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.


21 May 2008

In, out, and between - pt 1

The last day of the journey at Koyasan offered more than a few opportunities for reflection.

To fill out my nokyo-cho, my book of temple seals, I stopped by the offices that support Shingon Buddhism's public education and mission projects, known as the Kyokai. A foreign visitor's desk has recently been installed and it was one of the friendly and helpful staff there that invited me to participate in a ceremony to take the 10 Precepts of a Bodhisattva. The Christian equivalent might be an oath-taking rite to obey the 10 Commandments.

It appears this ceremony is held daily, at least during the peak spring tourist season, and anyone with 500 yen and 30 minutes to spare can participate. You are asked to fill out a form with your name and place of residence, which is used by the monks to call you to the altar to receive your copy of the vows from a guy in robes who impersonates Kobo Daishi. His performance is enhanced by a lack of light. With just a couple of candles in an otherwise sealed room, its much easier to image the great saint sitting before you and to treat perhaps a little more solemnly his encouragement to take your vows seriously.

Kyokai's main altar (behind which the ceremony took place)

The ceremony itself was not particularly noteworthy, though if you have the opportunity while in Koyasan I'd recommend you give it a try. There was a moment, though, that I won't soon forget, and it had nothing to do with religion or the spiritual.

When I filled out the form with my name and residence, the monk first asked me what country I was from. But when he realized I spoke Japanese, he asked if I lived in Japan. When I replied affirmatively, he said, well, in that case, just tell me the name of the prefecture where you live.

When my name was called during the ceremony, I was Martin of Fukuoka Prefecture. It may not seem like much to those of you who haven't lived outside your own culture, but for those of us that do we are regularly reminded, especially here in Japan, of being different. The reminders are often not deliberate, but foreigners are nevertheless sensitive to distinctions of inside/outside, of us/them. That small moment of inclusion, when I was from Fukuoka and not the USA, was touching, particularly as it was offered at the conclusion of a long and sometimes arduous journey in which the only differences of importance were how fast you could walk or how many blisters you had.

Less than an hour later I was reminded that not everyone is so welcoming.


20 May 2008

Free English language films on the pilgrimage

While finishing up my henro blog entries, I ran across a small English language henro site that not only contains some useful background information, but also links to free downloads of two English language films no longer widely available. Both are 30 minutes in length and cover topics that complement one another.

Between Two Worlds

This 1992 film includes a number of interviews with pilgrims who discuss their motivation and experiences. Not too much seems to have changed in the last 15 years, except for clothing, hair and automotive design.

Download - 239.9 MB

Pilgrimage to the 88 Temples of Shikoku Island

Written, narrated, and directed by renowned Japan scholar Oliver Statler, this 1973 film looks like it might have been filmed at the turn of the century, though the high contrast and lack of color may simply be the effects of aging. The focus here is more on the ritual of the pilgrimage, showing what pilgrims do when they visit temples.

Download - 231.1 MB


Statistics: walking, lodging, expenses

Kilometers walked and ridden

764km walked / 62%
466km ridden / 38%
1230km total / 100%

(Starting and finishing at Koyasan. “Riding” includes hitchhiking and public transport, but does not include kilometers logged on the ferry between Wakayama and Tokushima.)

Red = walked / Blue = hitchhiked / Green = public transport


Types of lodging

Sleeping rough: 7 nights
Tsuyado, Zenninyado: 10 nights
Hotel, ryokan, minshuku, hostel: 20 nights
Net cafe: 1 night

21 nights paid
17 nights unpaid


Cost of lodging

Total paid for lodging: ¥123,090 / $1,180.00
Average lodging cost (21 nights): ¥5861 / $56.00
Average lodging cost for length of trip (38 nights): ¥3239 / $31.00

(Many facilities included dinner in the cost of the lodging.)


ATM withdrawals & credit card purchases

Total ATM withdrawals: ¥280,000 / $2,685.00
Credit card purchases; ¥51,195 / $490.00
Total: ¥331,195 / $3,180.00
Averaged over 38 nights: ¥8,715 / $84.00



19 May 2008

Henro companions

I met a number of henro during my journey. Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures of all, only those with whom I shared the walk, or in the case of Mr Ohgita below, whom I ran into again and again.

Ohgita-san is in his 60's and was doing the pilgrimage in sections by bicycle. Normally, I would have met him once and he would have then ridden far faster than I could hope to walk. But I happened to meet him in southern Ehime prefecture when I was as a result of my sprained leg doing a bit of hitchhiking. And so Ohgita was most often playing catch up to me. Here we are at Meisekiji in the city of Seiyo, the day before Ohgita went home to Osaka.

