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
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.
Youtuber guru for all things related to travel, Gareth Leonard, makes his TOP TEN things to see in Shikoku. Check out the video right here:
You just know that the number one thing to do in Shikoku is the Shikoku Pilgrimage, right?
Oh yeah. That’s right.
And don’t be a homeless Ohenro. Book your lodging. Thanks.
Hello one and all.
I am afraid that this blog will be set on an unpopular theme. The theme is that of foreign Ohenro coming to Shikoku and behaving like homeless people. Let me put out the caveat right away that I am deeply troubled to see homelessness in any country. As human beings we ought to have the right to have adequate shelter from the weather, a place to retreat to stay warm or cool as the season dictates. We need to have homes to be safe from people who might do us harm. We need homes for all, especially kids, older people, and the mentally ill who are too often thrown out into the street as trash.
Progressive countries around the world understand that homelessness is a social disease, it destroys the human heart, is bad for society as it becomes more dangerous, is inhumane, and is also counter-intuitive economically. People who are safe in shelters and homes can focus on other issues for life, employment, education, and participation in society. We all become better and safer for our active participation in wiping out homelessness.
So why is it, for the love of all that is holy, that we have foreign visitors coming to Shikoku to behave like the homeless? Why would anyone want to behave like that? I simply do not understand it. But here they come… and there are quite a number of reports that come to our ears about some very poor behaviour. Throwing trash on the path, sleeping in public places like schools and cemeteries, and using public handicapped toilets as showers and wash stations.
As an active advocate for the Shikoku Pilgrimage, an inbound consultant for local financial institutions, the JR Shikoku, local businesses, hotels, and merchants, the “homeless Ohenro” is something that we really do not need to see too much of. It has been a problem in the past and I hope to do my part to nip some of these lousy behaviours and attitudes in the bud.
There seems to be some former encouragement by “Ohenro experts” that anyone can come to Shikoku, wander through the route, beg for food and necessities on the way, and have an expectation of “osettai” as they hike down the road. This has been a very economically and socially damaging source of foolish advice. I strongly protest this message that has been sent out into the world so far that “osettai” is like some sort of “free lunch” or an “Ohenro entitlement”. It’s ridiculous, and stupid. I wish it would stop.
Yet, there are complaints from “Walking Ohenro” (called “aruki henro”) of how expensive the Shikoku Pilgrimage is. They complain that drink machines charge them money for drinks. They complain that a beautiful calligraphy stamp (which they will keep as a gorgeous and unique souvenir forever) in their beautifully embroidered stamp book (which costs only 25 dollars) will cost them 3 dollars. They complain that they might be “expected” to drop a coin into an offertory box when they come to each (access free) temple to pray. They complain that a hotel or inn is too expensive at about 30 dollars a night. They complain that buses and trains may ask for money for services. They use a vulgar term “Pay to Pray” as some kind of description that they are abused financially as they go around the whole of Shikoku, sleeping in public tax money funded parks and schoolyards, cemeteries, and bathe themselves in handicapped toilets.
Then there is the garbage left behind in their wake.
There is some kind of weird expectation that while a Walking Pilgrim can completely lay out several thousands of dollars for high-tech backpacks, tents, sleeping gear, walking shoes, hiking underclothing, cell phone, sunglasses, hiking poles, and all manner of accessories, that when it comes to the actual walking the trail, staying at proper lodging each and every evening, paying for food and drink, and purchasing the most simple Ohenro materials that suddenly everything is “too expensive” and “Japan is trying to rip me off.”
Then they should feel that it is somehow their “Ohenro right” to sleep in the schoolyards that belong to the children who go to school here in Shikoku, and has been funded by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. And the trail of garbage left behind should be picked up and disposed of through public funds and services. I think that most Japanese people are too polite to say anything directly, so I’ll help out a bit with:
Who do you think you are?
Part of the problem is with the efforts to date to identify and explain what “Osettai” is. Yes, yes, I know that there are “experts” who tell you that as a pilgrim you receive the gift from people so that YOU can help THEM fulfill their wish that they take their burdens with you on the pilgrimage. That is a very nice image to have in mind. Sometimes that might be true, but sometimes a cup of tea or an orange is just a “have a nice day” kind of thing. You can say “thank you” and be grateful, and not behave that you are doing them some big favour by accepting things.
Most people receive an “osettai” and they are truly deeply thankful. That is beautiful, and wonderful, and a treasure for your experience in Shikoku. When done right, and approached right, it’s marvellous. But when there is an inkling of expectation in the osettai moment, the whole thing just turns to dirt.
