If you’ve gotten this far, I thank you for reading my posts, whether one or all. Since I limited myself to 2000 words for most posts, there are many thoughts left unsaid, significances left unelaborated. I will address some of them below.
I am writing this in the land of pilgrimages. Every year in India, some 100 million people make a pilgrimage, whether Hindu, Jain, Muslim, or even Christian. Every year, for 40 days, an estimated 50 million men (women menstruating between the ages of 12–50 are unclean and cannot participate) take off their shoes to trek through the Periyar Tiger Reserve (i.e. jungle) to Sabarimala, the place where the Hindu god Ayyappan meditated after killing the demoness Mahishi. The banks of the Ganges at Varanasi cleanse an estimated 3 million domestic pilgrims alone. These are just two of India’s countless Hindu holy places.
In these trips, people who painstakingly saved a thousand rupees (~17 USD) will bump along on a lurching bus, or hard seat coach train for days to get to their destination. Families normally behind gated walls may march with commoners in their bare feet. This is India, the surmountable subcontinent when it comes to faith and spirituality.
As I sit in a modern cafe staring out onto the dusty streets with sandstone buildings, the thought occurs that this devotion makes light of the Shikoku Pilgrimage’s 1200 km circuit, which is mostly over paved road, dotted with toilets at convenience stores and reliable trains. Typhoons in summer, yes, but no tigers or poisonous snakes.
It’s been almost half a year since I finished Shikoku’s 88 temples. I’ve never stopped thinking about them. Here in India, the vivid memories stitched into the larger fabric of experience are finally beginning to blend in. I think it’s called digesting, and I’ve tried to lay them out below.
I have an endless stream of things to say or nothing at all. I feel like I’ve changed a lot, or very little. I think of Shikoku nostalgically, as one of my happiest times, even though it’s also caused many things that normally would seem upsetting. The summary point is — I’d like to do it again. I am starting with that since many of the thoughts below seem negative, but are just realities that I’ve just absorbed along the way.
Even though Shikoku is largely a mental journey, its strongest memories are physical.
…a price I was willing to pay at the time, and a price I still believe is worthwhile.
I have a phantom ache in my left shoulder, which usually flares when I am tense or upset. It is the result of continuing with an imbalanced backpack that had no padding, was too large, and had no back support. However, I’d chosen to walk with it early on when the problem arose. I still love it for its convenience, and the ache serves as a quirky reminder.
My sprained left ankle has shaken my confidence walking. It happened just before Temple 36 and I continued untreated. I kept walking despite its softball-sized swell because there was no bruising and I didn’t want the doctors telling me to stop. The price I am still paying is that it makes me wary of all uneven surfaces and keeps my head down on the road. It’s made me realise how frail I am, but it has also made me intensely grateful. This bittersweet gratitude makes me determined to properly recuperate so that I continue doing the things I want to do, not taking my mobility for granted.
Also, I sleep less, and tend to wake up early despite sleeping late. In Shikoku, I usually got up around 5:30 or latest 6am to make the most of the cooler morning hours, even if I slept badly when doing nojuku. My body has become accustomed to light and broken sleep, even if it makes me groggy in the morning.
I take these physical changes as the price paid for an experience, a price I was willing to pay at the time, and a price I still believe is worthwhile. If anything, it’s working past the pain that gives an even greater sense of accomplishment.
Some memories are so alive, they are the present.
My perception has been honed for specific survival skills, while my response to many other things has completely atrophied.
All surfaces are potential sleeping spots: a parking lot, a washroom, a nook in the rock, cradling roots in old-growth forests, ramparts, under a table, are all good since that’s how I sometimes did nojuku. A floor in a building is a luxury. It is both obsessive and empowering, knowing that you can sleep anywhere, exist anywhere.
I also reflexively notice power outlets. While I often got by without my phone, it was still a handy tool when charged in Shikoku. Since I was usually walking, I maximised my lunches by charging from plugs in odd corners of shops and restaurants. The awareness of resources in spaces lingers.
I also notice how much stuff places have. Instead of blending into the background of a cozy home, I immediately wonder as to their use, and if finding none, find them curious.
