Monday, 27 July 2015

The Great Shikoku Adventure – The Gifts of the Pilgrimage

After 9 hours of deep sleep I was at breakfast at 6am. Outside it was cold. Snow was forecast on the mountain which loomed ahead. Today I would walk to Temple 66, the “Hovering Clouds Temple.” Mist curled around the tops of the trees in the distance. The ascent was going to be steep.  At 3060 feet the Temple is at the highest elevation of the route.

“How on earth did you get here, John?” I wondered as I set out up the hill. 
It all began with my first pilgrimage in 2007 the Via de la Plata when I walked from Seville to Santiago. I didn’t speak any English for almost three weeks and didn’t meet another pilgrim between Seville and Salamanca. Solitary? You could say so. I could barely speak Spanish and when I needed to communicate I wrote what I wanted to say on a piece of paper using a phrase book. That journey altered the course of my life. I had previously been going to Seville in the summers for years previously, living right in the heart of the old town I played the organ in a local church, developed a network of friends and planned a life of easy retirement sipping chilled sherry beneath the orange trees.  However on that first long road to Santiago I now know I experienced a number of important things.  I realise that in my late 50’s I could still meet the physical challenge of walking 1000kms. I began to learn that I needed very little with which to live. I carried everything I needed on my back and despite everything I had read I still carried too much. I got bad blisters early on and I quickly realised that the less I carried the less pain I experienced.  Without knowing it at the time the same process was going on in my mind.
I had spent the years before setting off on Camino doing difficult jobs. High pressure. I had come through a messy divorce which sadly had inflicted pain over too long a period. My relationship with my children had inevitably suffered and even a couple of years after the event I was still mourning my mother’s death. To this day I remain surprised at how often I think of my parents who have both been gone for some time. Combine all of this with some smouldering   resentments which I could still nurse back to full flame and you may begin to understand some of the stuff I had packed in my rucksack for the journey.
However I felt happy enough. Financially secure and able to give up working full time. I had been attracted to the idea of walking the Camino to Santiago as a way of marking that transition.  I wanted time to myself to enjoy the peace and solitude of rural Spain; time to think, to eat tapas and drink good wine.  All of these ambitions were fulfilled but in those 1000 kms I also received a number of precious gifts: I became deeply convinced that my life should be simpler and that I needed to dump a lot of things about which I could do nothing. I needed to stop controlling, trying to fix the unfixable, change the past. The bottom line is that that first Camino taught me that if all else failed, if everything else in my life came apart at the seams, if I woke one morning with nothing, I could pack a rucksack and simply follow yellow arrows and be happy.  That reassurance gave me a profound sense of freedom and wellbeing which remained with me all of the way to Santiago and far beyond. I fell in love with Santiago, moved here and became involved in the life of the Camino. The rest is history.
Amigos Welcome Service
 For these last five years I’ve loved living in Santiago and developing projects to welcome pilgrims to the City. My relationship with my children has improved, most of the time, and I live a life of fairly simple routine with lots of long lunches. However in my heart I have still been striving to change things and often I get angry and frustrated when people and institutions refuse to cooperate fully with my plan. Looking back over my life I have a list of the guilty in this respect:  the government, the church and my daughters are very good examples.  Here in Santiago through the projects we’ve developed the welcome offered to pilgrims has greatly improved but it has been exhausting dealing with the agencies involved. By the end of last season I wanted to get away from it all on a long, challenging pilgrimage.