If you are a walking pilgrim reading these words I hope that you understand the simple fact that no one owes you anything. The hope for osettai, or expectation of receiving osettai, or the unhappy feeling of not receiving osettai, should not be anywhere near your brain. Just walk your walk. In fact, it would be more psychologically useful to you to not want to receive anything from anyone. This is your walk. Go walk it. Focus on yourself and who and what you are. Think about what you can learn. Not what you can get.
Too harsh? Too much “on the nose”? I can’t say I am sorry about that.
I think that if you come to Shikoku you should pay for your vacation here. Just like you pay your bills wherever you go. Pay for your airplane ticket. Pay for a hotel, or inn, or AirBnB each and every night. No camping. No sleeping outdoors. No washing up in handicapped bathrooms (What if someone NEEDS to be in there while you are washing away? Why should anyone need to suffer in their wheelchair because you took their toilet unnecessarily? Please give that one a think.) And please, no “Well, I just used it for a minute. What’s the problem? trash talk. Is that the kind of thing a “real” Ohenro does to their fellow human? This is your walk of human discovery towards enlightenment?
I think that you should eat proper meals when you are here whenever possible. Sit down in a restaurant or a cafe and order off the menu. Eat something good and healthy and local. Support the Shikoku you say you love with your wallet. For real. The food is very reasonably priced. The accommodations are very reasonably priced. The only unreasonable thing is a homeless foreign Ohenro who eats in parking lots, washes in public spaces, and pretends that their public behaviour has no impact on others.
Oh, now here comes the objection….
“How can I possibly afford to walk the entire Shikoku Pilgrimage and pay for lodging all the way through for 6 to 8 weeks? That’s not fair!”
The answer is, my dear pilgrim, that if you cannot afford it, you cannot afford it. Just like if you can’t afford something in a store you don’t get to buy it. If you can’t buy a new car, or an old car, or any car you have to take the bus. If you can’t afford to buy super fancy shoes you will have to buy regular shoes. If you can’t afford to do the whole pilgrimage you can do part of it. That is simple. And it is what adults do. Whether or not it is “fair” is not even an issue. If you are determined to spend thousands of dollars in airfare and gear for yourself, you could probably find a way to take more time to work a job and save enough to come and have a zero-negative impact experience here in Shikoku.
Otherwise, you are arguing why the people of Shikoku need to take care of you, pick up your trash, and subsidize your vacation. I can’t think of any place in the world that permits a visitor to the country to behave in such a manner.
Grow up already.
If I have offended your sensibilities I can’t apologize for saying some things that just need to be said. Of course you are welcome and encouraged to explore Shikoku and have the walk of your life. That is great, and I really wish you all the best. But please do so at no one’s expense but your own. Do no harm. Do no damage. Make a place better by you having been there. Take nothing from anyone, except in a true osettai moment, but give your kindness and support to things that make a difference.
I have children that are growing up here in Shikoku. I don’t think that part of their future, and public obligation towards paying taxes needs to go anywhere near the subsidization of foreign ohenro experiences. We are supposed to make our world better for the next generation coming after ours. That is something that we as adults need to do better, effectively, relentlessly, and selflessly.
Pay your bills, and be a positive contributing member of the thousands and thousands of others who support the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Don’t be “a taker”. You’ll feel better for it. And you know it’s the right thing to do.
The summer is pretty hot here in sunny Kagawa. I’m hiding out inside the house for a few hours during mid-day to stay out of the sun. I suppose I could complain about it, but then again, what’s the point? It’s hot. It’s Japan. It’s Kagawa, and I still get to live in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
But looking forward to the next season of Shikoku Pilgrimage ohenro (pilgrims) it’s time to start recommending sources of information so that when you come out this way you have all the tools and information you need to make your experience on Kukai’s trail unbelievable, well-organized, and fulfilling.
The first website I want to recommend you take a look at is:
This website is a storehouse of great information for getting around. It shows exactly what train lines get to Shikoku, what gets you around Shikoku, supplies sample itineraries, and has great visuals to show you how far to walk from transportation hubs to the temples. Check it out, take careful notes, and plan accordingly. Lots of great photos throughout too!
This is a very nice video by a European couple walking through the first few temples of the pilgrimage. I love it in that it has no fancy editing or superimposed music to make you feel a certain way. It just shows. Love it.
