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.

A Big Snit

Let me tell you a story.

Way back in the mid 1995 I was on a smooth wooden floor in the city of Uchinada, Ishikawa prefecture. I had trained very hard, almost every day, for three years to get to this point. I had sweated gallons, I had been cut, bruised, punched, kicked, and had a fair number of broken bones in my feet, a broken nose, and damaged teeth. I was standing in front of over twenty veteran Japanese karate teachers. It was time to earn my shodan (first degree blackbelt). It was the hardest day of my life.

The morning was filled with basics. Stepping. Punching. Kicking. Blocking. Combinations barked out, and you better be quick. Up and down the floor. There were about 30 of us grading that day for black belts. The floor was slick with perspiration. Then slick from blood from cut feet. This was no game. The air was thick and hot. My mouth tasted like iron. It was a grim start to the day.

A short break for lunch. I couldn’t eat anything, but I could keep down some water. I stood by an open window. I felt the air on my face. And before I knew it we were commanded to get lined up again.

And what I thought was a really rough morning was not much of anything because now we spar. Now we fight. I had a moment where my mind was blank. Then we got lined up and I was ready to go. I felt my heartbeat spike a little, and then it settled down. I was in my groove.

Thirty candidates facing off against all our teachers. Our well-rested teachers. And as they lined up to spar with us one after another we were told to stand our ground.

I stood my ground.

I was close to my prime fighting condition, and I fought with everything I had. I was lucky as I saw a few guys lose front teeth that day. But they fought on. We all did. It was rough, and a little bloody, but the style of Shotokan karate is also beautiful too. A man stands entirely still. Then in a single motion, with all muscles in synchronicity he moves like a barracuda. You may feel just a hint of a punch on your face, in your belly. And sometimes he will give you just a little more, just so you don’t forget how dangerous this art is. You probably won’t see it coming until it is too late.

And it is in those moments where you must let the front of your mind go, and let the body and subconscious mind look ahead, searching for “the tell”, the tremor of movement, and let the body react, let the counter whip out with a mind of its own, and remain there, on that spot. Standing your ground. You must always stand your ground.

The teachers, and their junior instructors cycled through the candidates, each trying to show the next how much punishment they can dish out. I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. I decided that day to bring everything I had to the floor. I would not be put down. I would not give an inch to any man. And the air was full of shouting, and fury.

After about an hour or so, the raging thunder of karate teachers knocking us around, demanding you “STAND AND FIGHT” after each defeat, had subsided, we spent the next four hours working on forms and having every single nuance of each movement, hand position, block, turn, and stance micro-analyzed until they were good enough. In the end we had been on the floor, being tested and pushed, battered and bruised for ten hours. My feet were in ribbons, my karate uniform soaked through from top to bottom, and yet we all stood there. Not one of us let go. We had been pounded for hours, but now the study of kata was about the art, gracefulness, and precision of hands, feet, and spine.

I love karate. I love Shotokan karate. It has been the strength in my life from my twenties up to my fifties. It taught me a lot in terms of how to live, how to work, how to find compassion, how to be at peace with the world, and how to be a man.

From that day I continued as a karate student, then a coach and a teacher. Then a writer. I wrote a book called, “Karate The Japanese Way”. It was not an “expert” book about karate, as I am no expert. It was no “authority” on karate, as I have no authority. I am just a simple Canadian chucklehead.

But I love karate. And I love to talk about it, and do it, and meet other people who love it too. So, I built a website also called “Karate The Japanese Way”. It’s long gone now, but when I made it I, with a lot of help from web experts, it became pretty popular. People in the karate world started to read the book and got interested in the art. I received a lot of emails that the book was used to inspire new students coming in to karate. The book was even being used as a required text for some karate clubs at university. It was more than just a little unbelievable.

The tone of the book is “I do not know everything about karate, but come along with me and you can see the things I see. Then make up your own mind.”

I always write in this fashion. It’s my style, and it is my true mind. With everything.

After the book was doing reasonably well I decided that we would develop an on-line forum for karate, and have a place for “intelligent discussion” about all things karate. I managed to assemble a team of moderators from England, New Zealand, The Philippines, and America. After a few months we had a membership of over 30,000 karate teachers and students around the world. It was a pretty incredible thing.

One important thing to know about how karate organizations ran in the past is that they were very much top-down, in a pyramid shape. Whatever you were told verbally by your “sensei” was the law. And you were to obey. And you were to not think for yourself. And you were not to disagree, research, meet other karate people, or show any sign of “disobedience”. In fact, some karate organizations resembled cults. Members of our intelligent karate forum did not hesitate to point that out, and to welcome anyone to express their ideas and discuss any element of the art we cherish.

