Last November 19th I have finally participated in a pilgrimage that I have long dreamed about – the famous Shikoku Henro (四国遍路）where you will visit the 88 sacred places or temples of the Shikoku Island. I had been closely watching the weather since the previous week of the pilgrimage. It was a little frustrating to see the forecast telling me that it will be good weather on the forthcoming week except November 19th! I had been checking for weather updates two days before the scheduled pilgrimage but it did not change: still rain on November 19th. My friend told me that the organizers called her informing us that if it rained, the event will push through without the henro (pilgrimage). We will just spend the day with sight-seeing tour activity. Yes, it’s good that we will push through, but I’m not happy without the henro! As I went to sleep the previous night, I was begging and praying to God to give the day to us! I badly need it and want it!
The Shikoku Pilgrimage
According to the pamphlet of Tourism Shikoku, it is one of the few circular-shaped pilgrimages in the world. It includes 88 ‘official’ temples and numerous other sacred sites where Kukai (Kobo Daishi) is believed to have trained or have spent time during the 9th Century. The entire route is 1,400 kilometers long. What’s so special with this pilgrimage is that, it provides the chance to reflect on one’s life and to change for the better. You can visit the 88 temples by bus, car, bike or just walk. Walking through the entire route gives the pilgrim the opportunity to mingle with the local people, and experience the abundant natural surroundings of Shikoku. Pilgrims have different purposes in going through this journey. Although most of them are for religious purposes, some do this to get away from regular life, some for recreation, or to spend time alone to reflect or find oneself. For some it is a journey for healing.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is believed to have started way back in the 12th century. During the entire journey, it is believed that Odaishi san is with you throughout your journey as written in the staff you’re holding. It is expressed as Dogyo Ninin (同行二人）.
As you go through the journey, the locals are kind enough to give you gifts (osetai = お接待）as a token of your hard work and expression of their respect to you. It would be rude if you refuse to accept them. Just accept and say thank you. The gifts are of good faith.
Staff (otsue = お杖）and hat (sagegasa = 菅笠）- the staff represents Kobo Daishi or Kukai while the hat protects the pilgrim from the harmful effects of weather such as heat, cold or rain.
Proper gestures during visit at the temples.
Upon arriving at the temple, we were taught to bow once in front of the gate. Wash our hands and mouth at the wash basin (mizuya = 水屋）. Then proceed to the bell tower to ring the bell once. At the main hall, there are boxes where you can drop-off your name slips. The name slip is to let Odaisha know that you visited the temple and let him know of your wish whether for good health, luck, or happiness, anything. Then light 3 sticks of incense (senkou = 線香）and one candle（rousoku = 蝋燭）. It is not encouraged to light your candle from another candle because it is as if you are taking away something from the person who lit that candle. And then you recite the sutras. During our henro, we only recited the Heart Sutra. It is recited in a monotonous, continuous way. After the main hall, you proceed to Daishi Hall and drop-off the second name slip in the boxes provided.
Pilgrims have a pilgrimage book which they can have it stamped after they visit each temple. As soon as you get out of the main gate, you face it again and bow once.
The trails and tracks we passed through at Hiwasa were difficult for someone inexperienced like me especially when wearing a Chuck Taylor (bad idea!). It rained in the morning, so the soil was wet and slippery. And since I begged from God the night before to give this day to me, He miraculously listened to my prayers! It did not rain at all! We had lunch at Ebisu Sinus Onsen Hotel where we enjoyed the beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean and the sun smiling at us.
After lunch, we headed back to our pilgrimage route. Not long enough, we had a snack again prepared by the kind women of Hiwasa. They gave us hand-made pouches as a gift. It was very nice!
And then we went straight ahead to Yakuoji. The destination temple today. After we did the rituals, another snack was prepared for us again by the generous women of the Yakuoji temple. And then the bus was waiting for us just right outside the temple. Happy tummy! Happy soul!
December 10th, I joined the henro again. I was confident with the weather forecast that it would be sunny with clouds. Ironically, it rained the entire morning. We were soaking wet and cold. We visited 5 temples at the Naruto area: The Ryouzenji, Gokurakuji, Konsenji, Dainichiji, and the Jizoji. And since it is more urban than that of Hiwasa, the tracks were easier to walk on. We walked for a total of 12.4 kilometers passing through neighborhoods, bamboo forests and a cemetery. We had udon for lunch, it warmed up my body from the cold rain we just bathed into. The wakame served with udon was indeed a specialty of Naruto, so delicious! Good for digestion.
I was so tired yes. But I had no regrets at all. I learned about the Shikoku Pilgrimage, Japan and the Buddhist Culture, and I met new friends. As I was on the bus homeward bound, I was smiling the whole time thanking God for this wonderful opportunity. I really wish I could visit the rest of the temples someday…I was also thankful for the bad weather forecast-turned good weather for a pilgrimage. My prayer was answered in favor of my request. God made all these possible, for He knew that there’s a lot for me to gain in this experience. I am a Roman Catholic and I think God is not selfish. He gave me the chance to experience the culture of other religions and I don’t think I am betraying my Catholic faith. For God is too big to fit in one religion (–anonymous).