I have no problem waiting for hours, or taking a train for two days to get across India. After missing my train by a minute and waiting for 4 hours for the next one in the rain, I learned how to wait. Time is easily passed either walking, sleeping, or drifting. At some point, whatever needs to happen will happen.
It’s also slowed my sense of time. In a world where we can always grow more efficiently by listening to a lesson on a train commute, gains can be thin-sliced into minutes and seconds that race by. Yet, after that month of walking in slow motion, to the same 24-hours, I now feel that life is long. Before, I had a job, organised major events, help some startups and projects, did writing, read a ton of books, kept an active lifestyle, and socialised often; that would have probably kept me on the hamster wheel. Eventually, the efficient micro-minute investments would pay off. Now, I think more in terms of seasons: five years would be five chances to climb a mountain in the summer, or five opportunities to try growing a Spring vegetable.
The experiences of Shikoku were jarring for life after because even if they were uncomfortable, they felt right. Even now, they occupy an aspirational vision for me to return to.
There’s no previous version recovery.
I have no particular faith, but I want to kneel every now and then.
Despite being someone who highly appreciates aesthetics, choices for material things doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I open my closet in Tokyo and am continuously, mildly, dismayed that I have about 10 shirts (for 3 seasons). I prefer a life contained in a backpack. Resisting the urge to toss everything out, I’m wearing only a handful of the same clothes until they cannot be worn before working through the rest of my wardrobe.
Despite being someone who loves good food, eating for pleasure is no longer a priority or interest. I still appreciate a quality meal (street food or fine dining), but I no longer need good food for gratification. I still cook every day and take care in the process, but I can just as easily survive on meal replacements. For hunger, any food is good.
I’ve grown more quiet, and feel no social obligation to speak. I thoroughly enjoyed being alone when walking. At first, it gave me time to think. Eventually, I even dropped the need for thought. I like the settled peace of wordlessness.
Even if asked, I have less to say about things, less of an opinion, and less of a need to be heard. Friends, this quiet inertia feels natural, even though I’m listening to you.
Similarly, I have less reaction to things. Occurrences just float by. When walking, a small mistake or oversight had large consequences. Alone, I lived with the results of my actions. An ankle sprain, an uncharged phone, or missing a train were all avoidable mistakes. The pilgrim continues on, and eventually arrives. Life moves on, and eventually, you’ll get where you want to go.
I can let go of almost anything — a good book, my cell phone, a favourite expensive camera lense. Moving around often for the past 6 years means things often get lost, but after living out of a backpack in Shikoku through rain or shine, everything is reduced to a question of weight relative to use. Everything you carry you need; everything else you can find a substitute for, make due without, or borrow. Ultimately, if we’re resourceful, we need virtually nothing except the clothes on our backs, water, food, and sleep. It’s humbling and liberating.
I make decisions quickly now. In Shikoku, the handful of choices made multiple times a day forced a decisive hand: clean up in an onsen now to feel better for a few hours and arrive after dark, or continue and arrive before sunset to have dinner? Hang around another hour here to charge my phone or hurry to the next temple, but have nothing to do after that? These decisions with direct consequences every day made bottom lines and priorities clear. The shades of grey were stripped away: you made you decision, made it work and moved on.
Finally, I have no particular faith, but I want to kneel every now and then. Shikoku is where I first felt the profound desire to kneel, to express gratitude not through words, but through stillness. In my first week, I was drowned in a downpour with nowhere to stay when the image of me returning to the Main Hall of my first temple, Kirihata-ji, and kneeling came to me. I fiercely wanted to complete the circle, return to where I’d begun, and ask, or discover, what this was all about. In the end, I made it back to realise that vision and thanked every possible being — or just pure luck — for safe passage. It is a simple act that feels mysteriously wholesome. Every now and then, I now like to sit in the Japanese style, and just feel that small, quiet place, of nothing in particular, but a light, glowing gratitude.
Things I’ve Come to Believe
I’m a believer in positionality and that ‘life truths’ are just a reflection of one’s personal experiences. I don’t want to propose that you will experience all of these things if you walk Shikoku, but based on my encounters with other pilgrims, I think at least a handful of experiences will resonate.
Gratitude. Probably the single most important word to all henro. Small things mean so much. In that moment, a cool bottle of water midday when you’ve run out is just as moving as a roof over your head.
