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Tips for springtime on the Shikoku pilgrimage route

by Amy Chavez

Setsubun is over and it is officially springtime in Japan. So what if it’s still cold — happy spring! And spring means cherry blossoms, a new school year and, of course, pilgrimaging! This spring, many people will set out on the pilgrimage of a lifetime as they walk, bicycle, bus or drive the Shikoku 88-temple route. I myself try to get down to Shikoku once a year to do a bit of holy hiking. It helps keep me balanced, and in shape.

Some people choose to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage in order to follow as closely as possible in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi, the patron saint of the route. If you decide to walk the whole pilgrimage at once, it will take four to five weeks at 35 to 40 km per day.

If you’ve been thinking about doing the Shikoku Pilgrimage here are a few tips from the girl who wrote the book on it — me! These tips, by the way, are not included in the book, so consider this an extra chapter bonus. Or a kind of epilogue of “Oh no, I forgot to tell you!”s.

1. The most boring way between two points is a straight line: You’re going to get lost along the temple route, so get used to it. Accept it, even love it. Practice saying to yourself, “Lost again, oh joy!” You’re just being tested by the great master Kobo Daishi. And it’s gonna get a whole lot worse. Think of your pilgrimage as an obstacle course to the 88 temples rather than a properly laid out definitive route that must be completed a certain way, according to your own biases, preferences and chocolate rewards. A pilgrim must accept whatever comes his or her way, good or bad.

2. Budgetary constraints and whether camping is the best option for you: Of those who walk the pilgrimage, many will choose to sleep outside on park benches and other flat surfaces in an attempt to save money on accommodations. This method will ensure you one free hour’s sleep before you wake up and are unable to get back to sleep because you have even more bodily hurts than you do when you first laid down. So factors such as age and fitness, as well as budget, will determine whether you camp or pay for a minshuku accommodations.

The camping option is good for students, who, as we all know, don’t have much money. While students may seem to have plenty of money to drink copious amounts of alcohol, buy the latest electronic gadgets and travel around the world, deep down, they are poor. Really. While the rest of us are just scraping by to pay our next health insurance bill or make that darn pension payment after working eight to 16-hour days, students are sleeping through classes and when awake, are trying to budget a limited amount of money (usually received from their parents) between alcohol, weekend adventures, and movies.

So camping is a good option for students. But students are the least likely to complain of the hardships of pilgrimage, because they are young and fit enough to hike even the toughest parts with a hangover. God bless them.

There is no doubt that camping will ease the financial strain of staying in minshuku every night, but a combination of the two is probably the best option. You’ll need a good, uninterrupted night’s rest every now and then. Not to mention a shower.

3. Bathing and using public baths: Speaking of bathing, if you do sleep outside, you’re going to be really glad when you find a Toto Washlet along the way in a public restroom. And I’m not talking about the heated toilet seat — such luxuries will have little value to you as a pilgrim. The Toto phenom I am talking about is the “washlet” part of the toilet. At any rate, treat your private parts to some warm, fresh water. If you never thought your private parts could sing, you’d be wrong. When they’re really happy, they do.

I wonder if the word “washlet,” a combination of two words “wash” and “let,” means “let (it) wash (you),” (ie: give it permission to wash parts so sacred even you have not fully explored them yourself). Or is it that “washlet” means a small wash? But if you’re going to sit down at the wash station, wouldn’t you want a big wash? If, on the other hand, the word is merely a combination of the words “washer and toilet” you’d expect a whole lot more washing from the toilet. A soap plus rinse cycle, for example.

Which brings us to an obvious question: Isn’t it time Toto offered a Pilgrim’s version of their washlet? Something a little more advanced? The Pilgrim model would be one you could use for a full body wash. I mean, if a Toto Washlet can wash your privates, why can’t it be designed to wash your publics? The answer is, of course, that it can. And I have some experience here.

I’m not saying whether I’ve actually climbed into a Toto toilet before, but I am pretty small, and I believe being petite allows one to explore possibilities that larger people can’t. Besides, it was an anti-bacterial toilet, so I’m sure I’ll be fine. “Just don’t drink the water” was my mantra.

But before I maybe climbed into the toilet, I experimented with what could be done from outside it. Did you know you can wash your armpits in a Toto Washlet? You just need to position your armpits over the bidet nozzle. That water jet is only referred to as a bidet because of where the water stream is aimed. So if they renamed the jet a “body washer” and made the wand detachable with a thin, retractable hose, you could wash your ears and toes with it too. All without having to leave the sitting position! Bring your own sponge attachment, and you could have a full body scrub-a-dub.

If you’re willing to get into the toilet, you can sit backward on the seat, put your feet into the bowl, and give them a good soak. Bring your own soap. Rinse your feet with the “foot nozzle,” the one usually called the bidet.

But if you’re wanting a full-body wash, until the Super Pilgrim Washlet T-88 model comes out — use the sento public baths whenever you can find one. They’re usually located in the older sections of towns.

4. Ice yourself down, inside and out: At the end of a long day of pilgrimage, procure a bag of ice. You’ll not only have to ice down your aching feet, but the same bag of ice will keep your beer cold too.

Amy Chavez is author of “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment.”

  • Daitokei

    Glad you found something that works for you! I was always taught that the pilgrimage is part of finding your own way and self. To have your mind cluttered with the exacting methods that you describe seems pretty distracting and could serve to defeat the purpose of the pilgrimage. Aside from some technical details that will sustain you throughout your journey and understanding the basic nature of the pilgrimage, (You’ll understand this more clearly throughout your journey and what it means to you.) any other details that you could provide could serve as a means to go against finding genuine self enlightenment.

    You sort of make the Shikoku pilgrimage out to be geared toward college kids that use the getaway as a means to just roam around and get drunk. This also reminds me of a time where I was on one of my hikes there and saw a group of foreigners obnoxiously parading around while drinking. I was trailing behind them and when one of them was finished with a drink, he just tossed his empty beer can in the bushes.

  • Jaycasey

    I like Amy Chavez’s writing style. Humorous and creative. Let your hindparts sing, indeed.