A pilgrim's progress

Thailand May 14, 2014 00:00

By Masanao Umezaki
The Yomiuri S

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Devotees follow the trodden path to 88 temples to honour the traditional route's 1,200th anniversary

The Shikoku district, home to the time-honoured pilgrimage to 88 Buddhist temples, has been alive with a great number of visitors in recent months. This year marks the 1,200th anniversary of the founding of the route was established in 815, presumably by Kobodaishi Kukai, founder of the Shingonshu sect.
Many pilgrims, young and old, choose to trek all the way or cover the whole route by tour bus, hoping to reflect on themselves.
“I come here because everything in my life has settled,” says a 64-year-old woman clad in white pilgrimage clothes, adding that she lives in Tokyo and has been walking alone for two months.
Ryozenji temple in Naruto is the first temple of the 88 temples on the pilgrimage route, and many people start their pilgrimage from there. 
Guide Shigeru Fujimoto, who often finds himself instructing young people how to chant a Buddhist sutra, runs a shop selling pilgrimage-related items in front of the temple. The number of people who visit the temple increased from the start of the new year, and sales of my shop have gone by 50 per cent. Some people are repeating the pilgrimage in this milestone year,” he says.
Many people visited the pilgrimage temples during the Golden Week, a collection of four national holidays during a seven-day period. The number of tourists who visited Tokushima Prefecture during the period was 59,301 a day on average, up by 7 per cent from last year. 
An official at the prefectural government's tourism policy division confirms that the numbers are up because of the 1,200th anniversary.”
The motivation of people who make a pilgrimage varies. Keiji Inoue, who runs a pilgrimage-related shop near Onzanji temple, the No. 18 temple, in Komatsushimae, says that many people who want to reset their lifestyle by reflecting on themselves. “Making a pilgrimage may give them a clue,” he adds.
To cash in on the boom, tour agencies have planned various pilgrimage tours. Hankyu Travel International has organised four Tokyo-based tours to visit each of the four prefectures in Shikoku separately. The first tour visits Tokushima Prefecture and starts at 49,990 yen (Bt16,000) yen for three days and two nights. Club Tourism International Inc has organised a tour for five days and four nights starting from the Kanto region, which includes a private room for individuals. It intends offering the tour on three separate occasions, and they will cost between 155,000 yen and 160,000 yen. Yomiuri Travel Service has a 14-day tour starting from Sendai, which visits 88 temples in Shikoku and Koyasan, the main temple of the Shingonshu sect, in Wakayama Prefecture. The tour costs between 320,000 yen and 350,000 yen. All of these tours visit pilgrimage temples by bus or taxi.
The pilgrimage boom has also seen a new demographic of pilgrims. In addition to the usual seniors, young women who like “power spots” such as temples have increased. Tokushima Prefecture is proposing tours for them that combine sightseeing and local foods. Some people travel alone to ponder their problems, and some travel with friends. Pilgrims meet strangers along the way, which may be another charm of the pilgrimage.
A white upper surplice-like garment, a kesa sash worn around the neck and a walking stick are recommended for the pilgrimage. In Inoue Shoten, a shop in Tokushima Prefecture, a white upper garment with sleeves is available at 2,500 yen, a sash goes for 1,500 yen and a walking stick is priced at 1,575 yen. Pilgrims are also advised to carry a rosary, candles and incense sticks. If people want to get a red stamp at temples, a special notebook for the stamps is also necessary. Amulets of different colours can be bought at the temples. Visitors write their names on the amulets and hand them in to the temple. White amulets are recommended for beginners. Various sets of items for the pilgrimage are also available at online stores.
A walking pilgrimage that does without transportation is still popular. If one walks the entire route of about 1,200 kilometres, it takes 40 days at 30km a day. It is monotonous and hard, and one might lose one's way sometimes. 
“However, if someone wearing the pilgrimage outfit loses the way, local people will show the way and some might even invite the person to stay at their house. The walking pilgrimage involves such contact with local people,” says Koichi Kagayama, a non-fiction writer whose works include “Ohenrosan” (Pilgrim).
“While making a pilgrimage, one's career or title are meaningless. Making a pilgrimage is having an experience of leaving one's current life and starting a new life. I recommend that a person who is going to make a pilgrimage start a journey after thanking people who deserve to be thanked, apologising to people who deserve an apology and expressing affection to those one likes or loves,” Kagayama says.