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Trudy 09 Aug 2009

Pilgrim in Japan.

This column has a religious element in it. It is partly fact based but mostly my own experiences and views.

A pilgrim? Me, an agnostic? Yes, I did a part of the famous 88-temple pilgrimage on Shikoku, Japan´s fourth biggest island. So far I have visited 17 of the 88 temples. Not because I wanted to become religious but because these temples give me, besides the gorgeous view of the centuries old buildings, a nice feeling and silence, even when there are other people around. I loved it and I am certain I will go back to do some more. Maybe one day I will even finish it!


  A map of Shikoku Island with the 88 temples.


Pilgrimages are well known all over the world. Depending on your background you will have heard of them: Lourdes in France or Fatima in Portugal for Catholic people, Mecca in Saudi Arabia for Muslims and the Ganges with several sites in India for Hindus. Pilgrimages in Japan are relatively unknown, except amongst Japanese people. On Shikoku there are thousands of shrines and temples, like everywhere in Japan. The 1500 kilometre long 88-temple trail of Kobo Daishi is the most famous. Any Japanese will nod when you say you want to go there, they will praise you when you have done it, even if you have only been to one of the 88 temples.



   A group of henro


The numbered 88 temples have existed for almost 1200 years and are visited by thousands of people yearly. They do that following Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi. He was enlightened on this island where he was born and by following his footsteps, people hope to be enlightened too. It is not compulsory to visit all temples at one time or visit them in a specific order. Many people visit the temples clockwise but that is not necessary. Some people take years to complete this pilgrimage. Some people do the pilgrimage only once, others more times. There are people who complete this pilgrimage over 50 times! There is the anecdote of a businessman in Tokyo who, inside a big department store, used 88 Buddhist items as stepping stones. Then he got himself blessed by a priest and this way finished his pilgrimage in a couple of minutes...!!


 Kobo Daishi

   Picture of Kobo Daishi


There are some rules for a henro to follow while on pilgrimage, the core Buddhist precepts, you can compare them very much with the Ten Commandments:

  • Do not kill
  • Do not steal
  • Do not misuse sexuality
  • Do not lie
  • Do not exaggerate
  • Do not speak badly of others
  • Do not engage in wrongful thinking or cause others to do so.

 Traditionally the pilgrimage is done on foot. Nowadays most people complete it by car or touring bus. Cycling or with the use of public transport is also allowed. On foot it usually takes about around seven weeks to complete, quite a challenge and a real pilgrimage I think. Not all pilgrims are Japanese, not all are even Buddhist. Some people are ´looking for themselves´. A pilgrim is called ´henro´, a foreign pilgrim is a ´gajin-henro´, gajin meaning ´alien´!



   Temple 75: Zentsu-ji


2004 - Zentsu-ji

My first visit to one of the 88 is  Zentsu-ji, the birth place of Kobo Daishi and temple number 75. If you want to register your visit to a temple, you can buy a temple book, a ´nokyocho´. Temple books are for sale at several temples, but not at all. When you have such a book, you go to the temple office for registration. You pay 300 yen (a little over 2 euro) and you get beautiful handmade calligraphy (done with black ink) and a large paint-brush. As well as that, you get a stamp and a little ´business card´ you can add to a separate place in the book. Every temple has its own specific place in that book. Do not worry if you do not know where to put the calligraphy or the business card, temple staff know.



   A temple book


So, I have my book and my first registration. I go to the ´Buddha gangway´ in the basements of the temple where Kobo Daishi was born around 800 AC. This gangway is pitch-black and you have to find your way by keeping your left hand attached to the wall. The gangway turns and turns, it is hard to keep track of the direction you came from. Halfway you get to a small altar. At first, in the first part of the gangway it feels as if I am walking in a blue light, very strange. The meandering route gives a weird sensation because it feels as if also the wall is meandering. According to the explanation text one is confronted in the dark with one´s shortcomings. This way you can straighten them out. To me, it feels a little bit like a ghost house scenery. After this underground trip I complete my visit by offering some money in the offering hall, I light a candle while thinking of my deceased father. It is not the religion that counts, but the thought, isn´t it?


