Walking in Circles

There are plenty of historic and contemporary accounts of pilgrimages around Shikoku and I’m always fascinated to learn about the perspectives of the people who undertook them and the colour that the period in time lends their stories. In many respects little has changed over the centuries; the path and practices are more or less the same, but modern technology and conveniences have lessened the risks and isolation.

I recently had the pleasure of reading author and traveller Todd Wassel’s account of his second circumnavigation by foot and bicycle in his book ‘Walking in Circles’.

Undertaken in 2005, before the advent of the English guidebook and smartphones, Todd manages to weave a very personal story with the history of the pilgrimage and how Japanese culture has shaped it. Even as someone who thought they knew Shikoku pretty well, there is still a lot to learn in here and it was a joy to follow Todd around the island while revisiting my own journals at the same time.

In a world and a society that dictates how to live, the pilgrimage is medicine for the soul, where we are able to see each other more clearly, as well as how we fit (or don’t) into the larger movement of society.

All Henro come away with some pretty interesting stories but, perhaps with his perspective as a Japanese-speaking foreigner, Todd was able to unwrap a few more layers than most and his anecdotes range from the hilarious to the heartbreaking.

Pilgrims occupy a unique space. We travel over and through a world stained by all the excesses and pettiness of human existence, but also through a world filled with spiritual value and meaning. This little gate sitting between the tides of salvation and depravity was a reminder that you can’t have one without the other.

In the moment it can be hard to appreciate exactly what an experience like the pilgrimage is teaching you but the intervening 15 years between Todd’s walk and publishing his book provides something which most pilgrim memoirs lack; the hindsight of time. For anyone thinking of following his footsteps or perhaps missing life on the trail it’s reassuring to know that whatever tribulations we face today, everything will be alright in the end.

You can find out more about ‘Walking in Circles’ on Todd’s website where you can also read the first chapter for free.

Shodoshima: Annual Shimabiraki Ceremony

Every year, on January 21st, the Shodoshima 88 pilgrimage has an annual ceremony called “Shimabiraki”. 

Shimabiraki literally means “opening the island” and this ceremony is held to mark the beginning of Spring pilgrimage season. 

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Shodoshima: Masako’s Journey

I walked Shodosima 88 in fall of 2016. After my first pilgrimage, the Shikoku 88 in fall of 2015, I got totally hooked on long-distance walking along old historical trails and visiting old temples and shrines.

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Shodoshima: Walking in Fall

I arrived at on Shodoshima on September 16, 2016, with all accommodation for my eight days pilgrimage booked. My original plan was to walk the entire route and visit all 88 temples at once. However, the weather forecast had already shown that a typhoon was approaching Japan.

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Ishizuchi Journey

The Ishizuchi mountains are located on the border between Ehime and Kochi prefectures on the island of Shikoku. The local tourism association recently produced a series of beautiful short films about the region.

“A journey of the spirit through natural wonder.”

Pilgrims will no doubt enjoy seeing some familiar places in the films. You can find out more on the official website.

Yamabushi Mountain Monks

Mountain Monks is a short film by Fritz Schumann about a group of Japanese monks called the Yamabushi who regularly walk barefoot through rivers, meditating under waterfalls and spending the nights on mountaintops. They walk into the forest to die and be born again.

Their teachings of Shugendō 修験道 were first established 1400 years ago and peaked in popularity during the 17th century, when Yamabushi visited around 90 percent of all villages in northern Japan. The monks were said to have magical powers and served as advisors to samurai and warlords.

In the late 19th century, when Japan opened itself to the west and moved from a feudal state towards industrialization, their religion was forbidden. Only the monks of Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan practiced the tradition in secret. Their isolation near the three holy mountains of Dewa helped them to save their customs.

The osettai culture of Shikoku’s pilgrimage route appeals to travelers from across the world

Calling these pilgrims “o-henro-san,” or those who walk the path, the locals support their safe journeys by offering meals and places to rest. The custom, called “osettai,” is rooted deeply in their daily lives. In recent years, it is impressing visitors from overseas.

This summer, Olivia Kivel from the United States began volunteering at a local inn near Ryozenji Temple in Naruto City, Tokushima Prefecture. The inn is one of several so-called “henro-yado.” Kivel went there in hopes of learning about the osettai culture.

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Frederick Starr and Temple 22, Byōdō-ji

About an hour’s drive south of Tokushima train station in the village of Aratano is Temple no. 22 of the Shikoku pilgrimage route, Byōdō-ji – the temple of equality. If you stop at the main gate, the Daishi hall (Daishidō) is in front of you on your left, the temple office and other buildings are on your right, and the main hall (hondō) is located at the top of many stairs in front of you.

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Waraji – Footwear for Pilgrims of the Past

Have you ever seen a pair of gigantic waraji (草鞋: straw sandals) leaning against the main gate of a Buddhist temple? Some are more than two meters tall! Who made them and why are they are there? According to some temple priests, it seems that local people, either children or adults, wove and donated them to the temple to protect the temple, to ward off evil spirits, to bring happiness, and so that people will have healthy legs and feet.

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The Early Life of Kūkai and His Stay at Dōgaku-ji Temple

It is almost impossible to talk about the Shikoku pilgrimage without mentioning the name of Kūkai (空海:774-835), or his posthumous name Kōbō Daishi, the renowned Buddhist priest who founded Shingon Buddhism in Japan during the 9th century. His name permeates Japanese history and there are countless stories based on legend and fact about his life and accomplishments. We know that he was born in 774 near the present-day Temple 75, Zentsū-ji (善通寺) in Kagawa prefecture and was given the name of Mao, but details about his childhood are few and perhaps unreliable.

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