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Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001

Shikoku has 1,400-km path to spirituality

Staff writer

OSAKA -- People often go to great lengths for spiritual enlightenment, and a 1,400-km pilgrimage to 88 key temples on the island of Shikoku is certainly no exception.

To find out what has drawn people to the area for over 1,000 years, Aru Nomoto, a 43-year-old singer and acupuncturist in Osaka, embarked on his "junrei" (pilgrimage) in the autumn of 1999.

After a series of weekend trips to Shikoku, he finally managed to visit all 88 temples in April. Looking back on his trips, he felt the natural way to express his thoughts was through song.

"It's said the journey of a soul lasts 12,000 years. Why do they keep on walking for days and what are they looking for at the end of the 1,400 km?" the song begins.

Answers to those questions may differ from person to person, Nomoto said, but people basically make the pilgrimage to the temples of Shikoku to find their own solutions to whatever worries and pains them.

Nomoto was first introduced to the Shikoku junrei when one of his acupuncture patients, Susumu Teraoka, extended an invitation to join him on a trip.

"In my clinic, I have a number of elderly patients and I've been wondering why so many of them are so determined to make the pilgrimage," he said. "I thought I would probably find an answer if I actually made it myself."

The Shikoku junrei dates back some 1,200 years, when Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi, or Kukai, first completed the pilgrimage as part of his ascetic practices.

Since then pilgrims have followed the 1,400-km path set by Kukai, literally walking for days to visit each of the temples.

Today, the majority of pilgrims take things a little easier, relying on cars or buses for transportation and skipping some of the temples. The number of pilgrims, on the other hand, has been on the rise, especially among those in their 50s and 60s.

Like many other modern pilgrims, Nomoto took a bus tour with a group led by Teraoka, a qualified pilgrim leader.

Not surprisingly, the majority of participants were older than Nomoto and he had to keep his walking speed down accordingly. Pilgrims make it a rule to keep pace with the slowest of the group.

In the beginning, he said he felt a little awkward wearing the all-white pilgrim's garb. Once everyone was in the same gear, however, he says he became used to it and even noticed a sense of unity that seemed to transcend age and gender.

He also said the process of visiting temples felt natural, despite the similarities of the different locales. He added that the journeys help pilgrims rediscover the blessings of nature and the kindness of people.

"It is hard to put into words why people are fascinated with junrei, but once you make the first trip, you are captivated," he said.

"Wherever they go in Shikoku, pilgrims are received warmly and you can mingle with local people quite naturally, which you hardly find in urban life. The sense of gratitude springs out from inside and that's something you get only through this pilgrimage.

"We usually don't pay much attention to changing seasons, but the junrei pilgrimage reminds us of the blessings of nature."

His song, titled "Shikoku Hachijuhachi-kasho Kokoro no Tabi" ("Journey of Soul to 88 Holy Places in Shikoku,") depicts a pleasant encounter with strangers and expresses gratitude for the blessings of nature. Nomoto, a vocalist in a blues band called Untouchable, sang the song at a concert in June and also released it on CD earlier this month. He plans to dedicate the song to Gokuraku temple, the second stop on the pilgrimage route.

Having had a taste of the pilgrimage, Nomoto says that he would one day like to walk the full 1,400-km course.

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