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. 

Yamacha Ohenro Channel

Right now there is a rather nice channel you might want to follow if you are interested in walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage. You will get a day-by-day account with Yamacha! I’ve just started walking the videos and they look great. I also really like the music too.

If you have some time, sit back and let Yamacha Ohenro walk you through the daily journey of “Aruki Henro”, the “Walking Pilgrim”.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIUFJJYTiGZ2129tw0CZTMA/videos

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Hard Copy of Your Pilgrimage in Japan

Amazon is a speedy machine. I had put out the notice that the Kindle version was ready to go and when I woke up this morning I got the notice that the hard copy version is now also available.

I can’t describe how excited I am that this book is out there. I have written books before, and make a bunch of textbooks/homework books for our English student. But this one is a special book. It is one that I hope will serve as an inspiration to whet the appetite of people who are all over the world and thinking of doing something for their lives that may help them get “on a better path”.

Of course, no vacation or long walk through the woods and through temples will solve all your problems. But time away from the noise of things that drag you down, a bit of a disconnect from the white sound of television and media, and a chance to learn and explore the glorious Shikoku Pilgrimage may do one’s soul good.

So, if you are interested please get yourself a copy of the book. Available through fine internet connections everywhere:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1701297779/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=your+pilgrimage+in+japan&qid=1571792058&s=books&sr=1-1

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Gareth Leonard in Shikoku!

A rather substantial and influential Youtube creator, Gareth Leonard, comes to Shikoku. At the behest of the Shikoku Tourism Board, Gareth puts together a series of pretty impressive videos to promote and show off the splendours of Shikoku.

I love the open-mindedness of Gareth, the desire and enthusiasm to learn and explore, and the pure enjoyment of the moment. I loved very much that he stated from the beginning of his videos that although he had greatly enjoyed the Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto experience of his first time in Japan, there was some “unfinished business”. That would be Shikoku!

Check out the above video, and the other two that make up Gareth’s Shikoku adventure.

 

Giving Advice to Ohenro

… I am not a number… I am a FREE MAN!

Hello and welcome from sunny Takamatsu! The weather is still a little warm, but summer seems to be lessening its grip. The evenings are cooling down, and my dogs don’t seem too much to walk outside as much as before. Autumn really is my favourite season. It is divine. And if you are considering coming to Japan for the walk of your life around Shikoku, THIS is the season to do it. Autumn just goes on forever, and when the typhoons have settled down for the duration, you have some of the greatest outdoor walking experiences of your life.

A few things have changed for me personally this year. The first is that I turned 50. I can’t believe it myself as I still sometimes feel like a junior high school student, and sometimes I feel like I really don’t know so much, or that I should have studied or tried more up until now. But the other side of being 50 is that I am on the cusp of being “respectable” or “seasoned” or “grizzled” or something like that… It’s a blast, and it’s a riot. But I feel good, and I am grateful for health and a sense of humour relatively intact.

Maybe there is something about being half a century that I am finding that “my advice” is sought out, and much more so than I expected, or particularly enjoy. It’s a new thing, and I do not particularly think I have much “advice” to give anyone, about anything. But life does seem to kick you down the road where you need to be sometimes.

At my half-century mark, I am a boss of a company my wife and I created. We run language schools and serve universities, high schools, junior highs, elementary schools, and daycares. I love it. I love our work, our team, our students, and every time I sit with kids and make them laugh while encouraging them, and revealing to them, how smart they really are.

In the past I’ve been a university professor (in another life), a teacher, a counsellor for street kids, a guide, a coach, a karate sensei, a writer, and a terrible guitar player. I’ve had a lot of hats on my balding head, but I never thought that I wore them to become “authoritative” or an “expert”. I still feel like I am flailing about in all my interests and professions. I’m still learning. I’m still “tripping up the stairs”.

I don’t think that this is particularly “modest”. I am just basically not a master at so many different things. But I have fun as I go along, stubbornly.

