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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Texan opens Shikoku lodge to help travelers complete Buddhist pilgrimage


MATSUYAMA, Ehime Pref. — A Texan who fell in love with Shikoku's renowned Buddhist pilgrimage, the Shikoku Henro, has opened a guesthouse in Ehime Prefecture so visitors can experience what he believes is far more than a sightseeing trip.

Matthew Iannarone, 33, traveled the route in March 2009, and its length and solitude made a deep impression on him. As a travel buff with an interest in historical sites, he had already visited about 35 countries by the time he attempted the pilgrimage, which covers 88 temples.

Iannarone said the experience of discovering sites of worship atop mountains and continuing toward the next temple allowed him to not only learn more about Japan, but to also squarely face his own life.

Motivated to help foreign travelers attempting the route, Iannarone looked for a property with his wife, Noriko, 35, whom he met in Osaka and married before the pilgrimage.

The pair opened the Sen guesthouse in a corner of a residential neighborhood in Matsuyama, near such sites as the Dogo hot springs and Ishite Temple, the 51st stop on the Buddhist route. They opened its kitchen to visitors to let them cook dishes from their homelands and renovated two of the seven rooms to accommodate multiple guests and make it easier for lone travelers to socialize.

Iannarone also fields pilgrims' questions in English in a communal space, while his wife teaches them Japanese customs and traditions.

Iannarone says many visitors usually just stroll around Matsuyama, visiting the main tourist sites. Although the lodge's reputation has only spread through word of mouth, Europeans and Americans now account for nearly half its guests and it welcomes about 10 groups a day on average.

But few manage to complete the arduous route. Many pilgrims give up after failing to find accommodation or getting lost between temples.

The many challenges that lie along the route are a good thing, Iannarone pointed out, adding that he and his wife will continue to steadily spread the word about the 88-temple pilgrimage.

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