Back when I met Toshiyuki at Ishiteiji, we shared the walk with this young lady from Tokyo, Natsumi, who was also doing the pilgrimage in small sections. We all spent the night at Senyuji, but where Toshiyuki and I slept with the reformed gangster, Natsumi paid for her lodging and so had use of the bath (and full meals). Natsumi is now back in Tokyo. Attentive readers may have noticed she left a comment on this blog.

Towards the end of my journey I met Keiko, a wife and mother from Tokyo doing the pilgrimage in sections. We met in the vicinity of temple #10, which was for her just the start of what she planned as a multi-year pilgrimage. Her children were apparently worried to death about mom being out on the road all by herself. From what I saw, kids, there's no need to worry. Mom can take care of herself.

Last but hardly least is someone from my own island of Kyushu, a young man who decided – like me – that he'd had enough of his job. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Yoshihito started walking in late March and we first met at Kiyotakiji, #35, in the city of Tosa. We met again in the town of Uchiko, in the long walk between temples #43 and #44, at the Ohenro Muryo Yado, a barn converted into a sleeping space for walking henro. And on Yoshihito's last day I walked into the Ohenro Kouryu Salon and there he was having a cup of tea. The picture here was taken at the peak of a rocky mountain over which you have to climb very slowly and carefully, a last challenge to reach the last temple, Okuboji, #88. It was there that Yoshito finished his pilgrimage, while I went on to #1-17.

Yoshihito celebrates the end of the journey

Many thanks to all of you for sharing your time and your lives with me. I hope I gave as good company as I received.


15 May 2008

Return to Koyasan

Tokushima is in a straight line quite close to Koyasan.

Boats and trains, though, don't usually travel in straight lines and it ended up taking five and a half hours to get from one to the other via bus-ferry-train-train-train. By the time I arrived it was dark and even the station master at the little town of Kudoyama didn't know where my hotel was. In fact he said there were no hotels in Kudoyama.

The lady of the house came out to meet me once I had phoned. She and her husband took good care of me for the few hours I was there. They fed me well, helped me pack up the stuff I no longer needed to carry and could ship back to Fukuoka, warmed me in the morning with a fresh cup of coffee, took me to the convenience store to ship my box and to provision myself for the walk up Koyasan, and finally took me to the temple where the mountain trail begins. If you're ever looking for a place in Kudoyama, try the Ryoutei.

There was another young henro there that night, like me planning to finish his pilgrimage with a walk up Koyasan. He was going to leave before me and wouldn't accept a ride to the temple. He overslept and we both ended up at the start of trail at the same time and so we walked most the trail together.

The start of the Koyasan trail. You can see the post marker just to the right of the torii, the first of 180 leading pilgrims to the peak.

The guide map says the 22km hike takes 7 hours 20 minutes. Obviously, this is not for henro who are used to such walks on a daily basis. We set off at07:00 and arrived at 12:00. In fact when I looked at my watch, standing in front of Daimonji where I had departed 35 days previous, it was exactly 12:00:00.

I arrived just a few minutes before Akira and while I was waiting for him, another henro came down another nearby trail. "Jeff!" he shouted. It was Toshiyuki, whom you might remember from my night at Senryuji with the reformed yakuza. I hadn't seen him in weeks and neither of us expected to see other again, but here we were sharing a big hug in front of Daimonji.

Just then Akira emerged onto the road from the trail and Toshiyuki shouted "Akira!" Akira shouted "Toshi!" And there was another happy reunion in front of Daimonji. The two had walked several days together at the beginning of their pilgrimages and hadn't seen each other for weeks.

Akira (left) and Toshiyuki (center)

We went and had lunch together and found that Toshiyuki and I both had reservations for the Youth Hostel. Akira was planning to go back to Tokyo that evening, but having found Toshiyuki decided to spend the night. We ended up having dinner together, sharing the same room, and this morning attending morning services at Muryôkô-in.

It was a fortuitous end to an incredible adventure.



I've just arrived in Kobe and my experience here is a bit like that in Bangkok this past March.

Then I was coming off six months in sleepy Kathmandu and was overwhelmed by the city's sensual assault - the smells, the noise, the bright lights, the large number of people. Today feels much the same after having emerged from five weeks of little more than walking, much of it through sparsely populated towns and mountain trails.

