When it comes to long pilgrimages, people seem to want to measure the authenticity of a journey with certain criteria that are linked to the pilgrim’s potential level of suffering.
They ask questions like:
Did you walk the whole way?
Did you camp-out?
Did you carry your belonging the whole way?
Fair enough, since in most religious traditions a certain degree of suffering is a natural part of the mystical experience.
Except…reality tends to be more complicated. To officially complete the Shikoku Ohenro route, all a pilgrim must do is to worship at the 88-temples. Walk, run, cycle, take a car, train, bus, or private helocoptier…even the extent and nature of your worship is all up to you. You can complete the pilgrimage all at once, over ten years, clockwise or counter-clockwise, in order from #1 to #88 or completely out of order.
Moreover, completing the pilgrimage multiple times is a normal part of the tradition and there are a number of optional ‘add-ons.’ There are 20 Bangai-fudasho which are temples related to the Shikoku pilgrimage, but not part of the official 88. There is Ishizuchi-san along the route (one of Japan’s 7 holy mountains), the Kotohira Shrine, and Kōya-san (Kōbō Daishi’s final resting place) which is not even on the island of Shikoku…
Along my journey I met pilgrims who had completed the Shikoku route over 100 times by car or bus. I met pilgrims who had completed the route 3 or 4 times…but they lived the route and pushed all their worldly belonging along with them in a supermarket cart as they inched along Shikoku’s roads year by year. I met wealthy, young monks in expensive inns and poor old men who walked 5 kilometers a day and slept in the bus shelters.
In the end, I gave up any effort at judging or ranking a pilgrimage, including my own. Everyone draws the circle around Shikoku in their own fashion. The rightness of that path can only be known by the one who makes the decisions that make the circle…
OK Alex, that’s a beautiful philosophy, but really, what did your pilgrimage consist of? You may well ask.
I’ll break it down simply:
#1 I both started and ended at Kōya-san. However, on neither trip did I climb the mountain.
#2 I walked, clockwise, to all 88 official temples and after temple #88 I walked back to temple #1.
I also walked to the top of Ishizuchi-san from temple #60. However, on the way back to the pilgrimage route the next day, I did have to hitch a ride from temple #60 to Lake Kurose-ko so I wouldn’t get caught on the mountain paths at night.
#3 I carried all my belonging, but I did ship batches of film ahead of me so that I would not be carrying over 80 rolls of film as a time.
#4 Sometimes I slept in free lodging and sometimes I stayed in an inn. I ate more convenience store meals than I can count.
#5 It took me 45 days, and I walked almost exactly 800 miles.
Would I walk the Shikoku Ohenro trail again: yes.
I say this with confidence even though I very, very clearly remember certain days along the route when I said to myself: you will only do this again if you are crazy.
-Only 13 days left to support: East or West: A Walking Journey Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage