual – after all, you need every bit of luck you can get, especially nowadays. And although the komainu – the “lion-dogs” that guard the entrance – are no less menacing for being frozen in stone, at least I think they recognise me by now.
There is one more thing – an omamori, or lucky charm. Mine is a little metal keyring I carry, a figurine of a pilgrim with a staff and conical hat, and inscription of kotsu anzen engraved on the back. Roughly translated it means “road safety”, and he has been with me since my very first bike trip. That was over twenty years ago when I rediscovered an old mountain bike rusting away on the balcony. I cleaned it up, piled on a load of random belongings and boarded a ferry to the island of Shikoku to travel it’s ancient 88 temple Buddhist pilgrimage route.
The figurine is of Kobo Daishi, the Japanese monk who established this pilgrimage some 1,200 years ago. I bought him at the first temple and carried him with me for the three weeks it took to complete the thousand-mile circuit. This was, admittedly, after an initial false start when my Japanese skills let me down, and I mistakenly purchased a lucky charm promising me a baby boy within the year. I had to beg the temple to take it back.
Since then, he has accompanied me on probably all of my cycling trips, including the eight months it took me cycle from the UK to Japan across Europe, Central Asia and China. For that one he kept company with St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, a medallion given to me as I departed, by my distraught mother. Friends and family also bequeathed me a number of other lucky charms for that particular expedition, and they gathered in the corners of my pockets and panniers, waiting their turn for some prayer (or some blasphemy). After all, I needed plenty of good fortune to get through that whole thing alive.
And in those last few months, I even had a collection of lucky rocks, gathered initially to ward off attacks from wild dogs lurking at the edge of my field of vision during a sandstorm. As soon as I picked them up the storm abated, and the dogs vanished. I revered those rocks, and transported them from the floor of the Gobi Desert all the way through to Tokyo. They are still somewhere at the bottom of a crate of belongings from that trip.
I am pretty ambivalent about the number 13, and whenever I see a black cat crossing the road, I see … a black cat crossing the road. But cycling is different. In Japan you need to pay your respects to the kami, the gods living in these mountains, in the streams, in the trees, in the rocks… There are eight million of them, so those 5-yen coins can add up.
My Kobo Daishi lucky key ring is pretty worn by now. The original chain is broken, the conical hat loose and his paint is flaking off, but you can still make out the Japanese characters for “road safety”. I try not to get too obsessed with talismans anymore, but I am careful not to leave this one lying neglected on some shelf or in some drawer. The last time did that, I really did get hit by a car.
So, I keep visiting these lonely shrines when I can, hoping a little bit of company and some modest pocket money will encourage the mountain gods to look out for me. And the little guy, of course – I make sure he never misses another ride.