Every story has a beginning. Every pilgrimage has its first steps. I think I should tell you a little about how this website came to be, and what this is all about.
So, I came to Japan at first many years ago. My first experiences in Japan were as a language teacher with the public schools. I lived in a rural part of Ishikawa Prefecture, and this was all prior to the Internet, and I was very much in a place where I had to “sink or swim”. I was a young guy in my early 20’s and I met some wonderful people there. I studied karate for many years, taught thousands of kids at the local high school, and started to find myself content in a world far away from the northern plains of Canada, where I am from.
After my first experiences in Ishikawa I developed my education further, taking my Masters Degree in Comparative Literature (exploring Japanese medieval themes) and then teaching at the university. It was a very good experience and there was much to learn and study. But the university teaching position, although great, was also a limited opportunity. Foreign teachers are not able to stay long with the universities that they work with and are eventually “retired” from service. I knew that was the situation when I started but I was not ready to be finished with my time in Japan. I had grown to love the life I had been given, and there were many things yet to do.
A couple years later my wife and I move to her home province of Kagawa. Much different than Ishikawa, Kagawa is part of four prefectures that make up the Shikoku Island in south-west Japan. We are now off the beaten track, and we are starting over from the beginning. There were no teaching positions for me to take at the university. I was very much a stranger in a strange land. But we were undeterred. We believed that we were meant to try something unique here.
Then it happened. A foreign couple was selling their little language school and going back to their home country. We were interested in taking over from them and developing a school for kids. And then we started our own language school. What started as one small school with about 40 kids in the countryside has been developed and grown into a group of schools that serve Takamatsu City and the surrounding areas. We were on a unique path of bringing strong English education to children, and focussing on making them successful and on the road to being bilingual.
We have been overwhelmed with the support that this community has shown us in our schools. We are grateful for the parents who believe with us that education is a critical element for a child’s future success. Our schools did not grow by themselves, they grew with people, with parents, with kids, and with our teachers and staff. It is a marvellous thing to be in a position of working inside this community with families. I noticed as well, that this work is also dramatically different than my previous work in the university. From my office on the university campus I was somewhat on the periphery looking in. Of some use, perhaps, but far away from the community, isolated. I felt very much like I was in a box, it was a nice box, but a box nonetheless. But here, in this place, in this context, we are much more able to be of service to others. I think that makes all the difference for us. I wake up everyday excited to get to my work. I never had that experience before…
While we are glad to be of service for kids, and getting them the language skills they need, there is something else that we began to realize that we should do, and that is to be of service to the community that has supported us. We wanted to be of service to the prefecture of Kagawa, and to try to repay the kindnesses that have come our way.
Initially we had no idea what it is that we could do. There are some local industries, and from time to time we are happy to help them with documents that need checking and so on. But there was something else that would be tugging at our elbows, and we were standing in the midst of it all this time.
We looked up from our busy work of the day-to-day of running language schools and realized that we are literally up to our eyebrows in a deep tradition that is inextricably linked to nature. The hills of Kagawa, and all of Shikoku, are gorgeous. We started to take day trips on the weekends to venture out into the other prefectures of Kagawa. We drove out to Kochi Prefecture, Tokushima Prefecture, Ehime Prefecture, and were reminded and surprised again at so many turns in the road, that we are living in a very unique, beautiful, and virtually untouched environment of trees, paths, temples, hills, streams, ponds, and fields.
And then there was also the continual reminders along the way that others had been on paths through here too. The 88 temples of Shikoku are dotted throughout the landscape. There are signs along the paths pointing the way.
We stopped at temples in the hills and in the chain of towns that marked the pilgrimage journey through the country. Kukai had been through here and left his mark in many ways, and there was much to learn at every stop.
Maybe we could do something to bring this experience to others outside of Japan. Maybe we could do something with the city leaders and educators here in Kagawa to introduce this pilgrimage in a way that would be helpful, informative, and welcoming to foreign English-speaking travellers. We began to cultivate these ideas in our minds, and then we started to meet people who were “pros” regarding the “Ohenro”(pilgrimage) experience here in Shikoku. When we told them that we would like to use our abilities in language, translation, and education to be of service, we started to form some very interesting and wonderful new friendships.
There was something growing between us that shared a desire to bring this experience out into a bigger world. In addition, there have been many people working in UNESCO here in Japan to bring greater recognition to the Shikoku Pilgrimage. In fact, after the pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Spain saw a huge number of new visitors entering the country to have the experience.
We believe that it is only a matter of time before we see the same thing happening here in Shikoku. We believe that the 88 Buddhist Temple pilgrimage is something that will soon be known to the world, and that many people will hope to come to Japan to have this very unique and special experience. Knowing this is soon to come, we feel that we can be of help and service to people coming to Japan who do not have Japanese language skills, but who would love to have the opportunity to experience and explore a culture so different from their own. We also believe that despite the language barrier between English and Japanese that there is something very important and significant about this pilgrimage that transcends language, and that there is something here for people to experience and learn.
Our small part in this is to help make the undiscovered country discoverable. What you find on your own pilgrimage is held somewhere along the walk that you will take when you get here. That is your own life’s work, to find your own meaning. Our job is to help make that path a little smoother so that you can find your way. I hope we can be of service to you on your journey. And I hope we can do a good job of it too.
Welcome to Shikoku. Let’s take a walk.
“You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.” –Bilbo Baggins