My first 2 of 88 temples in the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage were chosen, as it were, by fate. This popular route is busiest in the spring and autumn and is completed by bus, car, and commited walkers who usually take 7 weeks. I had planned my past few months around this walking route, which goes around the entire Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan. (Side note: famous for udon)
Those who walk the route are called henro (遍路), pilgrims. Legend has it that the 88 Temples were founded or strongly affiliated with Kukai (774-835), also called Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon (真言) Sect of Buddhism in Japan. You can read more about the history here.
Why I’m doing it
I wanted to go because it checked all the things I wanted to do to pass my summer days: be active, go places, see natural landscapes, spend little money, and stay safe. This route is so well established and popular that there is a list of tsuyado (mostly free lodging) for the entire route.
While I’ve camped as a kid and love the outdoors, I have no experience preparing for my own trip, much less one alone. I’d also never done an extended walking trip. This route, which even city-folk frequent during peak seasons, must be well-maintained. It seemed like a safe enough network to start a new challenge.
Diary of Day 1
After a long morning assisting my WWOOF host run run a tofu-making class for mothers and their 2-year olds, I was given the afternoon off. The cyclist in me couldn’t resist taking a bike out, and I found that Kirihata-ji, Temple 10 of the Pilgrimage, was within a reasonable 1 hour cycling distance. That decided it.
So, by chance, impulse, and cycling addiction, my pilgrimage began in the middle.
Right after starting, my chronic lower back pain set in, and there was a steady headwind. Cast against a grey day, going through monotonous rural towns with ample cars but few people, it was a discouraging ride.
Neither temples were quite what I’d expected, although they fell within range of ‘normal’ Japanese Buddhist temples. For one thing, I’d expected people and open shops, even though I am going during off-season. Summer in Japan is rainy season, followed by searing heat in July and August. In both cases, the shops closest to the temples were closed, the parking lots empty, and the temple grounds silent.
The road to Kirihata-ji is an easy to miss lane, marked only by a road sign hovering above the corner. I proceeded past the shuttered shops and continued up the hill. The parking lot, equipped with a modern washroom, is still 3 flights of stone stairs down from the main complex. Climbing them with only bird calls echoing between the cedars, it really does feel like you’re lifting yourself above the steady whirling traffic below and with it the cares of humanity.
Except, as you approach the top, there is an electric hum that replaces the birdsong. Bees. I was expecting to see a cloud of them above my head, except that there were only a handful of red, demon-like hornets hovering just above the last stone steps. I seriously wondered if I was going to fail this first test.
Thankfully the Temple guardians parted without a fuss as I continued up. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring money to buy incense, and after doing ritual washing, could only do 3 bows.
Then, I realised I don’t have anything to pray for. I also didn’t have a copy of the Heart Sutra that I was supposed to chant at every Temple. Did I just forfeit my first chance?
While Kirihata-ji was peaceful in its hilltop forest seclusion, Hourin-ji is a discrete island of tranquility nestled amongst rice paddies and traditional Japanese houses. These first two places seemed to signify the reaches and manifestations of Enlightenment.
Going around both temples, the lack company as the evening set in felt a bit lonely, but also peaceful. It felt like a sample of what I was going to feel throughout the rest of the journey. I could already envision going through forest paths in mountains and through highways alone. Already, I felt I had a second mental test. Did I I really want to do this? I could just continue WWOOFing, which I’ve enjoyed and would love to do in other places in the country. I wouldn’t have to worry about getting lost, daily meals, being cold, or animals at night.
Both places also had quietly distinct characters, manifesting in the layout of the complex, the design of the statues, the size of the shrines, and the design of the wash basin. Even though I am unlearned in Buddhist customs, I found the subtle differences fascinating was already looking forward to seeing what the next place looked like. But that would have to wait for another day. It was about time I cycled home for dinner.
As a summary thought, even though I am an accidental pilgrim, I feel like this decision to embark on something that has spiritual significance for others already makes me more reflective. Everything I notice feels like a lesson, irrespective of faith or lack thereof. The empty grounds feels like either a reflection of me, my choices, or perhaps what I will learn to accept throughout the coming days. The continual doubt no longer seems like ordinary worrying, but rather a test of commitment. The natural desire to follow basic etiquette while being uninterested in going the full mile feels like a process of self-definition that will evolve in the future. Starting in the middle, ad hoc, seems both like a reflection of my character an somehow prophetic. I could go on about many other small things I noticed even in those short evening hours, but I’ll leave it there for now. I am sure I will revisit some of these ideas in the coming weeks.
Unlike my other posts, which are usually tips and thematic this is a diary post. Thank you for taking the time to read it. I hope it’s entertaining, informative, and able to convey some of the reflective moments I’ve had. I’d love to hear your experiences either in I pilgrimages, Japan, or solo trekking. I’d also love to hear your reflections and thoughts on any of my comments. Please leave a note!