It’s been a year since I began the Shikoku Pilgrimage across the island’s 88 Buddhist Temples. On July 1, it struck me that I was in the south of Japan, in Kochi, 365 days ago. Writing out an 80,000-word daily diary, creating a list of tsuyado in English and Japanese, joining the Ohenro Facebook group, and reading other pilgrim’s blogs haven’t exorcised the Shikoku bug.
The problem is so apparent that I dragged my family on an 18-kilometre walk through the mountains in a relentless sun out to a Shinto shrine in a coastal town. That was recently in spring. My brother sums it up nicely with an illustration.
I’ve already changed from the person who wrote the Shikoku Henro Afterword. I’ve replaced the henro sedge hat with a digital nomad and travel writing hat. The sedge one has sat in the closet since I chucked it there after moving to Tokyo. I’m in front of the screen 10+ hours a day rather than on my feet.
With the distance, however, I am better able to articulate the things I loved, and still love, about Shikoku.
Stumbled Upon Moments.
Shikoku isn’t stunning. There are taller mountains, bigger rivers, more dramatic hills. Yet, you still come across moments like this. Epic. Seared into your memory because you walked those hundreds of kilometres to get there.
I walked during tsuyu, rainy season, and high summer. It made for strenuous walking, but I wouldn’t give it up to see the cloud theatrics.
Most of the mountain paths I walked were flooded or extremely muddy. Usually it’s not like this, but on the other hand, it makes the trip pretty unique, even for a henro.
One of the major benefits of doing nojuku, camping, is the chance to see the sunset. Hikers, trekkers, and campers can relate to this.
On this evening, I stood alongside another local woman who kept getting out of her car to take more photo of the amazing purple sunset.
Even though this was a pretty lousy day, a flapping tarp with a view like this just take your breath away.
Those supernatural anime moments. This photo always reminds me of the walking kami (spirits) that are half visible and holding lanterns on a festival day. Shikoku has the comforts of a developed country and the tranquility of bygone days where Asia wasn’t so crowded.
I received not one, but two brocade osamefuda. I’ve heard people dig in boxes for even the silver and gold ones. The abundance felt like a guilty weight…until I met Edvaldo on the day he broke his nose. Even though I was a stranger at the time, he offered to treat me to a capsule to get a good sleep and his sedge hat (when mine had just broken the day before). I wasn’t sure he knew what it was until I handed it to him.
It turns out there was a new henro hut literally 15 minutes walk away. But then we wouldn’t have seen this sunset.
Doing nojuku often meant waking up early. Waking up early meant arriving at temples first. I began studying how each temple cleaned its incense urns. They’re usually perfectly smooth, without a grain left out of place. Even if not, they have a soothing feeling.
Temples in bigger cities often aren’t like this.
Those moments when the eye of heaven has yet to fully open, when the birds are singing, and the grass still kissed with morning dew.
Often, one is walking into the day.
The morning mist is something only a 5am waking henro (and a farmer) sees. The rounded hills become picturesque because they are soothing.
At the end of a long walk, whatever the view is, it is beautiful because you earned it
The expression, ‘If you want to go far, go together’ is true. I’d never have walked as far as I did daily without my companions Kouhei and Aurelie.
I’d only booked 3 days at this place, with a gap in between. In the end, I stayed a good few days because I arrived the day before a typhoon. Tsuneto and Akiko have walked the henro recently, when they’re above 70. It is an incredible feat. Even more incredible is their unwavering generosity.
The small encounters with the temple attendants were the most staple form of human interaction I had. Many of them offered wishes, charms, snacks, and this one offered me the second brocade osamefuda.
It’s strange. The one man I ended up stopping for to walk with (because he was winded going uphill) invests in social businesses. With my limited Japanese, I never imagined being able to converse with someone about the tripple bottom line of monetary, social, and environmental value. On Shikoku, it felt like everything that mattered in my life was shown to me.
Pilgrims leave things everywhere, and you can tell it is often intentionally. There are heaps of walking sticks left in front of offices, little incense things, snacks, cups, and here: happy little figures to remind you to smile at the end of a long day.
The places I stayed at.
I didn’t actually stay here. I wish I did, but next time!
Some people say they always sleep better in their own bed. By necessity, I wasn’t one of them. However, the experience of nojuku gave significance to the places that one chooses to rest in. There are so many factors, such as safety, comfort, and convenience.
Ultimately, what I learned and found most empowering was that we can sleep anywhere. Sleeping is just about lying down. We’re exposed. But we can sleep if we just let go. It makes one incredibly vulnerable, but it makes one doubly appreciative of our homes when we return to them.
A new Couchsurfing friend was so concerned about me doing nojuku that she and her friend arranged for me to stay at her friend’s mom’s place. Any place would have been fine, but this house ended up being an incredible walking museum.
Raw and Unadorned.
Dogo Onsen, for all its fame, is still just a bathhouse that gives you the ¥300 entrance. The inside tubs are austere stone. It’s nothing like the luxurious resorts of contemporary times. That’s just as well. It’s truly experiencing a part of history.
The temples in Shikoku all had character. Their characters were shaped by their environments, humble. Yet, they were so full of life, so free of pretense.
Rain or shine. In my case, often rain, one walked. These statues don’t see too many people, but they’re so lifelike and escentric.
Very wet, very tired, and missing the train due to my own misreading of the times. Plenty of time to nap, study the landscape, and the melody of the rain.
The temples are not like those of Kyoto. The wooden beams and boards sit unadorned. If lucky, perhaps the frescos are painted. The ceilings are often bare rafters. Ishite-ji claims some of the oldest structures on Shikoku, and still, it carries its age with grace.
Mountain water is best for brewing tea and coffee. One such motorcyclist came up to bring water on her way to work at her cafe.
Their ordinary is my extraordinary.
One of my most memorable and warm encounters came early on. This was barely 7am during a torrential downpour, and the fishermen had come back in after their dawn hauls. I got to try the local kai, in addition to their breakfast. Cafe Hikousen is the community hub of Shishikui, and I ended up getting a place to stay with locals thanks to hanging out here.
The ordinary, beautiful moments.
An udon shop that has fed henro udon for decades. The brown osamefuda show their age.
To this day, I think the greatest gift in life is to be invited to someone’s home and asked to share a meal with them.
On Shikoku, I got used to being loaded with sumomo, buntan, mikan, and various other fruits and produce. Here, living close to nature and harvesting its abundance seasonally is taken for granted. How shocked I was when I returned to Tokyo to see the prices of fruits, which seem so removed from their home soil.
In a small town, at Temple #80, there is a shop that’s so plain you’d miss it. The udon inside is also plain …goodness. I only buy Sanuki udon now and make it at home myself.
So much of Shikoku is still in me. I recreated this light seafood soup by buying sudachi, a sweet lime, from Tokushima recently.
This was just one part of Akiko’s breakfast for her AirBnB listing. It was a gigantic feast one really did have to spend a day walking off!
A secret soup in an urn, and unlimited refills of condiments to taste.
I will always remember this sign that I saw while coming down Tairyuu-ji near the beginning of my pilgrimage.
These words of encouragement, at one point wrapped there by a compassionate henro who had the capacity to think of our trials in addition to their own. These invisible acts of kindness brand invisible imprints into the heart.
So long as one candle keeps burning in these temples…
And so, these temples will wait, no matter the weather, to greet the next pilgrim.
I didn’t think I’d like my bought staff at first. I regretted buying it. By the end of the journey, it was my best, sweat-coated friend.
I still have it. And in addition, my keychain is a charm from Temple #82 that Kouhei gave me. The jiggle of Kobo Daishi’s bell still follows me wherever I go.