April 30, 2016

Think you can make it, pilgrim?

The walking expedition I took with my dad in March began as a random idea. It became a mini-pilgrimage. In retrospect, it was just plain good fun. Here’s the story:

What is the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage?
Shikoku is the smallest of the four main islands of Japan, but is the birthplace of one of the most revered figures in Japanese Buddhism, the monk and teacher Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi). Kukai imported an offshoot form of Buddhism to Japan from China in the 9th century. These days, a 1,200 km/750 mile pilgrimage route circles this mountainous island, connecting 88 separate temples and shrines that have some kind of connection to Kukai. 

The Shikoku Tourism Bureau website captures it better than I can: “This circular pilgrimage route is the most famous pilgrimage in Japan. It was established by disciples [many over a thousand years ago] of…Kukai, who trained at several sacred places in Shikoku, and many believe this route follows his footsteps. This is a journey to find your true self and attain piece of mind.” Each leg of the long journey is a supposed to be a step toward nirvana—encouraging discipline, austerity, enlightenment, and sore feet. Many thousands undertake the pilgrimage every year, on foot, bicycle, car and tour bus. Old-school pilgrims hoofing it take about 45-60 days on foot. Yikes.

I can’t quite recall when the idea of this father-son hike first surfaced. Certainly it was years ago when I was living in Hiroshima, because the prospect of a long trek around parts of Shikoku seemed less remote than it does now amid my super-urban lifestyle in Tokyo/Yokohama. Regardless, Dad said he wanted to try the 88 temple circuit, it was on his bucket list, and I wanted to go myself. So he carved the time out of his busy retired traveler/golfer schedule and came to visit us. Let’s face it, the main draw was seeing the Rising Granddaughters during their spring break, but the part of this visit involving the temple pilgrimage appealed to his spiritual vision quest – it being Lent after all – and that sealed the deal. So we decided we would go as far as we could along the circuit within three or four days. 
Temple #1, Ryozen-ji, viewed from outside. (Courtesy of Google Maps)

Day 1: Challenging
Thus prepped, off we went. “We” means just me and the old man, on a father-son bonding journey. I thought of the word “pilgrim” and what that implied--the spirituality aspect; childhood images of earnest black-hatted pilgrims in colonial North America escaping religious persecution in the New World. A pilgrim, after all, is someone who travels a great distance to fulfill a religious or similarly momentous purpose. Think of the pilgrims who went to the west of North America to colonize/civilize it. That’s some deep resolve. Me being me, the gravitas soon evaporated and I was left with my usual sophomoric take on the pop culture elements the “88 Temple Circuit,” namely:
- the slashfest scenes of O-ren Ishii’s “Crazy 88” kill squad from the Kill Bill movies;
- in the Back to the Future film trilogy, 88 mph is the speed that Doc Brown’s DeLorean must attain in order to travel back in time;
- and John Wayne. Yes—John Wayne. Even middle-aged Gen Xers like me remember the Duke’s prolific use of the word "pilgrim."
The prospect of walking and hiking an estimated 80-100 kms in three or four days with little to no preparation inspired this thought: “Think you can make it, pilgrim?”

Dad being Dad, he pre-planned the route as best he could, we’d bicker over small details via email, then laugh about it in person. He opted to follow the chronological route, by starting in Tokushima at the first temple, Ryozen-ji, and following the directions.
Finally, off we went: flight from Tokyo to Tokushima, deplane and exit the airport, and immediately hop in a cab to the first temple. We arrived and it started drizzling just a bit. Dad forgot his tablet on the airplane. Shrine #12, which we had planned to stay overnight, had stopped accepting overnight guests. In sum, bad juju. We pressed onward.
Impressions of the first three temples were the quiet that envelops you inside the temple grounds after you cross the threshold of the two ogres standing guard in the front entrance. The occasional scent of burning incense or candles, and the soft shuffling sounds of the pilgrims themselves as they walked furtively from one shrine to another inside the temple grounds, and the sharp gong! of the shrine’s bells being rung by the pilgrims . The dedicated ones said their prayers from memory.
We engaged in a conversation with one 75-year-old man who was on his third full pilgrimage, likely his last one he said. It had taken him about three months to walk to all 88 temples. This time, he would go to number 88, then come back in reverse order. Godspeed—literally. On the first day we got used to the rhythm of walking along the asphalt next to the highways and the sometimes-confusing directional markers. We managed to get from Temple #1 to #3, then took the train back to the main train station and our economy hotel.

Day 2: Temples 4-9
It was pretty cool to have Dad all to myself for an extended period for the first time in years. Suddenly, we had all this time to talk about how he was doing, catching up on how our immediate family members were doing that we usually cannot cover in a Skype session. We passed the time and we had a lot of laughs, and a delicious lunch at a run-down but very welcoming B&B. Great weather; warm at about 20 degrees Celsius with clear blue skies. Local people, famed for their hospitality shown to pilgrims, were saying hello and waving all the time. A distinguished-looking older gentleman saw us, pulled over and parked his car, and handed over some ginger-flavored sweet rice candy. And we had plenty of conversations with people on the pilgrimage, most of them Japanese. As we established a walking rhythm we ran into quite a few of the same faces and Dad couldn't help himself, he was competitive about who was ahead of whom. “Pick up the pace, Chris” he’d cajole, half-joking.
We got to Temple #9 and called it a day.

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