20 April 2009

Movie Review: Lopen met Kukai (Walking with Kukai), 2009; Pat van Boeckel, dir

The Dutch Boddhistiche Omroep Stichtung (Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation) has a new 30-minute film available for viewing at its website here.

Director Pat van Boeckel hits the henro trail and let's aruki henro explain their motivation for walking the pilgrimage, including a middle-aged man with an ailing wife, a young woman taking time off work to make a career decision, and a Canadian trying to find his way in Japanese society. The film features some splendid camera work that would look so much better on a bigger screen. At present the film appears to be available only in this reduced size; in Japanese with Dutch subtitles.

Thanks to Kirt at E-Sangha for bringing this film to my attention.


09 April 2009

Ohana Matsuri (Buddha's Birthday), Nanzoin, Sasaguri, Fukuoka, 2009

It was a rainy morning on Koya-san last year, my first day of walking on the 1200 km Shikoku pilgrimage. After a dawn fire puja and then breakfast at the youth hostel I went to the main temple to observe the ceremonies for Ohana Matsuri, the Buddha's birthday. It was a rather underwhelming affair, as it was again yesterday at Nanzoin, a Shingon temple in Fukuoka prefecture known for what they claim is the world's largest bronze statue.

Breakfast in front of the town office

I decided to make a day of it and in the spirit of the pilgrimage rode my bicycle the 20km to Nanzonin. I left at dawn in order to avoid having to ride with too many cars and trucks through the most heavily developed and congested areas of the city. An hour's steady peddling took me as far as the town of Sasaguri, where I stopped for a small breakfast.

Sasaguri Pilgrimage Map

Once past the town the horizon begins to open up, the cookie-cutter mega-stores and apartment buildings giving way to rice fields, streams, mountains and the occasional temple. This mostly rural area caters to religious tourists with a pilgrimage route of 88 temples, copying exactly the number of temples, if not the breadth of its route, as the long-established Shikoku trek. On both pilgrimages the temples belong largely to the Japanese school of tantric Buddhism known as Shingon, though in the smaller area of Sasaguri there are only two dozen full-scale temples. The other 60 or so are nothing more than huts with a statue, incense pot and candle holder, place markers established to fill out the route, which I was told takes most pilgrims only three days to walk.

Kobo Daishi at Henjoin (#62)

Henjoin (#62)

The altar at Sanouji (#65)

The road from Sanouji

Between the town of Sasaguri and Nanzoin I stopped at a few temples to make offerings and take photos. By the time I got to Nanzoin it was only 09:00 and many of the shops and businesses were just opening. More than a few of the locals said, oh, you're the guy riding that bike. It's not too often, I suppose, that a foreigner comes riding into Sasaguri, especially on a bike like mine.

I wandered around a bit taking photos of the temple, the grounds, and the nehanzo, the reclining Buddha. According to a pamphlet I was given, the statue is 41m in length, 11m tall, weighs 300 tons, and is the world's biggest bronze statue, a claim which is not easy to verify through a quick google search. It also claims to house ashes of the Buddha, Ananda, and Moggallāna (but not Sariputta).

Deity cards from each of the 88 Shikoku temples

Inside the building that functions as the base of the statue is a long narrow hall fitted with 88 tiles under which is said to be soil taken from the respective number temple on the Shikoku pilgrimage. By taking tiny steps, placing one foot on each of the tiles, one may in theory, as the women working the counter told me, walk the Shikoku pilgrimage. It's just a little different, isn't it, I asked, but she just smiled.

Just before 11:00 people started showing up in front of the nehanzo, most of them far older than me. Four priests in electric blue robes arrived to lead a short sutta reading before a temporary altar, after which visitors were asked to make offerings by pouring sweet tea over the statue of the baby Buddha. Everyone then shuffled over to the refreshment table for manju and tea. And that was about it for the ceremonial part of the day.

