Almost Down to ZERO

Well, Inbound Tourism has been knocked down to the canvas. The corona virus has had catastrophic impact on the entire industry. Hotels, Japanese inns, restaurants, attractions, and even the Shikoku pilgrimage have been all ground to a screeching halt. Japan has essentially shut down all the borders. The airports are at a stand-still. Nothing is moving.

And graphs don’t lie:

holy moley

So, what are we to do now? Roll over and just die? Do we just give up the dream of what we’re supposed to do? I don’t know about what other people are doing, but I don’t feel so bad. I’ve been knocked backwards before. I’ve been knocked out cold before. A couple of decades on a karate dojo floor has taught me how to take a punch. We are going to come back from this, and there is something to be optimistic about. After all, it can’t get much worse after this. Our only direction from this point is UP.

This is the place from which we bounce up. So, I am going to keep hammering away at writing and promoting and connecting with people around the world and still get the word out about Shikoku, about this marvellous and important pilgrimage. I’m still waving this flag. I hope you see it. I hope you see it and are infected by a different kind of thing, not a virus, not something that makes you sick, something different, better. I hope you are infected with inspiration, and hope, and daydreams of your time coming to walk the path, and move between the temples all around Shikoku. I would love to hear your story when the corona cloud passes and you come here, to the end of the world, and write it yourself.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/05/19/national/reopening-borders-coronavirus/#.XsZm2C8r3PA

Corona Virus and the Shikoku Pilgrimage

It has been news for several days now but it needs repeating and reporting on this site.

The Shikoku 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage is shut down for the time being due to the Corona Virus Pandemic. This is likely no surprise to most, and it is an unfortunate necessity for everyone to be safe and healthy as we all do our part to get through these trying and difficult months.

Oddly enough, I feel rather optimistic despite this unhappy news. We are going to find a way to get through this and come through the other side. A vaccine will be created and home cures like injecting oneself with household cleaners will not be needed. The world may heed the good advice of doctors to treat viruses carefully, and to be sensibly cautious. And hopefully anti-vaccine people will come through this pandemic healthy and whole as well, and then realize that their anti-science attitudes are dangerous and self-destructive.

It is unclear when a vaccine will be ready and accessible, but I would like to hazzard a guess that 18 months from now we can pretty much get back to normal. I would like to believe that a vaccine will be available, and although the corona virus may still infect and travel, people will be better equipped to deal with it.

There may also be need to keep a handy website accessible while you might come to Shikoku in 2022 and it is this one here: https://covid19japan.com

At the time of this posting, Shikoku is doing reasonably well, but the numbers of who might be sick or infected are difficult to truly know. More data on the matter, rather than less, might be a good idea.

In the meantime, I think I will keep doing what we all need to do and that is to stay safe and healthy, to do more reading and research on the pilgrimage in this “down time” and to start making plans for when life can get back to a semblance of “normal”.

Please stay safe and healthy. More to come in the days and weeks ahead!

Ohenro Girl: Cycling through Shikoku!

This production is a very nice little melodrama of a group of young people who discover themselves and learn more about relationships. The acting is very much on par for a lot of daytime drama type shows in Japan. Not Academy Award performances perhaps, but it’s nice just the same.

 

The entire show has subtitles so click them on and follow along.

Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains

Paul Barach had his adventurous pilgrimage around Shikoku back in 2010. For him it was an experience of mixed impressions, feelings, and revelations. His book is entitled, “Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains”, and if you are thinking of coming to Shikoku to experience the pilgrimage yourself I very much recommend this book.

I liked this book for a number of reasons. The first is that it is brutally honest. The author has his perspective and has little inhibition in telling you what he thinks. But this honesty is not one of projection alone. He turns the focus on himself as well and has little trouble showing a harsh light on the darker parts of his thinking and feeling too. I think that takes a lot of guts, maybe even more than mashing your feet to hamburger over six weeks walking the hard roads of Shikoku. 

Like other writers who choose to walk the Buddhist pilgrimage of Shikoku there is not enough opportunity to explore and describe the temples themselves in detail. If you are looking for that, this book will not satisfy your thirst for that knowledge. Most “aruki-henro” (walking pilgrims) are on tight, albeit self-imposed, schedules, and must hustle from one temple to the next in order to collect the calligraphy stamp for their “nokyouchou” (stamp books) and are also far too often plagued by boar, snakes, insects of all sorts, narrow tunnels, rain, slippery rocks, incidental injury, and long long stretches of road where they are left alone to their dark dark dark thoughts. 

