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. 

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