Three weeks into my trek, as I ascended a steep path towards Yokomine-ji, the sixtieth of 88 temples alongside the Shikoku pilgrimage, I discovered myself enveloped by an unforgiving fog. Right away, the colourful forest round me — principally purple cedar timber and fern bushes — light, leaving me in a world of muted grey. Capable of make out solely the faintest shapes within the surrounded timber, I used to be satisfied that I’d stumbled into an eerie fairy story.

Quietly, within the distance, I started to listen to a refrain of small bells. Then, all of a sudden, the occasion of unintended musicians got here into view: a big group of Japanese pilgrims who, coming towards me, all stopped neatly in line to let me stroll previous.

Inside an hour, the fog had begun to elevate. Inside two, it was gone totally, changed by an equally unforgiving noon solar. Within the newfound readability of daylight, I started to surprise: Had the courteous band of fellow pilgrims existed solely in my thoughts?

The pilgrimage on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s 4 principal islands, is a 750-mile route that hyperlinks 88 Buddhist temples, every of which claims a connection to Kukai, a celebrated monk — posthumously referred to as Kobo Daishi — who, after coming back from a visit to China within the ninth century, based one of many main colleges of Buddhism in Japan.

After Kukai’s demise in 835, wanderers started making pilgrimages to the websites on Shikoku that had been affiliated together with his life and work: his start and burial locations, the caves the place he meditated, the websites of assorted non secular rites. Later, these websites had been linked, and the temples and shrines had been formally numbered.

As is true with many modern-day pilgrimages, the ranks of Shikoku pilgrims — as soon as solely practitioners of Shingon Buddhism, one of many main colleges of Buddhism in Japan — have grown to incorporate vacationers with a extra numerous array of motivations. And so the regular succession of monks, monks and trustworthy Buddhists has given method to younger folks on journeys of self-discovery, older hikers having fun with their retirement and even international guests like me, who know little of the language and customs however are drawn by the journey of the trek, by Shikoku’s breathtaking views and by its elegant classes on Japanese cultural heritage.

And the pilgrimage is simpler now than it was. Though pilgrims historically accomplished the route on foot, guided bus excursions now carry many guests to the websites. (The purpose for many individuals, in spite of everything, is to go to all 88 temples, to not endure the hardships of a 750-mile hike.) Others choose to take non-public automobiles, or to trek for a part of the best way and drive (or be pushed) for the remaining.

Even for nonreligious trekkers, essentially the most prized pilgrimage memento is a completely stamped nokyocho, or stamp e book. The books have devoted pages for all the temples, at every of which a clerk applies a number of stamps and some strokes of lovely calligraphy, made utilizing a standard brush.

One sizzling afternoon I met a middle-aged German couple who informed me this was the fourth time they’d launched into the Shikoku pilgrimage. I requested why they selected to return as a substitute of attempting different treks elsewhere on the planet. Throughout every pilgrimage, they stated, they found one thing totally completely different. And the meals is phenomenal, they added.

One other day, I walked for a number of hours behind two Japanese males via rice fields in Kochi Prefecture, which traces the island’s concavely curved southern coast. I finished at a relaxation hut alongside the best way and located the 2 males there, joined by two different males, all of them smoking and chatting.

In my restricted Japanese and their restricted English, they informed me that they had been all from Shikoku. Two of them stroll two days annually, whereas the opposite two journey by automotive, ferrying the luggage and becoming a member of the walkers on the temples to worship collectively.

“Wait, how lengthy will it take you to finish the entire pilgrimage then?” I requested.

One of many males threw his arms into the air. “Who is aware of? A long time!” he stated, and so they all laughed.

Wherever I went on the island, a way of peacefulness appeared to comply with. In Shikoku, virtually with out fail, the folks I encountered had been form. They appeared content material. Although I’m not a religious particular person, the silence and the vastness of the panorama — and the warmheartedness of the folks I met — created an abiding aura of serenity.

