On pilgrimage

On my bucket list for many years has been the desire to do a long walking holiday, and most recently, I’ve been curious about walking a 1,000+-year-old pilgrimage route around the Japanese island of Shikoku to 88 temples. This pilgrimage traces the same route of one of Japan’s greatest Buddhist teachers, priests, and folk heroes, Kobo Daishi, who lived in the 800s and founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. The pilgrimage (or henro in Japanese) takes about 45-50 days to walk straight through for a distance of about 1000km (670 miles) or more if you also go to satellite temples. Pilgrimages, and this one in particular, are still incredibly normal (if not popular) in Japan although most Japanese now drive or take tour buses to complete it (all perfectly legit in Japanese terms).

After a health scare in January, I decided that I can either dream or do, so my husband and I started planning our henro, even though we can only take the time out of our material lives to do it in shorter sections. In some ways this is just as well because I was both fearful and curious: could this old and not particularly athletic body of mine walk for 10-15 miles a day for an extended period in Japan’s hot, humid, buggy summer? It seemed like a “test” henro was the way to go, so we planned for walking 5-6 days and hoped to visit 19 of the temples this August. We just got back and I am happy to report that yes, my old body was up to the task (although I had some challenges). Our trip was shortened by a typhoon, but we were able to complete 54 miles in 4.5 days and visited 15 temples. It was awesomely hard and awesomely great all at the same time. And we’ve still got over 600 miles to go!

At at “henro hut” on our last day.

Along with physical training for the henro, I did some literary training, too. One of the top books on the list (and part of my 20 of summer list) was Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler. Statler was a writer, scholar, and collector of Japanese prints who lived on Shikoku. He walked the pilgrimage several times and this book is both a travelogue and history. Statler gives highlights of some of the major temples’ histories, and delves deeply into life story of Kobo Daishi, the founding of the pilgrimage, and famous pilgrims while describing his own walk along the trail. If you are at all interested in Buddhism or walking the Shikoku henro, then I probably don’t have to tell you that this book is required reading. But even if you just want to armchair travel, Statler’s book is a beautifully written book that helps to give insight into the experience and just why anyone would want to do it.

Another book I read was Lu Barnham’s The Cicada’s Summer Song. Lu walked the entire pilgrimage solo in the worst heat of Japanese summer, August/September, and without using any other transportation than her own blistered feet. Her memoir really helped me prepare for practical matters, such as foot care (a huge one!), how to battle horseflies and spider webs in the mountains, distances, and walking in summer, considered the worst time of year because of the heat and bugs. Lu also talks a lot about the incredible custom of o-settai, where local residents give gifts of food, money, drinks, and other helpful services or kindnesses to walking henro. What I found was that the people never treated us a special or extraordinary for walking, but they were often generous and extremely helpful in caring for us. Lu has a great sense of humor and her book is an entertaining, realistic, and well-written account — so far as my 5 days tell me compared to her 50.

Lastly, I read Visiting the Sacred Sites of Kukai: A Guidebook to the Shikoku Pilgrimage by Tateki Miyazaki. This book is the least literary and most practical of the three, but if you were to plan this trip, I’d highly recommend it. It gives very detailed information on distances between temples (in miles and kilometers), gauging travel time, advice on what and how much to pack/carry, leg massage pressure points, shoes, foot care, and short blurbs on the 88 temples, among other helpful information. This is the book I had downloaded on my phone and found myself referring to in the evenings.

Right before I left, I downloaded a book called On Trails by Robert Moor for some evenings-on-henro reading. I was intrigued by this book because in the introduction, Moor talks about how he will explore the many ways that trails define our experience (and the experience of life on earth). He walked the Appalachian trail on the east coast and this gave him special insight on the experience of “through-hikers,” like Lu Barnham in Shikoku or Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Coast trail. But I was attracted to the book because he also seemed to be interested in philosophical trails — how we tend to follow lines or paths of thought, the difference between a trail (a mark left of something passing) and a path. This book both ended up intriguing and disappointing me. I learned a lot about the differences between native American trials and modern hiking trails, modern trail construction (highly more complex than it seems), hunting and animal trails, fossil trials, etc. But I was disappointed that the book was not more balanced. It seemed like Moor was fascinated, impressed, and a bit romantic about Native American trails and way-finding and a good part, some it redundant, was spent on the topic. Although he contrasted at length the Native American historic trails with the history of European trials in north American, including the development of (mostly) the AT and (a mention of) the PCT, he didn’t talk at all — even to limit his scope — trails like the Shikoku pilgrimage or the Camino de Santiago or other great trail systems in the world. What about desert trails? The silk road? Migratory trails of humans and herds? Birds? What can those things tell us about trail making and its importance to life? He touches on some of these things, but never develops these themes and returns to what I suspect is the real topic of the book: his personal experiences on the Appalachian trail. Honestly, I got a bit bored and annoyed at the 3/4 point and skimmed to the end.

Japanese Pilgrimage
personal copy

The Cicada’s Summer Song

Visiting the Sacred Sites of Kukai

On Trails

4 thoughts on “On pilgrimage

  1. Bellezza says:

    I’m so in awe of you walking in Japan! (And, how wonderful that your health permitted it.) Mybhusband and I hope to go next fall (2019) when I retire. I would not like the hot, humid summers, I can stay here in Illinois for those. 😉 Thanks for the book recommendation there, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I am delighted to hear about your trip. How wonderful. I love what you say, you can either “dream or do.” I am inspired! Since turning 40 this year, I’ve felt the same way. To that end, we finally got our passports renewed and we’re traveling to Toronto and Niagara Falls this fall. I hope for many more traveling adventures to come – for you as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    • RareBird says:

      Thank you, Laila! Your trip to Toronto and Niagara sounds like a terrific combo. I do think that aging throws life’s goals and dreams into a different focus. May we both wander — and read– a lot more!

      Liked by 1 person

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