But, that does not mean you should skip this book if you are researching the Shikoku Ohenro trail. I would say quite the opposite. This book will introduce a lot of things that guide books do not, and there are some great pieces of information and insight dropped in throughout. You are encouraged to sift through this pilgrim’s tale to pull them out. There are some valuable nuggets in there worth digging for.

If I have a criticism of the book it is that the author himself did not take enough precaution and make suitable preparation for his trek through Shikoku. For him, Shikoku was the adventure and the place to explore and trundle through on the way to self-enlightenment and personal discovery. 

In Paul’s very descriptive and self-revealing tale he mentions several times that he was not ready for some elements of his trip. He was injured quite seriously when he foolishly caused damage at one of the temples, and his shin was opened up leading to infection. Postponing medical treatment due to a lack of medical insurance made his situation quite terrible. Luckily for him he received proper medical treatment (only costing him 50 dollars US) and then was back on the road. This needs to be highlighted in your book as a cautionary tale. GET HEALTH INSURANCE before your travel to Shikoku.

There were times in his book where he was out of money. This is also something which is somewhat not easy to overlook. Why did Paul think it was okay to come to Shikoku without enough money? Why did he think it would be okay to just sleep outside wherever he thought might be good enough? Why did he have some subconscious expectation that “osettai” (charitable gifts from local residents) would see him through the day? Why did he think that ramen places would let him skip on the bill at the end of his meals? He certainly does not say “Hey, come to Shikoku. The food is free and you can camp just about anywhere. Everyone loves it, so come out for a homeless vacation!”, in any direct way. But there is a subtext there that it is just fine to throw caution to the wind, camp where you like, have some deep spiritual experiences as a result and everything will work out just fine.

Paul does not get to sit in on the meetings that I do with Ohenro Association people, or monks at the temples. He doesn’t have a clue that his “adventure” is a local burden. It might work for the very rare person coming through, but should hundreds and hundreds come after him, the situation for local communities would be pretty rough. There are people here in Shikoku who have some very serious concerns about this, and they can hardly be blamed for it.

In one part of the text, I like very much the realization that he has when he is inside a Japanese family’s home that would not leave him out to sleep under a bridge. They take him in, feed him, let him bathe in their home, have him sleep in a beautiful part of their home, and do their best to host him despite Paul not having any real Japanese ability to communicate or to express his gratitude. In some frustration he says, “I can’t give them anything”. In that moment he realizes that he has been traveling as a “taker”. It is an ugly moment, but an incredibly insightful and blindingly truthful moment. 

It made me really respect the man he was becoming in that moment. 

With the Shikoku Pilgrimage becoming more and more popular and visible each year it is quite critical, for the preservation of this great cultural artifact and journey of the soul, that each traveler take themselves into account. It is great to see the world and adventure. We should all do it, but we also need to do it in a way that we do not have our hands out to others. How can we contribute to the hosts of our experiences? How can we be gracious and welcome visitors? How can we make good benefits to those we encounter on the way?

Our experiences and growth ought not come at the expense and inconvenience or trouble to others. We should enrich one another as best we can, whenever we can. I think this can be done in some very basic ways. If you travel by foot or local transport, stay at local inns, ryokan, guest houses, and hotels. Slow your pace down. Take some time to see local things. Eat local food, and find out what festivals or activities are going on around you. Hire a guide for a day with a group and learn more about the culture and history. Join a Japanese friendship association and make connections with new friends that you will treasure forever. If you receive something from someone, like an “osettai”, that is great but put something back into that person’s hands. A trinket from home, a key chain, a pin with the flag of your country, a bookmark, or anything else easy to pack and carry. Be creative and give when you can.

I think that if Paul were to come out this way again he might travel very differently. And if he does, I hope he gives me a shout. I’d be happy to take him out for dinner. Not as “osettai”, but just as a thank you for this great book.

I’m grateful that Paul Barach wrote this book, and I think it is a great read. He is funny and made me laugh out loud a few times. That is not surprising as in his credits I learned that he is also a comic. 

