[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 1: Ready…Start!

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I slept pretty well considering my bed was hard as a rock. I guess I was just that tired after traveling. Still, I woke up around 6:15am to get ready and went downstairs to the lobby for the complimentary breakfast. Unfortunately, it was crazy busy and the tables were full, so I decided to simply leave and get going rather than wait. I didn’t really want to waste time that I could be spending on the pilgrimage.

This ended up kind of being a mistake.

When I got back to Tokushima Station, I figured out how to get to Bando Station, the one closest to Ryozen-Ji, Temple #1 of the pilgrimage, and then picked up a quick breakfast (onigiri, or rice balls) and a bottle of water. Unfortunately for me, the train I needed to take left about 15 minutes before I even made it onto the platform and the next one wouldn’t leave for a little over an hour! I had forgotten how relatively sparse Shikoku public transportation is unless you’re going to a major destination (I.e. Any of the big cities). For the most part, Shikoku is still pretty rural.

I sat on a bench and ate my breakfast, wishing I had actually stayed at the hotel to eat theirs as it had been a hot breakfast. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers. I like onigiri, anyway, and they’re cheap (like, 120 yen each?).

I considered giving up on the train idea and taking the bus instead, but when I looked it up on Google, it would only save me maybe 10 minutes of time. Not worth it. I resolved to get through the temples quickly today and not take too any breaks to make up for lost time.

When the train arrived, they allowed me on to wait. Most of the other people on the train looked to be commuters, but I did spot a couple of other pilgrims, who already had their gear. At one of the stops, a bunch of school children boarded, crowding the train car significantly. I guessed they were on a school trip, which turned out to be correct. More on that later, though.

After getting off at Bando Station (which was really just a train platform, it was so small), it was a short walk to Ryozen-Ji. It was pretty easy to find because they have a mannequin wearing the traditional pilgrim (called “henro”) garb – a conical sedge hat, a white coat (alternatively you can wear a white vest), a white bag, and a walking stick. Each item has an inscription in Japanese on it, usually referring to (if I remember correctly) either the Heart Sutra or Kobo Daishi, the monk/Saint who made this pilgrimage over 1000 years ago.

I visited the temple, stopped at the main hall to pray (there’s a specific way to do it at Buddhist temples, but I have no idea, so I simply threw some coins into the offertory box, put my hands together, and made a quick silent prayer for luck and safety during my pilgrimage). Next, I had to find the store to buy my pilgrim gear. Unfortunately, it was nowhere in sight, so I asked the lady who was selling the traditional charms associated with the temple. Again, no English, but she did kindly lead me to the store, which was around a corner.

There are numerous items a pilgrim can buy, but I stuck with the walking staff, the hat, and white vest. I also bought a stamp book (nyokyocho) and name slips (osamefuda). The stamp book is proof of the temples you’ve visited. You present your book to each temple, where they stamp it with their temples seal and then write over it in beautiful calligraphy. As for the name slips, you can write your name and a wish on them (as well as the date and where you’re from) and are offered at each temple’s hall. You an also give them to anyone who helps you or gives you a gift, called “osettai”, which I’ll talk about later.

With all my gear on, I made my way to the second temple, Gokuraku-Ji.On my way out, I spotted the class of students also leaving. I wasn’t really sure where to go, but I knew I had to turn right from Ryozen-Ji and basically keep going that way. Eventually, I caught onto the little signs found every 100 meters or so that point pilgrims to the next temple,and found Gokuraku-Ji.

I pretty much followed the same routine, although Gokuraku-Ji’s grounds were quite a bit bigger and feature a small garden. I bumped into the class of children again, and one of their teachers (or guides?) stopped me to chat. He spoke pretty decent English, so we were able to communicate. To my embarrassment, he called over a some students to talk to me because I was a foreigner, haha. A few of them got to practice their English, and in general, they were really sweet and seemed really enthusiastic to meet me. One student asked me what kind of food I like, and I answered, “Okonomiyaki.” They got a kick out of that! I learned that they were in the 6th grade, so about 11-12 years old, and they were on a trip to see the first three temples of the pilgrimage. After, we took a group picture, haha.

I was eager to move on, though, so I said goodbye and got my book stamped.

I made my way to the third temple, Konsen-Ji about 2.7km away. I stopped for a quick drink of water, but other then that, kept going until I got there. I inadvertently arrived through a small back entrance, but otherwise, my process was the same. I bumped into the class of kids once more and a girl even stopped to talk to me in English. She was really sweet! The guide I talked to at the second temple stopped me briefly to give me two pieces of candy as osettai. I thanked him and he left to rejoin his group.

