The Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage is a famous Buddist Pilgrimage in Japan. It covers 88 temples located all around Shikoku, according to the way Kobo Daishi studied Buddhism in his youth.
I started the pilgrimage on October, 5th in Naruto, and reached Mount Koya back in Wakayama, Honshu on October 31st. What made me going on a pilgrimage at all? At first, it was an idea, a curiosity of what would happen, and a good portion of interest in Shingon Buddhism, to which Reiki Healing is closely related. On the first day, hunting one temple after the other by bicycle seemed fun. I did 10 temples, that were rather close to each other. On the second day, a taifun was getting closer, there was a lot of rain already and I only visited No 11 and climbed up No 12, Shōzanji, the first really elevated temple of the trip, hiking the last bit. Incredible scenery in that monastery... Reciting the Indian Gayatri mantra since that was the only one I knew at the time. After hiking back to the bicycle, I received a nice gift - a free meal of hot Udon noodles. Afterwards, a woman from an Udon restaurant brought me and the bike back to town, while there was rivers of rain water flushing down the streets. In the hotel, a Japanese lady introduced me to parts of the prayers the were to be recited by the pilgrims and I started to get a glimpse. On more day in the pouring rain, I visited a few temples by bicycle. Actually I ended up totally soaked in a youth hostel at a small lovely beach somewhat south of Tokushima city. Here I waited until the taifun had faded out.
Then I started off with good weather and good mood for the next mountain temples with incredibly steep and narrow paths, on the bike, with my luggage. Did the first, went down again and decided to take the cablecar for the next 600 something meter elevated temple (Tairyu-ji) on the same day since I had plans to reach way further. Great place, afterwards I regret I did not stay there longer.
On the long tracks on the coastline, I stopped by once in a while to swim in the sea. I camped on the beaches and slept in wooden shelters on park benches. I spent money for Japanese guest houses and stayed in temples every once in a while. Received a lot of help and various small gifts (so called osettai) from locals and sometimes from car or bus pilgrims, and it was a pleasure connecting with the people, learning about their way of doing the pilgrimage. More and more I learned about the differences, some "walking henros" would try to reach as much as possible every day, running on a tight schedule with pre-booked hotels and a limited time frame because of the little holidays. Others would just camp outside, doing everything gently, talking to the locals and thereby discover many "secrets" of the temples. At some stage I started reciting the sutras as well, and asked for the meanings of the temples. But every once in a while, I speed up again, doing crazy temple runs again.
After Unpenji, the highest temple on 900 something metres that I did by bicycle, I got tired and exhausted. Met a 45 year old Japanese walking henro again and again who introduced me to his art of slow movement on the pilgrimage. He was on the pilgrimage already since three months, and certainly learned so much about it, interviewing the people of the temples and places. Together, we climbed up steep mountains and reached rocky temples that did not belong to the official part, yet these were the really magical places. Afterwards, I slowed down to the speed of walking henros, spend an hour at each temple, trying to memorize them better by finding a special thing, discovering something unique at least to me. Enjoyed the stream of pilgrims circulating around the island of Shikoku. Spend two rather rainy days in Zentsuji, No 75, the place where Kobo Daishi was born. My slowly moving Japanese friend was there, as well as a French hitchhiking pilgrim that I met about two weeks before, was there as well, and we've had a great time while it was raining, not just talking about Buddhism.
On the last day of the official part of the pilgrimage, there were yet another two mountain passes to cycle. A good time to contemplate on what I just did and what I wanted to do next. After I visited the first temple (Ryozen ji) once again, I went for a long Onsen (public bath) and good diner. The ferry back to Wakayama would leave 3:25 AM next morning, and I just slept two hours at the ferry port.
From Wakayama to Koya san, there is only 70 kilometers to ride, however the winds were not my friends that morning, and the first 40 kilometers took me somewhat until lunchtime. Met a very friendly priest in the Jisonin temple, a temple that I stopped by rather randomly after a long nap on the river banks. The priest told me about the history and the meaning of the temple, and its relation to the Shikoku pilgrimage. Afterwards, there were yet another 700 or 800 meters to climb up to Koya san, which I somehow managed until 4 PM in best weather conditions, literally screaming at the hugh wooden Daimon (main gate). Entering the town, I faced crowds of tourists. Saturday in best weather conditions. Autumn colors of the maple trees. I didn't bother for sightseeing nor visiting the last temples of my pilgrimage, I was just happy to have a hot bath in my youth hostel. Started visiting the temple where Kobo Daishi was enshrined next morning at 7 AM, just before the crowds of tourist would appear. Incredible feeling to tell Kobo Daishi that the pilgrimage was over, or at least the Shikoku part. Recited the sutras once again, with a group of bus pilgrims, and enjoyed the moment. Then I walked off the place that got crowded in the meantime in bright sunshine, randomly heading for some small footpath leading uphill in the jungle. Some quite big black animal rushed away, just 10 or reached the last resting place of Kobo Daishi 20 metres away. A bear? A few hundred metres later, my Indian prayer bracelet (Mala) that I always used to recite Indian and Japanese mantras since February broke when I climbed over a tree that was lying over the small path. I left the remains over there, knowing that things will change and live keeps on changing anyway. Just a matter what one makes out of it. So I climbed on and arrived back at the youth hostel before the rain started and the temperature dropped. Later that day, I discovered a lot of interesting stories hidden in the wall paintings of the halls in the Shingon headquarter, connected to Kobo Daishi and the history of Koyasan. And connected to the black animal that morning in the woods, and the lost prayer bracelet... A randomly met Japanese turned out to be staying in my hostel too, and was kind enough to explain parts of the exhibition and provide me shelter afterwards from the pouring rain with his umbrella. Great diner together in a Chinese restaurant.
So today I went hiking again with an Israelian and the Japanese guy that I met the afternoon before, discovering amazing places of in the mountains. Singing Norwegian wood, and praying on Buddhist-Shinto shrines on top of the mountains that are connected to Sarasvati. Live changes...