Reflections from the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage
When I set out to do the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage I didn’t know what to expect. I was disappointed that I only had time to complete it by car, and that I wasn’t going to be able to walk. I had thought that using the car was going to limit my interactions with others and reduce the “transformative power” of the journey. I’m happy to say I was completely wrong. The journey was incredible, not only did I get to explore the entire island but I also got to practice Japanese and make friends.
In one day I received 3 oranges, an onigiri (triangle-shaped-rice snack), 2 bananas, a pair of slippers, 2 temple charms, a bath towel, 3 candies, many bows, a hug and was treated to lunch. These were all gifts from strangers, whom I had the pleasure of sharing a brief conversation.
One of my favorite interactions was with a couple, we’ll call the “coffee and compliment” couple. I never learned their names. We met on the last day of my adventure. I was at temple 7 reading the heart sutra, and they hung back to listen. When I finished they approached and asked if I had been practicing and complimented me. We made small talk as we walked over to the stamp office where they proceeded to tell the staff about my “reading.” It was sweet and I was touched. We said our goodbyes in the parking lot, but then at Temple 6, I saw them again! This time we chatted a bit longer over coffee. After we finished our drinks we got in our respective cars and drove away. I was a little sad when I didn’t see them at Temple 5, but figured they had stopped for lunch. But when I pulled into Temple 4, there they were. Waiting for me in the parking lot. The husband ran up to my window and said his wife had been worried sick. “Where had I gone? Why had it taken me so long to get there? Was everything okay?”
I was so surprised and reassured them of my own coffee stop and thus delay. I told them not to worry “心配しないでください” and thanked them for their concern. And that was it. Once they knew I was safe they went back to their car and continued on.
They have no idea how much that experience impacted me. How for the rest of the day I looked for opportunities to share the love they had bestowed on me, even if it was just smiling at someone at the temple. I still smile when I think of those two. Such characters. Absolute treasures.
Another amazing interaction occurred in Matsuyama. I was pulling into my hostel for the evening and asked a couple standing out in front to help me while I parked. They turned out to be from Switzerland and were spending the summer biking their way through Japan. They were staying in Matsuyama longer than planned because one of them had twisted their ankle and needed to rest it. Since they couldn’t bike, I offered to take them to the temples I was visiting the following day, and they accepted. We went to temples 44 and 45, which were gorgeous mountain temples surrounded by gigantic trees. When we were getting ready to part ways we were approached by two French Pilgrims – they were having trouble booking a place to sleep for the evening. Since the Swiss couple spoke French fluently they acted, as middlemen, translating into English what the French men needed, and then I would speak in Japanese to the inn owners. The first few places we called were full, but we eventually found them a place to stay! The teamwork was incredible. And for my personal goal of learning Japanese it helped to build my confidence and motivation. Every time I said something and the native speaker actually understood me was like Christmas! It was such an enjoyable and practical way to solidify what I had learned in the classroom.
I could tell you stories for days, about the people I met on the journey and the experiences I had. There was the taxi driver that turned our car into a roller coaster. Or the pitch-black tunnel that reminded me just how grateful I am for friends, family and partners in this life (more about that here). And the sisters from Kobe that took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew about proper temple etiquette.
Since I’m not Shinto or Buddhist, these connections were the most spiritual part for me. Feeling that shared humanity – what we all have in common – is what touched me most deeply.
Out the window on the train back to Tokyo from Shikoku I saw one last pilgrim, dressed in white with his cone shaped hat, walking in the rice fields. It was a gorgeous scene and it pained me to think that I wouldn’t have that visual reminder of the experience when I was back in the city.
But then I thought, if a pilgrimage really means “life viewed as a journey” then all of us are just pilgrims in plain clothes.
I'm heading back to where I started, to begin again.
Thank you to Forrest, Joe, Kate, Luis, Marguerite, and Megan - couldn't have put this together without you.
Hello from Tokyo! Elizabeth here. I'm so excited about all the Japan has to offer and am working to connect travelers to locations based on their interests and passions.
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