Thank you for reading.
This is a diary that covers my (mostly) walking pilgrimage in Shikoku, known as the Ohenro.
I took notes throughout to capture the fleeting thoughts tagged as ‘I’ll-remember-that’. Formalising them into coherent posts is a way for me to revisit memories that needed time to digest.
I’ve also tried to include supplementary information for future pilgrims, as other pilgrims’ notes provided me with the courage to begin. I’ve included information on the budget lodgings in bilingual English and Japanese, a glossary of terms, a budget breakdown, and a map for the temple coordinates.
My posts are experimental in their writing style, and my apologies if they are difficult to read. They reflect my shifting focus as I walked. In the beginning, every mile seemed novel, so my mind raced to articulate every new sensation and observation. By the second half, appreciating experiences no longer needed to be bound by words.
These posts, compiled after the trip, are negotiations between my desire to reflect my experiences (jarring, stream-of-consciousness sputters and wordless memories) and my desire to craft a narrative for readers. The more profound the moment, the fewer words I have. Even now, I prefer the single-word signposts I left en route. They mark spots where I can survey a three-dimensional, multi-sensory moment.
Sadly, the panoramas of specific memories are mine alone. Minimalist signposts leave readers bushwacking in all directions between the words. Eventually, I balanced bundles of personal idiosyncracies into light trail guides for readers.
I hope you find parts of the route enjoyable, or at least relevant to you in some way or another.
How it started
I fell into the Shikoku pilgrimage on an arranged coincidence.
I discovered the pilgrimage shortly after leaving a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to Hong Kong’s first makerspace, a project that I believed in so strongly it justified investing my future years into (for a vagabond, a big deal!). The opportunity came as a perfect bundle of social value, skill set fit, and a great founder. It was ridiculous to say no, but in the end, after trying for a few months, that’s what I had to do.
That was Spring 2015, and it meant I could travel again. I sat down and hashed out my priorities. Whatever I was going to occupy myself doing had to fulfill the following:
- Be in Japan (summer is nice, and I have an affinity for the place)
- Be somewhere rural (wanted to be in nature, not cities)
- Have an active lifestyle (to burn my daily excess energy)
- While remaining super cheap (because I had no income)
They were simple and open points, but surprisingly difficult for traditional travel styles (even backpacking) to fulfill.
In a blitz of research, I discovered a hike to a Mt. Koya (Koya-San) that would take a day. Minutes later, I learned it was part of a pilgrimage network known as the Kumano Kodo, which is well-kept in various parts and promised to be wonderfully wild in others. Google’s search results of moss-covered stairs were exciting, perhaps a bit too exciting. At the time, I could claim shoestring backpacker status by sleeping in airports and train stations, and a West Coast hippie role with black bear neighbours, but I’ve never done multi-day hikes, much less camped alone.
I kept searching. Could there be another walking route that skirted close to civilization (and its comforts)? That rabbit hole emerged onto Japan’s 4th largest island of Shikoku, which is traced by a pilgrimage centuries old – the Ohenro – dotted with ‘henro huts’ to shelter in, and packed with anecdotes of local generosity.
Despite the immediaite logistical challenges I imagined, my heart was already nudging, ‘Go.’
Why did I do it?
The simple answer is, it seemed like a good challenge.
I had enough basic Japanese to get by, and this was a chance to improve it. Japan’s about the safest country to travel alone in. I liked the simple premise of the pilgrimage: hit 88 temples, however you want, whenever you want. It’s perfect for a curious commitment-phobe like me.
It was only near the end of my pilgrimage that someone told me Shikoku calls to the pilgrims who walk it. When I had just discovered it, when it had been still just pixels on a screen outlining a butterfly island, the call had been simple: Just try. Simple, inviting, forgiving.
My insecurities could span several pages. Could I walk for a day? Could I walk for a month? Could I survive monsoon, and then a hellish summer? Why should I be walking during the worst season, the one all veterans recommend against? Would I lose my way? Was it really safe for a woman? Can I sleep out in the open? In parking lots? How much weight could I carry? Imagining the potential challenges, I realised how little I knew about myself. Yet, that only made me want to find out.
My heart was halfway out the door. Let’s go for a walk.
My head raised an eyebrow. There? You’re biting off more than you can chew.
The heart muses, Probably.
The head says, We have no idea what we’re doing.
The heart chirps, That’s okay. That’s what you’re here for.
That was a time when I’d jumped overboard after setting sail on a dazzling adventure with a friend, visionary, and changemaker. I was adrift, bobbing along with nothing on the horizon. My ambitious brain instinctively wanted to swim for shore, anywhere, and get on with Life. It would have drowned trying to cross the aquarian dessert. My heart is used to riding waves and weathering storms, floating back up eventually, no matter how battered.
That’s how I ended up in Shikoku, walking, for who knows what, to God knows where. In retrospect, I appreciate something that I hadn’t thought much of at the time: setting off without mission or purpose.
My heart and brain agreed on the bottom line: Shikoku wouldn’t kill me. Then, what would this island make of me? These posts are the inklings that I’ve discovered along the way.
If Shikoku has intrigued you, please check out my daily diary of the Shikoku Pilgrimage. In fact, I’d recommend you start with the Henro Afterword and how it impacted me. Why start from the end? I’m not sure, but my gut tells me it makes more sense that way. Feel free to get in touch any time!