Temples 1 – 9
This short initial portion of the pilgrimage proved to be enjoyable, even with children. The weather was perfect in late October and the trail was uncrowded. The high season for the pilgrimage is from April – June, but people walk it at all times of the year.
For detailed information about the Shikoku Pilgrimage, there is nothing you can’t learn at Mr. Turkington’s website.
David Moreton lives and works near the start of the pilgrimage and was very helpful with advice. He is also involved in translating the main guidebooks and can arrange to get materials to you.
We were up and out fairly early, as is the custom in Japanese inns. Breakfast was ready by 6. It was almost as good as the dinner, although I did avoid the natto, which I’ve never been used to. The kids didn’t eat much, which shamed me again. Of course, our hosts reacted by over compensating – they packed up a large bag full of croissants together with six nigiri which, together with some towels, formed an osettai.
The obasan of the inn offered to take our picture in front of it, but her finger kept pressing the reverse camera button, and she was frustrated to find that she kept taking a picture of herself. The kids found this so funny that the memory of it sustained them for the rest of the day.
The longest interval so far is the stretch between Temples 5 and 6, so we had a fairly long walk this morning. There were a number of pilgrim’s shelters built along this stretch – we stopped and snacked on the food we had been given at one of them right in front of a primary school. One could sleep in some of these shelters and, based on the logbook, many Japanese and foreigners alike have.
Not long later, a nicer model car approached us and a bag was handed our the window. Some sandwiches and other snacks. Only a few brief words were exchanged and the car drove off. Judging by the proper number of snacks, they must have seen us earlier, went to a convenience store to buy something, and then found us again. Our third osettai.
The key feature of Temple 6 is an upside-down pine tree. Although it looked like quite a normal pine tree to us.
We paused to eat lunch at this temple, and the kids found a cat to play with near the Daishi Hall. While I was sitting there eating, a group of primary school kids and their teacher arrived and huddled around a table and chairs that had been already set up. I heard increasingly urgent whispering, and had the old familiar feeling that I was about to be approached by Japanese kids who are worried about whether they can communicate with me. They opted for safety in numbers and I was soon surrounded by 4 of them. They were simply offering little trinkets, a drink of tea and small candies to pilgrims as osettai as part of a school learning project. They were visibly relieved that I could speak passable Japanese, and we made friends for a while, as there were precious few other pilgrims.
Temple 7 came in quick succession. Here we passed a male/female pilgrim couple (didn’t seem like husband and wife – maybe father/daughter or brother/sister?) who shamed me a bit for being so clearly genuine and fervent in their faith. It is hard to say how exactly, but there was a kind of care put into how they bowed, washed and recited the sutras. I also had the impression that it wasn’t their first time around. I was warned from previous pilgrim travelogues that there are times when you would feel like a mere tourist compared with the faithful pilgrims. Of course, everyone is welcome to experience this pilgrimage on whatever level you feel appropriate, but this was one of those times.
You can climb up into the upper room of the gatehouse at this temple, where there is a shrine to fudo myo-o (a scary guardian deity typically displayed in or near temple gates). Around here would have marked a decent 1-day walk, if we had walked a full day yesterday.
Temple 8 is up against the mountains again, and proved to be the most scenic of the temples so far. From the parking lot and temple office, some kind of chant was played over loudspeakers, but it added just enough of the right kind of atmosphere. The actual temple is up a path a bit farther, behind several gates. Again, there were very few other people here. A small bus showed up, but everyone did their rounds and left quickly.
Across the street from Temple 8 is a pond with an artificial island and a bridge. The island is only big enough for a small shrine to benten, a hybrid Shinto-buddhist deity of the sea.
I wanted to make it as far as Temple 10 because that is the last of the temples on the north side of the river, and there is a 12-km distance creating a natural break between Temples 10 and 11. Also, we were getting out of easy range of train stations, and Temple 11 is back near a station, so it would be easy to pick up from there next time. Of course, there are two flaws in this thinking: 1) I would probably have to walk from Temple 10 to Temple 11 in order to do the pilgrimage properly anyway, and 2) the kids were starting to rebel. We had business back in Tokushima that would take us back there that night.
It was getting late as we neared Temple 9 due to dawdling on the way. There is a teahouse right across the street, and the old lady waved us over and offered to give us some treats as osettai when we were done with the temple. Then we encountered a very happy older pilgrim couple at the temple, who handed us a bag of Japanese sweets. There were some bus pilgrims at this temple, but they were different from the usual ones. Their staffs had unusual ornaments and they all carried special bells. They were gathered along one side of the temple singing (instead of chanting) the sutras. The singing was accompanied by timed ringing of their bells, and was more otherworldly and beautiful than the typical chanting. Again, I felt like a bit of a tourist gawking in on their heartfelt belief. In the end, though, tourist me only regretted that I didn’t make a better recording of the singing. I’ve been unable to find anything online about sung sutras in this context.
We went back over to the teahouse where we received drinks and Japanese sweets as osettai. I explained that I was arguing with the kids about proceeding to Temple 10. The obasan urged us to give it up because there is some large number of steps (300 or so?) to get up to Temple 10. Although I still wanted to do it, this gave me cover to cave in. She called a taxi for us, which arrived a few minutes later, and we headed for the nearest train station on the south side of the river. Of course, we made it to Tokushima with a little too much time before our evening activity…
This ended our short initial try at the pilgrimage. It gave a good sense of pacing, how to handle meals, road walking, restrooms, traffic and the temples themselves. It was touching to receive so much osettai for what felt like little effort. I tried doing the full sutras at least once every day, and wonder if this might be a better template for a longer pilgrimage, at least until I get better at them. We ran into very few other walking pilgrims this time of year, which is both a good thing and a bad, I suppose.
Back in Tokushima, we did another kind of pilgrimage among the tanuki (badger – don’t argue with me about this translation) shrines that are scattered around the city….
The Kasai family in Tokushima offered to keep our staffs for us until we return again.