Three weeks into my trek, as I ascended a steep path toward Yokomine-ji, the 60th of 88 temples along the Shikoku pilgrimage, I found myself enveloped by an unforgiving fog. In an instant, the colorful forest around me — mostly red cedar trees and fern bushes — faded, leaving me in a world of muted gray. Able to make out only the faintest shapes in the surrounded trees, I was convinced that I’d stumbled into an eerie fairy tale.
Quietly, in the distance, I began to hear a chorus of small bells. Then, suddenly, the party of accidental musicians came into view: a large group of Japanese pilgrims who, coming toward me, all stopped neatly in line to let me walk past.
Within an hour, the fog had begun to lift. Within two, it was gone entirely, replaced by an equally unforgiving midday sun. In the newfound clarity of daylight, I began to wonder: Had the courteous band of fellow pilgrims existed only in my mind?
The pilgrimage on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, is a 750-mile route that links 88 Buddhist temples, each of which claims a connection to Kukai, a celebrated monk — posthumously known as Kobo Daishi — who, after returning from a trip to China in the ninth century, founded one of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan.
After Kukai’s death in 835, wanderers began making pilgrimages to the sites on Shikoku that were affiliated with his life and work: his birth and burial places, the caves where he meditated, the sites of various religious rites. Later, these sites were linked, and the temples and shrines were formally numbered.
As is true with many modern-day pilgrimages, the ranks of Shikoku pilgrims — once exclusively practitioners of Shingon Buddhism, one of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan — have grown to include travelers with a more diverse array of motivations. And so the steady succession of monks, priests and faithful Buddhists has given way to young people on journeys of self-discovery, older hikers enjoying their retirement and even foreign visitors like me, who know little of the language and customs but are drawn by the adventure of the trek, by Shikoku’s breathtaking views and by its sublime lessons on Japanese cultural heritage.
And the pilgrimage is easier now than it used to be. Although pilgrims traditionally completed the route on foot, guided bus tours now carry many visitors to the sites. (The point for many people, after all, is to visit all 88 temples, not to endure the hardships of a 750-mile hike.) Others opt to take private cars, or to trek for part of the way and drive (or be driven) for the rest.
Even for nonreligious trekkers, the most prized pilgrimage souvenir is a fully stamped nokyocho, or stamp book. The books have dedicated pages for all of the temples, at each of which a clerk applies several stamps and a few strokes of beautiful calligraphy, made using a traditional brush.
One hot afternoon I met a middle-aged German couple who told me this was the fourth time they’d embarked on the Shikoku pilgrimage. I asked why they chose to return instead of trying other treks elsewhere in the world. During each pilgrimage, they said, they discovered something entirely different. And the food is phenomenal, they added.
Another day, I walked for a few hours behind two Japanese men through rice fields in Kochi Prefecture, which traces the island’s concavely curved southern coast. I stopped at a rest hut along the way and found the two men there, joined by two other men, all of them smoking and chatting.
In my limited Japanese and their limited English, they told me that they were all from Shikoku. Two of them walk two days each year, while the other two travel by car, ferrying the bags and joining the walkers at the temples to worship together.
“Wait, how long will it take you to complete the whole pilgrimage then?” I asked.
One of the men threw his arms into the air. “Who knows? Decades!” he said, and they all laughed.
Wherever I went on the island, a sense of peacefulness seemed to follow. In Shikoku, almost without fail, the people I encountered were kind. They seemed content. Though I’m not a spiritual person, the silence and the vastness of the landscape — and the warmheartedness of the people I met — created an abiding aura of serenity.
One custom that distinguishes the people of Shikoku is the practice of osettai, the act of giving gifts to the pilgrims. These gifts come in the form of food, drink, trinkets, car rides, meals, a place to sleep — even, at times, small sums of money. More than once I saw drivers stop in the middle of the road to hand out goodies from their car windows.
One evening, after having been granted free lodging from a temple (which happened twice), I heard a knock on the door of my hut. A young woman, a temple assistant who spoke no English, bowed and handed me a slip of paper: “Miss Marta, you are welcome to use the temple’s bath free of charge,” it said in Japanese.
In total, over the course of my 28 days spent visiting all 88 temples, I was also given: 700 yen (about $5), 11 candies, seven small cakes, seven car rides, six mandarin oranges, five rice balls, three cookies, three chocolates, three cups of green tea, two crackers, two mochi, two soda cans, two multipurpose cloths, two yuzu juice cartons, one yokan (a red bean jelly snack), one bicycle (lent to me for half a day), one bag of steamed chestnuts, one bag of cherry tomatoes, one lunch and one bowl of homemade udon.
The pilgrimage’s temples are scattered along the perimeter of the island — some near the coast, and some farther into the mountainous interior. Some are grouped together, and others are 50 miles apart.
As a pilgrim, I often arose early — by 5:30 a.m., in the spring — and spent a full day on the road. About 80 percent of the route is on asphalt, mostly through open fields and small towns and past beautiful coastline. I spent a few days climbing up and down mountain peaks.
The fading of Japan’s rural population is dramatically evident on Shikoku. Young people have fled to the cities or to other islands that offer a better quality of life. My experience confirmed as much: Nearly all of the young people I saw were in the capitals of the island’s four prefectures.
For breakfast and dinner, many pilgrims take advantage of home-cooked meals provided by most minshuku, or family-operated bed-and-breakfasts, and ryokan, traditional Japanese inns. These meals usually consist of rice, miso soup, fish and pickled vegetables. For lunch, depending on one’s location, convenience stores can provide a quick bite.
In spite of the delectable food, the stunning vistas and the captivating cultural histories, it was the people I met who had the strongest effect on me.
At a hostel one night I met Midori-san, a 71-year-old pilgrim who spoke no English. She showed me how to behave at a large sentō, or public bathhouse.
Once, when I asked the two employees at a mountain temple’s stamp office if the temple offered free accommodations, they replied that it did not. But, speaking through a translator on my phone, they offered to drive me to a place where I could camp in a nearby valley.
A few days later, hoping to see the landscape from a different point of view, I boarded a tiny ferry with a fellow pilgrim, Patricia, and went zigzagging for nearly an hour in Uranouchi Bay. Patricia and I were the only travelers on board.
One very rainy day, after walking for several hours under a waterproof but sweltering poncho, I decided to hitchhike to the next temple, which was a couple of hours away. After I stuck my thumb out on a busy road for a few minutes, a man in a beat-up van stopped. He spoke no English, as I found to be common on Shikoku, and I knew only a few relevant words in Japanese. Still, as the old van cautiously made its way up a winding road, we managed to exchange a few sentences.
I got the feeling that the situation greatly amused him — and I was proved right when he called his wife on an old phone and said, with a laugh, that he had picked up a foreigner who had grown desperate under a torrential downpour.
Before we parted ways, he asked me to repeat my name, and wrote it down on the back of a receipt in katakana, a Japanese alphabet commonly used for foreign words. “Ma-ru-ta,” he said aloud, sounding out the characters. And then he was gone as quickly as he’d appeared. Grateful for the favor, and thankful to be dry, I watched his truck vanish around a bend and turned toward the path to the temple.
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