The pilgrimage is made of accidents and coincidences. The specific ones we get shape our entire experience, and are completely non-transferable from one pilgrim to the next. Yet, it is a guarantee that if you expose yourself as a walking pilgrim, these matters of chance will shower you along the way. And, if you are thus exposed, you will experience the raw emotions that only walking pilgrims face.
Shades of gratitude. Shikoku and the pilgrimage itself create a bubble of generosity. Generosity is often so abundant it creates a nuance of reactions mingled with gratitude. How do you deal with the 5 bottles of water handed to you that you must accept, and would certainly need, just not now, when they weigh an extra 2.5 kg? How can you ever repay your host for a much needed extra day? How on earth are you going to fit the feast your host has laid out even though the futon they offered was already a blessing? These mingled feelings leads to another revelation: humility so profound it cuts into you.
Humility isn’t real until it breaks you a little. Linked to gratitude, and the almost helplessness in accepting others’ o-settai generosity, one learns deep humility. One of the most humbling experiences is accepting while knowing that you can never repay the kindness, were never expected to, and perhaps that you’re just the lucky benefactor of an impersonal kindness (giving o-settai to a pilgrim is giving to Kobo Daishi). You’re very small, yet what you do seems so hard, and rather than look down on you, the world stops to help you along.
The world doesn’t make life easier, but it conspires to help you succeed. Taihendesune! was a common refrain I received. How difficult / horrible / insane. Yet, despite the gasp, no-one tried to stop me, to convince me it was impossible. They said it must be horrible, then urged me on, and helped where they could.
Finished correctly is better than finished perfectly. You can complete the Shikoku Pilgrimage walking, cycling, bussing, driving, whatever works. You can do it in a month or over twenty years, backwards, forwards, or piecemeal. I didn’t judge the majority of henro that drove or bussed. I judged the ones, like me, who ‘caved in’ to a ride. It felt like failing a commitment. One of the hardest things for me to accept was that adapting and taking the ‘easier’ way are part of creating an intentional path. Which could I live with: the humbling knowledge that I needed help for a second chance to do this ‘properly’, or knowledge that I completed it walking (but might never do anything of the sort again)? How do you want to get through life — cruising, being taken along, walking, or sampling everything? There isn’t a right answer, just one that’s right for you.
We live with what we have. I have walked past henro with twice my bag, and ones with half. Some used walking sticks even on pavement while others walked through everything on sandals. Some camped the entire route while others checked into a hotel every night. We all used what we had: time, money, physical strength, energy, willpower, technology. I always felt a mutual respect amongst walking henro, and we appreciated the challenges that each person had to face, no matter how many resources they had.
You’ll arrive when you do, one step at a time. No matter how much of a rush I was in, I would have to take roughly the same number of steps to get from one temple to the next. How fast or slow, was up to me. I had a physical limit, but in the end, I arrived. In life, every second is a step, but how every step feels is up to us.
We learn why we do things only after they are done. I mentioned that I really wanted to complete the pilgrimage early on. Before I set off, I thought I would complete about half of it. Yet, a strong gut feeling told me that there was some value in not only the process, but the completion. Going on the inkling that I would experience something, whatever it was, when I finished, I continued. The answer, when I finished, was simple: it felt right to be back.
It rips open a hole. I first read about this on another henro’s blog in her afterword. Her companion had asked if we’re all empty inside. I don’t feel the emptiness, but I suspect the gaping hole I feel is just my interpretation. I feel like I’m staring into an abyss that I don’t quite understand. Modern psychology would probably summarise it as post-travel depression. My mind swirled with a lot of life questions, and some initial conclusions. I sat on it for a few months and it only just lifted after I visited India (don’t know if it’s location, timing, or just coincidence). I still don’t quite know what has been jolted, and perhaps I’ll spend many more years feeling it out until I walk the pilgrimage again. I wanted to end on a neat, positive note, but this is the more realistic truth.
Life is about the questions we live with. The final thought is that the readjustment to ‘normal life’, the hole and the unanswered questions are, in a backhanded way, the point. Like the walking itself, the challenge of life after it is asking why am I doing this; and why this way? It’s not a comfortable road and it goes round in circles, but it’s up to us to find happiness, contentment, and maybe even meaning for some, by the end.
