The joy and the challenge of adventure is simple. I am whisked away from the comfortable and familiar. Life becomes intense, exciting, remarkable, constantly surprising. My senses are overloaded; tastes, sights, smell, sounds do not register in familiar ways. Every activity is abnormal; a test, an unforeseen event. That’s the attraction – the heightened sensitivity, the riskiness, the unpredictability of strangeness.
These are intense learning opportunities for me. In unfamiliar experiences, I am challenged to see things differently, test my presumptions, closely examine my assumptions, think more deeply. Even if I only admire cherry blossoms for the first time…
Japan certainly provides a fertile testing ground to try out new ways of thinking. Shikoku is rural Japan; I know little of the rest of the country; a brief foray through Osaka suggests life elsewhere is fast-paced, crowded and much more complex.
My Island has mist-shrouded forest, rugged paths, challenging climbs. My quest for 88 Temples takes me out of the way; temples seem to alternate between sites just around the corner from a shopping center to remote, mountainous locations that involve a lot of climbing. Kobo Daishi’s followers seem to enjoy walking trodden paths that have connected villages for centuries.
Try as I might, the seeds of Buddhism seemed to fall on barren ground with me. Right place, ample time for contemplation, a conscious attempt to open my mind, insightful guidance from dear friends; all perfect circumstances yet it is another failed experiment at finding deeper meaning. Transformational epiphanies seem to elude me as well, my favorite statue is of a youthful Buddha eating noodles – I rest my case.
My Island has gondolas called ropeways to whisk me to the tops of mountains – I wander amid ancient Temples at the top, wondering how and why Buddhists seek to build their places of worship in the most inaccessible spots – then I am swept away by the view, the vista offers my answer.
My Island is filled with small rice paddies, infill between house, shops, main streets. The landscape is bursting with Spring’s energy; verdant, lovingly manicured gardens abound.
My Island is also littered with religious and spiritual reminders. Beyond my 88 Temples, I walk past graveyards with headstones that are ancient and otherworldly, Shinto shrines that speak for another, more animist, Japanese religion. Monuments, sculpture abound; Walking slowly allows me to see this tapestry in detail; in a car, on a train, I would miss the subtlety, nuance and fine details of this Island. I find bits of whimsy everywhere, my favorite is the turtle at one temple – I rub his head for good luck.
My Island is filled with new experiences. I spend nights in Japanese hotels, although I’m sure I never got the right slippers on at the right time. I survive a few dips in the Japanese communal baths, the Onsens, and warily manage the high tech toilet apparatus. I am convinced I will unknowingly violate an untold number of Japanese social conventions when I first emerge from my room for dinner dressed in my Yakuta. Dinner tastes better when I’m costumed. I survive, I’m not shamed; it is so right to do this.
The food is spectacular for the adventurous. The Japanese seem mystified that I can use chopsticks and like what I am eating; an empty plate is proof of my enjoyment. The set menu offers enough variety that, even if something is unpalatable to my western tongue, I have more choices, all of them healthy. Again, taken out of my narrow comfort zone, I am delighted with my food. Freshly seared bonito can never be duplicated outside Shikoku.
The physical, spiritual Japan offered a feast for the senses; satisfaction guaranteed and ensuring I would return I am astounded, delighted, edified.
The added bonus, as always, is the people I meet along the way. When I travel, I feel more vulnerable. When I travel alone; my sense of vulnerability is exponentially expanded. Solo travel is walking the wire without a net. Self reliance is fundamental; every plan has to have a plan B and eternal vigilance and awareness are essential. In that state, my heightened awareness of every social interaction is vivid.
Japan, and upon reflection, most every country I have visited, reinforces my joy in the human condition. A few examples suffice. On every bus and train, I buy my ticket, walk up to the driver, introduce myself (he knows I am a pilgrim by my gear), show him where I want to go. He immediately accepts responsibility for my welfare; his sacred responsibility is to ensure I WILL get off at the right stop.
On trail, I follow a fellow Japanese pilgrim and am politely guided to the next Temple; words did not, and were not, necessary. We were pilgrims. Many communities set up rest stations, tea and cookies, sympathy/empathy, a place to sit and a smile fueled several of my days. I was offered rides by farmers and passers-by. People stopped cars and came to help me – all I had to do was open my guidebook and look befuddled (it is one of my strengths – lots of practise). A diminutive, elderly woman pushing her seat/shopping cart on wheels stopped me one day, insisting that I take her umbrella – clouds looked to drop a bit of rain. I demurred; how could I do that and retain any sense of dignity?
Madoka, a friend of a friend took a few precious hours from her family to show me around Kochi, and insisted on buying me lunch. For a few hours, I had a pleasant conversation, in English, with a new friend – on the road that is priceless.
It was suggested to me that a few days of R&R during Golden week (like August in France when virtually everyone goes on holidays). My oasis was Sen Guesthouse http://senguesthouse-matsuyama.com. Matt and Nori were the perfect hosts; hospitable, helpful, full of advice and generous with their time, knowledge and experience. Think of the best B&B you’ve ever been to and double it. I arrived in overload and left renewed, excited to finish the last phase of my pilgrimage. Enough said.
David Turkington is local knowledge personified, even if he isn’t Japanese. He has walked the pilgrimage four times. He is amiable, sociable and delights in conversing with everyone along the trail in Japanese. He knows stuff, practical stuff; he taught me how to ride a bus by making the driver my guide and guardian angel, that kind of practical stuff.
He was our guide with Mountain Hiking Holidays https://www.mountainhikingholidays.com and is the author of the definitive website on the Pilgrimage http://www.shikokuhenrotrail.com. It was my encyclopedia and reference guide as I readied myself for this adventure. He epitomizes the generosity of spirit that is core to the magic that is Shikoku.
When I travel alone on these adventures, my vulnerability makes me aware of my choice – will I rely on others, ask for help, seek advice, listen and learn? Or, will I travel my path alone, self-reliant, silent. When I do open up, the world brightens, the inherent kindness of others shines through; the generosity, the politeness, the spirit of comradeship were never more visible than during my adventure in Japan. To be constantly vulnerable is not my nature; but every trip is a healthy reminder of the goodness within everyone should I wish to call on it.
These adventures remind me that I have little control over my day but lots of control over the way I choose to handle it. Every day in a new land requires giving up control. It rains, I get lost, the walk is different from what I expected, I meet someone on the trail, I get lost, I see something that touches me, I stop someplace new for a rest and a bite: nothing is as planned, no expectation is realized. It takes time to accept this; my day is better if I am flexible, open to change and willing to see the possibilities instead of the challenges that such surprises offer.
I do hit overload. I find a Starbucks, an International New York Times and a white bread egg salad sandwich. I sit and imagine I am on Denman Street. Then, my illusion is shattered by three ladies out for a stroll in their Sunday best.