The Japanese island of Shikoku is well-traveled — but not by tourists. For more than 1200 years, thousands of pilgrims every year have walked the “Henro,” 800 miles to 88 of the island’s temples. Today, about 200,000 pilgrims visit the temples every year, sometimes walking, sometimes in cars or using public transportation. The Henro and many of the 88 temples are believed to have been founded by a monk named Kukai, who is a hero to the people of Shikoku.
I felt drawn to this walk and its enduring, quiet rituals, so this week I visited 12 of the Henro temples over the course of two days, mostly walking. My temples were on the outskirts of the city of Tokushima (remember Tokushima? https://kimmie53.com/2019/05/29/tokushima-a-case-of-mistaken-identity/#more-12488) so I stayed near the city’s train station. For most of the temples, hotels are literally out of reach and pilgrims stay at the temples or in modest guest houses.
My goal yesterday was to visit Temples 1-7. Diane and I had walked to Temples 13-17 a few days earlier and I wanted to start at the beginning. So early in the day, I took a 20-minute train ride to Ryozen-Ji, Temple 1. Kukai explained that, unlike the other 87 temples, Ryozen-ji has no story because a temple called “Number 1” doesn’t need a story. As Number 1 and because it’s near the city, Ryozen-ji is also the busiest. Some people visit only this temple and most pilgrims start there.
Ryozen-ji is indeed beautiful, with stately trees and several places of worship. I watched the more experienced pilgrims as I tried to remember the several small rituals to engage reflection and honor the temple, Buddha, Kukai and life. Here are some of those rituals in order of their practice: Arriving at the temple gate, ring bell and bow; inside the gate, wash hands and rinse mouth at the ablution well; at the bottom of the main temple, light a candle and three sticks of incense; at the top of the stairs of the main temple, put your “ofuda” (a slip of paper with your name on it to identify your visit) in one box and toss some coins into another, then bow three times and recite “Heart Sutra” chant (since it is in Japanese, I didn’t do this but it is beautiful to hear); at the office, get your book stamped for 300 yen; don’t forget to use the bathroom; and, on your way out, bow again at the gate. But don’t ring the bell again, bad luck!
After I had accomplished all of this except the leaving, I visited Ryozen-ji’s store that sells Henro equipment. Ten minutes later, I set out walking toward Temple 2 wearing most of what most Henro pilgrims wear — a white shirt (because white is the color of death in Japan and indicates you ready for death), and a sedgehat or sugegasa (a straw hat painted with 5 kanji and a sanskrit character for Kukai). I carried a special stick with a bell on it, a reminder to stay present. I also purchased a box of candles and a box of incense.
At first, the attire and the bell ringing was not comfortable for me. I felt like an aging woman in a costume trying to be something she is not. But I remembered my sister Kathy’s famous one-liner, “wear it and mean it,” which helped me accept my status as a true pilgrim.
The night before, I made notes of how I would get from one temple to another throughout the day because the markers on the road are mostly in Japanese. Even those with helpful arrows can be hard to distinguish from arrows to other places if they don’t include drawings of cute pilgrims, and sometimes they don’t. Fortunately, I lost my notes somewhere between Temple 3 and Temple 4, which forced me to ask questions of residents and storekeepers who were always happy to share information.
The terrain between the temples was varied. Sometimes I walked through beautiful countryside, but more often the path transected slightly scruffy rural communities and followed two lane highways. Somewhere on the way to Temple 3 came the “tsuyu” — summer rain. And it continued for the rest of the day. I followed the pilgrim ethic of no-complaining. After all, I thought, I was lucky the weather was warm and I had a plastic cover for my sugegasa, which served as a small umbrella. Huffing up the hill to Temple 4, I felt especially grateful that I wasn’t walking in the 80-degree weather of the previous days.
I only saw a few other pilgrims walking, although there were several driving and a few on bikes. I was encouraged every once in awhile by local people who gave me a half bow or pointed up the road toward my next temple. A couple of times, local residents offered me rides, which I declined because I was riding the bus for a couple of the longer distances and I didn’t want to shorten my walk further. At noon, I had a pretty good egg salad sandwich and some little crackers at a 7-11.
The temples of Shikoku are modest by the standard’s of Japanese temples, probably because the island was never an important center of government or commerce. But each of the temples has something special, perhaps a garden or interesting statues or a pagoda. Temple 3 has sets of crutches of people who were cured by its well water. Temple 15 sells a special amulet that wards off termites. Some offer small gifts. One temple calligrapher gave me a handmade book mark. Another gave me a bag of incense.
It was late in the day when I left Temple 7 for the 90-minute bus ride back to my hotel. I was wet and sore. The lettering on my sugegasa was running and my head was aching because I had forgotten to drink water all afternoon. The dirty band-aid on my heel was sticking out of the top of my shoe. I was strangely not tired or hungry or embarrassed about the band-aid.
Today, I am still sore but I still have a special feeling for my 22-mile, two day Henro walk, the temples I visited, and the small rituals that add meaning to the journey. I discovered that what intrigues me most about the Henro is the community of pilgrims and the people who support them in different ways across so many miles.
I don’t know whether I will ever complete the Henro, although I have thought about it. I will keep my stamp book with its 12 stamps, just in case. Tonight I took my stick and my sugegasa to the house of a woman I met in town. I know she will find a good home for them. I put them on the porch next to the washing machine, and before I walked way, I bowed three times.
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Beautiful narrative Kim. Pictures also wonderful, as usual.
Please bring me back one of the anti-termite amulets!!! The little buggers are bugging me again.
I did load up with the amulets with you in mind xoxoxxo
Kim….Your writing is so descriptive, detailed, and intimate. I felt I was there with you. I could feel the rain and your sore foot. Thank you for this beautiful gift of near presence. I just wish I could have one of those beautiful books that got stamped. That alone is reason to go there😍
Thank you Sallie — it means a lot to me, my worldly friend.
What a beautiful story, Kim, one of my favorites of many favorites you have written. I love how you found beauty in everything you discovered, and that you participated fully, including the hat. I wish I could’ve been there with you! I would definitely have wanted a hat and a book of those exquisite temple stamps.
I wish you had been there and wearing the hat!