Shikoku: A Study in Stairs

A collection of pictures taken in Shikoku, Japan in 2014.

In July 2014 I decided to walk the 88 temples pilgrimage of the Japanese island of Shikoku. At 19 I had just received my baccalaureate and the prospect of joining a university or simply the idea of becoming an adult pushed me to do something out of the ordinary and completely escape on my own.

Shikoku is definitely what I had in mind and the month I spent there, was special for many reasons. The island is one of the least developed of the four big (Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido), it is mostly rural  with steep hills and mountains linked by rice fields. This gives the impression of being in an ocean of green with houses and mountains as islands. I travelled with a backpack and slept one night out of two in an inn, the other nights were spent killing mosquitoes and cockroaches.

The pilgrimage I followed the tracks of is one of the oldest traditions in Japanese Buddhism, divided in many sects, this pilgrimage follows the teachings of the Buddhist monk Kukai (Kobo Daishi). A pilgrim must have a book stamped by all the temples to finish it. I do not follow any religious teachings nor was I looking for an esoteric introduction in Buddhism, but I cannot deny the sheer impact the religion I lived in for a month, had on me.

I completed only half of the temples, stopping at number 50ish in the city of Uwajima. I have another half of the pilgrimage to complete, on the other side of the Island where most of its populations is situated. I was greatly helped by a guide that had all the hostels, supermarkets and restaurants indicated on maps and most of the pilgrimage had roadsigns indicating the way. Despite all this I of course got lost multiple times. In the beginning I mistook the ‘give way’ sign for an arrow pointing to the next temple. I cannot give enough thanks to the different islanders who greatly helped me from explaining in sign language where to go from my own ridiculous signs language, to a couple that took me in for the night after having found me on the side of the road eating cold noodles. God what a low point. They treated me to a full restaurant meal and many beers. Many times I was given small presents such as a sweet, a drink sometimes a meal or rides by complete strangers or was simply told not to pay in restaurants. This is because giving to pilgrims brings luck in the local folklore. Being a gai-jin or not Japanese, seemed to have been a comic relief moment in itself for every inhabitant that I met, I was intently stared at and extensively giggled at by grandmas, grandpas and children alike, destabilising at first but I was playing a game by the end of my trip.

I was looking for strong emotions, for a competition with myself on many levels, to walk faster and longer, to rest for longer too, my walking was completely erratic and I was more or less free to sleep where I wanted, I was in a perpetual reflective and free mindset. And strong emotions I did found, on the day of my arrival a typhoon was announced, I slept in a shed with another pilgrim which flooded, it contained benches thus I managed to escape the water but the wind and the rain was unlike anything I had ever seen. My biggest fear during that tripped happened at night as I was taking a longer more scenic and wild route than the pilgrimage, I was surprised by the night. I started my lamp torch and very quickly I saw movement around me and understood that an animal was following me. Turning back I faced something close to a small raccoon more or less the size of a cat. The animal was far from threatening but gripped by an inexplicable fear, I started hitting my walking stick on the ground to scare it. Not caring one bit, it came closer and closer emitting some sort of Wall-e sound, the fear taking over I hit the stick harder than I should have and it broke. My weapon useless I decided to let whatever demon I had encountered do whatever it wanted to do which was to calmly spoon itself between my shoes.

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After having understood that the wild beast I just met was very unlikely to eat me, I started walking again, it followed me for a while more or less climbing on my shoes at every step and then disappeared just like it came. I was transporting food in my backpack at the time so that was what probably interested him however in Japanese culture these animals are called Tanuki, and are renown for the tricks they play on humans by changing forms and toying with them, this representation of the animal is clearly visible in studio Ghibli’s Pompoko.

The gallery of pictures above are the best out of the many I took with my phone. The featured picture is by far my favourite. I was not trying to take anything at the time, the temple at the back was where I came from and I took the picture right before leaving the road as I saw that long street climbing to the temple. The reason I enjoy that picture so much now is because the effects it gives me are the same that I have from Japan as a whole; stillness, calm and warmth. Similarly the temple being at the end of that road is not unlike how many of the temples I visited were built: a long and somewhat steep climb to the temple. Most temples were accessible by numerous sets of stairs, intended as a bridge between the divine and the mortals. By climbing you sweat and force yourself over those steps, when you finally arrive at the temple it is after an effort and you become able to completely relax and be overwhelmed by the place, this needs to be experienced.

This trip is an inherent part of myself and I would love to write a book about my experience, I would strongly recommend the pilgrimage if you are interested in Japan, its religions, customs and culture. Timing your trip is very important, July was perhaps not the best choice as it was very warm and humid. I wouldn’t recommend any planning though if you are looking for an adventure as the feeling of complete freedom rests on your body’s ability for walks. Indeed I think that living without a need to be at a certain place at a certain time enables one to live outside of time for a while.

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