One customized that distinguishes the folks of Shikoku is the observe of osettai, the act of giving presents to the pilgrims. These presents come within the type of meals, drink, trinkets, automotive rides, meals, a spot to sleep — even, at instances, small sums of cash. Greater than as soon as I noticed drivers cease in the course of the street handy out goodies from their automotive home windows.

One night, after having been granted free lodging from a temple (which occurred twice), I heard a knock on the door of my hut. A younger girl, a temple assistant who spoke no English, bowed and handed me a slip of paper: “Miss Marta, you’re welcome to make use of the temple’s tub freed from cost,” it stated in Japanese.

In complete, over the course of my 28 days spent visiting all 88 temples, I used to be additionally given: 700 yen (about $5), 11 candies, seven small desserts, seven automotive rides, six mandarin oranges, 5 rice balls, three cookies, three sweets, three cups of inexperienced tea, two crackers, two mochi, two soda cans, two multipurpose cloths, two yuzu juice cartons, one yokan (a purple bean jelly snack), one bicycle (lent to me for half a day), one bag of steamed chestnuts, one bag of cherry tomatoes, one lunch and one bowl of home made udon.

The pilgrimage’s temples are scattered alongside the perimeter of the island — some close to the coast, and a few farther into the mountainous inside. Some are grouped collectively, and others are 50 miles aside.

As a pilgrim, I typically arose early — by 5:30 a.m., within the spring — and spent a full day on the street. About 80 p.c of the route is on asphalt, principally via open fields and small cities and previous lovely shoreline. I spent a number of days climbing up and down mountain peaks.

The fading of Japan’s rural inhabitants is dramatically evident on Shikoku. Younger folks have fled to the cities or to different islands that supply a greater high quality of life. My expertise confirmed as a lot: Practically all the younger folks I noticed had been within the capitals of the island’s 4 prefectures.

For breakfast and dinner, many pilgrims benefit from home-cooked meals supplied by most minshuku, or family-operated bed-and-breakfasts, and ryokan, conventional Japanese inns. These meals normally include rice, miso soup, fish and pickled greens. For lunch, relying on one’s location, comfort shops can present a fast chunk.

Regardless of the delectable meals, the gorgeous vistas and the charming cultural histories, it was the folks I met who had the strongest impact on me.

At a hostel one night time I met Midori-san, a 71-year-old pilgrim who spoke no English. She confirmed me how you can behave at a big sentō, or public bathhouse.

As soon as, once I requested the 2 staff at a mountain temple’s stamp workplace if the temple provided free lodging, they replied that it didn’t. However, talking via a translator on my telephone, they provided to drive me to a spot the place I might camp in a close-by valley.

Just a few days later, hoping to see the panorama from a special perspective, I boarded a tiny ferry with a fellow pilgrim, Patricia, and went zigzagging for almost an hour in Uranouchi Bay. Patricia and I had been the one vacationers on board.

One very wet day, after strolling for a number of hours underneath a water-proof however sweltering poncho, I made a decision to hitchhike to the following temple, which was a few hours away. After I caught my thumb out on a busy street for a couple of minutes, a person in a beat-up van stopped. He spoke no English, as I discovered to be widespread on Shikoku, and I knew only some related phrases in Japanese. Nonetheless, because the previous van cautiously made its approach up a winding street, we managed to change a number of sentences.

I obtained the sensation that the scenario tremendously amused him — and I used to be proved proper when he known as his spouse on an previous telephone and stated, with fun, that he had picked up a foreigner who had grown determined underneath a torrential downpour.

Earlier than we parted methods, he requested me to repeat my title, and wrote it down on the again of a receipt in katakana, a Japanese alphabet generally used for international phrases. “Ma-ru-ta,” he stated aloud, sounding out the characters. After which he was gone as shortly as he’d appeared. Grateful for the favor, and grateful to be dry, I watched his truck vanish round a bend and turned towards the trail to the temple.

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