Several major karate organizations began to lose their steam, and several top “sensei” found themselves no longer “the fount of all wisdom”. The internet takes care of that. The free association of people is the antithesis to control freaks and “authoritarian experts”. Some karate leaders made demands that we stop talking on line about karate. You can imagine how well that went over. We decided to stand our ground, to remain intellectually honest, and continually curious.

I’m very proud of the discussions and headway we had with liberating otherwise intellectually and psychologically controlled women and men in a few bogus karate pyramid structures that were floating around out there. As a group we had great research, multi-lingual texts, meetings, discussions, seminars, papers written and published, and a wellspring of new publications came out as a result. We spoke and wrote without fear or favour. That is part of our Enlightenment heritage, and we will not throw it out, or put it aside for anyone.

How we gather information now is very different than when I was a university student in the 1980’s. There was no Internet then, so you had to get into the library as much as you could. And even then, the resources are only what you can manage to pull off a shelf. I love books, and I love to read, but I also love the free flow of data and information that we experience today with the incredible technology at our fingertips. That part of information gathering is much better now than before.

The Internet flattens pyramids, and we should be grateful for that. Access to information, throughout history, liberates the mind. It unshackles us from other’s opinions and grants us a better way to think for ourselves.

So, how does this relate to pilgrims on the Shikoku Pilgrimage?

Well, up until recently there have been only a few “sources” in English about the pilgrimage itself. Some have been trailblazing, thoughtful, articulate, well-written, well researched, and intelligent. Some have been just okay. But, all is welcome. Because there is not so much out there, at this time, we need to read everything that we can get. As a student of the pilgrimage, I am always looking for more to read and to understand. I’m hungry for information and for new knowledge. Even though my school days are long behind me, I still have the heart and mind of a student.

But there is this pesky thing called the Internet that disrupts pyramidal thinking about knowledge and expertise. And some “experts” have seemingly gotten their feathers ruffled because they are no longer the sole, singular, and primary sources of information or inspiration for a 1200 year old pilgrimage. History has moved up to their point in it and may move right through them. Sadly, instead of riding the incredible wave that is coming their way, they may just pick up their surfboard and kick rocks all the way home.

Frankly, I find this prima donna attitude disappointing. And childish.

Puerile.

I can’t prove anything, but I feel a “tremor”. Something is moving out there in the Internet regarding the Ohenro experience.  Some of the “big boys” are complaining and grousing. I have heard as much through third parties. They seem displeased that their sage voices are not the only voices that may be heard. They seem flummoxed that there may be information and perspective and people who also exist here in Shikoku who may want to lend a hand to incoming pilgrims. Apparently, and this comes from a few sources, this little website, and our community building of pilgrims and and ohenro from around the world on Facebook has deeply offended them.

I have somehow, in my enthusiasm and “je ne sais quoi” wronged them, these would be modern preachers and priests of the “true Ohenro tradition”. I am not sure how I have done that, considering I have written nothing and said nothing but nice things about each of the gentlemen I have in mind right now.

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 2.00.00 PMBut their hackles are raised, offended, and in a snit they are, and there is no undoing the grievous injury I have done upon their fair and thin-skinned sensibilities. I have no grudges to carry, for my part. But they seem to have some serious issues with Yours Truly. Their hand-wringing and angst has reached a certain pitch and they have reacted, not with any entreaty to talk or discuss, but with rashness and bitterness. I have heard the unpleasant comments about us, and it’s very disappointing.

They are picking up their toys and thinking about going home. Maybe their day is done, so maybe that is okay. The sun still rises and sets, just not on everything they have to say anymore.

There is still much to do for this project, for introduction of the Shikoku experience, for support of people coming here for the first time. I’m committed to see this work down the road as best as I can, and to be of service to my fellow pilgrim, the people in my neighbourhood, the people in my city, the people in the prefecture of Kagawa, and the country that belongs to my children.

I will stand my ground.

As a student. As a person with curiosity. As a fellow pilgrim looking to find my way.

As a man. As a person. As a heart and soul built on bones with muscle and skin.

Just like you.

This page in the latest drama will be turned. The next day will come. Pilgrims will wake up in the morning and get their shoes on. The next temple awaits. And the next. And the next. The unhappy “sage voices of English-speaking master ohenro” will be fainter until they either fade away, or they figure out that there is nothing more or less special about them than anyone else, and do what they were doing before.

I do not know what the next day will bring. If the “voices of English authority” dramatically cross their arms and have a sulk, that is their choice. Others will continue on to translate, to explore, to share, to discover, and to celebrate the Shikoku Pilgrimage anyway.

I’m not sure what the great Koubou Daishi would think. We all have our personal faults, foibles, and demons to wrestle.

And frankly, in the end, this website, my little book, and all the things I have said, songs I have sung, and every echo of every belly-laugh I have ever had, will simply fade.

I’m totally okay with that.

Travel safe dear pilgrims. Keep between the ditches.