Shikoku was certainly that. Long, hard and demanding at every level.  The Temples, the scenery, the food, the culture, other pilgrims all coalesce to make the experience special. But there is a unique feature to the 88 Temple route which sets it apart and made it an extraordinary experience for me. I had read about the practice of “osettai” before I left.  Osettai are gifts which local people give to passing walking pilgrims. I had read before to expect locals to offer me drinks or fruit, some nuts or even a sandwich.  There are one or two websites where the authors give a daily tally of “walked 23 kms, paid 30€ for bed and breakfast, received 3 ossettai today – green tea, a biscuit and 2 mandarin oranges.”    Before I arrived I thought that this was a quaint custom like the few places on the Camino routes where locals leave out fruit. Little did I know.
In Japanese culture politeness has been elevated to an art form.  You are immediately struck by how helpful and polite Japanese people are, to the point where it appears to border on servility to Western eyes. I came to understand the difference between ritual politeness typified by bowing – everyone bows and the deeper the bow you give the deeper the bow you will get back. On the train the ticket-checker bows to everyone even when leaving the carriage. This act of respect is symbolic of how helpful Japanese people are, often to an extraordinary degree.  During our pilgrimage everyone we asked for directions or assistance went out of their way to help. Not just once, every time. A typical example was asking a man in a garage for directions. He pointed the way. We walked on for about 5 minutes when he drove up in his car. He had closed the garage and followed us to make sure we had not got lost. Another time we arrived in a town starving. Little was open and we came upon a place selling pizzas. They had run out of dough. We sat at one of the free picnic tables having a drink to make a plan for where we might eat before we found our accommodation. Around 15 minutes later a pizza appeared in front of us. One of the customers eating at a nearby table had seen our plight, got in his car, driven to a nearby pizza shop purchased a pizza and delivered it to us. We tried to give him money. He was almost offended.  These are just a few of the many, many examples of kindness we received from Japanese people. Then the ossettai started.
On that first day when I took ill a woman appeared at the front gate of her cottage. “Ossettai” she declared and held out a tray carrying ice cold tins of green tea and biscuits. From that moment every day was like being showered with kindness.  The ossettai we received are too numerous to list. Strangers in a supermarket would put cakes or sweets in our bags after we had paid, bills were paid for us in restaurants, walking along the road a car would stop and hand us a bag of fruit, or chocolate. People came out of their homes with artefacts they had made or home-made delicacies. On a bus one day another pilgrim went forward and paid our fare without saying a word. The other passengers applauded when we got off. A priest in a church we visited gave us an envelope containing the equivalent of 100 euros. A woman had handed it in. Dinner for the pilgrims.
We met a western pilgrim who eventually gave up and went home who thought this was all a little patronising. He said he felt like being patted on the head. I never once felt like that. I did wonder how much of this gift-giving was superstition. Be kind to a pilgrim and get good luck. There may be an element of that. However the thing that struck me most was the look of pleasure on the face of every single person who gave us ossettai. The Biblical lesson “it is better to give than receive”  is being lived on Shikoku. On a grand scale

 Over the 50 days walking the gifts did not stop. They came in the most unexpected forms and often when we least expected it. Walking alongside a busy road a car stopped and halted the long line of traffic. The window rolled down and a hand emerged with a box of chocolates. Ossettai.  Another day a woman emerged from her roadside home. A note was pressed into our hands. “Stop for coffee” she said in broken English. On another road a car stopped. “Are you pilgrims walking all the way today?” enquired the young Japanese man. When we said “yes” he reappeared with two packed lunches. “You must eat pilgrims”, he said and drove off with a wave.
At the start I was a bit embarrassed about taking these gifts. I also felt guilty. I can afford to buy everything I need and the gifts came from ordinary working people.  I also felt a little like a spectacle. Pilgrims singled out.  But as the days wore on I began to realise that I needed to accept these gifts with better grace. They were acts of generosity by people who simply wanted to give without question or qualification. That bothered me more and more because of the growing realisation that although I think of myself as a generous person thinking nothing of buying lunch or gifts for friends actually my giving has been very judgemental. Lunch for friends but not a penny to the beggar in the street.  “Let them work as I had to” being amongst my more charitable thoughts. And yet here were these Japanese people giving to a stranger, a foreigner, unconditionally.
Rain, sleet and snow at Temple 66
We struggled up the mountain to Temple 66 through rain, hail, sleet and snow. Everything was wet. The wind was an icy blast chilling us to the bone.  We reached the Temple and sought shelter to change into dry clothes before making our descent. The day was bitterly cold and when we reached the road at the bottom of the hill we wondered where we might get some hot food. We were gathering our thoughts and feeling very sorry for ourselves when a very elderly man on an ancient bicycle approached.  Looking as if he was in his late 80’s or 90’s he moved the pedals laboriously until he came to a stop beside us.  From a broken plastic crate attached with string he handed us two parcels wrapped in newspaper. They radiated heat. He had roasted potatoes on the fire at home on this coldest of days. Hot food for the pilgrims.
That one act of kindness from that old man was a moment of realisation. I saw that the islanders and their ossettai were a powerful demonstration that people are capable of great goodness. The ossettai were for me the affirmation that in this world individual acts of kindness which might seem small can count for a huge amount. My role is not to change everything around me. My job is to become less mean and judgemental and place fewer conditions on what I give emotionally and materially. I have to become the change that I want to see in others and the world.
What were the gifts of this pilgrimage? A roast potato and a whole lot more.


