Wild About… Walking Pilgrimages

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Wild About… Walking Pilgrimages

˜ Aren’t we all ‘Wild About…‘ something? ˜

What? Yes, you read that title correct. I am WILD about walking pilgrimages, and specifically the 1,200 kilometer 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage of Shikoku Japan. When most people visit Japan they are usually looking for things to do in Tokyo, or day trips to the amazing temples of Kyoto. They might even take a side trip to rural areas in Hokkaido, or the UNESCO heritage site of the Kii Mountains.

Todd-Wassel-hiking-Shikoku-Pilgrimage

Todd Wassel hiking the Shikoku Pilgrimage

Those are all worthy places to visit, but for me, the little visited Island of Shikoku, and its over 1,000 year old pilgrimage is the place to not only get to know Japan but to understand who you are and what you want out of life.

Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, and possibly the least visited. For over a thousand years, henro (pilgrims) have visited the 88 Buddhist temples that ring the island, traveling in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Born on Shikoku in 774 AD, he wandered the island performing acetic rituals, leaving a steady stream of miracles in his wake.

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A Lone Henro on Shikoku Pilgrimage

Each year only one percent of pilgrims (out of an estimated 100,000-150,000 henro who perform the route by bus, car, train or bicycle) actually walk the 1,200 kilometer route. They hike footpaths that plunge deep into isolated mountains, through villages dominated by evergreens and rice paddies, and along a weather beaten coastline assaulted by frequent typhoons. Dressed in road worn white, they peer out from under conical straw hats that protect from sun and rain. Bell topped staffs steady their tired bodies as they transform Shikoku into a constantly moving human prayer wheel.

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A Henro by Bicycle on Shikoku Pilgrimage

I first walked the Shikoku pilgrimage in 1998, equipped with very little Japanese, and no English resources to get me from temple to temple. I walked the pilgrimage again in 2005 armed with better Japanese, but still trusting the Japanese guide book and my sense of adventure and curiosity to explore what lies around the next corner.

The pilgrimage takes 1 ½-2 months to walk and is both physically and mentally demanding. I camped outside most nights and slept in free rooms and I still burned a $2,000 whole in my pocket over 30 days.

So why am I wild about the Shikoku pilgrimage? Well, it is rare in our hyper connected and ever shrinking world to find true adventure. It’s rare to be able to drop away from societal norms and structures for 1-2 months and let all the noise fall away. When you take the time, and you have the silence to listen, it’s amazing what you can hear. For me, I found my purpose in life, what I wanted to be when I grew up.

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Todd Wassel in a hidden Temple Gotto on Shikoku

Walking every day, feeling the pain of each rock, and the smell of each tree is something very few people get to experience these days. The Japanese have a saying, “continuation is power.” Nowhere else does this become more apparent than on the Shikoku Pilgrimage where you don’t find the value of the pain, the struggle, or the emerging pattern until you have continued far enough to be sad it is almost over.

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Shinto Shirne in Shikoku, Japan

Japan has many hidden secrets that most people will never stay long enough to discover. But if you are looking to uncover the secret of the Japanese countryside, the value of continuation, and the power of a Buddhist pilgrimage that accommodates all religions and methods, then Shikoku is the place for you.

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Blog4JapanImportant Notice: Todd is actively engaged in helping raise money for the survivors of the Japan Tsunami, after having identified and selected a few trusted local Japanese organizations and NGOs. Please, spend a few minutes to visit Todd’s Wanderings page and find out how you can help.

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Todd Wassel is a writer and conflict resolution specialist. He lived in Japan for over 5 years and his wife’s family is from Tokyo. You can follow more of Todd’s adventures and lifestyle advice at Todd’s Wanderings or follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@toddwassel).

He’s working on his first book about walking the 1,200 kilometer Japanese Shikoku Pilgrimage, twice.

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10 Comments
  • Agata
    Posted at 23:08h, 27 November Reply

    Wow! This is a great post! I am interested in walking pilgrimages as well. In fact, two months ago I walked over 300 km along the famous path called The Camino or, in English, The Way of St. James. This pilgrimage route is more than 1000 years old and it is still walked by about 200,000 people every year. This was an amazing experience for me and I would recommend it to everyone who wish to know more about him/herself. Great post, thank you!

  • Jason
    Posted at 07:56h, 04 June Reply

    An amazing experience Todd, and to do it a couple of times, a big ‘ups’ to you mate. Also I commend you on what you are doing with the ‘Blog for Japan’.

  • Tijmen
    Posted at 09:52h, 27 May Reply

    Never knew they had a 1200 km trail in Japan, I never walked for more then 10 days in a row. But I love the idea of just disconnecting for the normal live, and just walk and camp for a while. I’m plannning on doing the pacific crest trail in the US next year, its a bit longer, but should also be an interesting experience 🙂

  • Turner Wright
    Posted at 16:37h, 24 May Reply

    I was able to do Tokushima-ken in a week, but I still have yet to complete the circle.

  • Andy
    Posted at 04:22h, 24 May Reply

    Wonderful story.. I have read many anecdotes/travelogues about Japan but I’ve never read about pilgrimages. It’s another look of Japan not often seen.

  • Todd Wassel
    Posted at 09:21h, 23 May Reply

    Glad you like the article Jeff. And thanks to Simon for having me on her wonderful blog! I can’t say more great things about the Pilgrimage and its effect on my life and outlook.

    • waitinginthedark
      Posted at 11:35h, 23 May Reply

      I agree with Jeff, you wrote a fascinating story and I am so glad that you accepted to share it on my blog. The idea of traveling can be interpreted in so many different ways, and a walking pilgrimage is surely one of the strongest experience one can make. Because I believe that it far more difficult to have a ‘journey’ in our inner self…
      Thank you again, Todd.

  • Jeff Titelius
    Posted at 01:12h, 23 May Reply

    Fascinating insights into the place so seldom experienced by the masses. You are a true adventurer my friend and thank you for opening up a new door in this vast world we live and inviting us in for awhile!

  • David
    Posted at 22:41h, 22 May Reply

    You’re a fast walker. I was told it takes about three months to walk the pilgrimage. 🙂

    • Todd Wassel
      Posted at 16:39h, 23 May Reply

      It can take up to 3 months! I walked it in 28 days the first time and then 31 days the second time. Although the second time I cheated a bit and rode a bike for 5 days due to an injury. If I were to do it again, I would plan on 40-45 days at an easy pace.

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