Travel Trend: Personal Challenge

A nice brief article on travel trends around the world. The Shikoku Pilgrimage gets a mention in the middle. It’s nice to see and the numbers of growing tourists each year seem to be a reflection of this as well. More people are finding the trail out here. A UNESCO designation may be soon in the coming as well. We may be living in some interesting times to come!

https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6557251/the-trends-shaping-the-travel-industry-in-2019/

Pilgrims from Cork

https://www.echolive.ie/corklives/Meet-the-Cork-adventurer-who-undertook-a-1200km-pilgrimage-in-Japan-016bae7f-9ab7-4d09-b443-aed3f9aeeffc-ds

A very nice write-up about Jasper Winn on his ohenro adventure in Japan. A very light article with an unfortunate sentence about how the Heart Sutra, and the recitation thereof was “annoying” to his spirituality.

Oh well, you can’t please everyone. At any rate, despite the annoyance here is hoping to this article inspiring more pilgrims to come this way, and hopefully to be a little less annoyed at the cultural and spiritual elements of the pilgrimage.

Book Report: The Way of the 88 Temples by Robert Sibley

This is a book that I have really come to love, for a bunch of reasons. The author is articulate and intelligent. His writing is very much “present” and “in the moment”. He is a Canadian. He is a writer steeping in philosophy, and continually learning and growing. He comes from Alberta, which is where I grew up. He traveled around Shikoku at a time I didn’t even know he was in the area. He could have walked right by my house.

And then there is this book. Compared to a lot of traveler accounts of “the road not taken” he stands head and shoulders above most. But as you read this book it is important that you are reading more about the pilgrim’s experience than temple information. Most certainly, there is a LOT of great background and snippets of culture, language, Buddhism, folklore, and personalities throughout, but they are all intrinsically linked to the immediate experience of Sibley. This certainly does not take anything away from the book. In fact, it serves to make the reading more intimate and intense. This is a book that inspires and touches, rather than lecture and expound.

There may be critics who claim that the book is light on data and information about the temples. This is not a guide book. This is Robert’s book, and his story. And he tells it well.

Highly recommended. I loved it. And he made me laugh out loud several times.

He also surprised me with a few moments that were particularly touching.

Thank you, Robert! When you come again, please drop me a line. Dinner and beers are my settai waiting for you here in Kagawa!

Robert Sibley has written a few other books as well, including one on the Camino. Please check out his site: http://www.rumourofgod.com/index.html

Mainichi Shinbun on Best “Omotenashi”

Check out this article by the Mainichi!

https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20200112/p2a/00m/0na/002000c

“Omotenashi” is an expression you hear often in hospitality circles. It can mean a lot of things, but it is the term to best express the thoughtful and gracious reception we get as foreign visitors to Japan. There is kindness, empathy, care, and a desire to “share the moment”. Elegant, and very Japanese.

Health Insurance: You MUST have it

Hello again.

This blog is getting periodic updates every now and then. We are closing in rapidly at the end of the year. That means a lot of fun things to do, some cool events to enjoy, and also a long sustained scream from now right through to the end of the holidays.

And speaking of screaming, let’s talk about HEALTH INSURANCE and your inevitable voyage to, and the life-changing experience you will have on the Shikoku pilgrimage. You will likely hear from various places of sage counsel to make sure you have health insurance and travel insurance before you go anywhere. And like most people you will probably think, “Ah… what could happen? I’ll be all right. Look at these biceps! I’m invincible!”

And that is all fine and good until you aren’t. Something happens. You slip on the trail and break an ankle. Your biceps did not save you that time. You catch a cold and keep walking and then get bronchitis and then keep walking and then you get pneumonia and then you collapse in the nearest drug store looking for Vicks Vapo-rub.

It can happen. I may not happen. But IF it DOES happen, you better have some health insurance.

The reason for that is simple. If you don’t have health insurance the situation you now in will be completely out of your control. Bad things have a higher potential to happen and you will not have much of a say in what is coming next.

One possibility is that you will be picked up by good samaritans and put in a hospital. The doctors will look at you and instantly admit you into their medical facility, do tests, hook you up to an IV, and do what they can for you. Japanese doctors and medical facilities are some of the best in the world. If I am sick, for anything, I want to be treated here.

You will not be allowed to just leave when you want. If you have a serious illness, or broken bones, you need to get treated and healed up. Stumbling out of the hospital only to collapse later makes trouble for a lot of people you don’t know, so don’t do that. Every hour you are in the hospital costs money.

