I persuaded Jenny to spend a week of her time in Shikoku, because a few people I had met who had gone there said it was great. I didn’t know much about it except that it was very rural and it had cool art islands on the Inland Sea. When I researched it, I found that it was most famous for an 88-temple pilgrimage around the island, retracing the steps of the monk Kobo Daishi who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan. It’s Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, but if you’re going to do it properly and walk the 1200km trail it would take over a month. While many people do still walk in Kobo Daishi`s footsteps around the island, there are a great many tour buses that take groups of retired folk from temple to temple in much less time. Many people also do it in sections at a time; some people might spend a lifetime doing it bit by bit. I had a week to spend in Shikoku and while I wanted to experience the pilgrimage, as I researched I found more on Shikoku that I wanted to see, so we decided to visit the first five temples which were close enough to each other to be visited in one day.
We took the night bus from Tokyo Disneyland and arrived in Tokushima city before dawn on Saturday morning. We only stayed in Tokushima until the first train, but my impression of it was of wide boulevards with those tall palm trees that you see in television shows set in Beverly Hills. We spent that day in Naruto looking at whirlpools and art reproductions (that story will come in another post) and we stayed the night in the small town of Bando where the first temple of the pilgrimage is. The guesthouse we stayed in was just like staying in someone`s house, and there were three other pilgrims staying there that night. Two were Japanese girls who were trying to make it to temple 12 in the few days they had off, and I found out later that they made it, despite the difficulty of the climb between temples 11 and 12. The other pilgrim was an American exchange student who had just finished the entire pilgrimage. He had had over a month`s holiday before the new academic year started in April, so he had decided that the pilgrimage would be something to do during that time. It was really interesting hearing about his experience, and despite all the discomfort and frustration he went through on his journey, it made me want to attempt it sometime in the future too. For now though, the first five temples would have to do.
We set off at around 8 the next morning for the first temple Ryozenji which was just up the road. We bought some of the pilgrim`s gear in the temple shop; Jenny bought the white jacket and was very tempted to get the conical straw hat and walking stick, but decided they would be too much hassle to bring home. We both bought a pilgrim`s scarf (I got purple, she got orange), a book to get stamped at each temple we visited, and I bought prayer beads and a bell. I realised afterwards that I`ve bought a bell at each holy place I`ve travelled to; I got one at Mt Fuji, Hakusan and now the Shikoku pilgrimage. The stamp books were lovely, it had an embroidered silken cover and inside it had a picture of each temple and a space for the stamp. Getting the stamp was one of the best parts of visiting the temples because the priest would put three red stamps across the page and then write something in exquisite calligraphy across them. It wouldn`t be cheap to fill the book though, as each stamp costs ¥300, multiply that by 88 and it`s not an insignificant amount. In fact, whenever I visit temples here I can`t help think of the story of Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, because they are such businesses. When Jenny and I later went to Todaiji temple in Nara, it felt just like we were in the Vatican, with all the pomp and splendour, and in every temple there are a plethora of amulets and charms you can buy for any contingency. And then during festivals, people set up food stalls in the temple grounds and people have a party. I enjoy all these aspects though, as I`m a sucker for souvenirs and I love the festival food here, but it`s interesting to see how history runs parallel in some areas, and Buddhism became the Catholicism of Japan.
At each temple we would go to the main building, give an offering of ¥5, ring the gong and pray for a bit. Jenny had also bought pieces of paper that you could write a wish along with your name and address for the priest to pray for you. Sometimes we would hang around listening to the other pilgrims chanting the Heart Sutra. It was just like listening to people saying the rosary. We would then get our stamp and wander around the temple grounds. Each temple is different – some might have a pagoda, others might have smaller buildings dedicated to some bodhisattva or something that`s connected to a legend about the place.
The deity at the first temple, Ryozenji, has a connection with academic success, and the second temple, Gokurakuji, has a connection with childbirth, which is why there are many statues of Jizo (below) who is a protector of the weak. Many women have come here to pray for an easy childbirth and they leave sweets by the statues.
Several times while we were in Shikoku we got talking to other Japanese tourists who were interested as to why we had come to Shikoku seen as it is off the beaten tourist track. The man in the picture below was doing part of the pilgrimage with his granddaughter and he seemed very impressed that we (Jenny) had come all this way to do it too.
It was a lovely day for a 10km walk through the countryside and tiny hamlets. Some places we walked through felt like the only reason anyone would be there was if they were completely lost. We thought of the Ghibli motto, `let`s lose our way together`. After visiting all the temples, we walked to the nearest station and got the train back to Bando, picked up our bags and got the train up the coast to Takamatsu. From Takamatsu we went to the islands in the Seto Inland Sea for the art triennale (more on that another time), but we had enjoyed the pilgrim experience so much that we decided that we would try to visit a temple in each prefecture. So on our way from Takamatsu to Kochi we visited temple 75, Zentsuji, famous as the birthplace of Kobo Daishi. It is the biggest temple in Shikoku and underneath the main temple building there is a tunnel corridor you can go into. This is a really cool experience because it`s in pitch blackness. You walk down stairs in the main building and once you pass a curtain, after a few steps you can`t see anything. You walk along touching the wall with your left hand (which is covered in murals that you can`t see), while reciting a chant. Jenny and I had the giggles in the beginning because it`s strange to be saying words you don`t understand while walking in the dark, but after a while it feels trance-like because all you can experience is the sound of the chant and the twisting of the corridor. In the middle of the corridor there is a small shrine which lights up when you approach it and a recorded voice representing Kobo Daishi says something encouraging to you. Then you continue through the winding corridor, chanting in the dark.
It poured rain for that whole day. Above you can see Jenny by the gate with her waterproofed backpack and umbrella. However the weather was beautiful the next day for temple 31, Chikurinji, in Kochi, which was situated beside a botanical garden that we visited after.
Our last temple was number 51, Ishiteji, in Matsuyama. We got up at 6 a.m. on my birthday to visit it before we left Shikoku to travel across to Honshu. We were there about 7 a.m. and it was so still and peaceful. We left the temple to the other pilgrims, wondering if I will ever come back to finish the pilgrimage. Still, 8 out of 88 temples is a nice amount to have done.