The week I spent last spring walking the first leg of the Shikoku 88 pilgrimage trail was peaceful, thought-provoking, and challenging - often all at once.
Here’s all my writing about that trip in one place.
Are you a planner? Or a no-planner?
Some people like to "wing it" when they travel. They book a ticket and turn up, deciding what to do once they arrive. Me, I like to have things planned out. Especially when the trip involves a week of solo walking in Japan…
Spoiler alert: this post isn't about the Shikoku pilgrimage, although it is about the same trip. It's about what I did with my spare first day in Nagoya: the lost day...
Arriving first thing in the morning on a long-haul flight is not ideal. You're tired, jet-lagged and yet you need to stay awake until a normal bedtime, so you can adjust your body clock.
I had almost 12 hours to kill on that first day, and was waiting for my friends to finish work.
So what do you do with a whole day to yourself?
When I told my Japanese friends I was planning to walk the Shikoku Henro trail, several of them said the same thing. "Are you going to wear a hat?"
For many people, the image of a walker in a bamboo hat is the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the pilgrimage.
But what "should" you wear on the Shikoku 88, a Buddhist pilgrimage trail?
A stranger, they say, is just a friend you haven't met yet.
And talking to strangers is a great way to speak lots of Japanese. I did lots of this while walking the first section of the Shikoku pilgrimage this spring.
But how do you start a conversation with a stranger? Here are some ideas to get you going, even if you're a beginner at Japanese.
I heard lots of "gambatte kudasai" (“keep going!”) walking the first leg of the Shikoku 88 pilgrimage this spring. It was written everywhere too - in fact there were lots of interesting signs.
The pilgrimage trail is pretty well marked. Signage is consistently spaced, and in many places there's a way-marker every 100 metres.
But it's also endearingly inconsistent in design - on some stretches every sign is different, and many are handmade….
"Sumimaseeeeeeeeeeeeeeen!" I shouted. ("Excuse me!")
The couple turned round, but they didn't move.
They were both dressed in full pilgrim garb: long white clothes, their heads protected by conical hats.
"Otoshimono desu!" ("You dropped this!")
They stared at me blankly. I waved the little grey bag with its digital camera inside. "KAMERA!"
I still couldn't make out their faces, but I thought I saw a glimmer of recognition. One of the pair walked towards me, and it was only then that I saw her face.
"I thought you were Japanese," she said, and I heard a European accent I couldn't place.
"I thought you were Japanese," I said…
Kyūkei shimashou" (休憩しましょう) is one of the first phrases I teach all my students, and it means "let's take a break".
Rest is every bit as important as activity - perhaps more important. In class, it helps you digest and absorb ideas.
And on a long-distance walk, rest stops (called kyūkeijo 休憩所 in Japanese) can be a good place to
strike up a conversation.
Near Kumadani-ji, temple number 8, we had stopped in front of some glorious cherry blossom, and I got chatting to two older gentlemen who were walking the trail. One told me he had never spoken to a gaijin-san, foreigner, before. We took some pictures in front of the cherry blossom, and walked up the hill together.
Further up the road, a lady came out of her house and gave us some hard-boiled sweets.
The sweets were a form of o-settai, small gifts given to walking pilgrims. Traditionally, pilgrims didn't carry money, so they were helped along their way by gifts of food, lodging and other acts of generosity from local people.
“Wait here,” she said when she saw me, “I have something else for you.”
The “strange” meals were “quite unlike any food I’ve ever tasted”, wrote one visitor to the Sekishoin Shukubo temple in Mount Kōya, eliciting the blunt reply from one monk:
“Yeah, it’s Japanese monastic cuisine you uneducated fuck.”
Guests online also complained about the lack of heating in the Buddhist temple, the absence of English tour guides, and “basic and vegetarian” food.
I stayed in a couple of shukubo (宿坊) earlier this year…
Thanks so much for reading! I hope you found it useful and/or interesting.
I can’t wait to go back and walk the next bit…