A veteran of the well-trodden Camino de Santiago (The Way of the Stars) pilgrimage route, Canadian journalist Sibley explores the spirit of religious journey on a two-month trek around Japan's Shikoku island. This traditional route, the "Henro Michi," links 88 temples associated with Kobo Daishi (Kukai), founder of the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism. Sibley describes the 870-mile walk as often brutally difficult, yet as he encountered stunning Pacific vistas, had his "nokyocho" (book) stamped at each temple, and accepted offerings ("settai") from residents, he found himself slipping into "pilgrim mind." Early in the trek Sibley unexpectedly acquires two walking companions who provide both assistance and complications, prompting some ambivalence on the part of the author, who prizes solitude. Sibley's acute psychological observations are interwoven not only with vivid details but historical and cultural contexts of the ancient Shikoku pilgrimage. Throughout his journey, Sibley asks himself-and the travelers he meets-why walking the path is important. While he finds no one answer, this accomplished narrative demonstrates that the impulse to seek inner change through a physical journey, if mysterious, is enduring.
Sibley shows vividly how this extraordinary pilgrimage can grip even the most agnostic participant. The book says a lot about how deep-binding friendships can be made on the road, and how important the sense of karma can be for those who have walked--and suffered--together. It also shows how pilgrimages are never over, but are often just the start of something else. (Ian Reader, Lancaster University, author of Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku)
In this wise and compassionate book, Sibley vividly captures life on the Buddhist pilgrim's road of Shikoku, Japan. As we walk beside him through these pages, we hear of the origins of the sacred route, its history, and its rituals. More important, though, Sibley's trials and triumphs, his sorrows and joys, with those of his fellow travelers met on the journey, teach us volumes about how to care for ourselves and others as we sojourn through life. (Hank Glassman, Haverford College, author of The Face of Jizō: Image and Cult in Medieval Japanese Buddhism)
Sibley's acute psychological observations are interwoven not only with vivid details but historical and cultural contexts of the ancient Shikoku pilgrimage. Throughout his journey, Sibley asks himself—and the travelers he meets—why walking the path is important. While he finds no one answer, this accomplished narrative demonstrates that the impulse to seek inner change through a physical journey, if mysterious, is enduring. (Publishers Weekly)
Among the most charming aspects of Japanese culture are the many dimensions brought to it by a rich and diverse Buddhist tradition. And among the most impressive manifestations of that tradition are the hundreds of temples found throughout the Japanese landscape. One hundred and fiftytwo of these temples are in fact listed by the national government as "national treasures".
Among the most revered of the various teachers in Japan’s long experience with Buddhism, dating from the sixth century of the Common Era, is Kukai (774835), known posthumously as Kobo Daishi. Kukai is the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan in the early ninth century. Because of Kukai’s birth in and long association with the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, a pilgrimage to various temples in Shikoku developed over the centuries which is today called most often the "Shikoku Pilgrimage," or "the 88 Temple Pilgrimage".
Each year thousands of pilgrims, called henro, walk, bike, bus, or drive the 1400 kilometer route and visit some or all of the temples. In The Way of the 88 Temples: Journeys on the Shikoku Pilgrimage, Robert C. Sibley, Canadian journalist and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Carleton University, takes the reader on that route in splendid detail.
His first chapter is called simply "Bells", and we are introduced to the various rituals and vocabulary associated with a typical visit to one of the temples. We are told that the Shikoku pilgrimage is probably the "best known" of the hundreds of pilgrimage routes in Japan and one that is attempted each year by about 150,000 henro. The author contrasts his experience with the Shikoku temples with his previous visits to famous shrines (Shinto) and temples (Buddhism) in places like Kyoto and Nara by noting that the latter seemed like empty shells or "tourist sites," mere "forms without substance". At the Shikoku temples: "The spirit of Kobo Daishi, it seemed, laid a claim on my psyche" . He found himself more open to a "hitherto unsuspected spiritual sensibility".
The author’s writing style throughout is vivid, charming, even enchanting. One is quite literally on a virtual journey. And the journey is not always one of pleasure. At times, especially in the early going, we feel the author’s pain when he trembles from exhaustion at the steep climbs and long trails, or throughout the journey as he battles chronic feet blisters. We visit five temples and traverse fifteen kilometers the first day but, unlike the author, do not get soaked from the day’s rains. By the end of the first chapter we have been to twelve temples over a forty kilometer trail and have interacted with several colorful characters, both Japanese and foreign. Most of all we have experienced, with the author, a fleeting sense that "some epiphany, some brief transcendence, [is] at hand" .
In keeping to a long tradition in Japanese culture where brevity and simplicity is the norm, such as in haiku poetry or in what is suggested by aesthetic concepts like wabi/sabi, or mono no aware, the author titles his chapters with single words – let’s call them "symbols," each highly "transparent": "Companions", "Blessings", "Spirits", "Dreams", "Enchantments", and "Blossoms" mark our trail. Among our companions are Shuji Niwano and his son Jun, Shuji, a retired telecommunications salesman from Tokyo, whom the author had met on the first day of the journey, Goki Sayama, a retired banker from Sendai, Takashi Murakoshi, a businessman from Hokkaido, and Tomatsu Hasegawa, an engineer for Toyota. Later in the journey, we meet Yukuo Tanaka, a retired engineer from Tokyo and, for about ten kilometers, a young woman named Atsuko Yasuda and her two children, a boy of eight and a girl of five, from just south of Tokyo on the Honshu coast. Also, along the way, we encounter numerous "locals" who spoil us with settai, gifts of food, shelter, clothing, money, in the spirit of Kobo Daishi.
Along the way we learn too, often from companions and locals, more of the history of the pilgrimage, of Kukai, of the specific temples, of local legends, stories, and history. We reflect, with the author and his companions, on the meaning of pilgrimages and on the similarities of the Shikoku pilgrimage to Irish Catholics going to Croagh Patrick, Greek Orthodox pilgrims to Tinos, Christians in general to Rome and Jerusalem, Muslims on the hajj to Mecca and Medina, and Hindus in the waters of the Ganges. There are sporadic references along the trail also to Western writers such as Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, Søren Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, and Donald Ritchie. The great haiku master Matsuo Basho is also frequently referenced for his most famous journey on the "narrow road to the deep north" (okuno hosomichi) in the seventeenth century. A particularly delightful feature involving the structure of the work is that each chapter begins with a haiku poem composed by Shuji Niwano while on the trial, originally composed in Japanese and then translated for the English reader.
Among the "blessings" on the journey, thanks to his companion Hasegawasan, is a new pair of shoes for the author, a new companion, Harumi Nakatsuji, a nurse from near Osaka, and, most importantly, realizations regarding "the synchronicity of a great many events". We, with the author, find ourselves developing a "pilgrim" mind. As for "spirits", we learn of the spirit of Shikoku’s Ryoma Sakamoto, one of the heroes of the Choshu/Satsuma rebellion leading to the Meiji Restoration in 1868. We learn more of Basho’s haunting haiku lyrics, we learn of how poetry and pilgrimage go together, of the importance of the Heart Sutra’s 260 characters, from the Buddhist nun Misiun, and of the importance of Shinto to an understanding of Japanese Buddhism.
Sibley’s pilgrimage, and ours, is becoming "crowded with spirits, both real and not so real, living and dead: Shuji and Jun, Jizo, Basho, Misiun, and the occasional kami". "Dreams" takes us from the fiftyfirst to the fiftythird temple and into fantasies whereby, with the author, we imagine becoming a "perpetual pilgrim". We imagine that it would be easy to let our "Western rationalist heritage slipslide away like a loose sheet of shale breaking from a mountainside". Among our "enchantments" are learning of the hatsu miyamairi or first shrine visit of Shinto ritual, which could be compared to a Christian baptism, of how Japanese traditionally are "born Shinto and die Buddhist", of how Japanese "eat first with their eyes", of gaining an appreciation of the Japanese concept of yoin ", moments of intense awareness" such as "a parent’s wordless caress of a sleeping child", and of the zen concept of makyo, a sort of preface to enlightenment where the mind is released from its "obsession with logical argument and instrumental reason".
The chapter entitled "Blossoms" takes us to the last few temples on the journey, and mostly in good weather. On the last leg of the trail the author is moved to write his first poem in thirty years in response to his experience of yoin amidst raining cherry blossoms. Finally, we arrive at Okuboji, the Temple of Completion, after fiftyfour days. But the journey was not over for the author, nor for the serious reader. At Narita Airport, upon departure from Japan, Shuji tells the author, and us, to "remain henro in your heart".
Tragically, we learn of Shuji and his son’s fate at the end of our journey, the details of which are best left to the reader to learn for himself. In a brief Epilogue, we journey once again with the author, this time to the Olympic peninsula in Washington State. There the author reminisces over his Shikoku pilgrimage with thoughts of his friends and the possible reasons for their fate.
In sum, Sibley’s book of journeys is a beautifully crafted travelogue that takes the reader both on and beyond a journey to the eightyeight Shikoku temples; hence the subtitle’s reference to "journeys". And the "beyond" refers both to a larger Japanese experience over centuries and to mystic insights relating to the human journey of all. It is an excellent introduction to Japanese culture, society, and history by an outsider. In this respect it is reminiscent of Alan Booth’s Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan and Bruce Feiler’s Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan.
Sibley also takes us briefly to temples in Kyoto, to the Peace Park in Hiroshima, and Shukkeien Park, to Ueno Park in Tokyo, and to Mt. Koyasan just south of Osaka. The Way of the 88 Temples: Journeys on the Shikoku Pilgrimage is highly recommended to anyone interested in Japan, Japanese culture, poetry, and all things spiritual, especially regarding the meaning of a pilgrimage.
Timothy Hoye is Professor of Government at Texas Woman's University. He has also taught in Japan and in the United Kingdom. His PhD in political science is from Duke University. He is the author of Japanese Politics: Fixed and Floating Worlds.