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Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010


Wandering on a pilgrimage-centric island

"Therefore, wander!"

News photo
The author of this column (left) enjoys some pilgrim camaraderie on a route between No. 12 and 13 of the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage in Tokushima Prefecture. PAUL HOOGLAND PHOTO

Presuming you have loads of free time, that is. So if you've recently lost your job or have large amounts of free time for some other reason, such as laziness, now is the time for you to go on pilgrimage. Hit the road Jack, and don't you come back for five or six weeks.

Pilgrimage, perhaps Japan's first form of travel, is a chance to reconnect with those fundamental Japanese values of yore — simplicity, austerity and nature (or if you prefer, hiking, camping and insects). It's about detachment: leaving behind the Japan of shopping malls, Kobe beef and, egads, Disney!

Having just come back from four days of wandering 78 km of the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage myself, I was reminded how important this particular pilgrimage is to the Japanese. I encountered 10 other walking pilgrims who ranged in age from 28 to 70. They were from Tokyo, Nara and Shikoku itself. They were solo pilgrims, couples, friends and even a father and son team walking together. Far from being strictly a religious undertaking, many people were doing it because, with a tradition of over a thousand years, it's on many people's list of things to do before they die.

The walking pilgrim needs five to six weeks to complete the 1,440 km pilgrimage, in which he or she will walk the entire island of Shikoku, from rice fields to mountains to long stretches of surfing beaches, visiting sacred sites along the way (unfortunately, none of them related to surfing).

In addition to walking pilgrims, I encountered a group of bicycle pilgrims and countless people doing the pilgrimage by car or tourist bus. All this on a weekday in Shikoku! The island is truly pilgrimage central — the train stations are crawling with the faithful in white robes, carrying staffs with bells that ring-a-ling as they run to catch trains to the different sacred sites.

Walking the pilgrimage, unless you're an Olympic athlete, is rather enduring. Most people walk 30-40 km per day, every day, without a break. In addition, the nanzan temples (those high up on hills that require extra effort to get to) can be half-day climbs. Temple No. 12, the Temple of Burning Mountain, is aptly named because your thighs will be burning the entire six-hour climb to reach it. Other times you are walking on back roads and pavement, grueling enough.

If you do the entire pilgrimage, you will visit 88 sacred sites (plus an optional 20 bangai temples for the Olympic athlete types), many with appealing names like the Temple of Everlasting Peace, the Temple of Gratitude Mountain, and the Temple of Crane Forest. The goal of the pilgrimage is to reach inner peace by shifting your mental state via cosmic transformation. During the pilgrimage, you experience a progressive transformation from the individual to the universal.

To do this, however, you'll need some cosmic tools:

Juzu beads. These strands, of the 108-bead type, represent the 108 sins of man. I know what you're thinking: 108 sins? I have way more than that! Just choose your top 108. It doesn't really matter though, because by the end of the pilgrimage, and part of the precursor to inner peace and enlightenment, is that you rid yourself of these sins.

Garb. Pilgrims wear a white pilgrimage coat and, if possible, white pants. White is the color of death and you are literally taking a walk with death on this pilgrimage. You probably never realized that death walks, but it does. In the old days, many elderly people set out with the intention of passing away on the pilgrimage, this being the most revered way to die.

A walking stick. This is a special staff, sold at temples along the pilgrimage, that represents Kobo Daishi (774-835), the founder of the pilgrimage. The stick is said to be the man himself, so that you are always walking with him. Thus, Kobo Daishi is one of the first famous stick figures.

Fuda. You'll need about 200 of these thin pre-printed strips of paper where you write the purpose of your pilgrimage (praying for health, wealth, etc.), along with your name and address. At each sacred site, you put this fuda — your business card to the gods — into a box. Your fuda will most likely be white, but if you have done the pilgrimage five times, you get green ones. If you've done it seven times, you get red fuda, 50 times, gold fuda, and 100 times (gasp!), fancy multicolored fuda. Of course, at 100 times, I'm not sure that still qualifies as wandering. Therefore wonder!

A cone-shaped straw hat. With this last item, your outfit is complete. If you don't reach inner peace by the end of the pilgrimage, at least you'll have a Halloween costume for next year.

I should also mention that the young and hip do the pilgrimage by motorcycle. One guy had a plastic tube mounted on the side of his motorbike for his walking stick (the staff he could use after he reached the temple). When I met him, he had just finished not only the entire 88 temples, but also the 20 bangai temples, at each bangai temple collecting a glass bead with which he would have strung into a 20-bead juzu bracelet when finished.

Now you should feel ready to embark on your cosmic transformation. Therefore, wander!

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