Most days were the same - wake, meditate, pack and start walking. I'd have a few breaks along the way, visit a temple or two, find a place for the evening, eat and sleep. I interacted largely with other henro and store clerks. I didn't read a newspaper or magazine, and only rarely caught a glimpse of television. Life was very simple and the people of Shikoku were the kind of open and friendly folk you meet outside large cities.

Arriving in Osaka station this morning was something of a shock. No one makes eye contact or in any way recognizes your presence. No one says "good morning" or "hello." They do, though, interact in large numbers with their cells phones, coming up only to find a navigation point. Hundreds of these people pour out of trains onto the platform, everyone rushing to a destination that for most is not someplace they'd like to be. All I could do was find a spot in the center of the platform and let the crowd wash around me.

Which is, I suppose, an appropriate metaphor for life. I'd like, though, to find a less busy platform.


13 May 2008

Day 35: One more mountain

I wasn't planning to finish yesterday. I was just going to walk out of the mountains, a 20km hike from Shosanji.

Mountains of Tokushima prefecture from Shosanji

But once I made it down and was at the next temple it was just noon. And there were only four temples left, #14-17, all neatly in a row just a few kilometers from each other. With no place yet picked out to spend the night, momentum kept me moving forward and by 16:00 I was at Idoji temple.

Finished - Idoji Temple, #17

After saying my prayers and getting my nokyo-cho stamped and signed, I called home and left a message on the answering machine: "Shikoku Hachiju Hakkasho marimashita." There was directly in front of the temple a small ryokan with a room available and so I spent the night next to the temple where I completed my journey of Shikoku's 88 temples.

I feel a bit sad that the journey is nearly at an end. On the other hand, it will be nice to be able to wake up and not have to pack my bag, to enjoy a slow morning on the sofa with a book and a cup of coffee, to not have to worry about where I'll be spending the night, to lay down in the evening next to Mutsumi.

The morning sun in a Tokushima rice paddy

At the moment I'm in Tokushima city preparing to catch the ferry to Wakayama. I plan to take the train to the foot of Koyasan and spend the night there. At first light I'll start the hike up the sacred mountain, a five to six hour walk that will end where I began, at the grave of Kobo Daishi at Okunoin.

Om namu Daishi henjo kongo.


08 May 2008

Day 31: Tracking back and starting again

I never expected to get stuck in Takamatsu.

But here I am going on my fourth night. I first rolled into Kagawa's capital city after a night sleeping under the awning of a mountain shrine. I had expected one of the three temples I visited that day would let me spend the night, but none of them seem to recall the life or teaching of Kobo Daishi and so instead of walking down the mountain only to have to climb back up the next day, I decided to bed down where I could find a roof. My map indicated a hut along the route to the next temple, but when I got there four henros had already set up camp. The shrine nearby, though, afforded similar shelter.

It turned out to be a long and fitful night. I was up by five and had my bag packed and ready to go when the rain started. Fortunately, it was falling lightly and by the time I got to the next temple I was hardly wetter than usual. 

A couple from Osaka doing the pilgrimage in their van-camper gave me a ride down the mountain and saved me the slow walk on the wet and slippery henro path. They were proceeding to the next temple in sequence. I had to double back six kilometers to the temple in between the last two mountain temples. By the time I had finished at Kokubunji I was exhausted and it was only noon.

Mutsumi was planning to meet me in Kagawa the day after the next and so I decided to pack it in and go straight to the city, bypassing the next temple that I would return with Mutsumi in two days.

I did little that first day in Takamatsu but find a hotel, a restaurant, do my laundry and sleep.  The next morning I walked through the city, up and down two mountains, and finished temples 84-87 before returning by train to Takamatsu.

Yahshimaji, #84

Yakuriji, #85

Shidoji, #86

Mutsumi arrived the next morning with a big hug, a beautiful smile, and a homemade picinc lunch. We ate at Ritsurin Park, visited a couple of temples, and for dinner had what everyone eats when they visit Kagawa - udon.

at Ichinomiyaji, #83

Takamatsu from Yashima

This morning we were up early to take the train to Zentsuji, the temple located in the town of Kobo Daishi's birth. It took me three days to walk from there to Takamatsu and it took less than an hour to return by express train. But where my previous visit had been during the Golden Week holidays, when the temple was predictably brimming with tourists, this morning was a very pleasant contrast, still and quiet, offering a chance to sit and listen to the wind in the trees.

the Daishido at Zentsuji, #75

the monks of Zentsuji

a Buddha, I don't know which, at Zentsuji

Once we'd had another helping of udon for lunch, we were back on the train, with Mutsumi bound for Okayama and then on to Fukuoka. I headed back into Takamatsu to rest up for my last leg of the journey, which starts to tomorrow with a 15km hike into the mountains to temple #88, the last temple in sequence but not yet my terminus. I've got 17 temples left in the next prefecture, Tokushima, plus a return visit to Koyasan.

