SYNOPSIS:  About becoming a henro for a day and making a pilgrimage to three of 88 shrines; about a cable car, the Matsuyama castle and a late night party.


I did my part today to fuel the pilgrim industry.  As I mentioned in the Yashima blog, the Shikoku Island is known for one of the most famous pilgrimage circuits in the world.  Pilgrims embark on visiting 88 temples, ideally, in consecutive order and in one stretch.  It takes an estimated 40-60 days and costs around $4000 to do so.  The old way, to which quite a number of pilgrims still adhere, is to walk in solitude or at best along with a few other pilgrims or heron.  But few these days make the entire trip on foot and not everyone completes the full circuit.  The use of buses or trains or a rental car in between the larger stretches is not frowned upon and to complete only part of the journey is OK, too.

But you can also join a pilgrimage package tour and make the circuit in 10-12 days in the comfort of your air-conditioned bus under the leadership of a sendatsu, an experienced pilgrim who will guide you, along with 30 other jolly bus pilgrims.  If solitude and raising your spiritual awareness is at all an intended part of this trip, the bus version most definitely will defeat this.  If physical endurance is another intended part of this circuit, the bus tour leaves no more than the occasional stairs up to the temples; in one case however, a whopping 1350 steps, in most cases though, just a few.  For whatever reason people embark on this trip, an estimated 150,000 people annually are on the road.  Count the accommodations, the food, the outfits, the souvenirs and all, and you got yourself a thriving pilgrim industry.

The cynics may point out that the Buddhist Saint Kobo Daishi who lived in the 9th century and who is credited with having founded or having been to all of these temples could not possibly have much to do with this circuit, since the route as it is known today can only be traced back to the 17th century, and except for a few confirmed places, his presence can not be validated in others.   But Kobo Daishi is considered the travel companion for, and the protector of all pilgrims, a belief known as Dogyo-ninin which means as much as “same practice, two people” implying that he would have done this pilgrimage himself at one point, which he most likely never did.

Pilgrims can be spotted everywhere, wearing a traditional straw hat called a sugegasa and white jackets known as hakui, and carrying typically a bell, or jirei, and a walking stick, or kongozue along with a small bags of essentials.  This trip reminds me in certain ways of the European pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

In my naiveté, looking at the map, I had seen a cluster of about 10 temples in the Matsuyama area and figured I could do about 7 today.   That, with the one temple I had seen in Yashima would make 8/88.  That sounded right and was a fine, holy Buddhist number.  If I had been up by 5 AM, skipped the castle, and had a car, I probably could have.  But I rely on public transportation and it was noon…

When I showed up at the bus station the clerk asked me where I wanted to go.  I pointed to the cluster of temples in the area and said: which ones do you think I could do?  For some reason he pieced together a schedule for two of the most distant temples.  If we could have communicated better I would have probably questioned that.  But I was just as happy to have some guidance on where to go, and I took off.  On the bus I read some of the descriptions of temple #46, the Joruri-ji and #47, the Yasaka-ji and could not believe it: he had sent me to the temple where a famous 8th century Yakushi sculpture was worshipped, the medicine god who is part of my travel pantheon, and the female Shinto deity associated with the temple, the Ichigan-Benten was considered the guardian of knowledge and the arts!

That got me into the mood.  Now I was on a pilgrimage, my personal mini pilgrimage paying homage to knowledge and the arts and giving thanks to the Buddha of health, and I was going to do it right: bow when you enter, leave a coin at the bell, ring the bell and listen until its sound has completely dissipated, leave a coin for each deity, and say a prayer.  And then I got a piece of paper stamped and inscribed by a priest with… I have no idea what.  I am sure it’s something good.  It looks cool.  And I hope it’s related to health, knowledge and the arts.  And of course you pay for that, too…

As a souvenir I bought one of the white pilgrim’s vests inscribed with calligraphy, and a small sash worn over it.  I skipped the rosary and the bell.  The staff and the hat would not fit into my luggage either and had to go, too.

And honouring just a bit of the pilgrim’s way, I walked two kilometers back and forth to the next temple, a much more impressive one than the knowledge and arts temple, but who cares?  There, I experienced first hand one of those pilgrim package tours.  And I could kick myself for completely messing up one of the coolest video opportunities that was put right in front of me: as the group embarked, the sendatsu, clearly identifiable by his brown outfit as the leader rather than an ordinary pilgrim, pulled out a big gourd-shaped round object which he played.  It sounded a bit like blowing a shofar hornIt seemed like he was announcing the group to the deity.  He played this thing for a good minute or two and I thought I was videotaping it…  But in the glaring sun I did not see that I had pressed the wrong button and got nothing to share.  🙁  What a shame!