2004 - More temples in Kagawa prefecture

During this trip to Japan I visit my Japanese friends for the first time - Masa, his wife Suzu, their three children and his parents, Ai-san and Keizo-san. San is the suffix you use in Japanese to show respect to people. For them I am Trudy-san, though I said that just my first name is enough. I have known Masa for about 7 months through a website on the internet. We have e-mailed weekly and when I said I was coming to Japan, he invited me to stay for a couple of days at his home.



   A henro hat - mine is hanging on the wall here at home!


Ai-san and Keizo-san already have completed their pilgrimage. Proudly, they show me their temple book, filled with stamps and calligraphy. They also show me a painting they bought during their pilgrimage and the special pilgrim clothing. Pilgrim clothing consists of a complete white set of cotton jacket - called a happi-coat - and pants, on the back of the jacket there is often a text that says something like ´you will never travel alone´, meaning a guardian angel or Buddha is with you. These white clothes were not only the travelling or pilgrim clothes but also the shroud in case a pilgrim died. In earlier days there were no telephones to alert a doctor or ambulance and dead pilgrims were buried along the roadside. Besides this white clothing, pilgrims will wear a very thin wooden hat - in the shape we all know from Vietnamese films - a bell, a chain plus they carry a walking stick. All this - and many more items- you can buy at temple number 1 near the town of Tokushima. That I, being a gajin, have bought a temple book is surprising for them and they admire me for it. They are happily surprised for my interest in Japanese culture and religion.



   Temple 84: Yashima-ji


Our first visit together is to Yashimi-ji, temple 84. This temple is located on a 282 metre high hill and because it is so near the coast, it offers a great view over the Seto Inland Sea. In the twelfth century it was the battlefield of samurai, warriors, of several clans. Behind this temple there is ´Blood pond´, where samurai cleaned their swords when they were besmeared with the blood of their enemies. The water got a red colour that way. After that we go for a quick visit to temple 87. Just before five o´clock, temple closing time, we arrive at Okubo-ji, temple 88. It´s very much located away from everything. To get there without a car, one has to walk for seventeen kilometres, uphill! Happily for me, we are travelling in Masa´s car, enjoying the beautiful scenery. The road uphill is marked with grave stones of those henro who could not complete their pilgrimage and died during it. They estimate that during the years, millions of pilgrims completed this pilgrimage. The showpiece of this temple is a stone pillar with an inscription: The place of fulfilling the promise. Here, according to the tradition, pilgrims leave their walking stick behind . Once a year there is a big ceremony at which the sticks are burned.



   Temple 88: Okubo-ji with walking sticks


Pilgrimage in the prefecture of Tokushima in 2005 - part 1

A slow train brings me to Bando, near Rozen-ji, the first of the 88 temples. Besides my stamp I also buy here my pilgrims hat and a happi-coat. The latter I do not dare to wear yet, I am a little afraid of how Japanese people will look at me. It all works out well, even only my hat gives me a lot of respectful behaviour, some people bow and a lot of people greet me - in Japanese of course. Being an ´o-henro-san´ I am special for them.



   Temple 1: Ryozen-ji


I want to do five temples today, on foot. The distance to cover is twelve kilometres but the heat gives me blisters on my feet and after temple 3 I quit. The temples in this area will have to wait, meaning I have to return. Well, that is not a punishment! I see a lot of other henro, all Japanese. Though mostly fully dressed as pilgrims, they all arrive by car with air-conditioning. A pilgrimage is ok, but some comfort is needed it seems....


Meanwhile I am getting hungry and an udon-ya, a restaurant specializing in white thick noodles, is a good idea. It takes a lot of effort to make clear what I want. However, the female owner and two other guests do what they can to help me. Being a pilgrim, there it is again, it is deserved. One of the guests gives me two bananas, for strength because according to her I need that. Giving food to pilgrims is very common in Japan.