Hope to see you somewhere along the way.

Om namu Daishi henjo kongo.


07 May 2008

Sowing seeds

The Shikoku pilgrimage is like anything else in life - what you get out of it depends largely on what you bring to it. In many ways, it is a micro-version of your larger life.

Simply walking around the island might improve your physical health but it won't make you a better person and probably won't give you much insight into your life. Like learning a foreign language, just listening to people speak will not give you the ability to converse with them. Some effort is required to pay attention to sound, meaning, and order, and then practice producing what you have been consuming.

So with the pilgrimage. If you want to make a spiritual discovery, you have to make some spiritual effort. Like the pilgrimage's spiritual mentor, Kobo Daishi, you have to live simply, cut yourself off from your typical routine, say prayers, chant mantras, make offerings, and meditate. Then something might come.

But treating the walk like your job, which you do eight hours and then set aside at the end of the day, is most surely not the way to find spiritual insight.

I write this as criticism of no one in particular except myself. After a few weeks on the road I find myself looking back, or looking forward, but not paying attention to now. It's easy to slip back into old ways and lose focus, particularly when you arrive in a city after a long walk through the countryside. There are so many distractions, from the beautiful young ladies that turn your head, to the huge number of restaurants and bars, the mind-numbing wasteland of network television, and the endless stream of trivia on the internet.

I understand now why ascetics of all religions suggest that serious practitioners isolate themselves from human communities.


Take the time

My post about my father elicited a small response. Among the most touching was from my neighbor at the Dragon Guest House in Kathmandu and a traveling companion on the first leg of my visit to India last December.

Now back in Europe, she wrote to share the news of her father's death, a rather sudden end that left her with no opportunity to ask a last question, to say farewell, to make an offering of thanks. She wrote:

"Day by day I start to realise that he's gone and that he won't come back anymore. This fact, which can't be changed, is like a slap in my face. I've always knew that we all must leave this world sometime, but now it's become very very real."

In case any of us needed it, here is a reminder that life is indeed fragile and fleeting. Take a moment to think that today may be the last time to hear the birds sing, to feel the sun on your skin, to eat a delicious meal, to talk with a friend, to hold a loved one. Be in the moment. Savor the experience.

There may never be another.


More gaijin

After my day with Andy I spent the following day walking through three cities and six temples. Along the way I ran into a mother-daughter couple, also from Canada, who were making their fifth circuit of the island. The daughter is a lecturer in religion at a university in Kyoto. Apparently she has been in Japan a number of years, mom comes over twice a year for a visit, and they spend a lot of their time together walking around Shikoku.

The daughter's name is Catherine, and if you google her up you'll find a lot of references to academic studies that most of us would probably find terribly uninteresting. In person she was charming and bright and lovely. She and mom were wonderful companions for a few hours on that sunny morning.

At Mandaraji, we found three young men, American assistant language teachers in the city Miyazaki. They were like Adam cruising around the island by car collecting stamps. I never saw them again.

Catherine, mom and I said our farewells at Zentsuji and I haven't seen another foreigner since.


06 May 2008

Gaijin, gaijin everywhere

Ever since leaving Koya-san I've heard rumors of foreigners walking the pilgrimage road. Many Japanese seem to think we know each other and I get asked if I know Andy from Canada or Bill from America, as if we had made plans to travel together but got separated along the way, or perhaps as if there were a club of foreign henro.

After nearly a month of hearing about but never seeing any foreign henro (besides the one looking back in the mirror), I was beginning to wonder where these foreigners might be. Then within two days I met six of them.

Last time I wrote I was preparing to walk up the mountain to Yokomineji, reputedly one of the more arduous hikes on the pilgrimage and about which walking henro talk with some trepidation when they gather at temples and hotels to plan their walking strategy. It turned out to be not that difficult and was in fact one of the better mountain trails thus far. My leg was in fine shape and about the only disappointment was the weather, which seems to become overcast and wet whenever I head into the mountains.

