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Get ready for the Hokkaido steeplechase temple pilgrimage

by Amy Chavez

The Buddhist pilgrimage, a type of holy hiking, is an ancient tradition in Japan that requires visiting temples, bushwhacking through brush and swatting mosquitoes. There are two kinds of pilgrimages: big and small. The big ones like the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage take five to six weeks to walk (six if you leave a week for all the time you’ll spend lost, and five if you have a homing beacon). It’s no wonder older people used to set out on pilgrimage with the intention of dying along the way. Grandma would just disappear into the wilderness.

There are hundreds of pilgrimages around Japan, and even Shiraishi Island has one called the Shikoku Michi (named after the big one in Shikoku) that the islanders have been holy hiking for over 200 years. Since I have already hiked the Shikoku pilgrimage, I thought doing our island pilgrimage would be easy, especially because it is said that all 88 of the holy sites (marked by small Buddhist statues) can be visited in one day. But I have only made it halfway through the pilgrimage so far in one week. Let me explain.

Although pilgrims used to wear a robe and carry only a begging bowl, nowadays what you should bring on the smaller pilgrimages is a map, drinking water and a chain saw. Fallen trees, territorial spiders and disappearing paths are the plagues of the smaller pilgrimages. Although my neighborhood dutifully cleans the part of the pilgrimage path that runs through the mountain on our part of the island, some neighborhoods are apparently shirking their cleaning duties. This is probably because some neighborhoods have actually disappeared along with the island population over the past 30 years. Perhaps these people took their part of the pilgrimage with them when they went.

Luckily, I live close enough that I can return home, lie down on the sofa and contemplate where the path may have gone and return the next day to find it. I did try to get a pilgrimage map before setting out, but was told that there is no map. Islanders don’t need a map, since they’ve been doing the route their whole lives. I did find a topographical map with about one-third of the temples noted on it. The rest is just creative hiking, I suppose.

As a matter of fact, I’m beginning to think that the point of these pilgrimages is to actually get lost, forcing you to go around in circles trying to find yourself. After all, pilgrimage is said to be a form of walking meditation, and it’s supposed to test both your mental and physical endurance. So perhaps most pilgrimage maps have actually been doctored to resemble labyrinths instead. This forces you to constantly ask yourself the question “Where am I?” And since you don’t know the answer, you’re in a conundrum. This is holy hiking. You can actually make up parts of the pilgrimage on your own, taking 5 km to find a Buddhist statue that is really only a few meters away.

But no matter, compared to the Mount Hiei 1,000-day pilgrimage, ours is easy. The Mount Hiei pilgrimage covers 40,000 km and is holy hiked by Buddhist monks over seven years, the first three years of which are spent running 30 kilometers a day for 100 days in a row. And they’re not allowed to wear Nikes, either; instead they have to wear straw sandals. The Mount Hiei pilgrimage is so strenuous that only about 50 monks have completed it in the last century. No one ever says what happened to the others who didn’t finish. They’re probably still out there — lost.

I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I holy hiked the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage. I had done the pilgrimage at the recommendation of the Buddhist priest on Shiraishi Island. I saw him the other day and I told him I was doing the Shikoku Michi on Shiraishi. He must have thought I was doing Olympic pilgrimage training because this is what he said to me, “Amy, I have your next task.” With a bit of trepidation, I asked, “And what’s that?” To which he said, “I’d like you to try the Kannon pilgrimage that goes around the island of Hokkaido. By horse.”

Anyone have a retired race horse I could use?