O-henro (honourable pilgrims) in front of a statue of Kobo Daishi with Ipponsugi, a named and noteworthy cedar, at the highest point of the climb on the second day. Kobo looms as you climb the last stretch, a long and steep flight of steps. Gambatte, do your best … In this case I think we already had.
As we got on the bus at the remarkable shrine to train travel that is Kyoto Station I began thinking again about a question that had been vexing me.
The Shikoku 88 is one of the world’s great pilgrimages, perhaps only to be matched in general terms with the Camino de Santiago which begins, well wherever, Poland for example, but in most versions walking across the top of Spain to finish in Santiago de Compostela. From Roncesvalles to Santiago is 750km. The complete distance of the Shikoku route, visiting all 88 temples circumnavigating the island and arriving back at Temple 1, is somewhere between 1200 and 1600km, two or three months walking. A quarter of a million people walk the Camino annually. About the same number complete Shikoku 88 but mainly by using transport other than feet. Busloads of 0-henro lining up to get their nokyo-cho stamped were a regular sight.
And that’s the point. ‘Remember this is a religious journey, not a stamp relay or a back-packing route.’ That advice recurs. I’d read and screwed my nose up a bit at an account by a young American who treated it as an ultra marathon finishing the lot in 27 days. That seemed like wolfing a gourmet meal while reading a comic. But we were only doing small bits — by my reckoning in ten days we walked about 140km — and I knew little about Buddhism and nothing about the practice of Japanese Shingon Buddhism or the mass of stories with which it is embroidered. Although from time-to-time I offered some very half-hearted prayers, we weren’t seeking healing, favours or nirvana. On a practical level I wanted to be respectful but hadn’t done any research about what might be appropriate behaviour in visiting temples. That might strike you as remiss and in retrospect it was.
We could have kitted out at Temple 1, Vulture Mountain Temple. It was all there: oizura (white cloak or vest), sugekasa (conical hat), kongo-zue (staff with decorations and bells), juzu (prayer beads), zuda-bukuro (a small satchel to keep all your pilgrim stuff in), o-samefuda (name slips), senko (incense sticks, which I investigated but didn’t really know what I was looking at) and a nokyo-cho (below, a stamp book to collect the often very beautiful insignia of each temple). I thought about it. Even as souvenirs, but of what? Wouldn’t it just be a version of fancy dress? Most unsuitable for what the vast majority of pilgrims treat as a most serious undertaking. As it happens I was so discombobulated I didn’t even buy a guide book which, despite having our inch-thick wad of paper from Oku to protect us, would have been a good idea. One dominant thought was that anything we didn’t eat we’d have to carry.
So if not pilgrims what? Not quite tourists. We were going both too purposefully and too slowly to be proper tourists. Too purposefully … what was the purpose? The purpose was to enjoy a series of walks on this famous route: and that means, scenery, exercise, varieties of food and accommodation, but also learning what you can from the experience along the way. And if you want an insight into a part of Japan not much visited by non-Japanese this was an exceptionally fine way to do it.
Walkers then. Even if Myrna did wear her white shirt, and even if I did get John Bunyan’s ‘Who would true valour see, let him come hither‘ jammed in my brain, we were walkers. But walkers in the warm clasp of a particular backdrop. On the very first night we stayed in temple lodgings and were vigorously encouraged to participate in a Buddhist service. Not actually no attendance, no food; but vigorously. Big, muscular, fit, this monk didn’t speak much English, and no one else spoke any. Shikoku is not downtown Tokyo with multi-lingual signs and plenty of people wanting to try their English skills out on you. There is very little romanised signage except for JR, Japanese rail, bless them, and major road signs and the strange bits of English you get on shops. What I mean is ‘Tokushima City’ rather than ‘徳島市’.
We were at least partly in the Oku bubble. Oku (‘inner part’ in the sense of things you wouldn’t see normally and hence to some degree ‘outside’) is a travel company which, among other things, offers a number of self-guided walks in Japan. We had been very pleased with their design and support of our walk along the Nakasendo Trail, so when they offered this set of walks we were interested. When the offer corresponded with some cheap airfares to Japan we became more interested. When Myrna made a rather remarkable recovery from a hip replacement we thought we’d do it.
Oku plans the route, books accommodation, provides endlessly detailed track notes and guidance and off you go. It does its work so effectively and conscientiously that you can live by ‘the white book’ — the itinerary which regulated our lives so protectively outside the walk, enabling us to do what we did. We moved our luggage twice by Takkyubin, the amazingly efficient Black Cat couriers, but during the second half of the walk I was only carrying a slicker, an iPad, passports, money, lunch and just as it happens a hardback copy of The Teachings of Buddha.