Temples in the prefecture of Ehime - 2005

A local train gets me to Iyo-wake to visit temple 53. It is located very close to this station. It feels a little bit like cheating, doing my pilgrimage by public transport. A real pilgrim does it under his own steam. My guilt melts away as I see a bus arriving. A group of Japanese gets out, including a tour guide with the obligatory flag. They are doing an ´all-in pilgrimage´, including accommodation, food and transport by air-conditioned bus in about ten days.


Whilst walking I ask a very old woman if I am going in the right direction .She has grown crooked, she needs to put her head aside to look at me. Immediately she starts talking and I hardly understand a word. My Japanese is very limited with the about 300 words I know. I nod therefore and say a couple of times ´arrigato´ - thank you - but before I can walk away she makes a gesture that means stop. She goes into her home and when she comes back she gives me a can of cold ice coffee, very nice in this heat. Ganbatte is her last word to me, and that I understand: Good luck.


According to the temple map number 52 must be nearby and at number 53 they told me it was only two kilometre walking. Well, that is right but what they did not tell me was that this distance is only from entrance to entrance. The buildings of temple 52 are about a kilometre further away, uphill and after a flight of 164 steps (I counted them moaning and groaning...). Remarkable at this temple are the many stalls with pilgrim souvenirs. Still there is no sales person in sight. They trust the honesty of pilgrims and as each souvenir has a price tag, it is easy to pay. Just drop the requested amount of money in the honesty-box.



Temple 52 

Also nearby, well again two kilometres walking, is Ishite-ji, temple 51. Ishite-ji is famous for its big Buddha statue, noticeable from far away. Ishite-ji is built in Kamakura style, a town near Tokyo where Japan´s biggest Buddha statue is. This temple here is the number two most visited temple. The busiest is number 75, Zentsu-ji, where I started last year. Its popularity has to do with the fact that Kobo-Daishi lived here during his childhood, it´s a real pilgrims´ place in more ways and that is very obvious. The route towards the entrance is cramped with food stalls and souvenir sellers of the expensive kind. For some reason I don´t like it, it has a little bit too much ´Disneyland´-atmosphere. After getting my stamp I am gone immediately.


Pilgrimage in the prefecture of Tokushima in 2005 - part 2

Also this year I stay for a few days at my friend´s place and together with Masa, Ai-san and Keizo-san I go to some more temples. They all like it when I wear my happi-coat and my pilgrim´s hat. I look so very Japanese, they say. Today I visit seven temples and I also have seven stamps. Masa says I have to collect stamps at each temple and each stamp is important. We go to temples 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 85 and 86. Two are high up in the mountains, the road towards them sometimes rising 22%!! At one of these temples I see a pilgrim´s hat looking very similar to mine. It costs less than half the price I paid for mine. Ai-san picks it up, looks critically and puts it back. No, she gestures, this is not good quality. This cheap one is made of bamboo and glued, mine is a real one, made from thin wood and sewed. Ah, so desu! At temple 86 we meet a young Japanese man, I guess he´s about 24, who is walking all the way. So far he has been on the road for 46 days. He hopes he can complete his pilgrimage tomorrow after going uphill for 17 kilometres. We wish him strength.



   Osame fuda


At each temple I offer some money. Ai-san gives me coins of five yen because the number five is a lucky number in Japan and the 50 yen (less than half a Euro!) I want to donate is way too much she says. Ai-san took candles with her from her house when I explained I wanted to light them to pay respect to my father. At each temple she gives me one. Ai-san starts rummaging around in the box filled with osame-fuda, little cards every real pilgrim adds when visiting a temple. It is another type of proof someone has been there though there are no names on the cards. There are osame-fuda in different colours, each representing the number of completed pilgrimages. From the first until third time you do the pilgrimage your cards are white. The forth and fifth time they are green, then red and when you do the complete pilgrimage for the 25th time your cards are supposed to be silver. After fifty times you are allowed to use golden ones. You have to buy these cards at one of the temples. Each set contains 200 cards and you will need about 300 for a complete pilgrimage because you not only leave a card when visiting a temple but you should give one as well to each person offering you food or free accommodation. I did not know that, therefore I did not have them. My Japanese was not good enough to understand when I bought some stuff at Rozen-ji. Ai-san is looking to see if she can find a silver one for me, she can not find a golden one, they are very rare. She takes the card out of the box and gives it to me. ´O-miyage, souvenir´, she says. It feels disrespectful, a little bit sacrilegious to take one. I think a pilgrim did not leave them for nothing. Ai-san waves away my objections, no problem, it is allowed.


