“Here I stand in front of the Japanese home that was my accommodation on the eve of my first day on the Ohenro—the pilgrimage of 88 temples on Shikoku island. The house is a doll’s house by Western standards. Like so many things in Japan where only 27% of its surface is habitable for the population of 127 million, I think of this as a bonsai building—small but perfectly formed.
I am dressed in my burial clothes…”
In my frequent travels across the globe, I have always envied the faithful their blind resolve in the face of a staring world—be it the Believers who, in airports, stop off in a side room to kneel down towards Mecca—responding to an unheard call to prayer from the muezzin in a far-off minaret. Or the orthodox Jew in the plane itself, draping his prayer shawl over his shoulders and standing by the port hole of the plane door, determinedly rocking his silent prayer to his God out there, or the New-Ager standing naked in the field, arms outstretched, greeting the ever-reliable sun at dawn. Like others, I have been drawn by the sight of the Romanies trundling along the little country lanes of Europe in colourful caravans on their way to meet the two Marys and Sarah at St Maries de la Mer, where they had come ashore after their long journey from Syria with the Christ Child, and in Japan I have looked with longing at the white-clad funny-hatted men and women who walk the route of the 88 Buddhist temples of Shikoku.
I craved to experience that level of commitment to something so great, so important that any fear, inhibition or shame faded in significance. I wanted to pledge myself to something that would take me out of myself and place me on a level far beyond my ken. I wanted to be transported to a spiritual plain where the pettiness and detail of a mundane life has no import and where the true sense of life, love, friendship and courage would become clear to me.
And thus started my three pilgrimages: first the Camino de Santiago de Compostela—my fire walk, in the true sense of the word—followed by my pilgrimage around the continent of my origin, Africa, and lastly the spiritual journey around the island of Shikoku.
I say the Camino was my fire walk. After finishing, I knew I would be prepared for anything that would come my way during the rest my life – any challenge, any ordeal. And so it was.
When I reached the cathedral on that cold wet winter’s morning, I sat down and wrote in my journal:
“I stand, completely alone, a solitary figure in the giant square in front of the cathedral and watch with bated breath as the first golden rays of the sun tentatively touch the one spire, then the next, and finally bathe the entire ornate skyline of the cathedral in a gilded glow.
For this moment the now-excruciating pain in my feet is forgotten. I am oblivious to the weight of the pack on my back or the tendrils of icy wind off the snow-capped mountain in the north dancing around my ears. I savour every second, drinking in the moment, entirely in the present and aware and trying to etch every tiny detail of this powerful feeling into my brain, my memory, my being. It is not a religious moment for me, nor a particularly spiritual one – I know this, for I did experience those moments during the long walk over the last forty days.
This moment is rather about a sense of achievement, a sense of having done something that is bigger than me. It is a sense of having overcome huge obstacles, difficult challenges, having found resources within myself I never knew were there. It has truly been a life-changing experience.”
Reinhold Messner, the Austrian mountain climber and explorer, says that before starting an adventure, a challenge that is thought impossible, you need a complete acceptance – an acceptance of everything and anything that will come your way. You have to accept that it will be hard, it will be demanding, it will be painful, accept that you will experience what you have never experienced before. Then, from that moment, nothing is a surprise, there is no trial that is not planned. And only then can you really focus on each moment.
Like the Camino de Santiago de Compostela two years before, to explore Africa, my Africa, it was something I felt called to do. I needed to discover, as the pioneers and explorers of old, this vast and mysterious continent, its many cultures, beliefs, traditions, customs, colours, smells and tastes and I needed to find my particular place in this universe.
If I had not experienced my firewalk on the Camino, this was surely the ultimate test. A snapped metatarsal in my foot, untreated until 12 months later, at least 50 severe sandfly bites that turned into tropical sores, a bout of pneumonia when the temperatures never dropped below 45 degrees, a flesh-eating spider bite. But much more challenging, the questioning of everything I had ever studied or read as I tried to reconcile the preconceptions we have of Africa, and the reality I experienced every day.