Ten days seemed about right. Retrospectively the five days on the Nakasendo had been too short. For most favourable results visiting all 88 temples in leap years you are meant to go gyaka-uchi, backwards, anti-clockwise, but in some disorder we went from 1-3, then 6, 11&12, 13-17, 20&21, 82-80, 56-58, 59&51, 45,44, 60-62, lurching from Tokushima, the region of spiritual awakening (in terms of the pilgrimage), to Kagawa the region of nirvana, and then to Ehime the region of enlightenment, missing out Kochi the region of training in asceticism. If you look at this set of elevations you’ll be able to see where we spent most of our time just by noting the lumpy bits. We didn’t miss the training in asceticism entirely. The walk contains nine nansho temples, ‘difficult to reach’, sometimes ‘dangerous’, ‘rough place’ or even ‘chokepoint’, where o-henro korogashi, ‘pilgrims tumble’. We got to a number of those.
[Note to self. Avoid photos in hat, however protective, and baggy shorts. An elderly bikie took this photo.]
But we’d got on the right bus in Kyoto, crossed the longest suspension bridge(s) in the world which connect Honshu, an intermediate island called Awaji, and Shikoku, and got off where we were told to, Naruto Nishi bus stop, and sort of looked around. That first moment … I don’t care who you are, you’re just not with it.
We found the stone steps as required and shot up them, well past the metal gate (as specified) which would take us through the German Forest, a war memorial that you mightn’t have imagined being there. A couple of turns to find a main road and walk along it for 420m. (Don’t you enjoy that degree of specificity. In Tokyo we found signs that offered Ueno Station as being 675m. away. Ueno Station is the best part of a kilometre long and has a dozen entrances. Where do you measure from? But that’s not the issue here.) Far more to the point, how hard can this process be? Yeah, well … we could really have been anywhere.
Over the paddies and rooftops I caught sight of a golden cupola confirming our direction and we arrived, as noted, somewhat discombobulated, at Temple Number One, Vulture Mountain Temple, with the availability of softu crema with the big white swirl an important augury. Many temples have vending machines and I can’t tell you how grateful we were for this. Feeling somewhat cut adrift, we collected ourselves over a bowl of noodles.We set about what we could do, and although it is not always the best advice, in some circumstances it can be quite helpful to just get walking. Almost immediately we started noticing the little red and white pilgrims which so helpfully marked the way. Motion; and this track of course was easy. If you couldn’t get from Temple One to Temples Two and Three you simply wouldn’t be trying.
Although I didn’t realise it, we were walking around the northern suburbs of Tokushima City, the biggest city on Shikoku with a population about twice that of this blog’s yardstick, Geelong. Note the banks of azaleas. A week or two off full glory. This kid said ‘konnichiwa’ and gave us a slight bow as he rode past. When we were uncertain a head would bob up from behind a fence and point, gesticulate and wave us along. We stopped to look at an orchard where all the fruit had been encased in bags to grow blemish-free. A passer-by stopped to discuss this with us in an enthusiastic and emphatic fashion.
We arrived at Number Two Gokuraku-ji, Celestial Temple, and as we bowed at the sanmon gate I suddenly thought, this is going to be Christmas. This is going to be better than I could have imagined. As so often, the temple complex was embedded in a very pleasant garden full of enticing mysteries. I never unravelled most of these, but you could begin developing your own constructions of it all. For example, at left are bussokuseki, forms of very ancient Buddhist icons from a period when icons of the Buddha were forbidden. (‘Thou shalt have no graven images.’ There is obviously an urge to make the ineffable visible and concrete which has a huge impact on the practice of any religion. Humans are easily distractible.)
The bussokuseki contain the circular wheel of life fundamental to Buddhist thought and swastikas on some of the toes representative of well-being. (Left-facing rather than right-facing as used by the Nazis.) A lotus is probably there somewhere. The fish suggest, to me, fecundity or productivity. A principal tenet of progression towards Buddhist enlightenment is ‘Knowing and seeing what is the path and not the path’, followed by ‘knowing and seeing the way’. Feet, pilgrimage, walking. These symbols talk regardless of language.
That day I thought the bussokuseki might be connected directly with Kobo Daishi (below) and the pilgrimage and constructed a little story for myself about it. He is supposed to have planted this massive and somewhat decrepit cedar in the grounds of this complex which would make it at least 1181 years old. Its provenance wasn’t so important to me, but for ten days Kobo Daishi was a constant presence. He’s the guy.