After having said my prayers and collected my stamps and calligraphy, I was tucking into breakfast in front of the main temple (biscuits, an apple, and hot tea from the temple's vending machine), when a tall, black-haired man rushed by so quickly I couldn't get good look at his face. From behind, he could have been Japanese, but there was something non-Japanese in his walk and when he came back my way after collecting his stamps and calligraphy it was obvious he was one of the reputed gaijin henro.

Pilgrim introductions are rather formulaic - method of transport (usually obvious as walking henro have large bags and look a bit sweaty and grimy), toshi or kugiri (doing the pilgrimage in one go, or in sections), number of days on the road, number of times to have done the pilgrimage. Walking pilgrims then get into more extensive discussion about where they plan to go next, how they plan to get there, and places to stay along the way, but as Adam looked rather fresh (on the top of a mountain) it was fairly obvious he had other means of transport.

As he had been driving his rental car for four days and had had no one to talk with, I seemed to be a welcome face. And as I was not looking forward to the hike down the mountain and a 40km trek to the next temple, it seems the Buddha or a Bodhisattva brought us together. Adam offered to take me as far as I wanted to go along the route, I happily accepted and we spent the day blasting through two prefectures and five temples, #65-69.

With Adam at #68/69

People do the pilgrimage for any number of reasons and for Adam it seemed to be something he was doing to try and feel more Japanese, perhaps to try and fit more comfortably in Japanese society. He came here only a year ago as an English teacher in much the same kind of job that brought me to Japan 20 years ago in 1988. But what propelled him across a continent and an ocean is a love of Japanese pop culture - animation, manga, movies, and music.

Religion, Buddhism, art, or history didn't seem to be among his interests. When we visited temples he ran straight to the office to get his nokyo-cho stamped. Every henro carries one of these, a book of blank pages, one page for each temple in which a monk or other official stamps the temple's seals in red ink and over which he writes with brush and ink the name of the temple. Adam's main goal was collecting these seals and calligraphy. He didn't pray or meditate or even look around the temple grounds. Except of course on that particular day he had to wait for me to do these things and so perhaps got a longer look at those five temples than any of the previous 64.

With only a week's vacation to finish the pilgrimage, it's understandable why Adam was in such a rush. Traveling with him was a nice respite, a chance to rest my leg and to speak English again after nearly a month. It was also interesting to see how car henro experience the journey, and what I saw is about what I imagined - that time and space pass by far too quickly from a car. There's no sense of struggle or effort and so no real sense of accomplishment when you arrive at a temple. When you see so many temples in such quick succession they lose any distinction in your memory. The same is true for the landscape and the people. There is little time for reflection or contemplation and the journey starts to become more of a race or even a chore to be completed as quickly as possible.

The less taxing way of arriving at Unpenji, #66

When we reached temples 68 and 69, which are situated quite literally next to each other, we said our goodbyes, Andy with just one more day and a bit to finish 19 more temples. I hope he made it. Maybe if he's reading this, and I haven't offended him, he'll post a comment and let us know how his journey ended.

And that was just the first of the gaijin I met. But this account has already taken far more time than I expected, so I'll save the others for another day.

Om namu Daishi henjo kongo.


01 May 2008

Day 24: Filling up

My left leg has shown steady improvement and I was able to walk all day for the past two days, perhaps 50km in total.

Just ahead, though, is a temple on a 700 meter mountain, which I'm going to try to tackle tomorrow. To give my leg a rest and prepare for what is going to be a 5-hour walk up and then back down the mountain, I did a bit of hitchhiking today.

A young fellow in a white van asked if I was in a hurry. He was going in my direction but was making deliveries (of medical supplies) and so would have to stop at a few hospitals along the way.

No problem, I said, and off we went.

Just in front of the Towel Museum, though, the van came to a stop with the fuel meter on E. Fortunately, there was a gas station not too far away willing to make a delivery, and after a 15 minute wait we were again mobile.

The driver, Yuu, was flustered and frustrated. But I told him this was a fantastic story to tell to his buddies, about the day he picked up a gaijin henro and ran out of gas in front of the towel museum.

Just like I'm telling you now.


Day 23: a new Buddhist

I can't remember having ever met a Japanese gangster before. I may never have. But I suspect I spent the night with one last night.

A former gangster, that is. An ex-yakuza.