And maybe there is something in my half-century old spine that is still that teenager in the 1980’s that could not be told what to do. I have always rejected authority. I never like being told what to do and often ignore “sage counsel”. I have defied both church and state. I have “rocked the Casbah” and I might do it again.  I’m not an anarchist, but I’d rather die free than live in a cage. I rage against the machine, but now with dad jokes, mirth, and pint of beer.

So, as we are working on this Ohenro project with local business, government, and financial institutions, and there are various groups and interested individuals, who have proffered themselves as “experts” and “authority” on what newcomers to the experience of pilgrimage ought to know and ought to do and ought to feel. They clamber for adulation and spotlight. They bow their heads in mock obsequiousness, chant the “Heart Sutra” in public, yet backbite, make ultimatums, and gossip in private. They enter the room and it’s much more of a “waving about their flimsy credentials” than figuring out how together we can work best towards a common purpose. Honestly, it’s gross.

It’s a sad state sometimes when “politics” and jockeying for position distract us from the important task of making this incredible Shikoku Pilgrimage project something accessible, enjoyable, and meaningful for those who come to walk the miles. I don’t want to have my time and energy wasted in vain and frankly, vulgar, pursuits.

I’m too old to be baited out for public nonsense, but am still stubbornly set on trundling ahead, and just doing my job. And that job is to be of service to my fellow human creatures, unapologetically, unflinchingly, and to see whatever project I am in to completion. I cannot be deterred. There’s a lot of people out there who would love to learn more about this incredible thing in Shikoku. My job is to get to as many of them as possible.

So, if you are a soon-to-be, or already-here-in-Shikoku pilgrim, you are most heartily welcome here. You do not need to bow to authority. I don’t think that is what a pilgrimage of “self-discovery” and “self-exploration” is all about. You just may want to get on the road and find your own way. You don’t need to be told how to show respect, how to show kindness and gratitude, how to appreciate the culture and how to be a good person. I’ll bet that you already have a good handle on most of that. And if you don’t know yet, you’ll find out just fine, all by yourself.

And I’ll cheer for you! I always do.

If you need additional information to read or watch, please come out and check out our Facebook GROUP (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1318545221639576/) or our Facebook PAGE (https://www.facebook.com/Shikoku-Pilgrimage-Your-Spiritual-Journey-in-Deep-Japan-101681104549470). I would love to hear your experiences, see your photos, enjoy your videos, and learn from you.

Because isn’t that we ought to be doing anyway, learning from one another?

Your comments are most welcome, and feel free to email me if you are so inspired:

cometokagawa@gmail.com

Thanks for listening to me rant a little here.

Travel safe and travel well dear pilgrims.

Mark

Top Ohenro Information Site

If you are coming to Shikoku to walk the 88 Temple Pilgrimage route there is one website that stands way above the rest. It is this one:

http://www.shikokuhenrotrail.com/index.html

David Turkington is the mastermind behind the site and he is tremendously well-read, articulate, helpful, non-preachy, and a regular good guy. I even corresponded with him recently and asked for some help in advising ohenro coming this way and he said, “Sure thing. No problem”. That is very good news.

So while you likely have a ton of questions about the pilgrimage, what to wear, which way to go, what to look out for, how to get from place A to place B, do yourself a HUGE favour, bookmark his site, and read everything there. It’s pilgrim gold.

And here is Dave’s blog and contact information:

http://www.shikokuhenrotrail.com/shikoku/contactInfo.html

http://essentiallynothing.blogspot.com

The Invitation

At this time we are in the process of getting things formalized for inviting tour groups to come to Kagawa to experience the incredible Shikoku Pilgrimage. We have worked very hard this last year and things are coming together nicely.

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If you are new to this site, and are here to find our more about what the Shikoku Pilgrimage is about, I hope you will take some time to look through some of these pages. There are a few caveats I need to give you right away.

