It was Ryan Armstrong’s dream to follow in the footsteps of the great Kobo Daishi, that is to complete the 1,200-km, 88-temple pilgrimage on Shikoku Island first made by the Buddhist saint 1,200 years ago.
His reasons were simple.
“I wanted to understand Japan and to challenge myself,” says the University of Hawaii MBA student. “I wanted to know what type of person I was. Was I someone who gives up when confronted, or could I push forward in the face of adversity?”
So, as an undergraduate at Colgate University in New York, Armstrong vowed to accomplish the walk. Every year, at least one person in the college’s study-abroad program at Kyoto International Center in Japan attempts the pilgrimage. In his first year, he had heard about it from a senior who described the undertaking as “very arduous.”
Determined to carry on the tradition, Armstrong set off, in March 1997, for Tokushima City on Shikoku Island. He had a 15-kg backpack, a few thousand yen and very little conversational Japanese ability.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into that first time,” says Armstrong. “All the information in English that I could find on the walk was an out-of-print book called ‘Japanese Pilgrimage’ by Oliver Stalter. Other than that, I was pretty much left to my instincts and to the help of others to get around.”
From the train station, an off-duty bus driver offered Armstrong a ride to Ryozenji Temple, the starting point for the walk. But the rest of his journey would not be so easy.
It was already late evening when Armstrong arrived at the temple. It was pitch-dark, and he was surprised to find the temple doors shut for the night. He found a flat place on the frost-covered pavement outside the temple to lay out his thin, nylon sleeping bag. The cold night air was unbearable. Giving up on getting any sleep, he warmed himself by drinking one hot coffee after another from a nearby vending machine. He then bought a few more and tucked them into his sleeping bag to keep him warm till morning.
In the weeks that followed, Armstrong’s hardships mounted. Toiling 40 km a day, from sunrise to sunset, Armstrong was miserable. He often lost his way and wasted hours searching for the right path.
“I’d get so frustrated,” says Armstrong. “I felt helpless and found myself whining like a child.”
By the tenth day, however, Armstrong’s attitude began to change. He began to develop an eye for the pilgrimage path — not just a knack for following signposts, but also an intuitive understanding of the pilgrimage experience. Chance encounters with temple priests, local villagers and other pilgrims helped to bring him out of his frustrated solitude.
“Someone would offer me words of encouragement or a bite to eat,” Armstrong recalls. “It was such acts of kindness and support that gave me a new perspective on things and gave me the strength to carry on.”
After more than a month of constant walking through harsh yet beautiful mountain landscapes, Armstrong’s pilgrimage reached its end.
What had started out as a test of physical endurance had become a journey of the heart and soul. He had come to understand Japan as well as achieving a new sense of self.
Back in Kyoto, while staying at the Kyoto International Center, he sat in front of his computer with tears in his eyes as he feverishly typed up his journal notes.
“The experience was profound,” Armstrong recalls. “When I put on the pilgrim’s hat and clothes, I had changed. I was no longer a foreigner. People responded to me with different eyes.”
As he wrote, he recalled how every new day offered new encounters. Memories of a passerby offering him a piece of banana cake of a little boy inviting him into his grandmother’s house for a meal left indelible impressions. He was struck by “the generosity of the human spirit.”
Before going back to the United States, he journeyed to the Ogasawara island chain, where he ran into an assistant language teacher on the JET program. The ALT told him about how the program was an excellent way to learn more about Japan. Armstrong decided to apply.
“I saw the JET program as a chance to come back to Japan and learn more about the temples,” Armstrong says. “I also knew that I had to do the walk again.”
From the summer of 1998, Armstrong worked as an ALT in Kagawa Prefecture. The following year, he transferred to the prefecture’s international affairs division as a coordinator. With his improved language skills, he worked as an interpreter and translator and, in his final year, he managed to convince his boss to give him time off to do the pilgrimage walk for a second time.
During the spring of 2001, Armstrong donned the pilgrim’s clothes once again. This time, he chose to walk the course in the opposite direction. It would prove to be far more difficult. The mountain paths were steeper, with no markers along the path to guide him. Whereas Armstrong describes his first journey as an encounter with the self, his second walk was quite different. There were no emotional ups and downs. When he encountered difficulties, he solved them with a clear heart.
“I had come to understand the dogyonin [pilgrim] experience,” explains Armstrong. “The pilgrim is not alone, the spirit of Kobo Daishi is always there along the way to guide you. One finds a positive energy that carries one along the path.”
During his second pilgrimage, Armstrong recorded his dogyonin experiences with a digital camera. When he later showed his photos to his coworkers, he was encouraged to hold a photo exhibition, so that, as his boss said, “as many people as possible can see how beautiful the island of Shikoku really is.”
For one month, at the IPAL International Exchange Center in Takamatsu, Armstrong exhibited 88 pictures, along with poems, haiku and tanka that he wrote in English. The exhibition was covered by newspapers and on television, and nearly 1,000 people attended.
One of those who saw the exhibition was the president of a local printing company. Inspired by Armstrong’s work, he offered to make a book of his photos and words as a promotional project for his company’s new printing technology.
Upon completing his MBA course this year, Armstrong aspires to become an international businessman, working to bridge gaps in cultural understanding.
When asked about his pilgrimage walk, Armstrong comments: “I now see that the path continues into daily life. I just try to pass my days helping others and having the awareness to appreciate the small and beautiful things around me.”