The dam from the road from Sanouji (#65)

View from the dam

On the way home I stopped by the Narufuchi Dam, the creation of which has resulted in a wonderful lake with little human development around it. Unfortunately, it appears recreational accommodations were not part of the design, at least in the areas I could see, which included steep rocky banks and a fence around the entire circumference. The road leading up to the dam is not too steep and I was able to pedal to the top. The ride down was short but sweet.

If you're heading out that way and looking for a place to eat that doesn't include Royal Host, Joyful, Skylark, West, McDonald's, KFC, Mos Burger, or any of the other processed food chains, which seem to constitute the majority of eateries along 607, then you might like to try Sobakiri Ouka, a one-man diner specializing in tempura and soba and happy to meet the needs of gaijin vegetarians. He also hosts a monthly live jazz event.

If you have any suggestions for next year's Ohana Matsuri, I'd be happy to receive them. An email form is available on my main blog, Full Thangka.


30 July 2008

Movie review: Arukihenro (2006)

Arukihenro (lit, walking pilgrim) is an authentic document of modern Japanese pilgrimage, a tidy time-capsule capturing the hearts and minds of pilgrims as they make the 1400km trek around the island of Shikoku. Eschewing narration, emotive music, special effects, or multiple camera angles, self-taught Swiss filmmaker Tommi Mendel delivers a 75minute record of pilgrims young and old in their own voices telling the stories of why they walk and what they hope to achieve. Having recently completed the pilgrimage myself, the film was evocative of long days walking, hours of quiet gratefully relieved by contact with fellow pilgrims, sharing stories and meals, fortifying one another for the next leg in the journey. Completed in partial fulfillment of post-graduate studies, the film appears to be available at present only directly from the filmmaker's website.


26 May 2008

Review: Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide

If you don't read Japanese and are planning to walk Japan's most famous pilgrimage, a 1200km trek around the island of Shikoku, this book will be indispensable. If you know enough Japanese to read maps, you will probably find the Japanese guide book more helpful.

This road-tested review is based on a five-week pilgrimage around the island in April and May 2008, a journey completed mostly on foot and supplemented as a result of injury by a bit of hitchhiking. While it may appear in the paragraphs below that I am being unduly critical, it seems to me inevitable that a first edition will have more problems than perfections. So before launching into the former, let me mention a few of the latter.

“Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide” is for walkers. It's not really a how-to book (though it tries), but a collection of color maps of the pilgrimage route. It will be less useful for cyclists and motorists, who will probably want to pick up a Shikoku road atlas. The maps provide an adequate level of detail for non-Japanese reading pilgrims to plan their daily walking and find their way around the island. Walking routes are clearly marked (including alternate nature trails and historic trails) and an adequate number of landmarks are included against which to check navigation. Place names in Japanese also appear on the maps, so even if you can't pronounce the characters, you should be able to match what you see on signs with what appears in the book. Among the landmarks found on most pages are tourist attractions, hotels, convenience stores, restaurants, laundromats, hospitals, banks, post offices, public toilets, government offices, and police and fire stations (though lamentably no Net Cafes). The book also features a simplified and easy-to-read map and fare schedule of Shikoku's railway lines, a glossary of Japanese words related to the pilgrimage, two pages of Japanese phrases for daily living, and a pictorial and text description of the Buddhist deities encountered at the 88 temples. I especially appreciated the book's size, perfect for slipping into a cargo-pants pocket.

I wish, though, that it were lighter. The paper stock is great for a photo book, but a bit heavy for walkers, for whom every kilogram counts. Heavy stock requires heavier binding and for this book perhaps the only thing that would stand up to 40-60 days of regular use is stitching. Pages started falling out of my copy within two weeks.

There's also extraneous material that adds to the weight, including introductory essays on the pilgrimage, the island of Shikoku, and Kobo Daishi; sections detailing different ways of doing the pilgrimage (on foot or by car or bus), types of restaurants, public transport, and banking to be found in Japan; annual temperature and precipitation charts; plus a list of what to pack. Presumably you should know all this before you leave for Shikoku. It's not information you need everyday.

