“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, . . . Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages . . . ‘‘
From “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400)
“Large numbers of people in travel costumes and leggings were passing by noisily on their way to and from the temple. In a room where the shutters had been raised, I waited for water to be heated, and as I looked out on the road I thought how each of these travelers must have his own problems, his own particular reason for making the pilgrimage.’‘
From “The Gossamer Years” by an unknown 10th-century Japanese noblewoman
“The world is wider than we can imagine . . . ‘‘
From “Tales from Various Provinces” by Ihara Saikaku (1641-93)
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Are humans pilgrims by nature? The history of pilgrimage is as old as the history of sacred places — shrines, ruins, mountains, rivers, groves. Ancient Greeks journeyed to Delphi, medieval Christians to Jerusalem, Rome, Lourdes, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela. Muslims flock to Mecca, Hindus to Varanasi on the Ganges, Buddhists to the Deer Park near Varanasi where the Buddha preached his first sermon. The hardships of the road are nothing to the religiously inspired. On Tibet’s Mount Kailas, “mountain of the gods, axis of the universe,” photographer Kazuyoshi Nomachi noticed among the pilgrims “a one-legged Hindu. Leaning on a cane,” Nomachi writes in “A Photographer’s Pilgrimage” . . . “he had walked from Calcutta, had been on the road 20 years; one step at a time he had hobbled up the Himalayas; now he was at a height of 5,000 meters. . . “
Pilgrims travel alone, in groups, or en masse, in throngs vast beyond imagining. Two million Muslims gather annually at Mecca; as many as 70 million Hindus assemble for the bathing festival of Kumbh Mela, celebrated every 12 years at each of four holy cities in India.
The solitude of St. Brendan’s pilgrimage is awesome in comparison. Brendan (484-578) was a monk whose destination was Paradise. Sailing westward from Ireland, he came to an island in the Atlantic he called “The Promised Land of the Saints.” There it was — Paradise. He was convinced, and others believed him. “His sacred island,” the historian Daniel J. Boorstin tells us, “remained plainly marked on maps for more than 1,000 years, at least until 1759.”
“Pilgrims were notorious liars and exaggerators,” writes Chaucer biographer Donald R. Howard. Exaggerators certainly, their expanded truths a reflection of their expanded if undisciplined minds — but liars? Who can account for what the exalted eye sees, or thinks it sees, in strange places far from home? Boorstin finds in the “Guide de Pelerin,” a popular medieval pilgrim guidebook, a tale about pilgrims who were refused hospitality at all but one house on a street in Poitiers, France. That night all the houses in the street burned down — except, of course, the one.
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Japan is a land of pilgrims. “An incredible number of people daily use the highways of Japan’s provinces — indeed, at certain times of the year they are as crowded as the streets of a populous European city.” So wrote Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician employed by the Dutch East India company and stationed in Japan from 1690 to 1692.
This, we must remember, was some 50 years after the newly-installed Tokugawa regime had shut the country tight against all Japanese leaving and almost all foreigners entering. Sakoku (closed country), the policy was officially called. Internal travel, too, was strictly controlled. The five major highways were policed from 53 sekisho — barriers, checkpoints.
“Commoners who traveled,” writes Marius B. Jansen in “The Making of Modern Japan,” “needed passports as well as barrier-crossing permits. Their documents were carefully (and tediously) checked, frequently supplemented by physical examinations to make sure no women disguised as men, or young boys dressed as girls, were trying to slip through. Applications for travel documents were also time consuming. . . . The travel document identified the traveler’s sponsor and guarantor, and falsification of such information could cost all concerned dearly.”
The pilgrim-poet Basho (1644-94) was held up one spring day in 1689 at a sekisho in the far north. “The gate-keepers were extremely suspicious,” he wrote, “for very few travelers dared to pass this difficult road under normal circumstances. I was admitted after long waiting, so that darkness overtook me while I was climbing a huge mountain. I put up at a gate-keeper’s house, which I was very lucky to find in such a lonely place.”
The experience inspired a haiku:
“Fleas, lice/ the horse pissing/ near my pillow.’‘
National paralysis seems to have been the national goal, and yet Tokugawa Japan was in perpetual motion, mostly with pilgrims. Jansen speaks of “hundreds of thousands and then millions of ordinary people [thronging] the roads to Ise in festival fervor that sometimes bordered on the millenarian, many throwing themselves on the compassionate good will of villagers along the way.”
