As I made my way up the steep road to Kakurin Temple — aka Temple No. 20, I realized how foolish I had been to have bought a bicycle. Rising at dawn, I had ticked off temples 18 and 19 of the 88-temple Shikoku Pilgrimage on foot. I was hoping to make it to Temple 34 over the next few days. However, I was limping by No. 19 (Tatsue Temple), so I searched for bicycle shops on my smartphone. There was a Yamaha shop just 2 kilometers away. Now I had wheels!
The Shikoku 88 is the granddaddy of Japanese pilgrimages. Traversing all of the island’s four prefectures — Tokushima, Kochi, Ehime and Kagawa — the route is packed with dramatic scenery, specialty foods and miracle stories going back more than 1,000 years. While in those days pilgrims set out seeking enlightenment, cures for disease and even a passage to the afterlife, today’s pilgrim heads to Shikoku seeking answers to the big questions of modern life. The lengthy walking time allows you to sort through whatever is weighing on your mind.
I had completed the entire circuit in 1998, a five-week journey on foot in search of the answer to a question that looms large for expats in this country: Should I stay in Japan or leave? Here I was again, two decades later, donning the white pilgrim robes on a fifth jaunt down to Shikoku. I had no intention of completing the circuit this time, I just wanted to enjoy a few days on the trail.
Shikoku has long been a haunt of wandering poets such as Saigyo (1118-90), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and Santoka (1882-1940). All were seeking inspiration, self-actualization and — for the poet priests Saigyo and Issa — spirituality via Buddhism. All of them walked to get closer to nature, seek out life’s truths and to gain inspiration only available from the open road. For another poet priest, Kukai (774-835), it led to laying the framework of the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
Oh, the suffering
The road to Temple 20 was well paved but precipitous. It ricocheted from rice paddy to rice paddy, making its way up the mountain like the right-angle curves of a digital “S.” There were another 6 kilometers to the top of the 494-meter peak, and had a python been following me, it could have swallowed me whole as I was moving so slowly.
The road just kept getting steeper, and it seemed odd they would make something so unfriendly to cars. Whereas most mountain roads switch back and forth horizontally, this one never turned back on itself and instead went headlong up the mountain. It was soon apparent I’d never make it pushing my behemoth three-speed mama-chari bicycle.
I’d taken the best used bike the shop could offer. After being served coffee and cakes at the back of the mom-and-pop establishment, dining among the smelly rubber inner tubes, rusty tire pumps and plastic helmets, I was further fussed over by neighbors who’d stopped by on their daily gossip rounds. By the time I left, I’d been gifted a bag made of traditional Japanese cloth and duly hand-sewn by one of the ladies, and a raging red bungee cord from a guy who secured my backpack to the aft bicycle rack. Heady with the prospect of not having to walk anymore, I’d pedaled off on my powder blue bicycle with the fetching straw basket attached to the handlebars, ringing the tinny bell in a bye-bye tune for the assemblage of locals in front of the shop waving me off and wishing me luck.
But as I stood on the road now in the scorching sun, my forehead shedding sweaty tears that dripped onto the sizzling pavement, I peered back down the empty road I’d come up, my heart stinging with defeat. I had to turn back.
A pick-up truck rumbled down the hopscotch road and coasted past me, as a few cars already had, but this time the vehicle slowed down and stopped. “Need a ride?” said a ruddy-faced man craning his head out the window. I remember refusing rides during my first trip around Shikoku, earnestly wanting to do it all on my own. At that time I had a lot to prove to myself (and to anyone else who would listen). But now, at 56 years old, possessing a degree of humility and knowing I had reached my physical limit, I eked out a “Thank you!” in one last gasp before nearly expiring on the pavement.
The driver turned his truck around, zipped the handbrake into place, hopped out, yanked down the tailgate and muscled the beast of a bicycle into the bed of the truck as if lassoing an unruly calf. Once inside the cab, the farmer couldn’t mask his joy at having saved my life.
“On your way to Kakurin Temple, eh?” he said, with a big grin. I mopped the beads of sweat from my forehead with my neck towel, which was adorned with a stenciling of “The Heart Sutra.”
“I pick up a lot of pilgrims on this road and take them to the top,” he continued. “About 100 per year, I reckon. You did the right thing.”
The truck groaned and churned as it wended its way up through the rice fields, past men wearing long rubber boots and women clothed in white smocks, all of them bending over terraced vegetable gardens.
“Some people refuse a ride saying they can make it themselves, but they’re missing the point,” he said. “But when I asked you, you readily accepted. As a pilgrim, you are supposed to accept help. To refuse is wrong. Because by helping you, I feel good. So by accepting my help, you are helping me too, and we are helping each other. This is the meaning of the pilgrimage.”
He was elucidating a concept ingrained in Shikoku residents who have grown up watching travelers on arduous journeys trudge past their homes. The locals offer them food and drink, information, handmade bags, raging red bungee cords and rides in their pick-up trucks. Deep down, what is behind this custom called o-settai is the belief that by distributing kindness, one accrues the merit necessary to aid their passage into the afterlife.
On the road again
After depositing me and my steed at the top of the mountain, my savior revealed the secret to getting to the next temple, also on top of a mountain.
“Coast down that road all the way to the bottom, and take the ropeway to the top of the next mountain where 21, Tairyu Temple, sits,” he said. “Let them know before boarding, and they’ll take your bicycle up in the ropeway for free.”
So much for defeat, I was on my way to bagging a more than 600-meter peak complete with my powder blue, three-gear mama-chari!
As I waved goodbye, I watched the farmer’s truck — its bed piled high with merit — descend the mountain via the natural curves of the countryside, swinging its way down through rice paddies and vegetable gardens toward heaven.
A weekend on the Shikoku Pilgrimage will restore your faith in humanity. And it was a fine reminder of why I decided, so long ago, to stay in Japan.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).