The information that you might need, though, is sometimes absent. A list of the sutras chanted at each temple visit is is provided in the Order of Sutra Reading, but there are no English translations. While the maps provide a good sampling of hotels and their telephone numbers, as well as possible camp sites, a list of free housing would have been a useful inclusion. Several temples, including some that are not part of the official 88, provide complimentary lodging to walking pilgrims.

Proofing and editing on the next edition could be tighter. Maps are dotted with typos and instances of mistransliterations of place names (Furuiwaya, for instance, becomes Koiwaya). The system used for marking distances, a set of pins between two points, is not always clear and distances for some sections are not provided. There is on occasion misinformation, such as temples listed as offering lodging which do not (Shosanji #12 and Shiromineji #81). Most vital to a walker is the lack of detail provided in maps of mountain trails. The scale used is so large that the map is essentially useless for helping determine which fork to take on a mountain trail (this was particularly so at Yokomineji #60). Elevation lines are provided, but often no elevations (Shosanji #12 and Unpenji #66). And when multiple routes are available, there is sometimes no suggestion as to which might be preferable (such as those between temples #36 and #37, or between temples #80, #81, and #82).

By dint of having been publishing for a number of years, the Japanese version of the guidebook is more thorough and comprehensive, and if you can read Japanese at all you will find it far more helpful. But even then, the Japanese guidebook is sometimes as incomplete as its English cousin. Neither provides maps for the walk to Koyasan, the pilgrimage's spiritual mecca on the neighboring island of Honshu.

For those who can't read Japanese, “Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide” is your only choice at the moment – and an absolute godsend. It isn't perfect, but it will get the job done. Judicious hikers will when possible verify information from multiple sources before making a decision. This book will give the non-Japanese reading pilgrim a place to start. The authors, translators, editors and publisher are to be commended for bringing this material to a larger audience.

Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide
Tateki Miyazaki, author; David C. Moreton, translator & consultant
Paperback, 192 pages, B6 size
Buyodo Co, Ltd
2007 October

Amazon Japan
Henro Michi Preservation Cooperation Association


25 May 2008

Meeting Shiori

I left Koyasan as I had first arrived in April, by cable car and train, headed for Kobe and my first meeting with the newest member of our extended family.

Musumi's sister Narumi and her husband Mitsuhiro welcomed the arrival on 27 December 2007 of a precious Christmas gift, a mostly healthy baby girl. Mostly because she was born with a hernia. The surgery involved was typical and without complication.

During this time I received regular updates from Mutsumi, as well a number of pictures taken from within the Intensive Care Unit.

With a scar on her abdomen, Shiori Narukawa was discharged two weeks later.

Five months further on and she got to meet her uncle Jeff.

We had a wonderful time hanging out together, rolling around on the floor.

Her name looks like this:

The left kanji means "poem" and the right "to weave." A rather lovely name, isn't it?


23 May 2008

In, out, and between - pt 3

Koyasan is a bit of a strange place in that the town, with the exception of the Youth Hostel, has no hotels outside the temples. The main street, filled with cafes and souvenir shops, closes at sundown, when the tourists retreat to their temples for baths and dinner, and the town of Koyasan appears to go to bed early.

Figures of Kobo Daishi at Okuboji, #88

But running parallel to the main street is a smaller road with restaurants and a convenience store for the locals. The Youth Hostel wasn't offering meals that evening (it appears the cook may have been on holiday), so the three of us wandered into Koyasan's Chinese restaurant, where we were greeted loudly by the grandmotherly owner and a table of boisterous monks, who proceeded in a display of loutish manners to roundly appall Toshiyuki and Akira. I was myself a bit taken aback. The group was drinking beer, smoking, and talking in loud, exaggerated voices. Mid-meal a larger group including several women staying at one of the nearby temples joined the monks. Their volume increased, as did the cloud of cigarette smoke, and Akira suggested with leave.

