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.

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