After a few days you may be ready to leave. Now you have to pay the bills. One recent report from someone on the Shikoku Pilgrimage who did not have medical coverage is still paying a bill of 50,000 dollars. That is some serious money. It would not have been a problem if he had health insurance. I am sure that you do not want this kind of grief.

You may think, “Well, maybe I will just leave the hospital and quietly get to the airport and go home.” I suppose you could do that. And besides it being a real low-life thing to do, fantastically selfish and narcissistic, it may have some “real life” consequences for you.

The world is different now than it was years ago. People who do not pay their medical bills in Japan and skip out may be reported to other authorities. It’s a kind of crime. Municipal, prefectural, and national organizations cooperate much more with each other than they did in the past. If you have a black mark on your name because you skipped out on your medical bill, do you think that this information may be given to the local police, who then share that with immigration and border control authorities? Do you think that should you try to come back to Japan in the future you might be stopped at the gate and asked to settle your outstanding debt? Do you think that in the spirit of international cooperation against terror that the Japanese border authorities may share their information with other countries? Do you think that skipping out on your bill in Japan may affect your ability to travel and use your passport as you go elsewhere?

Maybe. I don’t know. I am no expert. But I do know that privacy is shrinking in our world, that the ability to “be off grid” or “under the radar” is more fantasy than reality. We are all far more “accessible” than we used to.

It would just be much easier and simpler to just get some health insurance rather than run the risk of going through unnecessary trouble and heartache.

There is some rather inane urban legend on the Shikoku pilgrimage, likely true to some extent, of a traveler who got very sick and needed to be hospitalized. That traveler did not have health insurance and when the day of reckoning came to be discharged the hospital staff met that person, bowed in unison, and said, “It is our osettai!”. Which means “It’s on the house”.

Wow.

Really? I am not sure if I really believe it. I’m pretty sure that I do not want to believe it.  It sounds all so magical and marvellous, like a testament to the natural good natured characters of Shikoku residents far and wide. It’s a “made for television” kind of moment.

Maybe that happened. But even if it did you really MUST NOT expect to get free medical care when you come to Japan. You need to pay your own way. If you get sick and need professional care make sure you have covered to receive it. Do not think that this folksy legend of overly kind and eternally generous thinking about medical treatment will apply to you when you come to experience Shikoku. That is incredibly self-centered and naive.

A more realistic interpretation of the above case was that the doctors and nurses, because they are sworn to protect life (even yours when you don’t have proper insurance) will not leave you on the street. They probably figured out that their patient was basically treating their home town and prefecture like a homeless person’s free/cheap vacation, and that this person had little consideration for the impact of their actions on others.

They realized that they were dealing with someone who under all the smiles was someone who cared more about themselves and their “magic experience” than thinking that while traveling to another country is great, you are traveling through someone else’s life, their city, their hometown, and the place where they raise their kids.

They probably realized that even if they tried to get some payment towards the un-collectable amount owed it would be a long series of hopeless attempts resulting in great frustration. It would be “cheaper” to cut the losses and try to make it a bit more palpable as a “gift”.

But it is a gift that the “guest” took in advance… and enjoyed prior to the actual “giving”.

It is also so unnecessary. Health insurance and travel insurance are dirt cheap. Compared to the actual costs of having to pay for medical expenses out of pocket it is almost free. Please consider this moral lesson as a heart-felt plea to prepare yourself and plan for potential trouble when you are ready to come out to Shikoku. Small preventative measures will save you much pain and suffering.

Everyone I have talked to and met here in Shikoku who are very interested in supporting and helping people come to the region to enjoy the pilgrimage love the concept of more visitors and explorers. They love that people can come and experience this incredible place. But there are concerns too. Things like garbage left behind, people sleeping in public spaces, and also this… people who need medical help who did not prepare properly.

I think that as visitors to Japan (I include myself in that number, even after 20 plus years of living here) we need to be mindful of these things. Don’t throw garbage out in nature. Don’t sleep out in places that you do not know are okay. Book a guesthouse, an Air BnB, or a hotel. Eat well, and eat locally. And for your own sake, and health, and safety, and pocket book, get some medical/health/travel insurance before you arrive.

It’ll be great to see you here. But make sure that you do it well, and safely, and stress-free too.

That’s all for my rant today. Thanks for reading this far.