Saturday, June 7, 2014

Shikoku Reflections

Temple 38 Kongofukuji Reflection Pond 
It's been a couple of weeks since my amazingly wonderful walk along the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage path.  I believe all travel is life-changing, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in big ways.  But this one opens the mind on a grand scale. Physically, culturally, and spiritually, the Shikoku Pilgrimage permeates the body, mind, and soul.

My Pilgrimage Clothes

Getting up at 5 am every morning and embarking on a walk for the next 10 hours or so certainly has an impact on the physical body.  In my case I started the pilgrimage 2 days after completing the Eco Slow Marathon Inba.  It was the most fun I have ever had running a marathon.  I loved the beautiful course, the fabulous entertainment, the wonderful people I met, and the causes of raising money to help the orphans from the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and cleaning up trash discarded around Lake Inba.

I walked the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain last year, covering around the same number of miles. But in Shikoku, the goal is to visit all 88 temples, many of which are built on top of mountains, making the walk itself considerably more challenging.  I loved walking through the cities and villages like a silent observer of Japanese daily life.  I saw children in their school uniforms walking together to school, little elderly ladies bent over in their gardens, farmers working the rice fields, the extremely polite store clerks who bowed to everyone as they walked in, and of course the dedicated pilgrims visiting the temples. I saw a part of Japan that most tourists never see when they come just to visit the major attractions in famous cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo.

But it was the mountain trails that thrilled me the most while I was hiking between temples.  In Alaska I always feel somewhat uneasy when hiking trails alone.  There is always the concern of stumbling upon a bear with cubs, or an angry moose protecting her calves.  Or worse yet, encountering a human predator with harming strangers as his primary goal.  But there in Shikoku, I often walked for many hours on isolated trails high in the mountains, never even seeing another person.  There are no large mammals that have humans on their menu and personal crime by humans is extremely rare there.  I could really enjoy the peacefulness of nature at its finest. The trails were beautifully maintained as well. The forests were quite lush and varied and were especially beautiful in April and May with the bright green new leaves and flowering trees displaying cherry, wisteria, plum, and azalea blossoms around every bend. Many were extremely steep but the view through the trees made all the hard work well worth the effort.

Mountain Views
Beautifully Maintained Trails
Ocean Views
It really was a hiker's paradise whether in the villages or along the mountain trails.  I was glad that I kept my backpack extremely light since for the most part, I did have to haul it with me except for a few occasions when I managed to stay in the same hotel multiple nights.  On those days I returned to my hotel by train after my day of walking, then took the train back to where I had left off the next morning. Every night I was really exhausted though.  One great pleasure was always to soak my feet in cold water for a few minutes. 

Immersing myself in Japanese daily life I also learned a lot about the culture of the country.  The Japanese show respect for everyone.  The store clerks bow and thank you for your purchase.  I never came close to leaving my credit card in a store because on every occasion, the store clerk would hand me my receipt with both hands with the card on top of it, and give me a deep bow along with a どうもありがとうございました (thank you very much). I thought it was interesting that no matter where I went, my receipt and card were always given to me in the exact same way.

I found people to be very friendly and I always got a very positive response when I told them I was American and even greater when I said I lived in Alaska.  When I passed people on the street I was always greeted with a bow and a こんにちは (hello) or おはようございます (good morning). I noticed also that people were quiet and reserved while riding on the trains.  This was quite a contrast to the people who liked to talk loudly, and even be a bit obnoxious on the trains I used later in London. I noticed that all businessmen dressed in dark suits with dark ties and white shirts and carried black briefcases.  It was as if the typical business man in Japan had a uniform as rigidly required as that of the elementary and high school students.  I sensed that the average worker in Japan takes their job duties quite seriously. 

Pilgrims along the Shikoku Pilgrim trail are highly respected, even foreigners like me, stumbling along learning about Buddhist traditions as I went.  It is supposed to bring good karma to help a pilgrim.  Because of this I received a lot of help sometimes in the form of little gifts (osetai) of food or candy and occasionally little bits of money, which I always donated at the next temple.  In addition to small gifts, people helped me in many other ways too.  If I was confused or lost, someone would always gladly help me. Several times store clerks actually left their store to walk down the street to get me pointed in the right direction.  I was even given a place to stay and meals for two days and the hotel owners refused any payment.  Sometimes people even chased me down the street to give me osetai.  There was a lot of good karma earned helping this often confused pilgrim along the henro way!

