The Japanese ‘Camino de Santiago’

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Let me invite you to a virtual visit of Japan.

Just off the eastern coast of the Japanese mainland, the island of Shikoku is only ten kilometres away from the nightlife of Osaka, but in all other ways it is worlds apart. Shikoku is the smallest of the four islands that make up Japan, for a moment leaving aside the much smaller, and in my opinion not truly Japanese archipelago of Ryūkyū, probably better known by most as Okinawa. But that would be a different story, some other day.

The island of Shikoku is famous for its 88 Sacred Sites which connect on a pilgrimage trail. The route of the 88 temples of Shikoku is the classic Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage. For over a thousand years, only the Japanese followed the path to the remote places of Shikoku island, but over the last thirty years or so, anybody can visit and walk and follow the trail. The walk around the perimeter of the island is said to take somewhere between 50 and 60 days to complete if done in the traditional manner, with a total distance of some 1,400 kms. If one should feel so inclined, one could call the Shikoku trail the Japanese Camino de Santiago.

You might be aghast at the idea of a 60 day lone walk, but when I said earlier on this blog that the Spanish Camino de Santiago walk took me 35 days, that did not include the six weeks of a preparatory warming-up period, when I covered some 500 kms on Mallorca, the island where I live. Without that breaking-in, I would not have been physically able to bring my Spanish Camino to its conclusion. All together, I was walking for eleven weeks and covered some 1,350 kms, or so I think.

Before we settled in Mallorca, my wife and I had planned a prolonged trip to Kyūshū in Japan which never materialized, due to the birth of our first, and then, our second daughter. Fittingly, we have given our second daughter the Japanese name of Onna, in lieu of the journey to Nippon that never happened. Since  then, I have been to Japan once, but only for five days, and not on a walking tour.

 

I am looking forward to going back there for an extended period next time and to return to Japan, though with a mission.

I understand that the temples on Shikoku island are spread around the circumference of the isle. In some areas, especially in and around the larger cities, the temples are very close together and one can visit several temples a day. In other areas the temples are much more spread out and it can take three days or so to travel by foot from one to the other.

Of the 88 temples, 66 are located in the mountains and 27 are on the plain and near the coast. Of the mountain temples, 25 seem located at or near the top of their mountain with the highest situated at an elevation of over 900 m.

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First records of the pilgrimage’s existence in any form similar to today’s didn’t appear until a few guidebooks were written in the 1680s. If and when I go, I shall probably rely on a more recent guide book, perhaps Echoes of Incense, by Don Weiss, even though I believe that that one seems to be out of print. I have also been recommended A Henro Pilgrimage Guide to the 88 Temples of Shikoku Island, Japan, published by Buddhist Bishop Taisen Miyata, in Los Angeles, California. Some more research will have to be done before I set off.

 

Apparently, one Buddhist theory says that the number 88 is the sum of the unlucky ages (yakudoshi) of men, women, and children. Japanese folklore supposedly claims that there are a number of ages which are particularly unlucky for people. When one reaches one of these special years, certain special religious practices need to be performed to guard against bad luck and other potential misfortunes. Of the several unlucky ages, though, the most dangerous are 42 for men, 33 for women, and 13 for children of both sexes. The total of these ages is 88. Hence, as the theory goes, this is an especially unlucky number. As I am well past the age of 42, and still a long way off the age of 88, I am quite hopeful that my future Shikoku pilgrimage attempt will be a lucky one.

 

As I am writing this I notice that my ARXXIDUC blog has just had its 8,888th visitor (or hit; I know it’s not the same). I take that as a rather good omen for my planned 88 temples trip, even though that journey might still be some time away.

 

To make it all a bit more complicated, it seems that there are 108 temples, if one were to include the twenty unnumbered Bangai temples as well. For the moment though, I shall concentrate on the Pilgrimage of the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku, if and when it all comes to fruition.

 

First of all I have to learn the Japanese word for Ultreia.

 

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