This is a great video by youme meyou tokushima, a great Youtube channel that interviews foreign pilgrims who come to Shikoku. This is a terrific example of a very kind sounding American Ohenro who had a most remarkable experience on the pilgrimage. Let him speak for himself:
I had been putting this blog off for quite some time. Attempting to write about The Heart Sutra, presenting it on this blog, seems like such a disservice to the spiritual, aesthetic, and cultural significance of this artifact. I feel completely inadequate trying to put it out here for readers and to attempt to explain or represent.
But here we are anyway.
I want to apologize for any errors in misrepresentation that occur from here on out. I very much would like to see more visitors to Shikoku, and to our home prefecture, Kagawa. There are some amazing and surprising things to see and hear when you explore these surroundings.
First time visitors to Shikoku, particularly those who venture out to visit any of the 88 temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage will inevitably see the Ohenro dressed in white, hear the sound of walking sticks tapping stone, the jangling of bells. And then they will hear the chanting of … something. Something deep and beautiful and reverent.
What you are likely hearing is the Heart Sutra:
Kan ji zai bo satsu. Gyo jin han nya hara mita ji. Sho ken. Go on kai ku. Do issai ku yaku. Sha ri shi. Shiki fu i ku. Ku fu i shiki. Shiki soku ze ku. Ku soku ze shiki. Ju so gyo shiki. Yaku bu nyo ze. Shari shi. Ze sho ho ku so. Fu sho fu metsu. Fu ku fu jo. Fu zo fu gen. Ze ko ku chu. Mu shiki mu ju so gyo shiki. Mu gen ni bi ze shin i. Mu shiki sho ko mi soku ho. Mu gen kai nai shi mu i shiki kai. Mu mu myo yaku mu mu myo jin. Nai shi mu ro shi. Yaku mu ro shi jin. Mu ku shu metsu do. Mu chi yaku mu toku. I mu sho toku ko. Bodai sat ta e hannya haramita. Ko shin mu ke ge mu ke ge ko. Mu u ku fu. On ri issai ten do mu so. Ku gyo ne han. San ze sho butsu. E hannya haramita. Ko toku a noku ta ra san myaku san bodai. Ko chi hannya haramita. Ze dai jin shu. Ze dai myo shu. Ze mu jo shu. Ze mu to do shu. No jo issai ku. Shin jitsu fu ko ko setsu hannya haramita shu. Soku setsu shu watsu. Gya tei, gya tei, ha ra gya tei. Hara so gya tei. Bo ji so waka. Hannya Shingyo.
Here is a very nice modern performed version of the Heart Sutra. The priest in this video is Yakushiji Kanji who is an active priest in Ehime prefecture. You may very well meet him on your pilgrimage here.
Below is the translation of the Japanese. It does not flow so gently, but you can gather the meaning of the sutra itself.
Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, was deep through the Perfection of Wisdom, saw clearly that the five aggregates of human existence are empty, and so released himself from suffering.
“Sariputra! Form is nothing more than emptiness, emptiness is nothing more than Form. Form is exactly emptiness, and emptiness is exactly Form. The other four aggregates of human existence — feeling, thought, will, and consciousness — are also nothing more than emptiness.”
“Sariputra! All things are empty: Nothing is born, nothing dies, nothing is pure, nothing is stained, nothing increases and nothing decreases. So, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no thought, no will, no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. There is no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no imagining. No plane of sight, no plane of thought. There is no ignorance, and no end to ignorance. There is no old age and death, and no end to old age and death. There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end to suffering, no path to suffering. There is no attainment of wisdom, and no wisdom to attain.”
The Bodhisattvas rely on the Perfection of Wisdom, their hearts without delusions; they have no reason for delusion, no fear within, abandoning their confused thoughts, finally experiencing Nirvana.
The Buddhas, past, present, and future, rely on the Perfection of Wisdom, and live in full enlightenment. The Perfection of Wisdom is the greatest mantra. It is the wisest mantra, the highest mantra, the mantra of the rest. Remove all suffering. This is truth that cannot be falsity. The reason of the Perfection of Wisdom Mantra, The Mantra is thus: Gaté, gaté, paragaté, parasamgaté. Bodhi! Svaha!
I want to leave this blog at that. The Heart Sutra and all its metaphysical implications is heavy material. You may want to think on this for yourself and see how it applies to who you are, where you are, what you want to do, and how you want to live. No lectures or “insights” from me.
Travel well. Travel safe.
All the best.