We started our pilgrimage with a visit to the mountains of Koyasan, the heart of esoteric Shingon Buddhism.
In Koyasan we stayed for two nights at Yochi-In temple, called a “Shukubo Temple,” because it accepts guests for overnight stays.
When we told the presiding monk that we planned to walk the 88 temples of Shikoku island, he was in awe at our commitment to enlightenment.
He told us that a nun from his temple is walking the Shikoku pilgrimage right now and that she is scheduled to return in two days, just a day after we are to depart Koyasan.
We regretted not being able to talk with her.
We talked about the different kinds of meditation that we practice.
I love most the “Empty Mind” meditation, but I also practice holding a daily mantra from The Course In Miracles in my mind.
We said that we wanted, if possible, to get instructions in Ajikan, the Shingon style of meditation that includes the “Full Moon Meditation.”
The monk, Dzuko Yamamoto Sensei, offered to teach us the “Full Moon Meditation” the very next evening.
During the day we walked to Okunoin, through the ancient cedar forest to the Kobo Daishi shrine to pay our respects.
The forest is dotted with graves of people whose ashes are enshrined in five tier stone pagodas, symbolizing the five elements – space, wind, fire, water and earth.
We walked and reflected about how useless it is to spend a whole lifetime pursuing earthly goals.
After all, even the most “successful” human incarnation only ends up marked by a stone pagoda covered in moss.
What is the point of putting all your heart into making a name for yourself or a fortune, when all it amounts to is just a few more lines in Wikipedia?…..
On one of the stone pagodas, we saw a photo of a monk who had reached a very high level of mastering the ego and allowing the spirit to shine through.
It was a very rainy day and the photo was very wet, so I regret that I cannot post a good image of it here, but it was definitely an old black and white photo of a monk who was able to fly.
(Jesus, Babji and Rama could walk on water and Milarepa could also fly, and they are only the most famous ones…)
There were three images of this monk flying over people laying on the ground.
He definitely did not appear to jump over the people; he was able to fly over them!
After paying our respects to Kobo Daishi and asking him to help us on our pilgrimage, we bought our pilgrimage stamp book.
Every pilgrim buys a pilgrim’s book and in each temple, they stamp your book and write a calligraphy with a brush dipped in black ink, the name of the temple’s guardian deity on a page.
In Koyasan, we visited seven temples and got our first seven stamps.
We found a lovely veg cafe to have lunch on the main road of Koyasan.
There was one tasty daily veg set plate and we also ordered a tofu cake which was lovely.
In the meals that we were served at the temple, my favorite dish was a local speciality, tofu made from white sesame seeds instead of soy beans.
It tasted creamy and awesome, served only with a little soy sauce and wasabi.
In the evening after our dinner, Yamamoto Sensei, the resident monk, showed up wearing his glorious golden robes with white silk undergarments and white socks with thick bottoms.
We sat on the carpeted floor of the main Hondo temple hall.
The Hondo was dark, lit only by hundreds of small lanterns hanging from the ceiling like stars in the night sky.
In front of us, at eye level, was a scroll with a drawing of a white lotus flower with eight petals superimposed over a round full moon, with the Sanskrit letter “A” inscribed on it in gold.
The letter “A” represents the Truth of Heaven and Earth residing in the hearts of every human being.
It is a reminder that the pure, enlightened Buddha-nature is inside each and every one of us.
Chanting “Aaaaaa” before beginning the Ajikan, is similar to the Tibetan “Aummmm” chant.
Yamamoto Sensei instructed us to sit in a comfortable crossed legged position or in the lotus position with our spines erect, our hands together, thumbs and first fingers touching each other, creating a circle in front of our stomachs.
He spoke about breathing and visualizing the full moon, so that we could bring its image at first inside our stomachs below the solar plexus, and then enlarging it slowly to encompass the whole earth, the whole universe, and all the galaxies, envisioning all human beings and all creatures, as whole, blessed and happy.
After about fifty minutes of guided meditation, Yamamoto Sensei brought us back to earth and asked Jules and I to share our experiences.
