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!
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.
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
Check out this article by the Mainichi!
“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.
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.
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.
But 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.
Well, the reviews are slowly coming in, and naturally, like all writers, they make me a little nervous. What I discovered today, however, is quite interesting and I hope to share it with you.
As I checked on Amazon to see if anyone had reviewed my book I was met with this unhappy assessment of my writing:
Naturally, it is an unfortunate experience to see that so many hours of hard work and effort have been summarily dismissed as “hacky” (not sure if that is a word). I am very sorry that Mr. Briscoe997 did not appreciate the book and discovered it laden with grammar and writing errors. I do admit, I did find a couple awkward passages that could have been written better, and I have to explain that the book was finalized a little more hastily than what I would have liked.
You see, the writing of this book needed to get done in an expeditious manner. In our work as Inbound Consultants we work with some rather large institutions, particularly in the banking and transportation sectors of Japan. At the time when we had begun our consultation with these large entities we were being, how can I say, “bad-mouthed” by seriously by a couple of “experts” on the Ohenro experience. These “experts” saw our work as threatening to their position and instead of doing something like calling me on the telephone to talk or finding ways to collaborate there was a rather ugly on-line campaign to smear us and our work. I hurried to get the book to publication to secure our local consulting work here. I am very relieved and glad to say that this effort was successful and we have been able to keep excellent relations and develop a deeper rapport with our clients.
To be honest, I do understand that people can feel threatened when their “territory” is being explored and promoted by others outside of their sphere of influence. I have to also be further honest here when I have always been very plain about the fact that I am no “expert” myself and am always keen to hear what true experts have to say.
The critic here, “Mr Briscoe977”, has a handle that I recognize from other Ohenro online activity, and is friendly with the local expert who has been on this smear campaign. I am sad to see him try to damage the reputation of the book. I am hoping that subsequent reviews will help balance it out a little.
And then, when I was about to psychically plunge head-long into despair that I had not met Mr. Briscoe977’s expectations, I found this on the Japanese Amazon site:
A nice review by a Japanese reader who thinks my book is something that can be of value to people new to Shikoku. How nice. And full marks too!
So there you have it. One review by an angry disgruntled “I got here first” type of critic. And one review from a local Japanese person who feels I did some justice to introducing their culture, history, and heritage.
Maybe the true value of the book is some place in-between. I hope you can read for yourself and decide what you think.
This blog is getting periodic updates every now and then. We are closing in rapidly at the end of the year. That means a lot of fun things to do, some cool events to enjoy, and also a long sustained scream from now right through to the end of the holidays.
And speaking of screaming, let’s talk about HEALTH INSURANCE and your inevitable voyage to, and the life-changing experience you will have on the Shikoku pilgrimage. You will likely hear from various places of sage counsel to make sure you have health insurance and travel insurance before you go anywhere. And like most people you will probably think, “Ah… what could happen? I’ll be all right. Look at these biceps! I’m invincible!”
And that is all fine and good until you aren’t. Something happens. You slip on the trail and break an ankle. Your biceps did not save you that time. You catch a cold and keep walking and then get bronchitis and then keep walking and then you get pneumonia and then you collapse in the nearest drug store looking for Vicks Vapo-rub.
It can happen. I may not happen. But IF it DOES happen, you better have some health insurance.
The reason for that is simple. If you don’t have health insurance the situation you now in will be completely out of your control. Bad things have a higher potential to happen and you will not have much of a say in what is coming next.
One possibility is that you will be picked up by good samaritans and put in a hospital. The doctors will look at you and instantly admit you into their medical facility, do tests, hook you up to an IV, and do what they can for you. Japanese doctors and medical facilities are some of the best in the world. If I am sick, for anything, I want to be treated here.
You will not be allowed to just leave when you want. If you have a serious illness, or broken bones, you need to get treated and healed up. Stumbling out of the hospital only to collapse later makes trouble for a lot of people you don’t know, so don’t do that. Every hour you are in the hospital costs money.
After a few days you may be ready to leave. Now you have to pay the bills. One recent report from someone on the Shikoku Pilgrimage who did not have medical coverage is still paying a bill of 50,000 dollars. That is some serious money. It would not have been a problem if he had health insurance. I am sure that you do not want this kind of grief.
