Japan is made up of way too many islands (six thousand, eight hundred and fifty-two), but there are four or five ‘main’ islands. Take a look at this handy map:
It was there, on Shikoku Island, that we could have, but did not, partake in an ancient pilgrimage. This pilgrimage stops at 88 temples around the circumference of Shikoku, is 1,200 kilometres long, and if walked (which is the traditional way), takes 1-2 months to complete.
This journey is taken for various reasons – religious, spiritual, tourism, or just the sheer challenge of it. It’s associated with a very famous Japanese monk named Kobo-Daishi (actual name Kukai) who, among many other things, popularised a sect of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan called Shingon. The story behind Shingon is a deep wormhole full of words words like ‘Vajraśekhara’ and ‘Mahavairocana Tathagata’ and there’s no way I’m going to attempt to write about it here. For the sake of ease, let’s just say he was a pretty popular guy. Oh, and while I remember: even though he died in 835 bc, he might actually not be dead but rather in a state of permanent meditation in a tomb on Mount Koya. How about that?
The 88 shrines on Shikoku were either established or visited by Kobo-Daishi. The order in which they are now visited came about after his run-in with the richest man in Shikoku, Emon Saburo.
Kobo-Daishi came to Emon’s house begging for alms, as monks do, and Emon, not knowing how famous this particular monk was, yelled at him and smashed his alms pot and chased him away. After that nastiness, every one of Emon’s eight sons died, and he was made aware of just whom he had been a bastard to. To try and make up for his meanness, he frantically ran around the island trying to find Kobo-Daishi – first clockwise then anti-clockwise, and he wore himself out. On his deathbed, Kobo-Daishi appeared and forgave him. Other stuff happened too, but that’s all the information relevant to why the pilgrimage became a loop of Shikoku Island.
Shrine 1 is located at the eastern-most tip of Shikoku, but we were cycling in from the west. Therefore, we entered the game at shrine 54. And what an amazing entrance it was.
Six small islands connected by a world-class cycleway join Honshu (Japan’s largest island) to Shikoku by way of seven increasingly epic bridges. Japan has put a lot of time and effort into this amazing cycle path with special bike-only lanes that lead up into the hills, and bike-only paths on the enormous bridges that span them. Dotted along the trail are convenient stops aimed at bicycle riders, featuring rest areas with pumps, water stations, seating, and souvenir shops. We couldn’t help but enjoy ourselves as we made our way over these six islands, and we broke up the trip by camping in a grassy park called ‘Cyclist Sanctuary’.
When we finally set foot on Shikoku, we had absolutely no idea where to go. We could either go the easy-looking way, due east in a straight line all the way to shrine number 1, or we could go south west, alternating between mountains and ocean side paths, all the way through the south coast and southern peninsulas, hugging the waters edge east to eventually meet shrine number 1. Option (a) would take two or three days. Option (b) would take at least one week. Both options ended up in exactly the same place. We were indecisive, as we so often are, and it was only when we literally reached a crossroads did we finally pick option (b). So we cycled down to Matsuyama.
At a takoyaki rest stop, munching on delicious octopus balls, we saw our first real pilgrim. He wore the conical hat; held the wooden staff; donned the neck piece; it’s all right here in this helpful diagram:
He was one of only a very small handful of walking pilgrims that we witnessed on our cycle through Shikoku. We would see on average one or two per day, and indeed many modern pilgrims take tour buses around the island. Caroline and I decided that taking a tour bus seemed a lot like cheating, but I found the website of a guy who walked it, and his thoughts on the matter are a little less cynical:
To get a bit philosophical, a pilgrimage is like life – we all lead it in different ways. So when a bus load of “henro” passes you as you walk, that is how those people have chosen to lead their lives. Walking is how you chose to lead your life for that day. Any method of getting from the start to the end of the pilgrimage is fine. Just as we are all born and die, it is the in-between which makes each of our lives different.
– Jeffery Hackler from his website.
We had no intention of attempting the pilgrimage, but we did want to see the island and learn a little bit about it. Our cycle took us from the north west, anti-clockwise around the coast, finally exiting in the north east. We didn’t see much of the northern section, or any of the middle (which is taken up by a lumpy mass of beautiful mountains), but what we did see in our week of cycling was varied and interesting.
Our daily reprieve from the touring was taken at the many onsen and sento dotted over Shikoku. There is a difference, we have learned, in ‘onsen’ (hot spring) and ‘sento’ (public bath). Would you like to know the difference?