Sensei also said that he had found this meditation to be so valuable for him, and the next day, he waived the private instruction fee that we had agreed to pay.
Jules made a donation to the temple out of the gratitude he felt for being so fortunate to get this precious experience.
Yamamoto Sensei spoke about his views of Shingon Buddhism and how its main goal is to keep the mind alert and focused, and to live a humble and good life.
He himself spends most of his days not wearing glorious robes, but in cleaning the temple.
His wife works in the kitchen cooking for guests.
He wears his ceremonial golden or black and purple robes only for chanting, meditation and other rituals, while the rest of his day is spent wearing a casual blue outfit, while he is cleaning and gardening.
In the morning before our departure, Yamamoto Sensei performed the morning temple rituals, including chanting the Heart Sutra.
Koyasan is located on Honshu, the biggest island of Japan, and to make our way to Shikoku island to start walking our pilgrimage, we had to retrace our steps back to Osaka and then on to Shikoku via a bus, cable car, train, subway, and expressway bus to Tokushima, the largest city on Shikoku.
In Tokushima, we checked into our modern business hotel, the Daiwa Roynet, centrally located by the JR train and bus stations.
We booked a spacious corner room with a great rainforest shower.
Before we left for the pilgrimage, we discussed in detail our philosophy about how we should approach this pilgrimage.
Many pilgrims believe that the journey is about hardships and austerities, about becoming a “Holy Hobo” or a “Sacred Homeless,” and relying on the goodness of people or allowing the Universe to take care of you.
It is believed that by letting others give you things or to otherwise help you, you are in effect “making them” into good and virtuous people.
There is even a tradition of “Osettai,” which is a term for the gifts and offerings that people make to pilgrims, honoring the hardships they have undertaken in search of higher truths.
I do not believe in hardships.
I believe that we MAKE things more difficult by the thoughts and beliefs that we hold and by the energy that we put out consciously or unconsciously.
I noticed that stiffness and pain only occur when we allow them to settle into our bodies.
In other words, we first FEEL the hardship and THEN we SOLIDIFY it into the body.
We do not have to do that, and for me, hardship does not teach me anything that I do not already know.
In my past, I was a master of hardship, and I often cried in self pity and pain.
Nowadays, I am on another journey, towards realizing how I am making life unnecessarily hard and difficult for myself.
I am committed to doing it better these days….
In the past, most hotels and guest houses in Shikoku were located along the walking path.
A pilgrim could just stay in any place that had a vacancy.
Some of those old places charged so little and used a sliding scale depending on whether you brought your own rice to cook, or had your own bedding.
Nowadays, there are only a small number of accommodations on parts of the path.
We agreed that we should be walking the whole pilgrimage on foot, and visit all of the 88 temples around Shikoku island.
But… if at the end of the day we do not come upon a place to stay, we are willing to take a bus, taxi or a train, to a hotel or a Ryokan to spend the night, and then the next day we will return to the exact place on the trail where we had left, and continue walking to the next temple.
Shikoku Island – Day 1 (May 9th 2016)
1. Ryōzenji (霊山寺) –Temple of Vulture Peak
2. Gokurakuji (極楽寺) –Temple of Pure Land
3. Konsenji (金泉寺) –Temple of the Golden Spring
4. Dainichiji (大日寺) –Temple of Dainichi
5. Jizōji (地蔵寺) –Temple of Jizo – in this temple we saw an amazing display of the 500 Arahats called Rakan in Japanese.
The 500 Arahats were the disciples of the Buddha who all reached enlightenment.
The sculptures were life size and breathtaking.
Active walking 5 hours
Active day 10 hours
Details and Impressions:
At Temple 1, we got our English book of maps with places to stay and walking route.
We bought the Henro pilgrim white vests, bells, a golden silk neck stole (wagesa) to wear around our necks, a book of sutras and “Osamafuda,” which are white slips of papers with Kobo Daishi printed on them.
We wrote our names and our personal goals on the Osamafuda slips, and in every temple we will light an incense and leave an Osamafuda slip in a bin next to the Hondo (main hall) and another next to the Daishi Hall.
We walked by rice fields, and big old wooden houses with glorious tile roofs.