Some more temple experiences



   Temple in Kyoto


Kyoto - 2004

The city of Kyoto on the island Honshu is known for its temples. Beside ff course the famous Golden and Silver temple, one of the temples I visit here is Adashino Nembutsu-ji, in the north-west part of Kyoto. The temple is famous for its over eight thousand stone Buddhas, each serving as a grave monument for deceased poor without family. Close to each other, as if it is a living crowd, it looks very impressive. Every year on August 23rd and 24th the souls of these abandoned people are memorialized with candles during the Sento-Kuyo ceremony. It then looks as if the statues are floating on a sea of candle light. They have been undiscovered for ages, hidden in the bamboo forest. About a hundred years ago the statues were discovered and exhibited. In the brochure they gave me at the entrance it states that taking pictures is prohibited. Oops, I read that too late, I already took some pictures!


Kotohira - 2004

My day today starts early at 7.30AM. I want to avoid the heat. It will be 34 degrees today. I also have no idea how long it will take me to climb the stairs of Kompira-san here in Kotohira, in the north of the island Shikoku. Like the 88-temple trail, everyone in Japan knows Kompira-san. When you say you have visited Kotohira, the first question people will ask is ´Have you climbed Kompira-san by yourself?´ Here it is possible to get carried to the top by two men in a palanquin. I see them at the side of the road and they look very tiny to me. Little Japanese are sitting cramped inside, how I am supposed to get my tall Western body into it? Originally the temple on this small mountain was a tribute to the Guardians of the Sea, dedicated to Omononushi-no-Mikoto, the patron god of sailors and travellers. Some maritime leftovers are to be seen. Since the Meiji-era, from 1867, it became a Buddhist shrine. The first steps are halfway up the shopping street, on both sides of the street shops filled with tourist stuff and things to use for offerings. You can borrow walking sticks for free though salesmen hope you will buy something when returning them of course. I buy a large straw hat to protect me against the sun. I look a little bit like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa now. Climbing the stairs is easier than I thought upfront, though often a short break to rest and drink is much needed because within ten minutes I am sweating a lot. The plastic fan I got in Hiroshima is very useful now. It is not extremely crowded here though a lot of other people are making their way up as well. Sometimes I see small family groups and sometimes large groups of Japanese tourists with their guide, listening to the explanation given through speakers. Around 09.30AM I arrive at the first shrine, around 800 steps high, but being an incurable climber - that´s what Lonely Planet calls the people who continue - I go on after a short break. This first shrine is dedicated to the Sun goddess Amaterasu and the name is Asahino Yashiro, Shrine of the Rising Sun. A little after ten o´clock I´m at the top, 1368 steps high and I enjoy a marvellous view over Kotohira and surroundings. At the summit there is another shrine, Oku-sha. By the way, I did not count these steps myself. Other people did that before me.



   Some of the steps on Kompira-san


Tsubaki shrine - 2004

Starting a Sunday with something religious is quite classical, so I go to a Shinto Shrine called Tsubaki Shrine, meaning Camellia. This shrine is located in Mie prefecture near the city of Suzuka, known for Formula 1 racing. Using some gestures and body language I find out where the main entrance is and if, being a foreigner, I am allowed to enter. There are several services in progress and I do not want to disturb them. Inside I see books about the shrine in English. Apparently there were foreigners before me. After a couple of minutes´ waiting a Western looking man is coming towards me. He introduces himself as Ron Hersom, a 53-year old theology student from California. He is here on a scholarship for six weeks. About to become a minister of Unitarians United, he wants to look beyond the borders of his own religious community. (I think more clerics should follow him in this.) They offer me the possibility of a real Shinto purification ceremony. I gladly accept. First I wash myself according to the rules. I bow and I clap my hands when told, I put a set of leaves down in a special way and I get blessed by a Shinto priest. Before I leave the sacred part of this shrine I get a little cup of sake. It´s only ten in the morning so a little sip is enough. Ron shows me around the temple grounds and he explains at several places the meaning of things.



