This is the blog where I voice an unpopular opinion among the non-Japanese Shikoku Pilgrimage pilgrims. The answer, right to the point, directly and straightly, with no beating around the bush, avoiding all unnecessary circumlocution, eschewing verbosity in favor of candid guidance and candor, withholding urges, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and otherwise, to be spot on, without any, as the British are fond of saying, “fannying about”, and with a bright shining light of reality, shocking truth, and laying all the cards out on the metaphoric table, as it were, so as to say…
Yes. You need a guide. You absolutely need a guide.
While detractors to this claim, both here on the sunny shores of Shikoku, and elsewhere throughout the world in both physical and digital forms, might respond with their own insights, “Well, you know, Mark. You can easily just walk around outside in Shikoku and you’ll be just fine to go and find everything on your own. You can save a lot of money, like for a hostel to sleep in, or you know, like to buy some extra snacks at the convenience store on the way, or like buy some lip balm for chapped lips. Just look at my mouth! See how chapped I am! It’s a disgrace. You don’t need no guide. I didn’t need one and I could walk all around Shikoku without any problems at all. None! So stuff it you over-bloviating dork.”
Well, first off, detractors. There is no need to be so salty. Mine is simply an opinion. But I hope that you will allow me a few lines here to explain why one might need a guide, and why, in the greater consideration of all things, a guide is really a necessity and not so much an option.
Point One: You probably do not speak enough Japanese. Also, even if you do speak a lot of Japanese and can talk and make friends and order food and make reservations, and even if you can read a lot of Japanese characters, and road signs, and you won’t get lost, you will not really know what you are looking at when you go and visit most temples. The language gaps between classic Japanese and modern Japanese is huge. Also, there are all kinds of stories and legends and information about the high priest Kobo-Daishi, the specific deities in the temples, the historic relevance of the location, and a ton of local folklore that you will have ZERO access to unless you have a good guide.
Your ability to chat with friends in Japanese or read a manga is basically irrelevant. No offense, but seriously, don’t pretend you have Japanese language skills that can unravel the secrets of a 1200 year old ancient pilgrimage route when you don’t have those language skills. Are you schooled in Japanese medieval studies, Japanese history, linguistics, and Buddhism? My bet, and please feel free to correct me if I am wrong, probably not.
Point Two: One of the greatly overlooked wonders of the Shikoku Pilgrimage is that it is an ancient source of history, the spiritual backbone of Japanese thought, and legends and folklore that Japanese society has integrated into the fabric of who they are today. It’s a great chance for you to be a student, rather than a hiker. Many Japanese tour groups travel with a guide for this specific purpose: TO LEARN. Your hobo-holiday walking around in pilgrim cosplay oblivious to the fantastic landscape of literature, culture, and history is actually kind of gross in comparison. Yep. I just wrote that. I mean it too.
Point Three: A guide can teach you, and also facilitate for you with the monks, priests, and experts, something about Japanese stories, about Buddhism, about rites and rituals, about architecture, and about how Japanese people think, interact, and live. Why on earth would you pass up that chance just to get your backpack on your body, whisk yourself through these places on manic pace to find a safe place to crash out before the sun goes down? Don’t you think that your great journey to Shikoku should be about growing something in your head, and in your heart, rather than giving yourself a series of mini-panic attacks as you run like mad, do damage to yourself, and try to imagine that you had something more to stick with you than fleeting impressions as you head out again to the trail of punishing concrete waiting ahead?
Getting a guide will force you to slow down. Getting a guide will help you focus on why you came to Shikoku in the first place.
“What? Does that mean that I won’t finish my pilgrimage in time before I have to flee back to my life back in my own country?”
Yes. That is exactly what it means. To give you some sort of parallel to understand this point, do you think that running a marathon through Paris, including the Louvre, would be the best use of that type of opportunity to see the city, its art and to experience its culture? Would you run through the streets of any historical European city without wanting to take some time to really look, to really understand, to really “take it in”? Then why is that seemingly okay with a pilgrimage in Japan?
People who are grinding it out like mad on pavement for six weeks straight just to collect stamps and seals in their stamp book miss all the big points. They are engaging in a “treadmill pilgrimage”. They complete their “task” of checking off all 88 boxes, and then when asked what they think or know, or have cause to daydream about relating to the pilgrimage, have very very little to say for themselves. Then a quick trip to Koyasan for the final check box, followed by a dull ache felt in the waiting area of Narita Airport before you go home. They don’t remember anything because they didn’t really learn anything.
And I think that is tragic.
So, you should get a guide.
You should get a guide because they will TEACH you something if you are patient enough, curious enough, to learn. They will help you bond with and connect with locals. They will transform you from “passing cosplay spectacle” to “human” to “friend” with others. They are your link to the Japan you really came so far to see and experience. Why wouldn’t you want one?
Wouldn’t you like to meet some Japanese people when you come all the way to Japan to learn about Japanese culture on a Japanese pilgrimage? I don’t know about you, but whenever I travel anywhere I always make it a point to meet someone, engage in conversation with someone, and enjoy some time with someone wherever I travel. I have met some of the best friends of my life this way. Don’t shortchange yourself.
Point Four: Would you like to learn more about the spiritual roots of Buddhism? You should get a guide for that. They may not be particularly religious or spiritual or engaged with things metaphysical, but if you have questions they can help you get some answers. They can help you talk with the monks in the temples. Wouldn’t THAT be cool? Don’t you have burning questions that you love to ask people who are in that world? I do. I hope you do too.
“Oh but Mark”, my detractors continue, “I can’t possibly afford to pay money for a guide. I hardly even have enough money to pay for lip balm. Did you see how horribly wind-damaged my lips are? Who will want to kiss these lips? No one!”
My response to that, also somewhat unwelcome in some quarters is, if you cannot arrange your finances to do a thing correctly, you ought to consider whether or not you should be doing it.
Simply stated, if you will not pay for proper things, necessary things, like accommodations, healthy food, access to information, and the means by which you can deeply understand what you are looking at and experiencing, perhaps you ought not make the trip at all. A guide is not free. They should be paid. So, make a group, share the expense. Join a proper tour group. Don’t be so proud to share your time with others. If you really just want to hike alone, I recommend that you find a nice route in the Canadian Rockies (but even there you are required to hike in groups because bears eat solo hikers).
Also, make sure to moisturize. It’s really important.
A guide is necessary. They know all kinds of things you don’t. They can help communicate for you with others. They can bind you to locals in fun, and in friendship. They are also some of the best people you will ever meet. Ever ask a guide why they wanted to be a guide? They will tell you how much they LOVE their country, their people, their culture, and their world. They will tell you that for them a great thrill is to have a chance to share these things with foreigners visiting. They want to give you all sorts of great things for your brain and heart.
Why on earth you wouldn’t want what they have to offer is beyond the scope of my ability to understand.
So, yes. You really need a guide.