Saw a wild monkey who looked at me with kind eyes.
It did not ask for food, just curious about us.
Climbed back into the forest when I got my camera out.
The scent of citrus flowers on the trees are intoxicating and pleasure runs through my spine, at times it is so great that it makes me dizzy.
No need to carry water, lots of vending machines with unsweetened green tea.
Bought some bananas and apples.
Did not pass many places to eat.
Glad we wore our rain-pants AND raincoat, it did not stop raining all day long.
It felt like a hard day.
Both of us felt tired and disoriented.
It was nice to get a great shower and a comfy bed with clean white sheets.
At night we argued briefly and spoke about quitting…. Who will ever know or care if we quit this difficult task and instead fly to the beaches in Okinawa or take a train to rest in an old Onsen town somewhere in Japan?….
But we cannot quit after the first day…..
It is a journey to enlightenment and Nirvana…. We are supposed to OVERCOME our perceived physical limitations….
Jules posed the question: “Are our egos too big to allow us to complete this pilgrimage?”………
No one knows…
Day 2 (May 10th 2016)
6. Anrakuji (安楽寺) –Temple of Bliss
7. Jūrakuji (十楽寺) –Temple of Ten Joys
8. Kumataniji (熊谷寺) –Temple of Bear Valley
9. Hōrinji (法輪寺) –Temple of the Dharma Wheel
10. Kirihataji (切幡寺) –Temple of Cut Cloth
Active walking 7:45 hours
Active day 11 hours
Details and Impressions:
Felt better today even though it was a longer day of walking, 32 kilometers.
Passed through rural neighborhoods, rice fields, peach orchards, persimmons, lovely kitchen gardens.
A woman was carefully tending her beautiful kitchen garden.
I complimented her in Japanese on her lovely flower, herb and veg garden, and she glowed with happiness.
Ate wild fennel growing by the side of the road, oranges from a tree by an abandoned house, apples, yellow raspberries and kumquats.
Ate homemade hot udon noodles at a roadside hut.
It was another rainy day.
Saw an old man trimming the beautiful ornamental trees in his garden.
He worked in the rain.
He works every day, rain or shine.
He did not have one single weed in his garden.
He had such inner calm and quiet in his eyes.
At the end of the day, we walked over a big bridge in the dark.
We bought an ice cream to cheer us up.
My feet hurt, my hips hurt
I elongated my spine and regulated my breathing to help me walk easier- it worked for awhile.
People are so kind to us and are so helpful.
Jules asked for directions, being impatient with my map application on the phone, and the man offered to drive us there.
We politely refused.
In Japan, we cannot ask for help unless we really NEED help.
Otherwise, people think that we are too polite to ask them to take us there and will suggest to drive or walk with us to our destination.
Almost nobody just points to the direction we need to walk towards.
Day 3 (May 11th 2016)
11. Fujiidera (藤井寺) –Temple of Wisteria
Active walking 2:15 hours
Active day 7 hours
Details and Impressions:
Tomorrow we have to climb three mountain peaks to a “Nansho” – a Japanese term for a temple that is located on top of a very high mountain peak.
We planned this day to be a short walking day so we can get help at the Tokushima information center with making some reservations at temple lodgings or Ryokans for the upcoming several days.
We are coming upon some big mountain climbs and since the places also provide dinner and breakfast, they require advance reservations.
We printed the Heart Sutra in Japanese which everybody chants at each temple.
We apologized to the deity of temple 13 for our clumsy chanting.
The temple had a beautiful dragon painted on the ceiling.
All the rituals that the pilgrims need to perform at each temple, the special garments and accessories to wear, the Osamafuda slips, the coin donations, the incense, the book of stamps and the chanting of the heart sutra, may sound too ritualistic to some, but it provides a good reminder of WHY we are doing this pilgrimage.
The rituals help us center our intentions and provide a grounding into the spirit of the journey, instead of just long days of walking and focusing on the aches and discomforts in our bodies.
We are NOT here as an athletic exercise, it is an INNER JOURNEY that only APPEARS to take place in the mountains of Shikoku….