   Tsubaki Grand Shrine



   Enno-ji temple in Kamakura


Kamakura - 2004

Kamakura is a suburb of Tokyo and I visit here several of the more than 70 temples the city has. Each temple has its own specialty. Jochi-ji from 1283, for instance, is one of the five big Zen temples of Kamakura and Enno-ji is famous for its statues of the judges from hell, a well known Buddhist theme. However, here they are a little friendlier than the temples I saw in Sri Lanka. There, physical punishment was shown without any restriction. Each sin a sinner commits was displayed with the rightful punishment. Quartering and beheading are nothing special. Enno-ji restricts itself to the stern faces of the judges with Emma as their leader. The most important shrine in Kamakura is Tsurugaoke Hachiman-go, dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war but also the guard of the Minamoto clan, rulers in Japan in the eleventh century. Then it is time to see Daibutsu, the immense high Buddha with which Kamakura became famous. The statue is 11,4 metre high and weighs 850 tons. It stems from 1252. It is not the highest Buddha in Japan, in Nara there is a higher one, but still, it is very impressive. In my travel book I read it is possible to view the statue from the inside but when I try that the stairs seem to be closed. My next stop is at Hase Kannon-ji where they have an 11-headed bodhisattva - that is a Buddhist follower who is waiting with becoming enlightened until the rest of the world is. Many bodhisattvas are immortalised and spread out over Japan in museums and temples. I am counting the heads but I only see nine of them. Maybe the other two are round the back? Spread out over the temple grounds I see many stone statues of Jizo, the patron saint of travellers and the souls of deceased children. A lot of these statues are dressed by women who have lost their baby by miscarriage or abortion. That way they think these souls will not feel cold.



  Jizo statues


Uwajima - 2005

The reason I came to Uwajima in Kochi prefecture is ,of course, Taga-jinja and the attached sex museum. There are many temples in Japan with statues or paintings regarding fertility but that´s not the case here. It is about lust, pleasure in sex. Literally tens of thousands of pictures, paintings, statues, ornamental articles, utensils and more are exhibited. Walls and ceilings are covered to the last centimetre. Show cases are filled completely. The pictures are quite explicit. Positions of all kinds, duo´s, threesomes, sex with animals, you can see everything. The Kama Sutra looks very innocent! The funniest utensil I see is a soup bowl with at the bottom the picture of a couple having sex. Hmmm, imagine, having your mother-in-law over for dinner and giving her soup in that bowl.... However, even this is getting boring and after 45 minutes I leave the museum. Outside in the temple grounds I look at some statues, amongst them, one of a phallus of about 2,5 metre length. Taking pictures inside is absolutely forbidden unless you want to pay the cover charge of 20,000 yen (150 Euro!), I don´t think it´s worth that enormous amount .Outside it is a bit of a mess so I do not take pictures, they would not be nice anyway.