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The 88 Temple Adventure - A long way from Galicia

One big question we always ask ourselves when contemplating a long distance walk is “will I be ok on my own?” I think this is particularly so for women who are thinking about walking solo.

As I lay in my sickbed on that first day I was very glad that Stephen had been with me when I became ill. He sorted out things at the accommodation and with the aid of the trusty translator he even phoned a taxi and spoke in Japanese! What’s more, it arrived to pick us up.

But let’s jump forward a bit to look at this question of walking companions. In our 50 days walking around the island we encountered few other Western pilgrims.  We crossed paths with three other solo walkers all of whom gave up and went home after a while due to injuries. We met a young man and a girl from France. When we bumped into the lad later on he was walking alone as his girlfriend had abandoned the pilgrimage. Whether she had also abandoned their relationship was not clear.
Louise the Intrepid 
Then we met young Louise from England. In her early 20’s she was not only walking on her own, she was she also camping each night. At this time of year the leaves were changing colour and you could see your breath in the cold morning and evening air so her pack held her tent and all the gear for a winter hike. Not only that,  Louise was visiting both the 88 Temples and also the lesser  “Bangai” temples. A total of 1400kms. 
We met together back in Tokushima when we had all finished and she said that she had encountered few problems as a woman walking alone and none she couldn’t handle. I admired her greatly for her sense of adventure and sheer guts. We very much enjoyed our encounters when our paths crossed on the way. 
Later we met Akari a Japanese girl also in her 20's walking solo and like many other Japanese henro we met she was making the pilgrimage in stages.
So I think it boils down to personal preferences.  It is perfectly feasible to walk the route solo whether you are male or female. But remember although some people in the hotels in the larger cities speak English this is not the norm. Therefore for me it proved beneficial to be walking with a friend – for companionship, for assistance when I was ill, for help finding the route, for conversations in English at the end of the day. 
But back to the sick bed...
About 7 pm that evening, just when I was feeling very sorry myself, there was a knock at the door. I thought it was yet another visit from the overactive hotel staff. I was astonished when it was the Big Man.  He explained that we had been looking at the route as a continuous line around the island without understanding the guidebook.  Basically the guide is a set of very detailed maps – like ordinance survey maps only with every detail marked on them: places, post offices, ATM machines, accommodation, restaurants etc. And because they are maps of the route in the context of the surrounding area you could also see the train lines and train stations. As it happened Stephen had worked out that he could walk 23 kms that day plus another 0.5 kms to a station where he caught a train back to Tokushima. He reckoned that he could do that for several days going forward.
The first few days of illness turned into a week before I could start to move around and even think about having normal solid food. The thought of eating the raw eggs they serve every morning for breakfast, or raw fish or raw anything, brought on waves of nausea. I had to be careful. Here the guide proved invaluable because marked very clearly were the many convenience stores and restaurants along the way which served alternatives to sashimi and other traditional Japanese fare. The funny thing is these places were always full of Japanese people eating spaghetti bolongese or pizza.
Those first days really helped us get used to walking using the maps in the guidebook. Eventually we were able to plan forward sufficiently to ask one hostel to telephone our bookings ahead, often several days at a time. There were times where this proved essential when there were many pilgrims walking on the same holiday weekend for example.