Sure you would:
The onsen are a little bit more revered, usually more expensive, and the water found within contains minerals and other nourishing feel-good stuff to make you go, “Ahhooouu.” These are usually found as stand-alone structures with impressive, often wooden exteriors, or are found inside fancy hotels. The price ranges from 450 yen to over 1000 yen, and includes the bathing area itself and a luxuriating room filled with massage chairs, Japanese TV shows (the ads are the best) tatami mats, and machines that vend milky beverages. In the bathing area, you can typically expect to find a row of sit-down showers with shampoo, conditioner, and body wash supplied, as well as a couple of stand-up showers for those with such an inclination. There’s often a sauna, steam room, or both, and a small one-man pool filled with cold water in which to immerse yourself afterwards. There will typically be a large, main pool of hot mineral water, and several other pools that can contain massage jets, strange (and unpleasant) electric shock waves, powerful massaging hoses spraying from above, or exercise equipment. There will also regularly be a fenced-in outdoor area where you are free to walk around nude in nature, and a garden hot pool to relax in. The changing rooms have rows of sinks with various hair tonics and facial washes, and often there will be a peculiar oven-like sterilising machine filled with hairbrushes. We once found an onsen with a bucket full of disposable razors in the men’s side.
The sento, or public baths, are relaxing in their own way, but don’t have the same prestige as the onsen. They are usually found tucked discreetly into other buildings, and are generally where the locals go for their daily bath. The cheapest we’ve found was 150 yen, and the most expensive was 400 yen. There is usually a male and female entrance, and both lead to opposite sides of a ticket seller. The dressing room is a simple affair, with old wooden lockers and a couple of wooden chairs at a table with an ash tray. It’s a bathing club for the old boys and the working folk; a place that hasn’t been modernised and doesn’t need to be. Inside the bathing area is a time-worn version of the onsen. There is a row of seated showers, and everything is impeccably clean, but you won’t find free soaps or body lotions. Here, the bathers bring little baskets filled with their own lotions and potions, towels and shaving equipment. There will typically be one or two baths filled with hot water straight from the tap, and the decor will be of a typical Japanese scene – say, Mount Fuji or a floral mosaic of sakura.
We camped all the way through Shikoku, generally finding parks close to onsen or sento. Sometimes this worked out fantastically, with lovely campsites in picturesque locations, and sometimes this did not work out so well. A particularly awful time was when we found ourselves in the mountains close to dark, somewhere between shrine 37 and shrine 39. All the flat ground was taken up by rice, and everything else was steep mountain slopes. We eventually found a small bit of rocky grass right beside the highway and resigned ourselves to camp there without dinner. It was noisy, unhappy, and uncomfortable, but we were starting to get used to dealing with this kind of thing. In a country where one night in a hotel can blow your week’s budget, you have to find comfort in discomfort.
The pleasantness of our camping experiences noticeably deteriorated the further south we went in Shikoku. Even the tiny geographical difference between north and south was evident. Our first couple of nights in the north were cool and, dare I say it, refreshing, but in the southern parts we were dealing with hotter conditions, higher levels of humidity, and legions of mosquitoes.
Our tent has mosquito mesh which works very well at keeping the bastards out, but they can bite through it from the outside. If you roll in your sleep, and a knee or shoulder comes in contact with the mesh, all the mosquitoes will take turns pummeling that one spot until you move away, cursing and wondering why the hell you’ve decided to camp through Japan. Bites upon bites form gruesome lumps that look like tumors for the next three days. Layers of clothing help, but most of these cursed mosquitoes can bite through a sleeping bag liner as well as the mesh, making even more layers necessary. But it’s too hot to wear all these layers. And it’s raining. And the tent isn’t really waterproof when monsoon levels of rain fall all night. Lightning crashes overhead as you are splattered and bitten. And you simply can’t win. You try to sleep. You try not to cry. And what, do you think at the time, will be your reward in the morning? A day of cycling through more rain. Caroline seems to deal with all of this a lot better than I do. And once everything is packed up in the morning and you’re off again, your troubles tend to vanish and you forget just how bad you felt at the time.
There are times, usually in the tent, when I just want to stop this madness and go home. Or at least, find a roof and a bed somewhere, get a job, melt back into a blissful routine, rediscover hobbies, and drink a cup of tea in comfortable pyjamas. But in those dark times I have to remind myself that the rewards of traveling like this can only be obtained by experiencing the full spectrum of comfort. And those rewards are indeed rewarding.