You may think, “Well, maybe I will just leave the hospital and quietly get to the airport and go home.” I suppose you could do that. And besides it being a real low-life thing to do, fantastically selfish and narcissistic, it may have some “real life” consequences for you.
The world is different now than it was years ago. People who do not pay their medical bills in Japan and skip out may be reported to other authorities. It’s a kind of crime. Municipal, prefectural, and national organizations cooperate much more with each other than they did in the past. If you have a black mark on your name because you skipped out on your medical bill, do you think that this information may be given to the local police, who then share that with immigration and border control authorities? Do you think that should you try to come back to Japan in the future you might be stopped at the gate and asked to settle your outstanding debt? Do you think that in the spirit of international cooperation against terror that the Japanese border authorities may share their information with other countries? Do you think that skipping out on your bill in Japan may affect your ability to travel and use your passport as you go elsewhere?
Maybe. I don’t know. I am no expert. But I do know that privacy is shrinking in our world, that the ability to “be off grid” or “under the radar” is more fantasy than reality. We are all far more “accessible” than we used to.
It would just be much easier and simpler to just get some health insurance rather than run the risk of going through unnecessary trouble and heartache.
There is some rather inane urban legend on the Shikoku pilgrimage, likely true to some extent, of a traveler who got very sick and needed to be hospitalized. That traveler did not have health insurance and when the day of reckoning came to be discharged the hospital staff met that person, bowed in unison, and said, “It is our osettai!”. Which means “It’s on the house”.
Really? I am not sure if I really believe it. I’m pretty sure that I do not want to believe it. It sounds all so magical and marvellous, like a testament to the natural good natured characters of Shikoku residents far and wide. It’s a “made for television” kind of moment.
Maybe that happened. But even if it did you really MUST NOT expect to get free medical care when you come to Japan. You need to pay your own way. If you get sick and need professional care make sure you have covered to receive it. Do not think that this folksy legend of overly kind and eternally generous thinking about medical treatment will apply to you when you come to experience Shikoku. That is incredibly self-centered and naive.
A more realistic interpretation of the above case was that the doctors and nurses, because they are sworn to protect life (even yours when you don’t have proper insurance) will not leave you on the street. They probably figured out that their patient was basically treating their home town and prefecture like a homeless person’s free/cheap vacation, and that this person had little consideration for the impact of their actions on others.
They realized that they were dealing with someone who under all the smiles was someone who cared more about themselves and their “magic experience” than thinking that while traveling to another country is great, you are traveling through someone else’s life, their city, their hometown, and the place where they raise their kids.
They probably realized that even if they tried to get some payment towards the un-collectable amount owed it would be a long series of hopeless attempts resulting in great frustration. It would be “cheaper” to cut the losses and try to make it a bit more palpable as a “gift”.
But it is a gift that the “guest” took in advance… and enjoyed prior to the actual “giving”.
It is also so unnecessary. Health insurance and travel insurance are dirt cheap. Compared to the actual costs of having to pay for medical expenses out of pocket it is almost free. Please consider this moral lesson as a heart-felt plea to prepare yourself and plan for potential trouble when you are ready to come out to Shikoku. Small preventative measures will save you much pain and suffering.
Everyone I have talked to and met here in Shikoku who are very interested in supporting and helping people come to the region to enjoy the pilgrimage love the concept of more visitors and explorers. They love that people can come and experience this incredible place. But there are concerns too. Things like garbage left behind, people sleeping in public spaces, and also this… people who need medical help who did not prepare properly.
I think that as visitors to Japan (I include myself in that number, even after 20 plus years of living here) we need to be mindful of these things. Don’t throw garbage out in nature. Don’t sleep out in places that you do not know are okay. Book a guesthouse, an Air BnB, or a hotel. Eat well, and eat locally. And for your own sake, and health, and safety, and pocket book, get some medical/health/travel insurance before you arrive.
It’ll be great to see you here. But make sure that you do it well, and safely, and stress-free too.
That’s all for my rant today. Thanks for reading this far.