That was what came up in my mind first when I started considering coming back to Japan after almost 10 years in the USA.
Funny thing is, I was not a big fan of hiking back then. In the US, I had never been to any mountains or national parks for hiking. I was very busy every day, as an MBA student in NYC for the first two years, then as a newspaper reporter in DC almost the entire time Mr Obama was president.
Even funnier, I was in the Japanese army in my 20’s, so running around in bushes and forests was my job. Probably I unconsciously liked Japanese mountains all the time, that’s why I picked the Army without considering joining the Navy or Airforce. Childhood memories of my parents taking us to nature tourist sites on vacation, not to theme parks or shopping malls stayed at the tiny corner of my brain.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
Pilgrims will no doubt enjoy seeing some familiar places in the films. You can find out more on the official website.
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.
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.
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.
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.