Born in 774AD a kilometre from the temple where we stayed on this first night, he is the founder of Shingon (True Word) Buddhism. His own enlightenment seems to have been derived, initially at least, from long periods spent in isolated mountain retreats chanting sutras. An exceptional student, he gained the trust of his Emperor and was included in a state mission to China, Xi’an in fact which is a long way from Tokushima City. The story goes that he completed a prodigious feat of learning there, memorising in 3 months what usually took 30 years, and came back to Japan to spread Esoteric Buddhism. Esoteric: abstruse, obscure, arcane, rarefied, recondite, abstract, difficult, perplexing, enigmatic, inscrutable. Why would you be spreading this? What sort of rod have you made for your own back? Other perspectives suggest that Shingon introduced or enhanced ritual (especially the use of mantras) in a religion that had focused on good works and personal action.
When we arrived in Japan I was reading an absorbing study of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, ‘Why Angels Fall’, by British journalist Victoria Clark. She notes the way that these churches accommodate, even drive, the two extremes of relationships between church and state: phyletism, the absolute combination of church and state of which Serbia provides an outstanding contemporary example; and hesychasm, the doctrine of inner silence, whose adherents isolate themselves from society as far as possible. Buddhism is as subject to these avenues of behaviour as any other religion.
How do you get your word across? When Kobo returned to Japan the Emperor who had provided him with patronage had died and the new ruler was more inclined towards Tendai Buddhism founded by a contemporary of Kobo’s, Saicho. I quote here from the guidebook: After repeated requests from the senior monk, Kobo Daishi taught Saicho the first two initiations in Esoteric Buddhism, but not the third and final initiation required to qualify as a master of the religion. From this, bitter rivalry ensued between the two men. When Saicho demanded to be taught the final lesson, Kobo Daishi responded, ‘You cannot learn Esoteric Buddhism from books. Understanding must come from within.’
In 810 he made himself useful to the new Emperor by carrying out certain esoteric rituals which were said to ‘enable a king to vanquish the seven calamities, to maintain the four seasons in harmony, to protect the nation and family, and to give comfort to himself and others’. It was from this point he proved his gifts as an administrator and organiser establishing a headquarters on Mt Koya south of Osaka where there are still more than 100 Shingon temples. Just prior to his death in 835AD Shingon ritual became incorporated into the official court calendar of events, and just two months before his death, Kobo Daishi was granted permission to annually ordain three Shingon monks, ordination being a process strictly controlled by the state. Koya-san went from being a private institution to a state-sponsored one.
If they want to be successful (and what is a successful religion? Number of adherents? Their relative fervour? Wealth? Certainty of redemption?) religions are left with no alternative but to hook up with some very earthly practices. Four of the 88 temples are Kokubun-ji ‘Official State Temples’, built at the behest of Emperor Shomu, a devout adherent of Buddhism; and despite the privacy at the core of Buddhism, the pilgrimage’s tracks were not built by wear from hesychasts’ rope sandals.
It is not the fact of these anomalies of logic or consistency of perspective that is interesting — they are entirely to be anticipated. It’s the way they play out in different settings.
But the walk, the walk.
Where does one look for guidance? These finger boards were one source of information. The symbols on the stem tell us we’re on the route — note the top one — and the kanji on the horizontal are the names of the temples. After a while and given our eccentric route, to generate another source of confidence we decided we would learn the first two characters of the temples we were heading for. Here we’re between Numbers Two and Three, Konsen-ji, the Golden Fountain Temple, where we arrived at the side gate on a track between paddy fields.
Konsen-ji was another remarkable affair. I’m struggling for the right adjective. Complex, interesting, picturesque, potent, beautiful — all those.
About a kilometre away was our bus stop. It had been quite hot, about 25C, and humid and there was a shop right there at the stop, so I tried my hand at getting some drinks. I chose two from the cabinet and had a handful of cash, but the shop lady waved me away. What had I done? Were these not for sale? Didn’t I have enough money? But she was smiling and mimed drinking them. A light went on. This was our first experience of ossetai, the practice of giving pilgrims drinks, food, money, souvenirs, free medical treatment, a lift, to help them on their way. In return I should have provided an o-samefuda, a name slip, but I was a long way from having a grip on anything like that. I just thought what a sweetheart, my primary concern being that we were on the right side of the road, because I was only guessing the direction the bus would take us in.
When you’re linguistically disabled you reach for as many cues as possible. For example you need to know that local buses in Japan operate on a system whereby you take a numbered ticket on entry and watch an electronic grid above the driver to see how much you need to pay. ‘160’ (yen) in box 6 it’ll go, then ‘210’, then ‘260’; in one mighty case ‘1790’. And you will tip exactly that amount into the fare collection box as you exit. If you know how much the trip will cost, you’ll have a rough idea when to get off. That’s one cue. Then of course you can ask, and alert, the driver when you get on: ‘Sumimasen. Higashihara?’ ‘Hai. Hai.’ ‘Arigato.’ You think that would be enough, but you diligently watch the fare screen knowing that you need to pay ¥330. Then the recorded woman’s voice of which you get almightily sick says ‘Higashihara. Higashihara. blah blah blah Highashihara.’ You’d think that would do it wouldn’t you? That would be enough. And there is a bus stop there. And the driver is making gestures. So you get off. You’re there.But where exactly? You are in the middle of a series of paddy fields after a long day and there appears little option but to place your fate in the hands of the almighty. However, the only other guy on the bus got off with us and while he hadn’t gone the full o-henro I guessed our destinations were the same. And that he knew the way. So we chased him down the road.