If I were walking this route again I think I would definitely stay in Tokushima for the first three or four nights returning by train in the evening. These would be an opportunity to recover from jet lag and then to start walking gently in order to get used to reading the map.
Understanding the map meant we could plan stages where the distance between accommodation was not too great.  On several occasions where public transport was nearby we booked into a hostel and returned there for up to three nights each morning getting the train back to where we had left off the night before. The map reveals the mount of kilometres until you can get breakfast or a hot drink, use the toilet and buy carry-out food if there is no other shop for miles ahead.
In addition to the map the route is generally very well waymarked with arrows and signposts. There are also special signs on the route as well as indications in the guidebook when the trail is particularly difficult. We never got lost once although there were one or two occasions when we found we were not walking exactly on the route and had to navigate back to it using the maps in the guidebook.
Another question is how much it costs. The guidebook estimates the cost at 400,000 yen or 3000€ if pilgrims use small inns or hotels. This figure doesn’t include travel to Japan. I walked in October and November of last year and I think this is an underestimate and I would advise having at least 4000€ available. This includes any emergency fund. There are ATM machines along the way including in every Post Office so it is easy to top up cash.   Private accommodation is provided all along the route at some Temples, minshuku and ryokens (family run inns) small hotels and larger hotels in the cities. In small and large hotels a Henro Discount is often available – ask for it! These larger establishments also take credit cards.
The accommodation on the route is of varying standard despite the amount charged. Whilst the beds were always clean often the rest of the places left a lot to be desired. Be prepared.
A few of the temples have pilgrim accommodation available for a donation. These were mostly bare rooms with a tatami covered floor. Along the way there are euphemistically named “pilgrim shelters” which are basically covered park benches.
All of these are marked in the guidebook along with all of the other information you will need: accommodation, language, history, communications and much, much more. It is the best guidebook I have ever used.
As I recovered I was able to start going out for walks. One of the things we spotted on the map was a Catholic Church in Tokushima. In Buddhist Japan these are few and far between and so off we went in search of Mass. We found the church and knocked at the door of what we assumed was the Priest’s House. A portly man wearing a Japanese house jacket came to the door. It was obvious he wasn’t Japanese. I asked if he spoke English. He said, “Yes” and I recognised a familiar accent. “De donde es usted?” I asked in Spanish. He roared with laughter. “I’m from Navarra originally” he explained. “Where are you two from?” he enquired. “We’re Scottish and we work with the pilgrims who arrive in Santiago de Compostela”  I answered. “My sister lives in Verin in Galicia“  he said, “do you know it?” “Yes”, I replied, “It is on the Via de la Plata which was the very first route I walked which in  many ways has led me to your doorstep.”
The Mass was in Japanese but at the sermon he asked Stephen to speak to the congregation which he did in Spanish and the priest translated into Japanese.  The people applauded their encouragement  for the “O Henro –san” who were starting the journey to the 88 Temples. At the end of Mass people bowed deeply to us and wished us well. Several people quietly pressed money into our hands. “Offerings for the Temples” they whispered.     
I got better by the end of week two and it came time to leave the Station Hotel and Sanae who had helped me so much. What she didn’t realise was that she and many other Japanese people were beginning to teach me a life lesson I had not expected.  

Until next time

For planning rail journeys: 


Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The 88 Temple Adventure – Starting and stopping

Dear Friends

My first letter was basically a warning about how difficult the 88 Temple Route is. But don’t be put off too much. I also wrote: “Walking the 88 Temple Route was a great adventure. It 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.”

