I first heard of the 88 Temples pilgrimage several years ago; shrouded in exotic mystery, it was too much to even consider. It was Japanese, Buddhist, long, culturally and linguistically unfathomable; it was too complicated, therefore unachievable and insurmountable. I put off taking it seriously for years but, funny how things work, constant reminders seemed to pop up. Daunting as it was, whatever the barriers; sometimes we just commit.
As Yoda said: ‘We do or we do not, there is no try.” I decided to do…. the Shikoku 88 Temples pilgrimage.
Shikoku, one of the small Islands that form Japan, is home to the 1200 year old pilgrimage to honour Kobo Diashi, one of Japan’s most revered Buddhist monks and teachers. The pilgrimage circles the Island, 1100 kilometers to visit all 88 Temples; most pilgrims do it by car or bus, many fewer walk the full route, a journey of up to two months.
The pilgrimage is deeply embedded in the Island’s culture, the first known guide to the pilgrimage was produced in the 1600’s and, over the years, millions of pilgrims – Henro – have made the trek. All are treated with extraordinary support and respect by Shikoku residents.
I became a pilgrim, a stranger in a strange land. No language skills, no cultural or historical grounding, no sense of the spiritual dimension called Buddhism or the Japanese sect called Shingon Buddhism, no ability to negotiate a hotel room, a meal or public transportation; and no safety net. I would do it on my own.
I spent several months obsessing, walking everywhere to get my legs in shape, annoying all my friends about Japan, engaging my Buddhist friends to try to learn a bit about the spiritual dimension of this journey. I packed all the information into my trunk of worries, lost sleep and secretly wallowed in every delicious moment of ‘needless worry’.
I got lucky and found a guided tour by Mountain Hiking Holidays http://www.mountainhikingholidays.com – a week of hiking temple to temple in various spots on the pilgrimage; delighting in the notion that my guides were Shikoku gurus – authoritative experts on my adventure. I signed up, the best decision I have made in a long time.
My first week was my saving grace, I was alone for weeks after but, as well as having the ghost of Kobo Daishi walking with me, I had a kitfull of helpful hints from John, Tom and David – my leaders. They whispered in my ear and saved me from unimaginable folly.
First there is gear to be purchased. We bought our Henro uniform, the white vest, the staff and the sedge hat all become a passport to special treatment on the island; doors open that were never even evident. We learn to be mindful and respectful of the Pilgrim tradition; there is a code of the road and a specific process to visiting a Temple. Temples seem to be deliberately placed at the tops of things, mountains, steep trails leading up to even steeper stairs that climb through the mist to the sacred temple.
In that first week we bounced around, temples 1-5 one day, 11 and 12 the next, and so on until, at week’s end, we celebrated our arrival at Temple 88. In between, I peppered them all with inane questions, opening my trunk of worries and unloading it for all to see. Each day the trunk lightened – each answer filled with insight, experience and that rarest and most precious of all commodities – local knowledge. With the mystery and worry removed, the pilgrimage became less intimidating.
There is a respectful way to visit a temple. I bow when I enter the temple grounds, wash my hands at a special well, usually guarded by dragons. I sound the gong to alert the gods that I’ve arrived, light a candle and three sticks of incense, place a special prayer slip into a box for the gods to read at their convenience, drop a few coins in the box and say my prayers.
There are long, wonderfully rhythmic sutras chanted by many pilgrims that I never master. I say my silent prayers – ones meaningful to me that have served me well for decades, special invocations and requests for those close to my heart. Before I leave, the monk signs my precious stamp book, each page waiting for his calligraphy to certify my visit – a keepsake so precious many Japanese Henro are buried with it.
Then I walk on to the next temple; in my attempt to sanctify these moments I try not to charge along, measuring success by the number of filled pages of my stamp book. Simon and Garfunkel help -” slow down, you move too fast” is what I hum while I am trying to find a more mindful rhythm to my journey. All of this is remarkably spiritual and uplifting.
Other aspects of my journey offer rich and more fulfilling rewards. The early spring walks in the countryside feast the eyes; the blossoms burst into view, a single cherry tree blazes pink amidst a forest painted that special green of newly unfolding leaves. Farmers, artisans of the earth in Japan, work the soil; rice planted here, winter wheat ripening there, Japanese radishes, a splash, a slash of brilliant purple from irises in between.
I find I am not alone, other Henro walk the path. I fall in behind them, unsure of the direction, lacking the confidence of KNOWING where I am going and lacking the language skills to check with passers-by. We become comrades for a kilometer or two, they lead me to the next Temple; conversation is redundant.
Temples have their personality; special statues, a rich deep history of folklore and myth stewed in an almost incomprehensible Buddhist belief system. Contemplating the mysteries of Buddhism is timely, I have time and I’m in the mood – everything else is mysterious, I might as well open myself up to all sorts of mystery. I don’t get any wiser but it is useful to ask cosmic questions of oneself occasionally.
My life develops a pattern. I awake, dress for the weather, walk, rest find food, look about and finally reach my planned destination. I find my home for the night, wash me and my meagre wardrobe, forage for food, settle in. I get off my feet by watching incomprehensible Japanese TV or baseball if I’m lucky, tally up my progress, consume inconceivable volumes of water to appease the gods of hydration, plan out in detail my next day’s walk, prepare my candles/prayer slips, read and sleep. The next day is about the same. I walk when I can, I master the trains and buses – the key is to throw myself at the mercy of the bus driver – the key is to look lost but not crazy. In the end, I walk about half the distance, my body tells me that’s about right, my ego is not so sure.
I see more; Irises, Koi nobori – delightful round, hollow, multi-coloured streamers that are part kite, part flag, onions harvested, market gardens carefully nurtured, a few frogs, two snakes. I walk through bamboo forests, gently waving in the wind, next to pine trees that barely waver. I walk past empty derelict houses; the rush of young people to the city happens everywhere, the rural areas show the exodus and the neglect.
Eventually, I arrive at my final temple, an earnest Monk permits a photo of the event of his calligraphy filling the last blank page. I close the loop by returning to Temple 1. There is no grand epiphany to mark my journey, but there is a growing affection for this little corner of the world and an already growing wistfulness at the end that has surprised me by coming so soon – when for weeks it seemed so far off.
“Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last.”