I am fascinated by Buddhist spirituality.  It would take me years to learn and understand more than the most basic of concepts of this complex philosophy/religion.  But in my short visit to Japan I was able to get a definite feel for the devotion and respect the Japanese have for this belief system.  Everywhere in the country one can see evidence of Buddhism as well as Shintoism, the other prominent religion of Japan.  There are no politically correct rules like in the US where religious symbols are prohibited from public lands and buildings.  Buddhist statues are everywhere. Along any street you will find tiny statues surrounded by little offerings of food, flowers, and money, often decorated with little red bibs and crocheted red hats.  I loved that even in the darkest forest you might come across a little statue seemingly guarding your path with its peaceful look.  Buddhism is a discipline focused on strengthening one's own mind, with the goal of developing perfect compassion for all living things, in order to ultimately relieve all suffering.  There is no requirement to evangelize and try to force the Buddhist belief system on nonbelievers.  There is no belief in a single all powerful creator who observes your every thought and deed and plans to hold you accountable in some future life.  Buddhists don't devote their energy to judging the sins of other people.  Instead the focus is on achieving detachment from material things, and developing a perfect compassion for all creatures, in order to end suffering and reach true happiness in this life and whatever life is to come. Buddhists seek enlightenment through compassion towards others.  I find it difficult to fault such a philosophy!

I loved my pilgrimage in Shikoku.  I am so grateful to all of the wonderful people who helped me along the way.  All those who lovingly gave me osetai, Mayulee and her family who took care of me when I fell and got hurt, then gave me a place to stay, my friends Shuki and Takashi who I stayed with when I arrived in Tokyo, and Narumol and Hajime Nishi who took great care of me and gave me a place to stay in their condo my last night in Japan.  And of course Kobo Daishi who walks in spirit with everyone who undertakes the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.

To all of you I say:

Thank you very much!

Deep Bow

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Imperial Palace, Tokyo

I'm spending a day here in Tokyo getting ready to go back to my regular life. I enjoyed a beautiful stroll through the Imperial Palace East Gardens today.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Toji Temple, Kyoto

This temple is very significant to the Shikoku Pilgrimage. It was founded by Kukai (Kobo Daishi), founder of the pilgrimage. He actually lived here and he built its famous pagoda. I paid a second visit to get one last stamp in my temple book.

Nijo Castle, Kyoto

I ended my day with a stroll through Nijo Castle and it's lovely gardens.

Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto

Yasaka Shrine was a busy place today with several weddings taking place. I took a long walk through the gardens of Maruyama Park while I was there.

Sanjusangen-do Temple, Kyoto

This place was amazing. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures inside. Inside the main building are 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon. There are another 28 statues of guardian deities in front of the 1001 Kannon statues. It was a breathtaking sight to see.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


I have been wandering through Kyoto for a couple of days. There are so many amazing sites to see here that a person could spend a lifetime here and still not see it all.

The crowds have been horrendous though. Sometimes they drive me a little crazy because I can hardly move without bumping into someone. Kyoto Station is a complete madhouse to the point where it is almost laughable. It's almost impossible to get where you are trying to go sometimes.

But Kyoto is such an amazing place that it is worth the extra effort it takes to get around. I did make good use of the bus system today though. But I still did quite a bit of walking. I walked to Kiyomizu-dera Temple first. It was extremely crowded but once I started up the steep paths to the pagoda I left the crowds behind. I even found a completely deserted steep pathway down through the gardens rather than fight the crowds back to the street.

Then I caught the bus to the Heian Jingu Shrine and from there walked one of my favorite little pathways. It's called The Path of Philosophy. It wasn't very crowded either and I followed it all the way to Ginkakuji Temple, where all of the crowds were hiding. It was crazy there but the gardens there are some of the most spectacular of any I've seen. Beautiful ponds and so many varieties of trees. They have fascinating gardens of sand there too. It would be such a peaceful place if not for thousands of people sharing it with you!

My favorite spot is Kinkakuji Temple so I grabbed another bus and spent some time there. The last time I was there it was cloudy. But today the gold foil covering the outside of the building just sparkled in the sun. It is a spectacular place to visit.

So many places to see here that I haven't decided where to go tomorrow.