Saturday, March 17, 2007

One step closer...



Fresh off the ferry from Hiroshima, I find myself walking in the Dogo district of Matsuyama. A quaint village with fruit stands, foot onsen, and people adorned in kimono and geta, I find it to be a very relaxing place to spend Sunday morning. However, I'm on a mission. Turning away from the Dogo Onsen and towards an easterly direction, I soon come upon what I believe to be the object of my search.




Without a shred of hesitation in my mind, I walk right up to the attendant's window and ask in Japanese: "Do you have books? I'm looking for Shikoku Henro: Hitori Aruki Dōgyō Ninin."

The woman is flustered to be talking to a foreigner, and after a few ragged attempts, she drags out a man to speak to me in English.

"This is a shrine, not a temple," he explains successfully. Ahhh... baka gaikokujin. I'm a fool.

I had been search for a Buddhist temple along the 88 temple pilgrimage (八十八ヶ所巡り) path in Shikoku. However, due to my own ignorance, I had successfully navigated my way into a common Japanese shrine.

Why a Buddhist temple? In a few weeks time, I will attempt a journey across Tokushima-ken in Shikoku that many Japanese people walk for various reasons: to obtain spiritual enlightenment, to complete a grand adventure, or nothing more than to engage in an alternative vacation. Many travel to the 88 temples in the footsteps of Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師), becoming ohenro (お遍路) pilgrims in the process. You can easily spot pilgrims at all times of the year if you're in Shikoku - they are identifiable by their white clothing (though not all the time) and staffs, symbolizing the spirit of Kōbō Daishi (two travelers walking as one).


Henro traveling to Matsuyama Station, Matsuyama


Consulting a map, I quickly realize my error and begin making my way towards the true Buddhist temple, #51 if you happen to be walking around the island clockwise from Tokushima.

The difference is immediately obvious. This is what I had been searching for. Statues of Buddha. Burning incense. Henro travelers stopping and paying homage.







But as I said, I'm on a mission. I need information, and there's only one place I can get it. Many of the temples along the pilgrimage route are similar to Japanese shrines: low maintenance, unmanned, and a place to say prayers. However, for the Buddhist temples, there are also many places to stay the night, enjoy a meal, shop for necessary ohenro supplies (white robes, staffs, guidebooks, candles, etc). In short, I was hoping that this temple would have one of these stores:



The website Shikoku Henro Trail had recommended the guidebook written by Miyazaki Tateki as a 100% absolute must own and read for those attempting the pilgrimage.



Publisher's website, or call 089-952-3820

This book is the quintessential volume for your quest, containing all the maps you need to walk to each temple, the distance involved, nearby accommodations, etc. ¥2500 and it's yours.

Often in my travels, I am treated with a sense of amusement: "Ooooh! Let's talk to the foreigner!" I'm not really discouraged by such talk; in fact, I find it kind of funny, and am usually able to twist the conversation into something more serious. However, even looking like a confused foreigner with an overpriced camera around his neck, I sensed immediate respect from the ohenro store at Ishiteji (51st temple). I told them in fractured Japanese that I would be attempting to walk the first twenty two temples in Tokushima-ken, and they didn't react with an overblown sense of excitement. Their tone was respectful and serious, and I appreciated that. After a few questions about the guidebook, we parted ways with a series of respectful bows. I must remember to stop by that temple after my journey; I highly recommend it as a starting point as well (technically, you can begin the pilgrimage anywhere; most people start in Tokushima).

What's in my near future? Visiting the Buddhist temple atop Mt. Kōya (高野山) in Wakayama. Traditionally ohenro visit this temple prior to starting the pilgrimage, to ask for blessings from Kōbō Daishi.

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