The last two days I've been walking with a 27-year old hotel employee from Takurazuka by the name of Toshiyuki. We met at Ishiteji, where we spent the night in the temple's tsuyado, an empty room that can be used for any number of functions but in the evenings is opened to walking henro. Meals and baths are usually not provided, sometimes not even a futon or a blanket, just four walls and some protection from the environment.

Dogo onsen, near Ishiteji temple. Toshiyuki and I went there the same evening,
but didn't meet until later at the temple.

We spent the night before last in a small village temple before pulling in yesterday afternoon to one of the more famous temples on the pilgrimage, Senyuji, located on a small mountain overlooking the city of Imabari. Besides a beautiful setting, the temple is known for its lodging and spa facilities. For a place so obviously profit oriented it was surprising to find they also offer a tsuyado for those pilgrims travelling on the cheap.  Cheap - but not free.


We were introduced to a 60-year old gentleman who has been living at the temple for about a month. Apparently, at least in the Shingon sect, those wishing to get away from society for a time can take temporary refuge at temples, where they do odd jobs in return for room and board. This 60-year old was one such person and he had Toshiyuki and I scrubbing the visitor's toilets, a fair return for letting us sleep at the temple. 

Morning service at Senyuji

We had a chance to chat with this fellow, whose name I'm sorry to say I don' t remember, and a number of things that stood out in isolation later fit into a nice pattern. Unlike most Japanese, he was very direct in speech, used a loud voice, and made frequent eye contact. He also seemed to be very tense, never really able to sit still. His left leg, even when sitting, was always moving. He didn't say much about his previous life, but did mention having travelled many times to Thailand and the Philippines. He was excessively exuberant about his new life in the temple, like someone who had been converted and was eager to show others what he had found. 

And that made sense after I noticed two knuckles missing from the last two fingers on the right hand. Japanese gangsters typically lose them for having made some kind of costly error, or as a kind of loyalty test. The yakuza do a lot of drug, gun, and prostitution business in the Philippines and Thailand, and a man of who always seems tense or nervous and who when speaking communicates in challenging manner may be a person who is always on guard against violence and has to demonstrate his ability to control people and situations.

The guy and Toshiyuki

The ex-yakuza was so eager and so full of love for his new life that I couldn't get away from him soon enough.

Sunrise at Senyuji


28 April 2008

Day 20-21: Takimoto-san

Now that I'm hitchhiking some of the longer roads, I'm quickly covering quite a lot of ground. In fact I seem to have passed the half-way mark in terms of distance. I've only visited 33 temples, though, finishing up this afternoon at Temple 51, Ishiteji, where I'll be spending the night.

Temple 51, Ishiteji. Note the statue of Kobo Daishi on the top of the mountain to the left of the pagoda.

Yesterday I got rides from an elderly couple out for a drive in the country and from a farmer on his way to town to do some shopping. He insisted on taking me directly to the temple. He said he once dropped a henro along the way and that the henro had subsequently gotten lost. He wasn't going to do that again.

After I finished up at Daihoji, I decided to walk what the guidebook said was eight kilometers to the next temple, a walk mostly though mountain forests which ended up seeming far longer but that led to one of the most incredibly sighted temples I've seen thus far. Commanding a high spot in the valley, Iwayaji is built in the side of a huge piece of rock at the end of a spur from which hikers and drivers have to circle. There is no onward road.

Temple 45, Iwayaji

Having hiked across the mountain to get there, I walked back along the road with the intention of visiting the nearby onsen for a bath and dinner and then camping out in the nearby bus stop. But while I was in the bath I met Mr Takimoto, an 81-year old former shop owner, born in Seoul during Japan's occupation, who is now living alone. When he heard I would be camping out he invited me to spend the night at his home. Which is what I did.

Actually, I stayed in one of his homes. Not the one he lives is, but one that is now largely abandoned. And that was just fine and probably better than sleeping in a bus stop.

This morning, Takimoto-san got me up at 05:00 and drove me into town, where it was far too early to start hitchhiking, but where I arrived just in time for the first bus to Matsuyama city, on which I was the only person who was not a high school student. I rode about half-way down the mountain to a hiking path that took me on an hour's walk to the first of Matsuymaya city's temples. Today I visited six.

05:30 with Takimoto-san in front of his house in the village of Naose

Walking down through the mountains

As soon as I finish here I'm off to what is supposed to be Japan's oldest existing onsen, a spa that's been in operation for something like 300 years.

Then tomorrow I'll be finishing up in Matsuyama and heading for Imabari.

Om namu Daishi henjo kongo.