The Ise shrine, dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, was the Mecca of Japan; everyone was expected to make a pilgrimage to it at least once in his or her life. There were, and are, numerous other pilgrimages — to temples of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, throughout the country; to the 88 Shikoku temples associated with the holy man Kobo Daishi (774-835), and so on. But “millenarian fervor” was Ise’s alone.
In spring especially, writes Kaempfer, the Tokaido highway “is crowded with [pilgrims to Ise] . . . as people of both sexes, old and young, rich and poor, embark on this meritorious journey and act of devotion, attempting to the best of their ability to make their way on foot. Many of them have to beg for their board and food along the way; because there are so many of them, travelers are constantly accosted, and this is a great nuisance for people going to the court, even though [the pilgrims] approach with bare head and meek voice and say only once, ‘My dear lord, please give the pilgrim to Ise a coin for his journey’ . . .
“Yes,” Kaempfer continues, “even unruly children who are to be punished for their misdeeds often run away from their parents to Ise, and when they return with a letter of indulgence, they must be absolved from any punishment. Because there are many of them and they are poor, one often sees them sleeping in the fields; on occasion they are lying at the side of the road, sick or dead.”
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We can define “pilgrimage” strictly, as a journey to a holy site, or we can define it loosely as a journey in quest of enlightenment, enlightenment itself defined loosely enough to encompass — well, for example, a bath.
“Public baths,” wrote Edo [Tokyo] novelist Shikitei Sanba in 1809, “are the shortest route there is to moral and spiritual enlightenment. Careful reflection shows this. It is a truth of Heaven, Earth, and all nature that everyone, wise or foolish, righteous or evil, rich or poor, high or low, goes naked into the bath. Shakyamuni Buddha and Confucius, Osan the maid and Gonsuke the hired man, all return to the shapes with which they were born. . . . Bathers enter the water freely, without a trace of desire. Both master and servant stand naked after they’ve washed away the grime of greed and worldly wants and rinsed themselves with fresh water — and you can’t tell which is which!”
Every bath thus becomes a kind of pilgrimage. Chaucer would have been charmed. His Canterbury pilgrimage, like Japanese bathhouses, was daringly democratic, the chivalrous battle-hardened knight rubbing shoulders with the uncouth miller, the demure prioress with the lecherous summoner, the learned “clerk” with the unlettered reeve, and so on — conversation and tale-telling uniting them as the hot water did the bathers of Edo.
They talk much of profane love, much less of sacred love, and not at all of St. Thomas a Becket, the martyred 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury whose bones were said to heal incurable diseases and whose shrine was the pilgrims’ holy destination.
Similarly, pilgrims to Ise were as likely as not preoccupied with matters other than Amaterasu. The Osaka novelist Saikaku shows us scenes on the road to Ise that would have made the Sun Goddess blush — or would they have? Perhaps not, in view of a rollicking myth in which she figures. Outraged by the unruly behavior of her brother the Storm God, Amaterasu hid in a cave. Deaf to the pleading of the heavenly deities, she refused to show herself — until one of their number danced a lewd dance. Drawn to the mouth of her cave by the laughter of the gods and goddesses, Amaterasu was seized by them and forced out of hiding. Light returned to the world.
Saikaku’s mid-17th-century story is of Osen, a pretty young maidservant who “knew nothing of the ways of love,” and a cooper, who knows one thing: that he is helplessly in love with Osen. An old crone, a semi-retired streetwalker and abortionist, offers help: “I can bridge the stream of love for you.”
It proves easy enough to interest Osen in the cooper; the crone’s account of him dying of love for her soon has the girl “dizzy with emotion.” What should the next step be? The crone concocts a plan: “You must make a secret pilgrimage to Ise. Traveling alone together, you would become fast friends and could spend your bedtime hours sweetly, heart murmuring to heart of undying love.”
Like the unruly children Kaempfer mentions, servants running off on pilgrimages without permission were to be forgiven on their return. To Osen’s annoyance, “old Nanny” insists on going along too. Worse, they are joined on the road by Osen’s fellow servant Kyushichi. An outing intended as a lovers’ meeting thus turns into an awkward foursome, the two men in sly competition for Osen’s favors.
After a miserable sleepless night at an inn, the party hires a horse, “Osen riding in the middle and the men mounted on either side of her. . . . On one side Kyushichi fondled Osen’s toes; on the other the cooper reached up and put his arm around her waist; and each playfully indulged his secret desires as best he could. . . . None of the group,” Saikaku remarks wryly, “had any real interest in the pilgrimage itself.”
In Kyoto on the way home, the lovers finally manage to shake the intrusive Kyushichi, and in a room above a shop “they drank the cup of betrothal, pledging themselves to each other forever.” The tragic ending awaiting them is years in the future; in the meantime, the Ise pilgrimage seems to have served the lovers well.
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Among the saddest of all Japan’s pilgrims is the anonymous 10th-century author of the Kagero Nikki, known in English as “The Gossamer Diary” (or “The Gossamer Years,” in Edward Seidensticker’s translation). It was misery that prompted her to write, and misery that prompted her frequent pilgrimages, mostly to temples in the vicinity of Kyoto.
Her diary (more accurately a memoir) begins with a question: Has her life “been one befitting a well-born lady?” No one posing such a question answers it affirmatively. The second wife (among nine) of a great nobleman and leading courtier of the day, she is determined to settle for nothing less than a husband “30 days and 30 nights a month.” It’s impossible — her society didn’t work that way, and she knows it.
When her chagrin and rage and resentment threaten to choke her, she embarks on a pilgrimage. Noblewomen of her time, even happier ones, had few other diversions. If not for periodic pilgrimages, their boredom might have crushed them.
“The beggars at the temple, each with his earthen bowl, were most distressing,” she writes of Hatsuse, a temple north of Nara. “I recoiled involuntarily at being brought so near the defiling masses. I could not sleep, and with little else to occupy my mind, I found myself fascinated, even moved to tears, at the prayer of a blind man, not well dressed, who was pouring forth his petition in a loud voice without a thought that someone might be listening . . .
“I spent that night too at the main hall, weeping and praying. Toward dawn I dozed off and dreamed that a priest . . . came up with a pitcher of water and poured it on my right knee. It must have been a sign from the Buddha, an unhappy one, no doubt.” Seven centuries later the fictional rake Yonosuke, hero of Saikaku’s novel “The Life of an Amorous Man,” makes a very different kind of pilgrimage to Hatsuse. Not yet 14, he has come to pray for his first love affair.
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“There’s nothing you won’t find somewhere in the world,” wrote Saikaku, and he would not rest until he had found, or at least imagined, everything. Life itself to Saikaku was a pilgrimage, and the name of its shrine was Everything — everything there was to experience in this floating world, with its soap-bubble impermanence and its fleeting pleasures and pains. The beautiful and the sordid were one to him, all part of the world’s teeming if ephemeral richness.
Yonosuke (meaning “man of the world”) is born to a man about town and a courtesan. His father reforms, settles down, turns businessman, grows wealthy, but Yonosuke will have none of that, and with a fervor one can only describe as religious embarks on the pilgrimage Saikaku lays out for him. Courtesans were his priestesses, love his god. A more discriminating gallant might have contented himself with the elegant pleasure quarters of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, despising the more rustic entertainments elsewhere, but Yonosuke despised nothing, certainly not before he’d sampled it, and even afterward, his disgust could be sharp but never enduring. Not pleasure but “adventure, be it ever so crude,” was the quest to which he willingly sacrificed all the so-called finer things in life.
The blurring of sacred and profane is characteristic of pilgrimage, always and everywhere. “Despite the ostensible religious purpose of a pilgrimage,” writes Howard, Chaucer’s biographer, “it was also the medieval form of vacation or travel. The institution had its dark, unrespectable underside. . . . Pilgrims not only told tales to keep themselves amused, they flirted and gambled, ate and drank to excess, swore, misbehaved even in the shrines themselves: we read of sexual escapades in dark corners, of pilgrims by the thousands carving their names or coats of arms on the tombs of saints . . . “
“Escapades in dark corners” indeed. Here’s the young Yonosuke at Kurama Temple in the mountains north of Kyoto, “an object of pilgrimages . . .” Saikaku tells us, “because many a story had been related of how young strangers, meeting here for the first time, fell in love at first touch.”
Suddenly Yonosuke remembers something even better. “This is the night of the zakone in nearby Ohara,” he whispered to his companions, “when all the villagers, young and old of both sexes, masters and servants, are allowed to lie down together and sleep at the portals of the Shinto shrine. It is a kind of vigil, a religious custom, and for once no restrictions whatsoever are placed on what the sleepers may venture to do. Aren’t you curious? Let’s go and see.” Which, of course, they do.
The years pass. Old and wrinkled but still unsated, eager as ever to prolong the pilgrimage, accepting with a shrug that “after death he would willy-nilly be torn by the punishing demons of hell,” Yonosuke sets sail for Nyogo, the mythical Island of Women. Provisioning his ship, he does not neglect swaddling clothes in anticipation of his looming second childhood.
