Great small gestures: a Japanese adventure.

April 8, 2018

The smallest of things can have the greatest impact. Living in London, in a fast moving metropolis, we had forgotten this. We needed to remind ourselves, and we chose to travel to Japan to experience the Shikoku Henro pilgrimage. A circular route of 1,200km and 88 temples make this buddhist pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku.The pilgrimage can be achieved in any way, in a car, by coach, in pieces. We chose to do it all on foot, and assigned two months to accomplish it. 

 

It was the start of 2014 and we decided to pack the house and move to another country. A pilgrimage in Japan had been in mind for a while , so what better start of a new life? We flew to Osaka, then travelled to the island. At the first temple, we kitted ourselves with all the pilgrimage paraphernalia: a white kimono jacket; a staff, inscribed with sutras; and most importantly a book, in which we could collect seals and calligraphy from each temple. This, along side our 15 kg bags and our tent were our only equipment. 

 

Each day we covered about 30 kilometres. We walked through farmland, in bamboo forests. We climbed many mountains, sleep in parks, in business hotels, ryokans, pilgrimage hostels and in temples themselves. We bathed in rivers and in the public bath houses or onsen. There we learnt about Kōbō-Daishi also known as Kūkai空海(空sky海ocean), the founder of the pilgrimage. It is his spirit that guided us on this journey... his spirit, a map and the people that we encountered.

 

Some days we only walked, other days we reached temples, recited a sutra and made offerings. At each temple we collected a stamp in our book, and a beautiful inscription. Respect and excitement is what we felt when we approach each of the temples. And a great deal of calm after the usually strenuous way up (literally) 108 steps, the number of sins that, according to Buddhist principles, affect us all.

 

While we were very focused on the physical activity of the walk, we had not taken into account the sheer wealth of goodwill and kindness that would surround us whilst undertaking this pilgrimage. But very quickly, we discovered that often we, as pilgrims, would be given osettai or small gifts by supporters of Kōbō-Daishi hoping to help us and themselves by these offerings. The first gift was simply fruits, but as time progressed we were given all sorts of osettai, from money to accommodation. We learnt to treasure each and every one of these. This was not longer our pilgrimage. Food was given when we were hungry, lifts were given when we were tired and our journey became a collective experience. Beautiful nature and exquisite food filled our days, but also tiredness and wild weather, all part of the diary of a pilgrim. By helping us to reach our destination they took part in the pilgrimage, they owned a share of the enlightenment, and we were delighted with that. This was the real discovery on this journey. The people from the island and their small gestures towards us, which helped us get to the end (which was also the start...) 

 

The arrival to the next town, early morning, pulling along our oversize backpacks among locals on their way to work. It's cloudy and cold but a passing “konichiwa!” makes it all warmer and brighter. A moment later a bicycle ring announces the arrival of freshly baked buns courtesy of a lady, her peddling accelerating her bike with a fast spin and a smile on her face. And we feel happy to be there. 

 

A ride to the next temple is an offer we cannot refuse no matter how seriously we take our pilgrim commitment to walk. A woman stops her car next to us. She is on her way to deliver a camera to her husband at work. It's the end of the fiscal year, and the first day of the new one, and senior workers retire while new salary men join the team on this auspicious day. And this moment it is ceremoniously immortalized in photographs. Her husband has forgotten his camera, and out of duty, she is obliged to deliver it to him at his office. She complains about the expected dutifulness of the Japanese wife and she is keen to take us to the next temple on her car. An unexpected but welcomed distraction from her mission. Two haikus later, a discussion on Jane Austen and the entanglement of our willing but not very efficient Japanese, we arrive at the same temple we just came from. Of course, she is sweet enough, to drive us on the the temple we expected to reach!

 

 

Stoned carved jizos along the way guard the pilgrims and also remind them, with their round bodies and cute expressions, that this is a path of kindness. And some days nature reminded us that this was her land. Walking for a whole day along the Pacific Ocean in the middle of an incipient typhoon is not easy task. Cape Muroto, a wonderful volcanic land jut out into the ocean, is where Kukai空海 did his ascetic training for hundred days. Governed by the coordinates, the sky and the ocean it feels too big and bewildering. It's dark and unpopulated at that time of the night but, like an oasis, the local spa onsen shines in the distance. There we steam up and dine and the young receptionist offers himself to make sure we have a place to stay in the temple that night. Up on the hill top we went and we were welcomed in. A good night rest and a polite refusal to us paying for the lodging: “it's osettai, it's a gift” (*.*)

 

Small gestures such a pair of socks for the impromptu pilgrim who left on his office clothes, unprepared and looking at the pilgrimage as a way to somewhere. He had walked out of his overbearing life, to join the pilgrimage. A night sleep under the bell in the temple tower, at the very early stage of our journey, safe and guided by others on the same path. Spending days walking with a chain smoking father, and his 20 year old son. Quickly followed by disappointment of the father towards his son for not being able to finish the way. So many expectations put on him, as they faded into the distance.

 

After two months of walking, we thought it would be an easy journey to the last temple, just because it was the last one... We had seen the numbers of pilgrims diminish and we realised that the numbers that complete the full cycle is very low. Carlos realizes that he has left his henro pilgrim vest behind. He is disappointed for being so careless but had learnt by then to transcend this type of mundane emotions. But he did't need to dwell for long because only few kilometres away from the temple a white van stops by the road and the driver returns his white vest neatly folded. A gentle bow and an honest “Arigatou gozaimashita” and we have one more spiritual companion in our party.

 

Those little gifts showed us that the smallest action, made by ourselves, or given to us can contribute to the richness and value of life. A symbiosis of small gestures that sustains harmony. The faith deposited on us to carry their pledges and offerings. Faith the we would correspond by dutifully taking their hearts and sutras to each of the 88 temples.

 

Map of the island of Shikoku printed on a tenugui given to us in the first temple of the pilgrimage.It also depicts the walking stick and hat of the traditional o'henro pilgrim. 

 

 

 

 

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