What one needs on a trip like this, as in life, is a mental resilience, a confidence in yourself that is firm and strong. I had found those resources aplenty during my Camino. And, it was here in Africa, more than anywhere else on my journey through life, that I learned the truth in Proust’s saying that a real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
And so it was, the moment I got out of that moon boot, that I set off on my third pilgrimage—this time to walk—or rather, ‘climb the stairs’ of the Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage of 88 temples, on the island of Shikoku in Japan. Shingon Buddhism is one of the two esoteric schools of Buddhism in Japan and was started by Kukai or Kobo Daishi who also became the holy man of this pilgrimage.
Like all pilgrimages there are a thousand myths and legends about this pilgrimage and its saint. There are bridges Kobo Daishi is supposed to have built, dams and reservoirs that he constructed, temples that he built, gardens that he planted. Like the first pilgrims, the hijiri, or wandering ascetics, he came from Mount Kōya, or Koyasan, on the mainland near Osaka. The pilgrimage either starts there or ends there—a beautiful temple complex that is more like a small town—and also where Kobo Daishi now lies in eternal meditation.
A big difference from the Camino is that you are not walking to a specific destination, but you walk in a circle, starting and ending at the same temple. Some temples take 1-2 days to get to—on some days you can visit up to 5 temples. Normally one would walk clockwise, but if you are doing penance, or if you know you have reason to believe that your end is near, for instance, you would walk anticlockwise. The reason pilgrims wear white is because if they should die along the way (always a hope that they will be able to join Kobo Daishi in his eternal mediation), they are already in their burial clothes. The conical sage hat not only keeps the sun and the rain off your head in life, but in effect becomes your ‘coffin’ in death—meaning that it will be placed over your face when you are buried. And the staff, which IS Kobo Daishi, and which accompanies you as if the holy man himself is walking with you, will become the tombstone on your grave.
There is something quite comforting knowing you are that well prepared and it gives Messner’s complete acceptance new meaning. But rather than being macabre, the white pilgrim clothes make you recognisable as a pilgrim, and as you are ‘walking with’ Kobo Daishi, everyone who crosses your path, treats you with enormous respect and kindness. Local people, who have so little themselves, will bring you osettai or gifts; perhaps a couple of oranges, or a small bottle of water, a lozenge or a ngiri or two, or cooked rice wrapped in a leaf, for your lunch. I am not sure what impression I made, but quite a few times I was asked to wait while a friendly local went into a pharmacy to buy me a bottle of concentrated vitamins for energy. On occasion you will have an old farmer and his wife in their ramshackle car or tractor stop next to you in the road and offer you a ride, and as it is the height of bad manners to refuse an osettai, it becomes difficult to try to explain that you would rather walk.
There are all sorts of customs and traditions that it is best to be aware of before you start. The last thing you want to do is give offence, and believe me, if you do not know the rules, you will give offence—not only to the locals, but more importantly, to the holy man himself.
An example is the ritual surrounding your staff, your walking companion, Kobo Daishi. He is treated with respect and great care. He may never be put down on the ground; if you want to sit down to rest, you will let him lean upright against yourself. If his ‘foot’ gets muddy, you will look for a stream and gently wash and dry his foot—as will happen every night you reach your accommodation where the owner of the establishment will bow to your staff, reverently take him from you, with two outstretched hands, go wash his foot and put him in a special shrine corner in the front of the house, where he will spend the night. In the morning the same reverent ritual will have him placed into your hands after you have bowed to him and greeted him on the new day. Interestingly enough, when you cross a bridge, the staff suddenly becomes a staff again, and gets carried across the bridge, so that the tap-tapping of the staff on the road does not wake Kobo Daishi, should he be asleep under the bridge.
Then comes the protocol of the temples. All 88 temples.
When you arrive at almost all of the temples, you have probably just climbed up a very steep mountain for the last four or five hours. I say climb, but I am not sure what one would call the action of mounting stairs when the staircase goes straight up a mountain side—anything from 3-400 metres to almost 1000 metres. The stairs are often carved into the mountain—large stones laid out that form a steep staircase—sometimes just tree roots and natural rocks that you need to climb. And then, upon reaching the top, you are confronted by a formally constructed staircase, usually with the magical number of 108 steps, before you get to the gate of the temple.
(And be warned: if you should decide – because of feeling an urgent need to do penance, or because you think you may be near the end of your life, to do the anticlockwise route, the descent after you have visited the temple is a lot harder to navigate than the ascent – the ‘stairs’ much higher, often simply flat-ish boulders, the footpaths often so steep and slippery that you are more likely to slide down on your bottom. Of course the impact on your spine when you descend a steep incline— with a backpack—is huge. I therefore recommend you keep your backpack as light as possible.)
The first thing you do when you walk through the temple gate, is to go up to the massive bronze bell, draw back the tree stump hanging there, and ring the bell once. This is to let the deities know you have arrived as well as being a very effective way to break your meditation.
Next you go to the water fountain where you scoop up water with the bamboo ladle, pour water over one hand to cleanse it, then the other, then lift the ladle and let the water run down its shaft to leave it clean for the next pilgrim. After this, you go across to the different sections of the temple—normally at least two sections—the Hondo, the main temple of the temple compound, and the daishido, the temple dedicated to Kobo Daishi. First you write your name and where you are from on an osamefuda—a strip of paper on which is a written blessing, and you place this in a special box. This osamefuda is like a business card—you let Kobo Daishi know who you are, and the blessing is for him. You can also use this osamefuda to give to someone to thank them for an osettai—or for their hospitality or to give a fellow pilgrim your details. The osamefuda come in different colours, denoting the number of times the pilgrim has walked the Ohenro. As a first timer, mine were white. It would be green if you have done it 5-7 times, red for 8-24 times, silver for 25-49 times and gold if you have completed the pilgrimage 50-99 times. And, believe it or not, I met two old gentlemen who had brocade osamefuda, which showed that they had walked the pilgrimage 100 times or more.
At the different temple buildings, the pilgrim goes through the ritual of standing with their hands together, bowing and reciting the sutra, after which they light three sticks of incense to put in the cauldron filled with sand, and lastly light a small candle for the departed.
The final step is to go to the office (after taking your shoes off) to get your stamp and entry in your Nokoyo—a beautiful handmade paper and leather-bound book with a drawing or ink painting of each temple—a beautiful ink stamp as well as the most beautiful Japanese calligraphy giving the name of the temple, the day and a special blessing from the sutra. Each one a work of art personally executed in your book.
Usually at this point you would then go sit under a flowering magnolia or a blossoming cherry tree, look around and drink in the beauty of the temple compound, the architecture, the gardens, rest a little, perhaps start a short conversation with a fellow henro, and then set off again down the mountain on to the next temple.
Physically it is hard—there are long distances on paved roads, sometimes on the shoulder of a four-lane highway with trucks screaming past and their tailwind
almost sweeping you off your feet. There are many tunnels that you walk through —sometimes several kilometres long—again on a narrow little ledge on the side, where you cannot afford for a second to lose concentration or lose your footing.
Interestingly, the average age of the henro on the pilgrimage is probably around 65-80 years and I believe around 80% are male. It is the older generation who have the available time and means—but also it is the older generation that has the need to do a pilgrimage. One does see younger people, often the more devout pilgrims – and more Westerners are now walking this pilgrimage. Be warned though —the biggest percentage of pilgrims on the Ohenro travel by coach or car.
For me, walking pilgrimages became the search for my place in the universe, and the discovery of my own strength and capabilities, and it all started off when I was sitting on my front veranda and watched the pilgrims making their way across that bridge in front of my house. I just knew that being out there on the road with them was something I had to do— It was like a vocation, a calling. I then found that every day whilst on a pilgrimage, I had a revelation, I received answers to questions I never even knew I had, I came closer to finding enlightenment, I became spiritually richer—and every single day since I have been grateful for the answers and the lessons I had learned on my pilgrimages.
But mostly I am grateful that it was on the Camino that I discovered the true meaning of being a pilgrim.