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The Island of Women is the second mythical isle in our story so far. A third was destined to grow out of myth and into history: we know it today as the United States of America. Plymouth Rock was in fact no island, but the Pilgrim Fathers who colonized it in 1620 hardly knew what it was — a latter-day Promised Land, they supposed, where God could be honestly and truthfully served — as He no longer could, they felt, in the corrupted England they had left behind somewhat in the spirit of the ancient Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt. Joining them 10 years later was a party led by John Winthrop, who sealed the myth in immortal words: “We must consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.”
And there is a fourth mythical isle, an eerie Buddhist counterpart to St. Brendan’s Island. Known as Fudaraku, it was to be found far to the south — near Cape Comorin at the southern tip of India, says one theory. To the devout, it was the Pure Land of Kannon, goddess of mercy.
On the Kumano coast of present-day Wakayama Prefecture was a temple, the Fudaraku-ji, at which a most peculiar tradition developed. Reaching the age of 61, the temple’s chief priest would set sail for Fudaraku in a tiny boat.
Novelist Yasushi Inoue (1907-92) describes the preparations in a 1961 short story titled “Passage to Fudaraku”: “The voyager would be confined in a doorless wooden box nailed securely to the bottom of a boat; his only provisions would be an oil lamp that would burn out in a matter of days and a small quantity of food. To be cast off thus from the Kumano coast meant certain death at sea. The instant the voyager drew his last breath, the boat would begin carrying his body speedily southward, like a bamboo leaf skimming the rapids, toward the isle of Fudaraku. There he would acquire new life, that he might live eternally in the service of Kannon.”
The tradition, Inoue tells us, dates back to the 10th century. Over the next 600 years 10 priests are on record as having embarked for Fudaraku — and then, suddenly, amid the anarchy of the 16th century, there was a spate of embarkations, one after another — and Chief Priest Konko, Inoue’s protagonist, finds himself unable, as his 61st birthday approaches, to resist popular expectations that he too will depart for Fudaraku, though his faith is weak and he is little inclined for martyrdom.
The voyage is set for November 1565. The months leading up to it he spends in seclusion, meditating and praying for faith that does not come.
The fatal hour arrives. Like a man condemned to death, he is led aboard the boat. “Workmen came aboard with a large wooden box which they placed over him. . . . There was a pounding as it was nailed to the boat. Presently the pounding stopped. It was dark inside the box . . .” So dark that, unable to bear it, Konko heaved his shoulder against the box until it splintered, and flung himself into the sea.
He floated to a nearby island and was put into a second boat, this time offering no resistance. But “thereafter,” Inoue says, “the abbots of Fudaraku-ji were no longer expected to put out to sea when they reached 61.”
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“And are we to look at the moon and the cherry blossoms with our eyes alone?” asks the 14th-century priest Yoshida no Kenko in “The Grasses of Idleness.” “How much more evocative and pleasing it is to think about the spring without stirring from the house, to dream of the moonlit night though we remain in our room!”
As with the moon, so with pilgrimages. Why not dream a pilgrimage, as, for example, John Bunyan did. The full title of his classic work, published in 1678, is, “The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which is to Come: Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream” — dreamed, incidentally, in prison, for he had been arrested as a non-conformist preacher.
Bunyan’s protagonist, named Christian, journeys, in Bunyan’s dream, along a highway fenced by walls called Salvation, bound from the City of Destruction to Mount Sion, the Celestial City, “that I may be delivered from the wrath to come” — which, after many encounters and adventures simultaneously dreamlike and real, he is.
Japan’s dream-pilgrim is no Christian; no Buddhist either. He is rather an anti-Buddhist, his anti-pilgrimage inspired in the mind of comic novelist Hiraga Gennai (1728-79) by the antics of a popular street performer named Fukai Shidoken (1680-1765).
A fixture of Edo’s Asakusa entertainment quarter, Shidoken punctuated his lewd monologues with flourishes of the phallus-shaped baton that became part of his enduring image. Gennai’s “The Modern Life of Shidoken” is pure fiction in the form of a mock-biography.
Asanoshin (Shidoken) is so intelligent as a child that his parents commit him to a life of Buddhist service. Unwillingly the boy enters the priesthood, and is absorbed in his studies one spring day when a bird lays an egg on his desk and flies away. From the egg emerges a beautiful, tiny woman. The woman grows to human size and leads him to a cave. In the cave he encounters the Vagabond Sage, who says of Asanoshin’s monkhood, “What a waste! . . . I felt I had to save you so I brought you here.” The boy is to abandon Buddhism, forget his learning, and instead, by means of a magic fan he is given, “travel between heaven and earth and learn about the feelings of people in many areas and countries . . . [and] while you’re in a country, be sure to visit the places where people make love.”
