Three weeks into my journey, as I climbed the steep path to Yokomine Temple, the 60th of the 88 Shikoku Pilgrimage Routes, I found myself enveloped in a relentless fog. In an instant, the colorful forest around me (mainly red cedar trees and fern bushes) faded, leaving me in a world of calm gray. Recognizing only the faintest shapes of the trees around me, I was convinced I had wandered into a spooky fairy tale.
Quietly, a chorus of small bells began to be heard in the distance. Then suddenly an accidental group of musicians came into view. A large group of Japanese pilgrims came towards me and all lined up to stop and let me pass.
In less than an hour the fog began to clear. Within two minutes it was completely gone, replaced by an equally unforgiving midday sun. In my newfound clarity of daylight, I began to wonder. Did the band of polite pilgrims exist only in my mind?
The pilgrimage to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four major islands, is a 750-mile route that links 88 Buddhist temples, each claiming a connection to the famous monk Kukai, known posthumously as Kobo Daishi. doing. In the 9th century he traveled to China and founded one of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan.
After Kukai’s death in 835, wanderers began making pilgrimages to sites on Shikoku associated with his life and achievements, such as Kukai’s birthplace and burial place, caves where he meditated, and sites of various religious ceremonies. . These sites were then linked and the temples and shrines were formally numbered.
Like many modern pilgrimages, the Shikoku Pilgrims, once exclusively devoted to the Shingon sect, one of Japan’s major Buddhist sects, now include travelers with more diverse motivations. . And there has been a steady stream of monks, clerics, and staunch Buddhists, but also young people on self-discovery journeys, older hikers enjoying retirement, and even those who know little language or customs but are drawn to the world. Even foreign tourists like me have replaced it. A trekking adventure through Shikoku’s breathtaking scenery and sublime lessons about Japanese cultural heritage.
And the pilgrimage has become easier than before. Pilgrims traditionally completed the route on foot, but guided bus tours now carry many visitors to the pilgrimage sites. (After all, the point for many people is to visit all 88 temples, not endure the hardships of a 750-mile hike.) Take your own vehicle, or trek part of the way to reach your car. Some people choose to go with will be driven) the rest.
Even for non-religious climbers, the most prized pilgrimage souvenir is a perfectly stamped stamp. The book has a dedicated page for every temple, and on each page the clerk has stamped some stamps and some beautiful calligraphy with a traditional brush.
One hot afternoon, I met a middle-aged German couple who told me that this was their fourth time on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. I asked why they chose to return rather than try trekking elsewhere in the world. They said they found something completely different on each pilgrimage. And the food is phenomenal, they added.
Another day, I followed two Japanese men for a few hours walking through rice paddies in Kochi prefecture. It lies along the concavely curved southern coast of the island. When I stopped by a rest hut on the way, there were two men there, and two more men joined me, and everyone was chatting while smoking a cigarette.
In my clumsy Japanese and their clumsy English, I said they were all from Shikoku. Two of them walk for two days each year, while the other two travel by car, carry their luggage, and join the walkers in worship together at the temple.
“Wait a minute, how long will it take to complete the whole pilgrimage?” I asked.
One of the men threw his arm in the air. “You know? Decades!” he said, and everyone laughed.
There seemed to be a sense of peace going on everywhere on the island. In Shikoku, almost without exception, the people I met were kind. They seemed satisfied. I’m not a spiritual person, but the silence, the vastness of the landscape, and the warmth of the people I met created an aura of lasting tranquility.
One of the customs that characterizes the people of Shikoku is the custom of giving gifts to pilgrims, osettai. These gifts come in the form of food, drink, trinkets, car rides, meals, places to sleep, and sometimes even small amounts of money. Many times I saw drivers stopping in the middle of the road and handing out sweets through the car window.
One night, after receiving free accommodation from the temple (which happened twice), I heard a knock on the hut door. A young woman, a temple assistant who did not speak English, bowed to me and handed me a piece of paper. She said, “Mr. Marta, please use the temple baths for free,” she wrote in Japanese.
In 28 days visiting all 88 temples, in total, 700 yen (about $5), 11 candies, 7 small cakes, 7 car rides, 6 oranges, 5 rice balls, 3 cookies, 3 chocolates. pcs, 3 cups of matcha green tea, 2 crackers, 2 mochi, 2 soda cans, 2 multicloths, 2 yuzu juice packs, 1 yokan jelly, 1 bicycle (he lent me half a day), 1 bag of steamed chestnuts , 1 bag of cherry tomatoes, 1 lunch box, 1 bowl of homemade udon.
Pilgrimage temples are scattered along the perimeter of the island, some near the coast and some further up in the mountains. Some are grouped together, others are 50 miles apart.
As a pilgrim, I would wake up early in the spring by 5:30 in the morning and travel all day. About 80% of the route is asphalt, mostly through fields and small towns, and along beautiful coastlines. I spent several days climbing and descending the top of the mountain.
The decline of Japan’s rural population is particularly pronounced in Shikoku. Young people took refuge in cities and other islands that offered a better quality of life. My experience has confirmed the same. Nearly all of the young men I saw were in his four county capitals on the island.
For breakfast and dinner, many pilgrims rely on home-cooked meals provided by most minshuku, family-run minshuku and ryokans. These meals usually consist of rice, miso soup, fish and pickles. Lunch is easily available at convenience stores in some places.
Despite the delicious food, stunning scenery, and fascinating cultural history, it was the people I met that had the strongest impact on me.
One night at the hostel, I met Midori-san, a 71-year-old pilgrim who couldn’t speak English. She taught me how to behave in a big public bath.
Once, when I asked two staff members at Yamadera’s Nokyo-sho whether there was free accommodation, they replied, “There is no free accommodation.” But when I spoke through an interpreter on my cell phone, they said they would drive me to a campsite in a nearby valley.
A few days later, wanting to see this landscape from a different perspective, I boarded a small ferry with fellow pilgrim Patricia and zigzagged through Uranouchi Bay for nearly an hour. Patricia and I were the only passengers.
On one very rainy day, after several hours of walking under a waterproof but hot poncho, I decided to hitchhike to the next temple several hours away. After sticking my thumb out on a busy road for a few minutes, a man in a battered van pulled up. As is often the case in Shikoku, he didn’t speak any English. And I only knew a few related words in Japanese. Still, we managed to exchange a few words as the old van cautiously navigated the winding roads.
I felt that this situation amused him very much. And I was proven right when he called his wife on his old phone and said with a laugh that he had come to pick up a desperate foreigner in the pouring rain.
Before parting, he asked me to say my name again, which he wrote in katakana on the back of the receipt. “Martha,” he said aloud, reading aloud. And he was gone as quickly as he appeared. Grateful for the favor and grateful for the dryness, I watched his truck disappear around the corner, curving toward the road to the temple.
Follow The New York Times Travel upon Instagram and Sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter Get expert tips and inspiration for your next vacation to travel smarter.Dreaming of a future vacation or just an armchair trip? Check us out 52 places to visit in 2023.