A Note on Dedications
In the process of choosing, perhaps we begin to see the different types of significances people have.
Normally, one walks the Shikoku Pilgrimage, asking for one thing at all 88 temples with the hope that Kobo Daishi will grant that important wish.
In Shikoku I walked with the people I prayed for at each individual temple. Their memories accompanied me throughout the hours. It began in a straight-forward manner, with the people I’m most indebted and closest to. They were people I was grateful to walk with even in spirit. The friends that followed became more difficult, as I had to choose a limited number, and the ones I instinctively felt an affinity for differed from the ones who ‘deserved’ mention. The process of choosing in Shikoku made me come to terms with one of the questions I’ve asked myself for two decades: why are we friends with the people that we are? Still harder were the people I was ambivalent about, those whom I am most grateful to for what they have taught or given me, and simultaneously the ones I was most disappointed or hurt by. In my routine life, their memories often bubbled to the surface, and would be gently pressed back down after I examined them for a bit. On Shikoku, these were the people I sat with for days, and yet, most of them I no longer speak to.
Did it mean anything to dedicate to them, as opposed to another, actively contributing, person in my life? Does it mean anything to dedicate to someone who probably never thinks of you, and will never know what you did? I struggled with this not because I needed their acknowledgment, but rather that, with a limited number of dedications, did the past or the present have more immediacy?
As I got deeper, and came to understand the history of each temple and the environments they were built in, the dedications became increasingly intentional. Each temple’s character is as unique as each friend. It also made the process of deciding more aggravating. It would be convenient to say that we shouldn’t choose. Shikoku revealed that in reality, we must, and it is too often that we don’t. Without actively reflecting on the relationships that we have, when the time comes for us to choose, we cannot because we haven’t worked out a system of value relevant to us. We don’t choose because of what it could say about us. However, in the process of choosing, perhaps we begin to see the different types of significances people have, whether their contributions were brief or long, gratifying or painful. Perhaps we can make space to appreciate the people who have entered into our lives.
This is the diary of a solo walker, but is a tapestry of a hundred lives. While I tried to describe their generosity in my posts, the gratitude was often implied. I’d like to make their significant contributions clear here.
Thank you to Mai, who gave me a Japanese name, which I felt smoothed over many new friendships and encounters along the road.
Thank you to Zenryu for your Airbnb advice, which saved me from a typhoon. You welcomed me into Japan, housed me, and provided the simple joys of life I’ve always wanted. I’d like to follow your example in the coming years.
Countless thanks goes to Yuji-san and Masako-san from Ono Farms for hosting me in Tokushima, thereby enabling both the serendipitous beginning and perfect ending to my Shikoku Pilgrimage. You provided the warm home to depart from and return to, and its emotional value cannot be expressed. My thanks also to Shou-san, A-Chan, Nim, Valentin, and Yanie for their great company.
Thank you to all my scheduled hosts, Ayumi and Masashi, my host in Kubokawa, Tsuneto and Akiko, for hosting. They not only sheltered me, but offered me extra nights when I could not make my ambitious schedule. In addition to them, I thank the new friends who offered help and shelter when I was still a stranger, leading my ad hoc stays in Shishikui, Iyo-Miyoshi and Takamatsu, for opening your doors to a stranger. All my hosts sent me off in much better physical condition than they found me.
The countless strangers who stopped on the road to thrust o-settai snacks, drinks, meals and even bills are the army of cheerleaders that keep us aruki henro going. No matter how small the gestures, they always renewed one’s spirit even at the end of the most depressingly long days.
I am grateful to my walking companions, Yumi, Kouhei, Aurelie, Edvaldo, Noriko, Nakamura-san, Ayumi and Kotaro, and the three dogs accompanying me 5km down Yokomine-ji, who were sources of inspiration, comfort, and reflection.
I also thank the family, friends, and benefactors to whom each temple is dedicated for having done so much for me throughout the years. You provided this pilgrimage with meaning, and memories of you kept me company as I walked to each temple.
Last but not least, I thank my parents for not ever asking where I went or what I was doing, and therefore not insisting that I search for the meaning of life through less esoteric means.
Originally published at thecupandtheroad.com on February 20, 2016.
You can check out the daily diary entries of a solo female henro at The Cup and the Road.