Because of this spectacle I missed my bus and since I was in the boonies I had to wait for the next one for almost an hour.  I tried to hitchhike but this was too urban an area for anyone to pick me up.  Finally, two women stopped only to read the bus schedule to me and to assure me that in 40 minutes the bus would arrive.  After that I gave up.

Temple #51, the Ishite-ji was close to the area where I stayed and I had saved it for last.  By the time I finally arrived it was almost dark.  I was lucky that the temple was open at all.  It was one of the major temples, much bigger than #46 or #47.  It still had the 9th century feel to it with a three-storied pagoda and some of the buildings looking rather authentic.  But it also had been completely cluttered up with modern religious kitsch and the syncretic nature of Japanese temple could have been no more blatant.  From dragons to dwarfs, from copies of a famous Indian Gupta-style image to a giant stone pilgrim towering over the mountain, it was nauseating.

For me the most important things to see were two authentic guardian figures which I had studied in class and which I have seen already in multiple copies all over the place.  But here were the real things.  Just like the famous 8th century Yakushi statue at #46 and an equally famous 8th century Amida Buddha at #47, these great pieces of art were hidden from view.  In the temples they are at the back of the shrine where you never get to.  In this case, they were inside the guardian houses but completely covered behind meshed wire and straw ropes!  Someone had pulled open a fist-sized hole into which I inserted the zoom of my camera and as best as I could (and in the dark), I tried to photograph what I could of these images…

This temple would have deserved a lot more time and light to be appreciated, but I had to reconcile that today’s pilgrimage was not about famous or big, but it was about health, knowledge and the arts.  And that counted for something.

Matsuyama Castle is a touristy must and of course I went there in the morning.  But I will spare you the details.  It is a mountain castle with one of the most extensively preserved surrounding areas, outer moats and succession of gates I have seen so far.  It is in most parts a reconstruction, but an authentic one.  And it affords great views into the surrounding mountains.

The most fun part of it was to use a cable car system to get up the mountain, where you sit in open suspended chairs — no strapping in at all — looking down into the valley.  I was seriously worried about dropping something since I had the backpack, camera, glasses and the umbrella to worry about.  Then what?!  But nothing happened.

At the Ryokan Dougoya a small but lively group had gathered, just like the night before.  There were Helen and Maureen from Belgium, Paolo from Argentina, Oliver from Australia, Glen from the US and Michika, our host from Japan.  An all English-speaking gathering.  🙂  It was 1:30 AM when I retreated…

Good night.


5 comments so far

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  1. Good thing you have already been to Iraq. Whilst you are traveling in Japan, Iraq has basically gone to Hell in a hand basket. I don’t know how much English language news you see there, but ISIS is on the move to Baghdad…spreading horror in its wake. I remember what Colin Powell said to Bush…the pottery barn analogy…”You break it, you own it”. We broke it…badly. Obama is still trying to figure out what to do…not too many good choices.

    It must seem so far removed from all your mid East travels to be in the relativity serenity of Japan with its shrines and beautiful castles and no head scarves. Wow…culture shock!!!

  2. I believe that your first paragraph is printed in black letters on a black background. Totally impossible to read. Too bad. The rest is fine.

    • Carl…just take your mouse and highlight the first paragraph and it will show up.

    • Thanks – don’t know how these things happen. I will try to fix it but I might make it worse… I am sorry for the trouble. ET

  3. Sometimes history has to be wrapped up in tight schedules and cool, comfy seats to make it accessible for us working stiffs with limited vacation time. I assumed Japanese shrines to be less kitsch than other popular travel destinations though, and while I’m sure there are varying degrees of it, I am a bit disappointed that they have succumbed to the prevailing norm of the tourist trade. If that’s what’s needed to maintain them and keep them open to the masses I guess it’s justifiable. But it seems to defeat the purpose of being a quiet and contemplative place to communicate with your god.

    BTW, thanks for another great recap. One can get lost in a the traditions and symbolism you describe. I admire your ability to corral your gear on such an unforgiving ride up the mountain. It is one of those experiences that you definitely don’t want to brag, “Look Ma, no hands.”