Spring in Japan: a time to re-evaluate, to explore spiritually the choices of the upcoming fiscal year. A season of pilgrimage. As the weather becomes warmer, but before the heat of summer can intrude, many Japanese don the white pilgrim’s vest, grab their prayer beads and head out. The most famous pilgrimage, the 88 Buddhist temples pilgrimage in Shikoku, has attracted many foreigners throughout the years, but in typical quirkiness, Japan Times columnist Amy Chavez decided to gain her enlightenment more quickly than walking. “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage” is her witty but often wise record of her attempt in 1998.
Fans of Chavez’s wry humor will not be disappointed. A trip to a local bathhouse transcends the mundane as Chavez details an escapade with the ancient “Family Belter” fitness machine: “You stand and lean back against a vibrating belt. It works like a milkshake machine … to jiggle fat off your waist.” Or her pithy poetry to document her journey: “Fast food in a henro outfit/ people stare — / white death enters McDonald’s.” Even the original reason Chavez starts the pilgrimage — and decides to run the entire route, not walk it — resounds with her trademark humor.
Chavez was fired from her university job after passing 35 years old and is further dismayed when she consults her local Shiraishi Island monk to learn she is in a yakudoshi year, a “bad luck” year for women in Japan. Vintage Chavez humor: “The pilgrimage is 900 miles of the unknown, something that I have to admit I could probably use. At least the unknown has possibilities. Clinging to my safe, familiar world was getting me nowhere. … Maybe Buddha himself needed an English teacher, so he could talk to more of his followers.”
Subtly, as Chavez racks up the kilometers, the tone of the book gradually reveals her own spiritual reckoning. Sprinkled deftly among Chavez’s journey are kernels of wisdom she learned along the way. The interconnectedness of all things, our mutual dependence, Chavez’s own gradual awareness to break down her “stubborn overconfidence” to realize o-settai (offerings made to pilgrims during their journey) is a reciprocal relationship. Chavez researched the many stories she gathers along her way, and she acknowledges the meticulous fact-checking of Mark Schumacher, a noted expert on Buddhist statuary and lore. Despite her serious approach to research, the book’s many Buddhist concepts never intrude, seamlessly blending with her storyteller’s voice.
Television crews do intrude. Chavez’s attempt is picked up by a Japanese television crew that lurks behind bushes to feature the run, unwittingly revealing the materialistic side of the pilgrimage, a definite tourist business in Japan. Chavez counters that image with the many authentic fellow pilgrims and helpers she meets along the way. With plenty of tales and explanations for most of the 88 temples, Chavez also provides an excellent guide for interested future pilgrims. Chavez adds a list of the temple names, a glossary of important terms, and a brief explanation of the Guardian Deities.
Her final thoughts on the pilgrimage are quietly meaningful, to her and to the reader accompanying her through the blisters, the rainy nights, the unending search for nonhighway running routes and cheap shelter. “Finally arriving at temple 88, I can say I really did go through a rebirth. I have a new understanding of an old world. I know where I’ve come from, and I know where I am going.”
Chavez has returned to the Shikoku pilgrimage several times since her run, both walking and bicycling the route. As spring is here, look no further than this book for anyone interested in a subtle, often witty introduction to Buddhist belief and Japanese pilgrimages.
Kris Kosaka teaches literature and writing at Hokkaido International School. Amy Chavez will be reading from her book at the global literary series Four Stories, taking place this summer in Osaka.