If you are planning on walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage in honor of the patron saint Kobo Daishi — be warned. Don’t let yourself get hijacked.
I recently went to Shikoku to walk to the last two temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage. I was on a special mission: to do “petto kuyo” for two Japan Lite readers whose pets had died at the veterinarian’s office. Both owners felt their pets had been victims of malpractice and greedy vets. I had a hunch they were right.
I went to Shikoku carrying letters and photos that I would use for kuyo, a Buddhist ritual in which you pray for someone deceased in order to help their soul rest in peace. This is one reason people do the 1,300 km Shikoku Pilgrimage, especially during the first year of a family member’s death. Kuyo is one of the most compassionate things you can do for someone.
Lately, people have started doing kuyo for deceased pets, hoping to pacify the souls of their dogs and cats. (I say dogs and cats because I’ve never heard of someone doing kuyo for their goldfish or guinea pig) So on behalf of these readers, I left Nagaoji Temple with the entire afternoon to make the 16 km hike to Okuboji.
My only stop between the two temples would be the ‘”Pilgrims’ Salon,” recommended by nearly every pilgrim, map and flier I ran into. And why not stop? By then, I could probably use a haircut.
As I left Nagaoji, it started raining. But I was prepared. I outfitted myself in a 20 liter trash bag and continued walking. I walked with dignity, I walked with purpose. My first goal was to hit the Maeyama Dam, 10 km away, in a couple of hours. Next to the dam was the Maeyama Dam Park, where I could sit down and have some snacks before moving on. Unfortunately, by the time I got to that Dam Park, my feet were soaked. No worries, though. I walked with pride, I walked with squishy feet.
The Pilgrims’ Salon turned out to be not a hair salon, but an information center. There were numerous staff members on hand to help, and as a pilgrim, of course you need help.
As soon as I walked in, a woman greeted me: “Where are you headed? Please put your bags down over here! How far have you come today? Would you like some tea?” To be honest, it was a bit overwhelming after you’ve been walking 10 km talking to no one but trees. And besides, isn’t it me who is supposed to be asking the questions?
But I have experience with information centers in Japan. They train the staff to be so extremely helpful that the guest becomes dependant on the information-giver and loses all sense of purpose. In short, you get hijacked into doing things you either don’t want to do, or hadn’t planned to do.
This is not the first time I have ever been hijacked by hospitality in Japan. I missed out on climbing Mount Fuji because it was raining and foggy and the people at the information center told me “Yameta hoga ii yo!” (Give it up!). I missed out on seeing the ancient Jomon Sugi cedar tree on Yakushima because the staff at the information center told me it was very dangerous to hike in the rain (it rains on Yakushima most of the year). “Yameta hoga ii yo!” they said, showing me photos of the “perilous” hiking path.
So you can imagine how I — an “ame onna” (the girl who brings rain) — felt being told I should not continue on to Okuboji because it was, gasp, raining!
“You can’t possibly get to temple 88 today,” the woman said. “It’s a very dangerous path and slippery. Yameta hoga ii yo!”
“But, but,” I stammered, “I’m doing kuyo!” I thought this might give me a special exemption. After all, this was a matter of life and death. But she didn’t catch my drift.
By now she had sat me down at a table and was serving me hot tea and snacks.
She continued, showing me photos of the pilgrimage path up the mountain, emphasizing how dangerous it was to cross Mount Nyotai in the rain. The information center staff feel it is their duty to give you advice. And perhaps your duty is to take it. But I’m pretty sure Kobo Daishi would have yawned. Besides, I’m an experienced ame no onna. I have made a pilgrimage through the forest in an electrical storm before and lived to tell about it.
“Better wait for tomorrow,” said the woman. But I couldn’t help thinking: How would she know? It would be better for her if I waited till tomorrow, but the truth was that the forecast was for rain all day tomorrow, too. And this was the only weekend I had available to complete my kuyo mission.
She suggested I go back to Nagaoji Temple and stay at a certain minshuku she recommended. Now, don’t tell anyone this, but I had eyed that minshuku as I passed it when leaving Nagaoji, and there was no way I was going to stay in that place. It had smoked glass doors with peeling gold kanji letters on them. You could see the ancient faded blue curtains through the window — you know the ones that were really popular in the Jomon Period? The building was an old concrete one that hadn’t been updated in hundreds of years. Possibly thousands. I would have rather slept outside.
Soon another helpful person appeared and offered to take me to a hotel where I could stay for the night. I could catch the bus back here the next day and start where I left off. That’s when it was official — I’d been hijacked.
The next morning, I took a bus back to the Pilgrim’s Salon, where I had left off the day before. I did not go inside. I did not even look in that direction. Instead I started straight up the trail to complete my mission. I walked with integrity, I walked with fortitude — in the pouring rain.
Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite.