No trip begins on day one. The first step is the preparation that goes into assuring pleasure and safety on the journey. Preparation was once a weak point for me. In the past, I’ve had times when I was more likely to take minimum precautions or even not prepare at all. I once thought there were better ways to spend my time. But, ignoring preparation is only tempting disaster.
Luckily, when it came to this journey, the year prior I’d spent teaching in Japan provided a form of unintended preparation. One of my students told me about the Shikoku Pilgrimage (Hachi-jiu hachi kasho meguri in Japanese). I was told the bare details of Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands in Japan, and the pilgrimage itself. It is a journey focused around traveling to 88 sacred temples where Kōbō Daishi (formerly known as Kūkai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was said to spend time in training.
As far as the intangibles for making this journey about all I had were some marginal Japanese language skills. This was not the typical form of travel for me. Everywhere I’d gone for the past two and a half years had been for jobs and included housing. In Shikoku I was planning on sleeping outside for most, if not all, of the trip. My survival/outdoor skills were minimal but, according to my research, the majority of this trail passed through towns and cities,so I knew there would be no great threat of being stranded in the wilderness.
If you are interested in researching the Shikoku Pilgrimage for yourself, click here to be redirected to a site which provides in-depth details on what to expect and how to prepare.
I arrived late on the first day. By the time I got off the train near the first temple it was already 4PM. The station of this small town seemed more like a shed than a train stop. The only other people were a few boys in uniform coming home from school and they ran off yelling at each other. One of my main reasons for coming to the island was to find solitude and it appeared I’d found just that.
I walked out the small station onto a narrow street lined on either side by classic Japanese wooden architecture with tiled roofs, but no people. I would have been more mesmerized by the apparent deserted nature of the area but had no time to waste. I was already off to a late start and wanted to cover as much ground as possible before nightfall. I knew Ryōzenji (Temple 1) was not far from the station and set off in search
It was a short walk before I had assistance in finding the temple. First, a pair of young schoolgirls gave me directions not only to the first temple, but also to the following three. Shortly after, a frail elderly woman smiled at me and knew just what I was looking for. She gestured to a green line painted on the road letting me know it would lead me straight to Ryōzenji. I received a few more Kon-ni-chi-wa’s before arriving at the temple. The village-style kindness was an ideal welcome. I was not often greeted by strangers where I used to live, near Nagoya, and the occurrence was practically taboo around Tokyo.
Ryōzenji, was a humble, not an overwhelming sight like some temples. The shop had all the equipment necessary for henro (person undertaking the pilgrimage) on his or her journey. This page contains a complete list of the items available for purchase as well as a calculator that can be used to estimate projected costs of a unique journey. I had no intention of paying the steep price for all the equipment, but I wanted to abide by some level of tradition, so I bought myself an oizuru (vest), a sugegasa (sedge hat), and a kongōzue (walking stick).
The walk to the second temple, Gokurakuji (Temple 2), was short. The temple grounds were much larger than the first and the garden was organized beautifully. The hedges and trees had a trimmed precision that reminisced more of architecture than it did of botany. I could have stayed here much longer if I hadn’t reminded myself that there were still many more temples to see. I exited the grounds and moved towards the next destination. The path was replete with markers and arrows along the road indicating which way to go. They made the guidebook feel extraneous, but I was sure it would have use later.
When I arrived at Konsenji (Temple 3), there was nobody there. The temples officially close down at 5PM, any later and you cannot get a stamp from the temple office. I was not getting stamps, so I wasn’t concerned about the hour. I took my time browsing the grounds and thought of the people I’d left behind.
I brought no phone or any method of connectivity. I wanted to escape the world of e-mails, alerts, and constant notifications. I didn’t want to hear the news. Usually, it only provides people with too many things to think about. I knew losing the ability to contact all my friends and family would be a challenge. I couldn’t message them if I was bored or tell my girlfriend goodnight. The value of these abilities is easily taken for granted in the modern world. With how quickly we can connect it seems we hardly ever need to feel alone. But, if we can never be alone we run the risk of losing touch with ourselves.
My time in Konsenji was almost frighteningly reflective. It seemed to early to lose myself in a trance of thought. The light of the day was dimming now and I got myself moving. By the time I reached the Dainichiji (Temple 4) it was getting dark. I wished I could have stayed longer, but this was the first night I would be on my own and I needed to find a place to sleep. I took some quick pictures and moved on to Jizōji (Temple 5), which wasn’t far.
I found some level ground below a tree outside the walls of Jizōji and set up my tent. It was a struggle in the dark and my experience setting up tents was limited to the times when I was younger and helped my family do it, and the one time I set up this tent as practice. The knots to the pegs were poor and I was sure I’d made mistakes in the process, but the tent was up and I was tired. I got my things under the rainfly and climbed into my tent to sleep at about 9PM. Day one was complete and my journey had begun.