Dear Sanijiva and Declan
Thanks for writing to me about the 88 Temple Route on the Japanese Island of Shikoku. I walked this 1200 kms route in November of 2014 and I am happy to share my experiences with you and the others who have also written. In this first letter I will try to answer your immediate questions and I will then try to follow this up with other stories about my journey.
Like you, when I first started researching this pilgrimage, my head was full of questions. Is the route difficult? I can’t speak Japanese, will I be ok? Is the route signposted? What about accommodation, food, transport? Will I meet other pilgrims? And many others.
The first thing I want to say is what kept occurring to me as I walked on Shikoku: pilgrims should research the route well and only embark on this pilgrimage with their eyes wide open. The 88 Temple Pilgrimage is hugely rewarding in all sorts of ways. For me in some respects it has been life changing. However it is also the most difficult pilgrimage I have ever made.
Although the number is growing there are comparatively few walking pilgrims. To put this in context: from the information I have been given there seems to be over 500,000 pilgrims who visit the 88 Temples each year. Last year only 2600 of these completed the route on foot and of that number only 160 came from outside of Japan. These statistics do not include the numbers of walking pilgrims who walk the route in stages over years. Of the walking pilgrims I met it appeared to me that more gave up because of the challenges they encountered than completed the route. Most of these problems were physical – tendonitis, shin splints and blisters were the common causes. Although two or three of those who went home were Westerners most were Japanese people who simply had no idea how hard it would be.
The difficulties lie not in the length of the stages but in the fact that the vast majority of the route is on roads; sometimes at the side of very busy roads and frequently for many kilometres. There are also steep elevations to many of the temples often over short distances. I often felt I was climbing a Munro (over 3000’ in my native Scotland) although in truth only one temple was that high.
In the letters which follow I will describe how the route and the overall experience more than compensates for these challenges but I promised myself that I would not mince my words if I was asked for advice. Take heed pilgrim!
How different is it from the Camino to Santiago? Many holders of the Compostela ask this question. In some respects it is similar. Like the Camino, the Shikoku pilgrimage is an old route with pilgrims recorded as early as the 12th Century and grew in popularity with the publication of the first guidebooks in the 17th Century. Like the Camino the route is defined: there is a starting point and an end point. However the 88 Temples Route does not end at a Cathedral or even a town. You end at where you started. Thus if you start at Temple 14 you circumnavigate the island to end at Temple 14. In saying that most pilgrims begin and end at Temple 1. The route on the island is “mostly” waymarked and there is a very good guidebook. There is some donativo accommodation but few and far between. Pilgrims are recognised and respected.
These broad similarities apart my view is that trying to compare the Camino to Santiago to the 88 Temple Route is like comparing apples and oranges. Apart from both being edible fruits they are totally different. Therefore my second piece of advice is whilst your Camino experience of preparing well, packing light, listening to your body and pacing yourself will stand you in good stead try to understand that when you arrive on Shikoku you are stepping into a completely different world, with its own language, food, traditions and culture.
The pilgrimage is on the island of Shikoku, the most rural and un-modernised in Japan. Like other island economies, Shikoku has suffered from recession. Young people have gone in search of work. There is a sense of decay in many parts of the island. At times the living conditions of the people were primitive. Shikoku is certainly not downtown Tokyo!
If you are still with me at this point let me say that although these comments set some of the context, walking the 88 Temple Route was a wonderful and enriching experience. I grew to love the people, my fellow pilgrims, the stunning scenery, the pilgrim traditions, the peace and solitude, the hours of quiet reflection and times of fellowship with others at the end of the day.
For me the food remained a challenge until the end. But that is another story.
I will write more in a few days. Until then have a look at these resources which I found invaluable:
This is the most useful website packed full of information on the history of the pilgrimage as well as practical notes on everything from travel to preparation and accommodation.
The above website also links to:
David Moreton is the translator and editor of the Japanese guidebook to the pilgrimage. It is by far the best and most comprehensive guidebook I have ever used. I will write more about this in a future letter.
And two blogs to whet your appetite even further:
The “Plod” of the title is a London Policeman who made the pilgrimage in 2011. He slept mostly in private hostel accommodation.
More up to date, this blog was written by a young woman named Kat who I met in London before I set off and who was extremely helpful. She set off to camp along the route with a walking companion who had to give up because of injury. Kat completed the route on her own. Her blog is full of information including elevation charts.
Kat is a superfit and experienced long distance walker who is currently walking the 4265 kilometres of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. My advice is to look in amazement at some of the daily distances Kat walked on Shikoku but not plan to emulate them!
I will write again in the next few days.