If you are thinking about walking this epic route you will have lots of questions. Among my top 10 were the following: Will I be ok on my own? What if I become ill? How will I cope with the language?  

Little did I know that shortly after setting out I would have answers to all of them.
The Shikoku adventure began some months before the late October departure. Last year was a very busy one in Santiago and I knew I needed a break. Following hours of reading on the internet I was hooked. Japan here I come. Then I made what turned out to be the best decision ever. Stephen my best friend and frequent walking companion had been in Santiago for most of the season helping with the various projects. He was due to leave when I gently suggested that instead of returning to boring old London he might like to come to Japan and walk 1200kms. If I tell you that Stephen will not eat sushi under any circumstances you will realise that he was not persuaded at first. However when he read about the route and its mystical beginnings with the founder of Shingon Bhuddism in Japan, Kōbō Daishi in the 8th century his interest was piqued. Then like me he got drawn into the excitement of the impending adventure. Flights were booked and the guidebook ordered.

Buying the guidebook translated by David Moreton and available here was the second best decision I made. However it did not appear so at first. Although the introduction and pages of notes on the history of the route was interesting the “guidebook” appeared to me to simply be a book of maps. Where were the walking instructions: “turn left at the arrow on the oak tree”, “keep straight on to the bust stop and turn right”? Also there were no suggested daily stages with clearly written summaries of the accommodation available.
I was also vaguely conscious that we were going to a land where we didn’t know one word of the language. I must confess that I was blasé about this. Although I speak reasonably good Spanish I know that tens of thousands of pilgrims walk in Spain without a word and manage. We would be fine. I was sure.
Being busy, time passed quickly until the projects closed and the last volunteers went home. Around then my trusty old Blackberry telephone started to play up. I went off to the phone shop and without knowing it I made the third best decision when I bought a Smartphone. One friend told me what to buy so I didn’t need to take a separate camera and charger and another showed me how to download a translation app. Just in case.
There was little time for any other preparation save packing our rucksacks and  setting off on the long flight. Our plan was to study the guidebook on the way and practice a few phrases in Japanese. Fortunately our friend Kat (Letter 1) had helped book our bus tickets from Osaka airport to Tokushima from which it was only a short train journey to Temple One.
Within minutes of landing reality started to set in. We couldn’t understand a word of what people were saying. We couldn’t read any of the signs. We had difficulty working the cash machine until we found one with an English option so we could understand the withdrawal limits. Fortunately we understood the symbol for the toilets and Starbucks.
On arrival at the Station Hotel in Tokushima we were greeted by Sanae, the owner, who had a few words in English and what she didn't know she simply spoke into an app on her phone and it translated it to English. This sometimes had hilarious results, but we managed. Sanae proved to extremely helpful which we found to be typical of all of the Japanese people we met  For example I needed to buy an adapter to charge my telephone. Sanae gave us directions to the shop and we set off. A few moments later she appeared on her bicycle to show us the way. She had closed the hotel in order to come and help us. On our return she was more than happy to telephone ahead to book the next few nights accommodation for us.
Ravenous we went off to eat. I wanted to embrace Japanese culture and that included food. The Big Man is much more discerning in these matters. We found a restaurant and didn’t understand a word on the menu. We managed to convey to the perplexed waitress that she should bring us anything she wanted and we tried to help by flapping our arms and making chicken sounds. She got it. The chicken was served with noodles in a red hot skillet and just before I raised my fork the waitress poured a raw egg on top of it. “Oh well”, I thought, “in for a penny...” and I scoffed the lot. Delicious.
In the morning we were up very early ready to start the Great Adventure. I felt a bit queasy but breakfasted well and we set off. At Temple Number One I thought I might have flu as I was shaking and felt chilled but we carried on to the temple shop to buy the ubiquitous white tunic, stole and sedge hat of the Henro as pilgrims are called on Shikoku. Because I still felt unwell we shopped at the store in Temple One not realising that there are other shops very close by with better, more reasonably priced, goods. We donned our traditional pilgrim gear and packed our Pilgrim Records, the books in which we would keep the stamps received at each temple, in nifty white shoulder bags. Next came the pilgrim stick, held to be the embodiment of Kōbō Daishi himself. Because of this it is respectful to care for it and in many places innkeepers wash the foot of the sticks and put them away carefully before tending to the guests.