Mountains of Shosanji, #12

Neither he nor Toshiyuki said much more about the incident, but I'm pretty sure it set badly with them. Both had made sacrifices, worked hard and saved money to make their henro trip. They had walked every last kilometer of the pilgrimage. Along the way Akira was offered a job related to the henro pilgrimage and Toshiyuki took an interest in meditation, planning to sit up all night at the site of Kobo Daishi's grave. They are young and earnest, eager to learn, to practice, to find new ways of living. They were wonderfully inspiring, everything that table of monks was seemingly not.

A collection of used walking staffs at Okuboji, #88

But like the old lady, the monks were simply playing out their lives. How many causes and conditions brought them to that place and time, taught them to behave in such ways? And how could those possibly be undone? They are what they are. Perhaps in their own minds they're struggling with being more accepting, or being more sensitive to others. We've all had bad days. And really, what were they doing that we found offensive besides vibrating the air? Our annoyance, really, was based on our own preconceptions and preferences.

And this points, I believe, to a larger lesson of the pilgrimage.

When a group of walking henro were together, it was not unusual to hear them speak derisively of bus henro or car henro, people playing at being pilgrims, spoiled moderns complaining about having to climb a few flights of stairs, or even worse whining about blisters! We made fun of them for carrying walking sticks and felt sorry that they were missing all the life between the temples, passing up a meaningful experience by not making sacrifices for their pilgrimage.

Golden Week tourists playing henro at Zentsuji, #75

But with the same attitude a pilgrim of 100 or 200 years ago might scoff at today's walking henro. The old guys hiked in wooden sandals or thin leather-soled shoes. Sometimes maybe even barefoot. They had no telephones to contact their families, no convenience stores to pop into for a quick bite, no waterproof gear to keep all their stuff dry, no public transport to rely on in emergencies, no ATMs for a quick cash infusion, no detailed maps of the route, and very few markers to help them find their way. Today all you need is the time, a little gear, an ATM card, and the ability to put one foot in front of the other and you too can walk the Shikoku henro michi.

The pilgrimage, then, is not about what form of transport you use. I can image doing it by car or bus in a way that is meaningful and purposeful. I'm sure some of the people we laughed at must have been doing their pilgrimage sincerely. Conversely, not all walking henro are saints. I knew more than a few concerned with getting as quickly as possible to the next hotel for a bath and a beer, some more concerned with finishing in the fastest time possible.

Lone henro, Fujiidera, #11

What makes the pilgrimage meaningful is what makes everyday meaningful – it's how you convey yourself while circling the island of Shikoku, or this even smaller island of life.


22 May 2008

In, out, and between - pt 2

I was feeling light and happy when I arrived at the last temple I needed to visit to complete my nokyo-cho. The monk signing my book couldn't have been friendlier. Perhaps not too many henro complete their nokyo-cho at his little temple on the edge of Koyasan. He tried giving me all manner of maps and guides to Koyasan, but I had copies of everything he offered. He finally found one I didn't and I accepted not from need but simply to show my appreciation for his kindheartedness.

A group of bus henro at Shosanji, #12

As I was leaving the temple grounds a group of elderly bus henro were arriving and one woman in particular was not embarrassed or ashamed to blurt out in a condescending cackle, “Ah! Gajin da. Nani shittieruna?”

Ah! A foreigner. What's he doing here?

Clearly this woman knows little about Kobo Daishi or Buddhism, or perhaps even less of common courtesy. My initial reaction was a clenching, a tightening, and an urge to respond in kind. I did not. I chanted instead, Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo, and as I walked away I realized I had to thank the old woman for showing me my own weakness and for helping regain my balance. To be tender, to be bitter; to be happy, to be hateful – we know each in contrast to the other. All are intrinsically empty.