  1. This website is far from complete. Last year I finished the 88 temple pilgrimage and I am still updating information on the site. Last year was a “gyaku-uchi” year, so we traveled the pilgrimage in reverse starting at the last temple, number 88. So, if you are looking for my own journey, please start there. I have been updating the information as I have been going along and I am down now to the early 30’s. I hope to get this all updated as soon as possible. The pages all have photos, just no explanations or history–YET.
  2. I am not a tour guide operator, but I work closely with a group of business people and one of our members is a tour operator. If you are a travel agency, please contact me via email (cometokagawa@gmail.com or englishbiztakamatsu@gmail.com) and I promise to respond in a timely manner.
  3. Should you decide to come to Shikoku, we believe you are going to have an unbelievable experience. Coming to Japan is a marvelous thing in itself, and you will surely enjoy the great sites of Tokyo, Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka. I love all those places myself. But coming here you will find a certain closeness and “hands-on” experience that you will not get in the more high traffic tourist places.

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There are also a few things I want to tell you about our great Come to Kagawa project as well. Some of it is pretty cool so I can start to let the cat out of the bag early on. We have been in conversation with several people who are masters or artisans in their specific fields and each is very interested and keen to share their knowledge and passion for art with groups that will come.

Our team of artists and experts are in the following fields:

–tea ceremony

–calligraphy

–zen meditation

–Shintoism

–udon making

–bonsai gardening

–kimono wearing

We are absolutely blown away with the intensity of interest these artists have in their desire to share their knowledge and passion with visitors. Many have said the same thing, that they have a certain “urgency” to share with others. They have the knowledge of art in their hearts and minds and just want to share that passion with others so that their art will continue beyond them.

These would be things that visitors could surely enjoy and participate in, in addition to the 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage itself. We think that we are cooking up a very unique and supremely fun experience here. So, if you have received an invitation to come to our fair prefecture of Kagawa, and if you are interested in talking about the specifics, please get in touch with us. We are very much looking forward to talking with you soon.

Yours truly,

Mark

Finish Line?

This week I visited the final three temples on the pilgrimage. I “got it done”, so to speak. It was a very nice morning when I headed out, and this time I did not go with the tour group. I got up in the morning, had a quick breakfast, jumped in my car and was at temple number 3 (Konsenji) in Tokushima within about an hour. Simply beautiful. No one was there yet and it was quiet, and peaceful, and perfect. After that I zipped down the road to number 2 (Gokurakuji) and that was nice too. The final visit to number 1 (Ryouzenji) was met with a lot of people, tour buses, and foreign visitors too. I was surprised as to the contrast between number 3 and 1. Of course, it is understandable that at the very first temple people need some kind of orientation, places to buy their ohenro gear, and to get the whole process started, but it was surprising how busy it was, and how the energy seems a bit nervous and unsure as groups lumbered in and out.

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But I “cleared it”. My “noukyouchou” (temple stamp book) was complete, I performed my final sutras (for this trip) and I was done.

Was there an epiphany? Was there a moment of satori (Buddhist enlightenment)? Was there the movement of clouds above while the light of heaven shone down upon my upward beaming (and unshaven) face?

Nope. None of that. But I did feel something, or maybe I just thought something. I can’t be sure. I felt that I had done the thing I was supposed to do. I felt that now that I finished my first pilgrimage around the whole of Shikoku, I was ready to get back to my life.

I felt compelled to leave. I felt like I was given something that I needed and that I now needed to do what I could in my work and my everyday moving about to be of use and purpose for those around me.

Even a few days later I still have the same feeling. So, there are few things to get done.

  1. Keep working on this website and fill in as many gaps as possible. Promote this website and invite other to contribute where they can. The pilgrimage is something that is best shared, and although many have private feelings and reasons for doing it, there is something of a communal experience that occurs and needs celebrating.
  2. Keep doing the job I am doing in building and growing our language schools for kids. I am lucky to have a job where the results of “giving” to others can have very quick and tangible results. Teaching is a noble and important job. I am delighted to work with a great team of teachers in building our schools and serving our community. There is much more to do, so I need to get back to doing it.

