Three weeks into my trek, as I climbed a steep path to Yokomine-ji, the 60th of the 88 temples along the Shikoku pilgrimage, I found myself shrouded in an unforgiving mist. In an instant, the colorful forest around me – mostly red cedar trees and fern bushes – disappeared, leaving me in a world of gray. I managed to find the smallest shapes in the surrounded trees, I was convinced that I fell into a scary fairy tale.
Quietly, in the distance, I began to hear a chorus of small bells. Then, suddenly, the party of accidental musicians was seen: a large group of Japanese pilgrims who, approaching me, all stopped neatly in line to let me go.
Within an hour, the fog had begun to lift. Within two, it was gone entirely, replaced by an unforgiving midday sun. In the newfound clarity of sunlight, I began to wonder: Was the polite group of fellow pilgrims only in my mind?
The pilgrimage to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four major islands, is a 750-mile route that links 88 Buddhist temples, each of which claims a connection to Kukai, a famous monk. – posthumously known as Kobo Daishi – who, after returning from a trip to China in the ninth century, founded one of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan.
After Kukai’s death in 835, wanderers began to make pilgrimages to places in Shikoku associated with his life and work: his birthplace and tombs, the caves where he meditated, the sites of various religious rituals. Later, these places were linked, and the temples and shrines were formally numbered.
As is true of many modern-day pilgrimages, the ranks of Shikoku pilgrims – once exclusively practitioners of Shingon Buddhism, one of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan – has grown to include travelers with more different motivations. And so the steady succession of monks, priests and faithful Buddhists gives way to young people on journeys of self-discovery, old hikers enjoying their retirement and even foreigners. a visitor like me, who knows little of the language and customs but is attracted by the adventure of the journey, by the breathtaking scenery of Shikoku and by the noble lessons of Japanese cultural heritage.
And traveling is easier now than ever. Although pilgrims traditionally completed the route on foot, bus tour guides now take many visitors to the sites. (The point for many people, after all, is to visit all 88 temples, not to endure the hardships of a 750-mile hike.) Others choose to take a private ride. cars, or walk one part of the road and drive (or be driven) for the rest.
Even for non-religious trekkers, the most valuable souvenir of the pilgrimage is the fully stamped nokyocho, or seal book. The books have dedicated pages for all the temples, where a clerk uses many seals and a few strokes of beautiful calligraphy, made with a traditional brush.
One hot afternoon I met a middle-aged German couple who told me that this was the fourth time they had started traveling to Shikoku. I asked why they chose to go back instead of trying other treks in other parts of the world. On each pilgrimage, they say, they discover something completely different. And the food is amazing, they added.
Another day, I walked for several hours behind two Japanese men in the fields of Kochi Prefecture, following the island’s curved coastline. I stopped at a roadside rest hut and found two men there, accompanied by two other men, all of them smoking and chatting.
With my limited Japanese and their limited English, they told me they were all from Shikoku. Two of them walk two days a year, while the other two travel by car, carrying the bags and joining the walkers in the temples to worship together.
“Wait, how long will it take you to complete the entire journey?” I asked.
One of the men raised his arms in the air. “Who knows? Decades!” he said, and they all laughed.
Wherever I go on the island, a sense of peace seems to follow. In Shikoku, almost without fail, the people I met were kind. They seem satisfied. Although I am not a spiritual person, the silence and the vastness of the landscape – and the warmth of the hearts of the people I met – created an abiding aura of peace.
A custom that distinguishes the people of Shikoku is the practice of osettai, the act of giving gifts to pilgrims. These gifts come in the form of food, drink, trinkets, car rides, food, a place to sleep – even, sometimes, a small amount of money. More than once I saw drivers stop in the middle of the road to hand out things from their car windows.
One night, after being given free accommodation from the temple (which happened twice), I heard a knock on the door of my cabin. A young woman, a temple assistant who could not speak English, bowed and handed me a piece of paper: “Miss Marta, you are welcome to use the temple bath for free,” it said in Japanese. .
In total, during my 28 days spent visiting all 88 temples, I was also given: 700 yen (about $5), 11 candies, seven small cakes, seven cars, six mandarin oranges , five rice balls, three cookies, three chocolates, three cups of green tea, two crackers, two mochi, two soda cans, two multipurpose cloths, two cartons of yuzu juice, one yokan ( a red bean jelly snack), a bicycle (lent to me for half a day), a bag of steamed chestnuts, a bag of cherry tomatoes, a lunch and a bowl of homemade udon.
Pilgrim temples are scattered around the island – some near the coast, and others further in the mountainous interior. Some are grouped together, and some are 50 miles apart.
As a pilgrim, I always got up early – at 5:30 in the morning, in the spring – and spent the whole day on the road. About 80 percent of the route is on asphalt, mostly through open fields and small towns and beyond to beautiful beaches. I spent several days climbing up and down the mountain peaks.
The depopulation of rural Japan is most evident in Shikoku. Young people flee to cities or other islands that offer a better quality of life. My experience proved as much: Almost all of the young people I saw were in the capitals of the island’s four prefectures.
For breakfast and dinner, many pilgrims take advantage of the home-cooked meals provided by most minshuku, or family-run bed-and-breakfasts, and ryokan, traditional Japanese inns. These meals usually consist of rice, miso soup, fish and pickled vegetables. For lunch, depending on one’s location, convenience stores can provide quick bites.
Despite the delicious food, the stunning sights and the fascinating cultural histories, it was the people I met that had the strongest impact on me.
In a hostel one night I met Midori-san, a 71-year-old pilgrim who could not speak English. He showed me how to behave in a big sento, or public bath.
Once, when I asked two employees at the seal office of the mountain temple if the temple offered free accommodation, they said no. However, speaking through a translator on my phone, they offered to take me to a place where I would camp in a nearby valley.
A few days later, hoping to see the landscape from a different point of view, I boarded a small ferry with a fellow pilgrim, Patricia, and zigzagged for about an hour in Uranouchi Bay. Patricia and I were the only ones on the boat.
One very rainy day, after walking for several hours under a waterproof but flowing poncho, I decided to hitchhike to the next temple, which was several hours away. . After I stuck my thumb out on a busy street for a few minutes, a man in a beat-up van pulled up. He doesn’t speak English, as I find common in Shikoku, and I only know a few relevant words in Japanese. Nevertheless, as the old van carefully made its way down a winding road, we managed to exchange a few sentences.
I felt that the situation amused him a lot – and I was proved right when he called his wife on an old phone and said, with a laugh, that he had taken a desperate foreigner under in heavy rain.
Before we parted, he asked me to repeat my name, and write it on the back of the receipt in katakana, a Japanese alphabet often used for foreign words. “Ma-ru-ru,” he said loudly, echoing the characters. And then he disappeared as quickly as he appeared. Grateful for the favor, and thankfully dry, I watched his truck disappear around the bend and turn onto the road to the temple.
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