O-Settai: The Discussion part 1

IMG_5504So, this week I received in my inbox a request from someone involved here in Kagawa with the Ohenro network. A very nice young man who is bringing his expertise in web design is helping others figure out how to get the most information out there about the Ohenro experience, complete with maps, instructions how to get from temple A to temple B, and at times asking from us some help with the translation material. We are all volunteers in this project, and while my own computer skills are basically non-existent, I am glad to help where I can.

The topic that is currently being addressed is that of “o-settai”. If you are on the Ohenro trail you already know what this is. If you are not here (yet), I will do my best to explain what “o-settai” is, but there are more authoritative voices on this topic so listen to them too.

What an “o-settai” is, is really just a gift. It is a gift of something like an orange, or a cup of tea, or a ride in a car to someplace you need to go, or a place to crash out at the end of the day. It could be a few coins to buy your lunch, it could be the use of someone’s washroom when you really got to go, it could be a cookie, it could be gentle advice. “O-settai” is something given from the heart and received with gratitude by the heart.

It is a bond. It is unconditional love and kindness offered for our fellow humans on the path.

It is something received that you get when you have no expectations of getting anything at all. It is something given with no expectation of something received in return.

So, in essence, it is a beautiful circle of giving and receiving. It can be anyway.

My good friend with the translation request asked me to look at something that has developed from a situation on the path where “O-settai” seems to be somewhat misunderstood. So, with that in mind, I want to share that with you here so that we can understand it better, and do what we can as a community of travelers to keep the Ohenro experience good for everyone.

The problem is in regards to ohenro arriving in a small town, and instead of arranging for suitable lodgings in advance, plan on roughing it. There have been cases of young women ohenro setting up camp at the local bus stop, much to the surprise of local people. When someone of my generation, or older (which makes up a lot of the population of Japan) sees a young woman on the road setting up camp to sleep outside, the first reaction is to go out to that person and ask them to come indoors. I have daughters, and that response is now hard-wired in my brain. I would not want them, or anyone near their age, sleeping outdoors. Yes, Japan is safe, but there is no guarantee of safety. And there are weirdos out in every country, even super-safe Japan.

So, the problem is that the young pilgrim, grateful to be out of the weather, having a chance to use a proper toilet, have a shower, and get something to eat, wants to share the experience with friends. The blog is updated, coordinates are locked in, and now the report is semi-permanent on-line. The next day our young grateful traveler is on her way, much buoyed by the “O-settai” received, and the kindness of strangers.

And then, a few weeks or months later, more pilgrims arrive from far away believing that this location, the place where there was nothing more than a bus stop, is a place where people can stay for the night, and perhaps even get something to help them on their way. They ask to use the toilet. They spread out into the park, or in a vacant lot. It causes stress and worry for the local people who do not have the facilities, or language, to communicate with people suddenly showing up on their doorsteps.

When they manage to communicate their concerns, and suggest that these surprise visitors keep heading down the road to better accommodations, they get the response, “We read on the Internet that this place is okay for us to stay”. Now it is evening, and too dark to safely continue on.

What should the locals do?

In their culture it is bad luck to refuse to help those in need, but how many can they help? And is going to be a daily part of their lives now? Is the custom of “O-settai” now becoming understood as an expectation of lodging, clean water, and food?

If it is a few people, the locals seem to be just fine with it all. But what if 100 people come through? What if there are surprise visitors knocking on the door at all hours from here on?

The worry about being a good host, about being able to communicate, and about all the unknown elements that arrive when out-of-country strangers show up unexpectedly day and night is a very real thing for many of these older folk.

We need to take a moment to put ourselves in the shoes, sandals, or hiking boots of the other person. “O-settai” should be spontaneous and a happy opportunity to “be in the moment” and to share the Ohenro experience. The situation described above lacks this feeling.

The solution is not simple, and it needs some work. So, for my part we are going to do what we can to figure out in detail, and to calculate for different speeds of walkers what accommodations would be best suited for Ohenro on the way.

It will prove to be a cumbersome project, but I think it is important. I hope that if you have been on the Ohenro path and have suggestions for housing at any place along the route you will let us know. We will do our best to organize all possible places for people to stay so that pilgrims on the road can get safe, clean, and suitable housing based on their needs, and people in the community will be glad to see us on the road, and cheerfully willing to have us come through their towns and villages as we make our ways down the road.

If you are an experienced Ohenro reading this page, and have data that could be helpful for this project, especially about your walking speed/times and locations where you found suitable lodging as you traveled, please consider sending me your information. We are going to take the next few months to put as much information together as possible so that people who travel after us will have the best experience possible, and also be of service to those whose homes and neighborhoods are on our path.

You can send your info to: cometokagawa@gmail.com .

Thank you very much for your kind consideration.



Sometimes You Don’t Travel Alone

A friend of mine in Canada, we actually know each other through a shared passion for karate, had the most heart-wrenching tragedy happen to him and his wife. They lost their young daughter, Calista. The cause of death was sudden cardiac arrhythmia. Calista’s parents lost so much, and it is a pain that parents around them, and around the world can barely fathom. She was just about to graduate from college.

Calista’s dad, Bryce, started projects to celebrate the life of his daughter. She was deeply into photography and art, so Bryce started projects to commemorate his daughter. She was so incredibly young, and had everything great and wonderful and exciting ahead of her. It seems so cruel to have it vanish just before she really got her feet under her.

Bryce wrote this blog to talk about his daughter, the loss, and what was remaining from the day of her death:


One project that has been very interesting, and very moving is looking for ways to give his daughter places to travel and experience. Bryce had a set of coins bearing the image of his daughter on them. He passed the coins out to friends and people he knew around the world to carry with them. The instructions are to take the coins with you and pass them to other travelers. When you arrive somewhere you are to take a self-photo and send that to Bryce or the Facebook page that has been set up.


I asked Bryce to send me coins to carry and pass to people I meet on the way. Right now I am carrying one coin with me on the 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage here in Shikoku. I am currently half-way through. Calista travels with me in spirit and I pray for her and her family at each temple along the way. She is a most unexpected traveling companion. We never met, and Bryce and I are friends through years of on-line discussion about karate, and have not met yet either. I think one day we shall. I would like Calista’s parents to perhaps come out our way some day, and see some of the paths that Calista and I have come down together. I hope they find some peace, and joy, and revisit the love they have for their child along the way.

It is a deep and profound privilege I feel to be part of the project. Tomorrow, Calista and I head out again for the next two-day installment of this pilgrimage. I hope you will follow along on these pages and see some of the things we have seen.