The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage is in a circle. The metaphor is not lost on me. You finish the circle, but you could easily go through again and again and find more to learn and discover. I appreciate that, and I find it beautiful and attractive. I can see why there are people who are dedicated ohenro and why they walk this path for as long as they can put one foot in front of the other.

But for me, I am perhaps not designed to be in a circle only. I come from a culture where linear movement has its own value and place. In a circle you can let the situations and circumstance “be” while you move through them, and you are changed in ways you do not realize or fully understand. A linear movement is more like a rocket trajectory perhaps. I feel compelled to move in this way, for now.

My work, our schools, the students who need our help and service wait. If I am to remain in the circle they would not be there by the time I went around again. For me, it is time to come out of the circle and to use what I have in my mind and heart to do what I can to get kids better in English. I have a privileged position in this world, and I intend of leveraging my abilities for these kids. They need it and deserve it.

After the trajectory of these years to come may falter and slip, I will need to come out of the linear world again perhaps when I am forced to retire. I know where there is a circle where I can walk and think and reflect on the person I am, and how I may participate in the world around me. I know where I could start, and the path stretches out ahead, like an old friend who is inviting you to come along for the walk of your life.

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Sleeping with the People Who Sleep with Fishes

I am a member of a Facebook “Ohenro” group and there are some very nice people on that list. Several of them have reviews of their websites here, and it is very clear from their participation that they are passionate and thoughtful about their pilgrimage experiences.

There was one recent posting to the group admonishing, in some vague manner, about how to “behave” in Japan. Typically, I find such kinds of admonishments stiff and condescending. They are usually proffered by someone who has been in Japan for several years, has a good mastery of the language, but somehow and someway kind of lost their own identity in the search of being more “personally acceptable” to an imaginary Japanese “standard” of what is passable to the “typical” Japanese person.

Wow. That is a lot of apostrophes for one paragraph.

Part of the irritation I experience, at times, is the self-aggrandizing passive aggressiveness of these typical pieces of advice. They are well-meaning, I suppose, but they are coupled with a superiority complex that is hard not to see. They often begin with a phrase like, “The Japanese people are ….”, as if one person can understand how an entire nation thinks…. or “In Japanese culture you must …”, followed with a series of instructions you need to follow, lest you bring great shame upon yourself, your family, the Emperor, and all civilized people. Usually, it is all a bit much.

For me, having been around a bit myself for the last couple of decades in Japan, I tend to tune out such advice. It is often dull and uninspired, humorless and preachy.  I hope you can take it from me that there is really only one thing that you need to do, well, maybe two.

  1. Be nice.
  2. Don’t be a jerk

That’s it. Just like back home, wherever home might have been before you came here. You know what good manners are, and you know what bad manners are. Figure it out. Use the golden rule. Recall you girl scout or boy scout code of conduct. Be friendly. Be yourself. That should keep you in good shape.

But… the aforementioned posting by one of the members did in fact have one thing that he mentioned that really stood out. And that guy was totally correct. He had heard through friends of his on the ohenro trail that some foreign travelers were, and get this, SLEEPING IN A CEMETERY. 

Great Scott.

That one is a new one on me. That is pretty stunning I think.

I had no idea that there were actually people out there on the ohenro trail who thought that sleeping in a cemetery in a country not their own would be a good idea. Do we really have to tell people NOT to sleep in the cemetery? Really? I mean, how dumb can someone be? That is pretty rude, and to some, very serious behavior.

To the people who thought that it might be okay to sleep in a Japanese cemetery, “What the hell were you possibly thinking?” Were you tired? Did you have a long day walking? Big deal. Everyone has those. Did you not plan your trip properly? That is your fault. Don’t foist your crap on someone else. Didn’t you think that some people visit their loved ones at the cemetery regularly, and that to them it is holy ground? Don’t you think that for them, finding your lazy carcass sprawled out next to their dead family members might be a problem?

Frankly speaking, I think that sleeping in any cemetery, in any country around the world is  not a good idea. Really. What kind of person sleeps in a cemetery? Are you some kind of zombie? Don’t you have any common sense?

I guess my own two pieces of advice, be nice and don’t be a jerk, needs one more. Here it is:

3. Don’t be an idiot by sleeping in a graveyard.

Walking and exploring the ohenro trail should be a good experience. It should be good for you. It should be enriching and expansive for your soul. It should be good for people you meet on the way. How can we be of benefit to those we meet? How can we serve or uplift our fellow humans? This nonsense of sleeping on someone’s family grave just feels wrong,  because it is. That behavior comes from a spirit of “taking”, whether the people doing it are aware or not. There comes from some people an immature feeling of “getting something” or “taking something” wherever you go. “What can I get?” and “How much for me?” is the underscoring tone. If you feel sleepy or tired, get yourself further down the road to a place you know you can stop at. If you have to pay for a bed, do it. If you have to slog on, keep going. That is just how it has to be. That is the world of responsible adults. You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.

I think that these feelings of greed and entitlement need to be turned around. You don’t need to give all your worldly possessions away and live like a beggar, but when you meet someone, when you meet anyone, the thought of “What can I do for this person?” is simply a better, and happier, way to live.

So, that is my rant for today in its entirety. For those chowderheads sleeping on graves, knock it off. For the rest of you kind friends and neighbors, have a great day and travel safe.

 

Mark

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Down To The Single Digits

Wow.

It has been a very busy year so far. Yesterday I got back home after the last pilgrimage installment. There are only three more temples to visit, and then I will have been to all 88. When I think about that it is pretty amazing, and also I am so grateful that I have been able to update this website throughout the year as I went along. There is so much to see, and so many temples to learn things about and explore. By laying things out here, page by page, I can clearly explore and remember each more clearly. It is also my great hope that this site and blog will be of good help to visitors as well.

I just uploaded the photos up to temple 4, down from 88, so that is a start. There is still much to do for including information, background, history, highlights, and folklore for each. I will keep puttering around with it until it is done.

I am also working on a close reading of the Heart Sutra, and hopefully a helpful guide to reading it aloud, and a mild dissection of each part so that you can understand more and enjoy more of this beautiful thing. I have to admit that I am enjoying pondering the ideas and expressions within the sutra. Like many westerners, I grew up where linear logic is praised, and where clear lines of discussion and argument can be expressed and debated. The Heart Sutra is having none of that, so this is quite interesting.

But I promise also not to go off on all kinds of esoteric tangents that serve more to confuse, than to explore together. That would just be plain…. rude.

My last impression of the most recent journey is that the pace of the pilgrimage is a bit overwhelming. It is hard to put everything in careful perspective when so many temples and countryside is whizzing by. At Kirihataji (temple 10) I met two very nice French visitors. We did not have a chance to talk much, but they sure seemed interesting. They are only here for a short visit, to see a handful of temples, but they could both speak very passable Japanese. Years ago, as students, they used to live in Japan and are now back for a visit. I would have liked to talk more, but the road called them forward and our tour bus took us onward. I  liked that they chose to do fewer, rather than more. They wanted to enjoy and know more of what they were doing, rather than racing to a  finish line to “get it done”.

In the same way, I feel that about this site. This is the first time through, but it feels like preparing the background of a picture I am making on canvas. The first pass needs bold lines and blocky shaded areas. The forms will take shape over time. They will have their own hues and tone. Then the details, slowly and meticulously will fill the finer gaps within. Who knows what it will look like later.

Something entirely unexpected I suppose…