Over that bit of a bridge above was our destination, Anraku-ji, Number Six, The Temple of Tranquility, and the customary first stop for walking pilgrims as it has shukubo, pilgrims’ lodgings (and mineral baths, and a pine tree which protected the meditating Kobo from the arrows of huntsmen who mistook him for a wild boar, and amazing decoration on the ceilings of the Hondo, etc etc.). We stopped for a softu crema at the temple shop. I think grape and persimmon flavours. I might have that wrong, but they were the best we had anywhere. We gathered strength and wandered round to meet the muscular monk and our accommodation. Dinner at 6.00. Meditation at 7.00. Quiet after 9.00. Breakfast 6.30. Bath here. Room there.
Dinner was the first of 8.4 out of 9 excellent evening meals. (There were four six-star efforts among them. Extraordinarily excellent food.) We went to our assigned seats. If you work out, and follow, the (very many, so very many) systems in Japan, everything will be just fine. Our assignation was with dining companions who spoke English. How thoughtful. And Roy and Yolande, who tomorrow will be sending Le Tour off from Saumur with a heap of friends, turned out to be wonderfully interesting people making their own intrepid investigation of Shikoku. I did ask why they chose to stay in shukubo and I’m not sure if I got their answer. I think the siren call of adventure.
I was clapped out after dinner but, seamlessly, another young monk turned up to get us prepared to head straight off to whatever the correct term for a Buddhist service is. We each had bits of paper and slivers of wood to write on. One requirement was for your birth date, another was for wishes you wanted delivered. I didn’t quite have a grip on what was happening, but while you’re there you need to do it all.
We headed off into the temple with the 40 or so others who presumably were staying there. They had been at dinner. There were bells and shakers to summon the attention of the deities (deities? Can you say deities? This worries me), some chanting by the monk and then some collective chanting. This was followed by an occasional address in which the word or sound ‘nay’ was constantly repeated. If it was a Christian service I thought it might have meant ‘sin’ or ‘faith’ or ‘good works’, but on further investigation we found that it was a filler like ‘yeah’ or ‘and so on’ or even ‘like’. We were led further into the temple, a rather stunning experience because this was where all the treasures were. We lit incense sticks, stuck our o-samefuda on an image, set fire to our wooden slats (a goma ceremony as I now know) and circumambulated the temple’s magnificent honzon three times. I went to bed on the floor wondering if I’d done anything correctly. There would have been a system and I didn’t know it.
A honzon is the effigy or image of a temple’s primary what? God, deity, or do we say Buddha (except Buddha was someone else), or bodhisattva (and in Japan anyway bosatsu) perhaps?
Q. on the internet: ‘Do Buddhists Worship Idols? A. Buddhists sometimes pay respect to images of the Buddha, not in worship, nor to ask for favours. A statue of the Buddha with hands rested gently in its lap and a compassionate smile reminds us to strive to develop peace and love within ourselves. Bowing to the statue is an expression of gratitude for the teaching.’
Mmmm well … the honzon of this temple is Yakushi Nyorai who/which has a particular interest in ensuring your good health. (One image of Yakushi Nyorai is at left. The one we saw was several metres high and deeply invested in shiny gold leaf.) I’m sure we were engaged in something worshipful and I think quite a few favours were being asked — and I suspect that is a major reason for many pilgrimages — but of whom or what?
My reading suggests that in some forms at least Buddhism has much in common with contemporary physics. The idea of multi-universes is taken as given. Human beings are viewed not so much as consistent individual physical entities as collections of constantly changing bundles of energy influenced by karma (the choices being made and the conditions in which that energy is operating). The film ‘The Matrix’ is occasionally offered as providing insight into the nature of the Buddhist universe. The task of improvement includes freeing yourself from the anchorage of the senses and the bondage of egotism. Buddha was not a god. He was a man who found a/ the path to enlightenment which begins with the realisation and acknowledgement that life entails suffering. We don’t worship images or even seek comfort from them. Self improvement is an intensely private journey driven by personal responsibility.
But what did I say above? It is not the fact of these anomalies that is interesting — they are entirely to be anticipated. It’s the way they play out in different settings.
As my journal from that night says: ‘It’s a rich life. Very tired and just ever so slightly freaked out.’ But let’s move on. That’s only one day. A great deal lies ahead, some of it very steep. (Below: A Yakushi Nyorai mandala.)