Su Becket, WA
At mid-day, late in March 2016, I embarked on my pilgrimage at temple number one, following in the footsteps of Kobai Daishi (aka Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. My plan was to walk each day and stay wherever I could find somewhere to sleep. I knew some temples had tsuyado (a free room) as opposed to shukubo (paying guest accommodation) and I was carrying a tent. There were many other places where it was acceptable for pilgrims to sleep, such as bus-shelters, parks, rest-huts and daishido (small temples with bedding). I used them all, plus a few innovations of my own!
I arrived at temple number five late in the afternoon, where the attendants directed me to a zenkonyado (a sleeping place offered by a private citizen). It proved to be a tiny building with just two tatami mats. My roommate was dressed as a traditional henro (pilgrim), with a white jacket and straw hat and equipped with a long staff. As I am not Buddhist I chose to remain in civvies but was still the recipient of much osettai (alms, such as food or money given by people to help you to achieve your pilgrimage). To refuse osettai is a total insult to the donor. It is a very humbling experience and can be likened to trail angels.
I was very privileged to spend the following 50 days walking around the beautiful island of Shikoku. Although parts of the trail are very urban, it was a great way to explore Japanese culture. Rice growing, amazing bonsai, origami…in fact all the clichés of Japan but even more so! April was of course the cherry blossom season when Japanese people flock to the countryside to picnic under the cherry trees—you are likely to be invited to join them as you walk past.
I never planned anything in advance but amongst many adventures I happened upon a traditional doll festival with thousands of dolls on display and a bonsai and flower show in a town hall. I received an invitation into a café for osettai and was serenaded by local singers. I was greeted by a group of dedicated trail volunteers who fed me bowls of delicious noodles, famous in the region. They were served to me by the gentleman who made them, that same morning.
Coin laundries were plentiful with the wonderful innovation of not having to purchase or carry soap powder as it was added directly by the machine.
Then of course there was the joy of the onsens (communal bathhouses), which I took advantage of as often as I could. Before anyone gets too excited I should explain that they are, thankfully, segregated, and involve a lot of protocol which one should research to save embarrassing oneself. I thought I had it off pat…wrong! At all of the early onsens I visited the toiletries were provided in small plastic containers for general use; I assumed this to be the norm. Then I entered a rather expensive onsen, grabbed a toiletries container, sat on my little chair and scrubbed myself before entering the bath, where I was confronted by a very angry naked Japanese lady. Apparently I had stolen her personal toiletries, as this onsen was a BYO. Whoops!
Despite visiting a lot more than 88 temples, I never tired of them, as each one was delightfully different. At each temple you could pray for a specific reason such as "easy childbirth, eye problems, leg ailments" etc. My favourites were "farmers suffering from natural disasters, lost pets and children who cry in the night".
If you chose to do so there is a strict etiquette to be followed in having your nokyocho (pilgrim book) inscribed and stamped at each temple. I had my nokyocho (similar to a Camino credential) inscribed at every temple for a cost of 300 yen. I found the more isolated temples, and those requiring a return journey back along the same route, the most interesting.
The trail itself was well marked but only in a clockwise direction. Any ambiguities were easily resolved by the map in the guidebook which was very accurate. Japan has a very fragile environment so there is a lot of reinforcing with tar and concrete. Ignore the tsunami warnings (unless there is one!). The topography chart looks horrendous but this is relative, as the flat areas are very flat. The steepest hills were beautiful forest walks, usually deserted and with great places for camping.
Very little English is spoken in Shikoku but everyone will help you—just bow a lot and be very polite. I felt that crime was just about non-existent as people left cars with purses in full view and a fellow hiker would leave his rucksack sitting in a park for hours while he dined in a faraway restaurant. The pack never disappeared! I saw very few non-Japanese tourists or henro, but I suspect this will change very quickly.
Lawson convenience stores are so frequent I started calling the trail the Lawson Trail, and I'm sure if Japanese ever found himself out of sight of a vending machine he would start hyperventilating. Public transport was frequent and never far away (although local buses usually appeared empty).
I liked this trail very much. It is a delightful blend of rural, urban, coastal, mountain and forest walking. Add the temples, the culture, the kindness of the people and the food and it becomes a memorable hike. It was very different from what I had expected. I had hoped for more wild walking but the reality I found more than compensated.
- Website: www.shikokuhenrotrail.com
- Guidebook: Shikoku Japan 88 route guide by Buyodo Co. Ltd. As far as I know only available through the above website or at Temple number one.
- When to go: March/ April/ May or October/ November.
- How to get there: Fly to Osaka. Catch bus to Tokushima (train station) from outside Airport Terminal 4. From Tokushima catch train to Bando station and then follow the green line on the road to temple number one
- Necessities of life: Convenience Stores i.e. 7/11 or Lawson Stores for inexpensive food, free water, free Wi-Fi and washrooms.
- There are no public rubbish bins in Shikoku.