And so he does, flying by virtue of the fan to the Land of Giants, the Land of Tiny People, the Land of Long-Legged People, the Land of Long-Armed People, and so on. After many rambunctious adventures that would have horrified his former fellow monks, he lands with a party of Chinese on — we have been here before — the Island of Women, whose denizens, desperate for masculine company, soon exhaust all except Asanoshin to death.
He escapes at last, and returns to Japan. Old now, but rich in knowledge no Buddhist enlightenment could have given him, he draws crowds with his “wooden mushroom,” and regales them with his hard-won wisdom.
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In Shikoku too, come April, folk “longen to goon on pilgrimages.” The journey is called the “Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku” — 88 Buddhist temples spread out along a circular, intermittently mountainous route of some 1,600 km. The white-robed pilgrims are called henro, the wooden staff they carry symbolizing the holy man whose presence they feel among them, the Shikoku-born Kobo Daishi (774-835), considered one of the greatest religious figures in Japanese history.
Tour buses and cars today make the pilgrimage easy, if that’s what you’re looking for — but is an easy pilgrimage really a pilgrimage? On foot it takes two months, sometimes more.
Along their way the henro pray for health, longevity, easy childbirth, whatever is close to their hearts. At one temple some decades ago a letter was found, a petition to Kobo Daishi, written by an anguished woman whose husband was having an affair: “So please, O-Daishi-sama, please punish Kimura Sachi, a wicked woman, and bring my husband back to me. Please!”
The pioneering feminist writer Itsue Takamure (1894-1964) was 24 when she made the pilgrimage in 1918. “To escape from a morass of depression, to try to find an answer to the problem of how to live, I undertook the pilgrimage,” she wrote in a subsequent essay.
Her story figures in Oliver Statler’s “Japanese Pilgrimage,” an account of his own experiences as a henro in the 1970s. Takamure was an intellectual and a misfit, an anguished soul in a time when women were expected to know their narrow place and be content with it. She undertook the pilgrimage in the spirit of one “trying desperately to find myself . . . Undertaking dangerous travel without funds, I placed my life on the line.”
Walking across her native Kyushu en route to Shikoku she hooked up with a 73-year-old man, an acupuncturist and masseur, “deeply religious but very stubborn. That night he dreamed that I was an incarnation of Kannon [the goddess of mercy], and he decided to accompany me on the pilgrimage.” Unable or unwilling to fend him off (“it seemed fated”), she accepted his companionship. They walked and begged, begged and walked, sleeping outdoors whenever possible. At one temple she was accosted by “a henro with reddish hair, long and wild. . . . I waited, fearing what might happen, but finally he turned away. If I want to free myself it is best to let matters take their course. If someone wants to kill me I deserve it.”
“The pilgrimage has become much tamer since then,” Statler remarks wryly.
Takamure was four months on the road. In later life she lived with a lover in a “house in the woods” in Setagaya, Tokyo, writing from morning to night for 30 years, her subject the history of Japanese women. She is admired today as one of the first scholars to grasp that Japanese women had a history.
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“A beggar,” wrote the vagrant priest and haiku poet Taneda Santoka in a diary entry dated April 6, 1932, “has to learn to be an all-out beggar. Unless he can be that, he will never taste the happiness of being a beggar.”
Did Santoka taste it? If so, only fitfully. “I hate begging ,” he noted on Dec. 19, 1930. “I hate wandering. Most of all, I hate having to do things I hate!”
Early in his career, Santoka (1882-1940) was a henro. Thereafter, and for the rest of his life, he was a pilgrim of a different breed, a most peculiar breed — walking, it has been said, some 40,000 km over the years, his destination nowhere, his purpose to be free of purpose, his harvest a mixed bag of miniature poems. The experts call them free-verse haiku. Make of them what you will:
even in my iron begging bowl hailstones
a drink would be nice now sunset sky
all day in the mountains ants too are walking
And so on. A most unaccountable character, Santoka. Born in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1882, he was 10 when his mother committed suicide by throwing herself into a well. The experience uprooted him, as well it might. A stint in a Zen temple was the most settled experience of his adult life. Ordained a priest, he turned his back on everything fixed, stable and comfortable in life. Always alone, he tramped the back roads of southwestern Japan, begging his sustenance, staying in flophouses, drinking as much as he could afford to, and writing poems.
autumn wind for all my walking . . . for all my walking . . .
“Where is the Way?” he was once asked.
“Under your feet,” he replied.
Or under yours. Or under mine. The pilgrim who hasn’t learned that hasn’t walked far enough.