 taga 1

   Taga-jinja 1 


 taga 2

   Taga-jinja 2


Nagano - 2005

Waking up at four o´clock I get dressed and then I am on my way to the morning ceremony in the Zenko-ji temple. When I arrive a little past five there are only five other people around. That promises a nice and quiet service, right? Wrong. Around 5.30 a large group of loud speaking Japanese comes in. Being Western I think the big altar in the middle of the temple will be used, in the same way as in Catholic churches. Again wrong, everyone is sitting in front of the left altar when the service starts. At first there is absolutely not a serene atmosphere, people walk in and out, offertory boxes are filled with coins audibly and a group of monks is talking and laughing at the side. In front of the left altar a priest has already been praying for a while, he seems to perform some rituals and he is lighting candles. Then the noise starts. I have an enormous headache so I am startled when they hit several gongs in a row, stone and metal ones. Several priests are standing and walking around and black varnished boxes are carefully with visible respect taken from one side of the altar to another. I can´t see what´s in these boxes. Two groups of monks are sitting to the side of the altar and start chanting their mantras. I can see some hierarchy in the clothing of the monks and priests though I have no idea who is in charge. They are all dressed in a kind of white kimono, a white pair of trousers with, over it, a transparent long coat. The colour of that coat differs: black, olive green, dark green or blue. The chanting monks wear a wadded and embroidered yellowish chasuble. The public is softly chanting along with the mantras. Then they all start praying and a curtain is lifted up as in a theatre. A high priest comes from behind and he prays to Buddha. The curtain goes down and up again several times. After almost two hours it is done, there are hardly any visitors anymore, they have all left. I go towards the underground gangway. Inky black, I can find my way only by feeling the wall with my right hand. I have to go to a metal bar, the key to paradise. If you touch it, you will be happy, they say. I will see. Zenko-ji is a special temple in Japan. It is not bound to any Buddhist sect and everyone, even those of other religions, is welcome. And, more importantly, from the beginning, women are present and that is not the same everywhere . Zenko-ji has a high priestess, though I haven´t seen her. She probably stayed inside the nun´s convent.



 Temple in Nagano: Zenko-ji


Tono in Iwate prefecture - 2008

A little outside the small town of Tono are several temples and shrines. First I go to Atago-ji, but I have to say that the path to the entrance with plants and flowers is much more beautiful than the shrine itself. A little further on there is Unedorisama-ji, a shrine dedicated to love. There people pray for mainly two reasons: a good relationship and a healthy birth. When a woman is wishing that, she writes her wish on a scrap of red cloth and ties it to the surrounding pines, using only her left hand. I admit that that is a wish of mine too! (Well, not the birth!) When leaving this shrine I see a sign towards another one, Gohyaku Rakan, where 500 rock carved statues of Buddha can be seen. According to the sign it is only a hundred metres away but after walking for about ten minutes into the uphill forest there is still no shrine in sight. Suddenly, I see another sign that scares the hell out of me: bears around! The Japanese black bear makes several lethal attacks every year and now, in June, they might have little ones with them which make them even more dangerous. I am out of this forest as fast as I can. The shrine might be heavenly but to me it´s not worth a possible encounter with a bear!



 Temple in Tono: Unedorisama-ji



   Japanese black bear


Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture - 2009

One of the most famous temples in this large city is Myoryu-ji. This temple from 1643 was designed as a hide-out for the Shogun - ruler in medieval Japan - in case of attacks. It contains hidden stairways, escape routes, secret chambers, concealed tunnels and trick doors. The popular name for this temple is ´ninja-temple´. To visit it you must make a reservation, which I make through the tourist office at the station. When I arrive I see about 15 Japanese people waiting for the same tour, visiting the temple by yourself is not allowed. This guided tour is in Japanese only but it´s very visual plus I get an English brochure to read. It´s very funny to see all these tricks, I bet a lot of enemies were trapped inside this temple once.



 ´Ninja´-temple in Kanazawa: Myoryu-ji


Nara - 2009

Though a lot of people will not agree with me, I found Nara not as interesting as everyone and every guide book says. Sure, Toda-ji temple has the largest Buddha in Japan and in Gango-ji temple Kobo Daishi stayed for a while but it is so overly crowded with Western tourists, acting as if it really is a tourist attraction, that for me it feels very fake. I have been to so many other genuine places that these here are just overdone. I do visit a few, mostly because I have the idea that I need to see them once in my life but it is not the first place I will recommend when people would like to know where to go for a temple visit.



   Todaji temple in Nara - Japan´s biggest Buddha


Again this year I stay at my friend´s place and I travel to some other places on Shikoku. But already in the plane to Japan I realised that I have forgotten to take my temple book with me, so no 88-temple trail for me this year. Well, there is enough other stuff to see and to visit. It only means I have to go back to finish a little more of that pilgrimage and isn´t that just a great prospect?

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