|Bell and Sake Casks at Temple 1, Ryozenji|
We took the bus from Kyoto Station to Tokushima on the island of Shikoku. Shikoku is one of the four main islands of Japan but is relatively less touristy and more "inaka" or rural than Honshu. We planned to spend about six days walking the first part of the Henro, a buddhist pilgrimage that includes 88 main temples and covers some 1300 km. We managed to visit the first 17 temples and walk about 100 km. Pilgrims mostly go by car or by bus but some still choose to do the route on foot. Apparently it can be done by helicopter, but I have to say, we did not see a single helicopter. The walk takes between 40 and 50 days in total.
We decided to wear the white pilgrim jacket, carry the white bag with incense, name papers and stamp book, as well as carry the signature henro staff with a bell on it. In this way, we identified ourselves as members of the henro trail. I must say, it certainly made the local people recognize us and we had numerous friendly encounters with local farmers, kindly pointing and shouting us in the right direction as well as boisterous conversations with school kids in uniforms. We did our best to respectfully observe the traditions and were often coached by other pilgrims as we walked together.
There is a series of tasks or rituals that pilgrims do as they enter each temple precinct. The lovely thing that we discovered was that people can do as many or as few of these practices as they choose. It really is a personal journey. We felt very welcomed and yet were left to our own devices to experience the henro trail.
There is a gate at the front of every temple. Pilgrims bow as they enter. Most people find a place to leave their pack and staff somewhere near the front gate. Then we go to the fountain, use a dipper to get some water and wash our hands and mouths. One of the cutest things I saw was the children of the local priest floating their toys in the fountain. They were so uninhibited and clearly enjoying themselves. Next, pilgrims ring the bell, go up to the main temple buildings, light some incense and/or a candle, put their name paper in the box, put a donation in the money box and say a prayer. After that, people usually move down the steps to ground level to recite the Heart Sutra. We used the romaji version of the sutra in our guide book to quietly recite and follow. At one temple, a friendly pilgrim from Chiba who had done the route by car more than 20 times, came up behind us and chanted with us. Suddenly it felt like we had wind in our sails. It was quite a moving experience. Finally, people take their stamp books to the temple office to have it stamped in bright orange ink and the temple name painted in sumi with a brush. That was always my favourite part of the visit. I just marvel at the beauty and individuality of each person's calligraphy. Oh and finally, finally, step outside the gate and bow again before looking for the trail markers to the next temple.