I guess I can talk about osettai here, for those who don’t know what it is. The pilgrimage here on Shikoku is ingrained in its culture. People believe that, if they help a pilgrim, they will receive Kobo Daishi’s blessings. As a result, it isn’t unusual if random strangers offer you small things, like food, if you’re on the pilgrimage. This is another reason why wearing at least some of the pilgrim clothes is beneficial – it identifies you as a pilgrim to others, who will know exactly what you’re doing.

I left Konsen-Ji shortly after and made my way to the fourth temple, Dainichi-Ji, a little over 5km away. The route took me a little off the roads and through some small bamboo groves, then up a hill. I stopped about halfway there to put down my backpack and take a quick break on a bench next to a little creek. At this point, it was a little after noon, so I had been on my feet without a break for over 3 hours.  I was also realizing that my backpack was too heavy and I wouldn’t last two months with this weight.

A little before I reached Dainichi-Ji, I met an epically bearded man who definitely was not Japanese. I stopped to talk with him a bit and learned he was from Italy. He said that the temple wasn’t far ahead, which was encouraging, as I needed a bathroom break.

I visited Dainichi-Ji, got my book stamped, and stopped to use their bathroom. It was nice to finally have my backpack off again. I then moved on to the fifth temple, Jizo-Ji,, which was thankfully not too far. Again, I think I made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up entering through a back entrance. Oops again.

Still, I prayed at the main hall and got my book stamped. Then, I spotted the bearded Italian man resting underneath one of the trees on the grounds next to some benches. I decided this would be a good time to stop, rest, and have something to eat. I sat on one of the benches and the Italian man, named Jack (I’m probably not spelling that right), and I learned he is 26 and from Rome. He is also attempting the pilgrimage on foot.

We chatted a bit and I decided to eat one of my protein bars I had brought from home – “Lunch,” I told my new friend.  Jack told me he would have to find something eat, too, so I gave him one of my protein bars, assuring him I had plenty. Another man, a Japanese man named “Tommy” joined us for a quick rest, as well. He was older than us, probably in his 50’s. His English was quite limited, though, so it was difficult to converse with him. Still, we took some selfies!

The minshuku I reserved was somewhere between temples 5 and 6, but it was not even 2pm and Anraku-Ji (temple 36) was 5.3km away. Temples close at 5pm. I figured I would have plenty of time to make it there. Then it was only a matter of backtracking a bit to the minshuku, where I had to get to by dinner time.

I bid goodbye to my two new friends and went on my way. As I left the grounds, a man selling fruits and vegetables stopped me and gave me a small steamed sweet potato as osettai. I was so surprised I forgot to offer an osamefuda, although I definitely did offer my thanks. I ate the sweet potato as I walked and it was delicious and warm. About a kilometre away, I noticed the ties binding my bell to my staff were loose, so I stopped to fix it, At that point, Jack caught up with me, so we walked together to Anraku-Ji. We caught up to another walking pilgrim, another older man who looked to be in his 50’s. Most pilgrims, actually, seem to be on the older side.

After finishing my business at the temple, I stopped to rest again on one of the many benches. Between temple 5 and 6, the sun had come out from behind the clouds, so I had been sweating quite a bit, but hadn’t kept up with my water intake. I drank from my water bottle before I started to feel worse, and then Jack joined me. He asked where I was sleeping, and I told him I had already reserved a place at an inn. He was walking the pilgrim on a budget and was planning on camping out. I knew from reading other people’s accounts of the pilgrimage that Anraku-Ji was one of the few temples that offered basic but free lodging within the main gate, under its bell. I told him about it and he managed to get a spot there after talking to the temple staff.

We parted ways, me to backtrack to find the minshuku, and Jack to find somewhere to eat. I realized belatedly that the minshuku was further away than I thought, perhaps about 2km.  My feet were getting tired and I was feeling the weight of my backpack in my legs. Even so, I managed to find the place and was greeted by a lovely older lady, who showed me around. I gratefully set down my backpack, took a bath, and relaxed in my room. Dinnerwas at 6pm and was hot pot. It was a feast and I couldn’t eat it all, even though it was delicious. I noticed, too, that my stomach was feeling better, although my appetite hadn’t quite returned to normal yet. Whatever was in the medication I bought yesterday, it seems to have worked.

After the meal, I signed the inn’s guestbook and the owners provided me with some osettai – a couple of warming packs and a cloth wrapping or kerchief that features Shikoku with the 88 temples marked on it. Again, I thanked them profusely for their kindness.

I retired to my room again, sore but content. It had been a good day despite the initial set backs.  I’m looking forward to a fantastic sleep.

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