The girl at the cash register of the convenience store gives me a free bottle of iced tea and wishes me “Good luck!” As I remount my bike, I pop a sushi roll she also gave me into my mouth and set off, blissfully relaxed under blue skies, heading for the next temple.
At my next halt along the way, a grocer presents me with a bag of mikan tangerines, and others along the village street give me onigiri (rice balls), cans of coffee and other snacks for free. Later, even a man in a repair shop who fixes my bike refuses to accept a penny for his work.
Is this paradise?
In fact it is Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, and I am cycling the 1,200-km pilgrims’ route that takes in 88 Buddhist temples. I am already three weeks into my odyssey, each day covering a handful of temples, and I have now reached Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku’s northeastern corner. It’s the area known to pilgrims as Nehan Dojo, meaning a spiritual training place for reaching Nirvana.
Every year about 150,000 Japanese, and an increasing number of foreigners, make this pilgrimage. It’s a circular route, so you end up back where you started. Some people say that visiting the 88 temples removes 88 delusions, so every time you reach another one you supposedly shed one more delusion. It’s a centuries-old custom, and Shikoku natives are happy to help pilgrims on their arduous journey by bestowing on them all kinds of gifts, known as osettai. One person gives you an orange, another gives you a lift in their car and someone else may well put you up for the night free of charge.
All this giving, though, isn’t just out of kindness. In fact, what they’re doing is offering their osettai — through the pilgrims — to probably the most important monk in Japan’s history, Kukai (774-835), who is also known as Kobo Daishi and is credited with the invention of the kana syllabary. In 804, Kukai sailed to China as a student monk, returning a few years later to introduce esoteric Shingon Buddhism to Japan.
Such lofty stuff was, however, far from my mind when, 600 km into my trip, my bike’s gear broke down, and the chain became hopelessly stuck just before Ashizuri Misaki deep in the southwest of Shikoku. Fortunately, after walking and pushing the bike for barely half an hour, I came upon a small bicycle shop run by one Yoshikazu Mori, who repaired my bike quickly and adamantly refused any payment. “No need to pay,” he told me, “it’s osettai.” ‘W hich country are you from?” It’s the first question I am always asked. Nobody understands The Netherlands or Holland, but when I say “Hollanda,” everybody knows that — and it often causes surprise and admiration for one with roots so distant to be making this exacting circuit.
The pilgrims come from all levels of society. Among the ones I met were a polished Tokyo businessman who was walking the route, a group of housewives touring by bus and a posse of macho-looking, leather-clad guys going round on motorbikes. Regardless of roots, though, there is a relaxed kind of camaraderie among the pilgrims. On the road, people greet each other jauntily, and it doesn’t matter whether you are a foreigner or a Japanese, you are just a pilgrim like all the others.
Shikoku pilgrims follow in the footsteps of Kukai, who is said to have visited all 88 temples during his lifetime — and to have founded several of them along with Shingon Buddhism in Japan, which now has around 10 million followers. Shingon means “true words,” or “mantra.” This school of Buddhism — which, outside Japan, is only found in Tibet — holds it possible to attain enlightenment during this current lifetime. Surely, with all these osettai, a pilgrim couldn’t be blamed for thinking that, on Shikoku, that state of bliss had already come. S hikoku’s 88-temple route is a religious journey, not a backpacker’s trip — but you don’t need to be a Buddhist.
Traditionally, pilgrims always walked the entire circuit, but that’s very demanding physically, and few these days have sufficient time. Consequently, pilgrimages by car or tour bus are now common, though I chose a bicycle because I didn’t want to avoid the physical challenge entirely.
The pilgrim’s clothing, including a conical straw hat, appears slightly eccentric to most Westerners — or perhaps like a kind of religious samurai, but with a kongozue (wooden staff), believed to be an embodiment of Kukai in place of a sword. That’s why it’s said that a pilgrim never walks alone, since that monk of old is there all the time.
I sleep mostly in minshuku (family-run guest houses) and occasionally in a more expensive ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) where, as a foreign visitor, it’s a bit of a challenge to work out the purpose of all the different plastic slippers — not to mention overcoming shyness to sit together with other guests in a bath. Soon, though, you realize what a convivial setting the big communal bath is — as well as being an excellent place to gather information for the trip.
Pilgrims I met invariably had excellent maps showing every detail of the route. However, it’s said they shouldn’t only follow in the footsteps of Kukai, but they should also try to find the enlightenment he was searching for. To that end there is another kind of map, one known as the Heart Sutra, which is the most important sutra of Mahayana Buddhism. That sutra is recited by most pilgrims at all temples along the route, and the idea behind the pilgrimage is that during the long journey pilgrims have time to contemplate the sutra and, when they reach the final, 88th temple, perhaps they will really understand its message. Then — who knows — one day they may become enlightened beings. S hikoku’s climate, the traffic and the location of the temples make life difficult for pilgrims. Tropical heat alternates with heavy rain and thunderstorms. I myself experienced the 18th typhoon of the year. At such times it seems not unreasonable to wonder just why you are putting yourself through all this.
In addition, whether walking or cycling, the temple route mostly follows paved roads. This means that you are constantly being passed by traffic. Distances between temples can also be up to 60 or 70 km, and they are often very picturesquely located on the summits of hills or mountains. Consequently, the physical challenge of the pilgrimage is ideal for those who want to lose weight.
Fortunately for weary pilgrims, though, the temples themselves are like oases. They take you back in time, away from the chaos of the modern world. The temples are the last remnants of “Lost Japan,” to which a book of the same name by Japan specialist Alex Kerr refers.
At the temples, the poignant differences from the outside world can almost bring on a feeling of sadness, though the “loss” in question is not, of course, limited to Japan, rather it is worldwide.
For a long time I wasn’t sure if I would complete the route. Especially the higher-altitude temples, Daihoji and Iwayaji, numbers 44 and 45 on the route, which appeared to be a major obstacle on a bicycle. However, the body gets used to the daily exertions, even when my lowest gear finally broke completely. Mr. Mori had already warned me that would likely happen, and when I asked him in a bit of a panic how I could continue the trip if it did, his answer was amazingly simple: “Just go on without it.”
Is that Zen, or Shingon — or just healthy positive thinking? Whatever it was, it helped. Arriving in Kagawa Prefecture, the Nehan Dojo of the route, the last 23 temples await, for which I will need only one more week. The most difficult part of the circuit is now behind me. I am following the footsteps of the old master, Kukai. The end of the journey will finally bring enlightenment, if not spiritual then at least a considerable physical lightening.