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.
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.
In spring 2018, David Gogh walked the entirety of the Shikoku Pilgrimage and has compiled a beautiful video of photos and short clips synchronised with a map showing his progress around the island.
For anyone who has undertaken the journey, the images provoke a lot of nostalgic feelings. For those thinking about taking their own pilgrimage, it provides a snapshot of life as a Henro and the natural wonder of Shikoku.
Dedicated to those who also may have had the same dream.
A dream where the first week felt like a month but the following month felt like a week.
Dewa Sanzan, in Yamagata Prefecture, has been an important center for yamabushi since the beginnings of Shugendo in the eighth or ninth century, although it didn’t grow in popularity as a pilgrimage route for spiritual rebirth until the Edo Period (1603-1868). To this day, each yamabushi in good health is required to make the journey.
I am sitting on the rim of a volcano crater, munching my midday sandwich while watching a friar and a frog. El Fraile and La Rana are sculptures fashioned by nature from solidifying magma 3,000 years ago. That might sound like an aeon, but in geological time is only about yesterday afternoon. I have reached my picnic spot by crunching over naked grey lava, feeling like an ant on an elephant’s back.
Normally I am not given to praying but the occasion demands it. After bowing twice and clapping twice, I make a silent entreaty that my trek will go well. My obeisance is taking place in front of a small wooden building, rather like a summerhouse. It is a shrine in the town of Takijiri-oji, a starting point for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails.
Kaihōgyō (回峰行) (“circling the mountain”) is a 1000-day pilgrimage spread out over seven years that is practised by the monks of Enryaku-ji temple on the side of Mount Hiei, overlooking Kyoto. Read more