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.



  1. Oh John I so enjoyed reading about your journey an the gifts bestowed to you and Steven. My stay in Zamora will be over on Friday. I have decided to walk from Ourense again and will see you hopefully a week past that in Santiago. As my Catalonian colleague taught me.... I què més vols..

  2. So beautiful!!! Thank you! I was recently at a baseball game in Minnesota when a stranger came up to me and said "here!" and gave me a pamphlet. I thought it was a roster of the game. When I sat down I saw it was a full scale map of the 88 temple pilgramage! I have been called. I know I will go...
    I don't know how hw knew I was a pilgrim, but I know to listen to the Angels. Thanks for the post!

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It touched my heart. It seems that we Westerners have a difficult time learning to receive. What a gift in lesson and deed the Ossetian is!

  4. Wow. This brought big tears to my eyes. So inspiring.

  5. Beautifully written. We have enjoyed similar lessons in different ways. Learning to be kind, indiscriminately has not been easy for me. Thank you for sharing so honestly.

  6. Dear John, this account brought me to tears. Thank you! The only words I can think of to describe its impact on me is are, "Love in action".