We then walked the short distance to Temples Two, Three and Four performing the entry ritual at each – bowing at the gateway protected by fierce figures, washing our hands and mouth before praying, ringing the great bell to awaken the Gods to our arrival and then prayer.
The Bhuddist Pilgrims light incense and recite the Hart Sutra, a ritual prayer, at every temple. We said the Christian Rosary. Everyone leaves a slip of paper with their name and the date recording their visit.

By the time we were walking on to Temple Five the chills were back and shaking from head to toe I had to stop and virtually collapsed into a shop. It turned out to be the local Dry Cleaner. The Big Man helped me into a seat and tried to explain to the man behind the counter that I was ill. He didn’t understand a word until Stephen produced the guidebook pointed to the name of the guest house we were going to and said the magic word, “taxi”.
When I got to the guest house the owner took pity on me. She showed me to my room with a bed made up on the tatami floor, gave me extra blankets and left me to sleep. I  thought whatever it was would pass. I slept the rest of the day whilst Stephen went off to retrace his steps and visit the next Temple. When he returned the lady introduced us to what was to become the rhythm of all of the pilgrimage days to come. Men wash between 4 – 5pm, dinner at 6pm and breakfast at 6am.
I could eat nothing at dinner and I was back in bed by 6.30pm. I felt increasingly worse as the evening went on and it was clear I had some gastric illness. Just before dawn I fell asleep and I awoke to find that there had been a meeting between Stephen, a Japanese pilgrim who could speak some English and the lady of the house. A taxi had been ordered. I was to return to Tokushima to see a doctor.
I was crestfallen. This was only the first day. When we got back to hotel we found there were no rooms available. However Sanae allocated me her own room so that I could rest until a room became available. They wanted to call the doctor. I insisted on waiting until the next day to see if I felt any better. I was worse. To save time waiting for a house call Sanae accompanied me to see the local general practitioner. Once in the door of the very modern and high tech consulting rooms the professionals took over. Nurses took my vital signs and samples. The doctor took a full medical history, gave me a physical examination, then an ultrasound, then he took blood for analysis. How was all of this managed? Through them speaking into the translator app on their smartphone and me replying in the same way. The results came back. “You have bad case of food poisoning and you very dehydrated” was the diagnosis. We discussed going into hospital but they could see I was reluctant. The doctor gave me a 7 day programme of drugs and rehydration therapy and told me to stay in bed. He also asked for details of my travel insurance. “You pay bill and get money back” the electronic voice on his phone translated. It turned out that the total bill was a fraction of what I had expected but the whole episode proved the worth of having good travel insurance.
Next morning the staff of the hotel started calling into my room...”need more water?” was always the question with beaming and encouraging smiles. They brought me an ice pack, juice, asked if I wanted something light to sushi? No thanks! I curled up and slept. By next morning it was clear that the doctor was correct. I would be laid out for a week. We took the tough decision that the Big Man would go on ahead and wherever he got to I would catch up with him when I was better.

That was when we began to realise that the Guidebook had all of the answers we needed for our journey.    

Until next time.


Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The 88 Temple Adventure – Letter 1

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.

Kind regards




Friday, 30 January 2015

Missing Photographs on this Blog

Readers will notice that photographs have been deleted from the older posts. I'm sorry about this. This has been caused by a fault in the software. I simply don't have time to replace the photographs on 250 posts. However if any one would like the photographs associated with any particular post please email me and I will be happy to send them: