Ruth: I saw a t-shirt at a temple that simply said “Life is Henro,” and I am beginning to agree.
It’s hard not to compare our experiences on the various Camino routes with the Shikoku 88 temple Henro. Visiting Japan, even without doing the Henro, is so different.
For me, one of the things I appreciate so much about this route is that the Henro is truely for everyone. Whether you are a ninety year old struggling on and off your tour bus, or a walker striding down the trail, you are a Henro. There is no hierarchy or judgement about how you visit the 88 temples, just that you visit them.
As someone who had to give up walking Camino routes in 2011 and switch to a bike, I struggled with the attitudes and judgements I encountered on the Camino. I tried my best to be a “good” cyclist on the route, but was reminded frequently that I was not a real pilgrim. I gave up on Spanish municipal albergues altogether because of posted signs that said cyclists could not check in until 6:00. These distinctions made me grieve the loss of of the ability to walk even more, because I was clearly not a real member of the club.
The Shikoku route is much more physically challenging than the Camino if you want to walk every single step like Gord does. The Shikoku route, however, is well set up to be done in a variety of different ways. Some foreign pilgrims come here after doing the Camino to find that in order to complete the route in their available time they must do a combination of walking and public transport. The beauty of this is that anyone can do the 88 Temple route in whatever way they can. Most walkers choose to walk a certain distance every day and then use a train or bus for certain sections.
At the beginning of our trip, peak season for walking, there were only perhaps 20 walkers on the route per day. Only around three were foreigners. Walkers and foreigners are far outnumbered by Japanese Henro travelling by bus or car. Many of these henro will offer rides to walkers as a form of osettai. So even if you intend to walk every step you might find yourself being stuffed into someone’s car with little chance for refusal. These moments are some of the best cultural exchanges on the trip.
The largest downside to the Shikoku 88 Temple route is the cost. This is the most expensive trip Gordon and I have taken. We are spending an average of $100 each per day. The standard form of accommodation is a minshuku or ryokan, which typically cost $80 to $90 dollars per person, including dinner and breakfast. There are people on the route camping, or seeking out the huts and free shelters, but this is a difficult route to do without spending significantly more money than on the Camino. Wild camping, while not legal, is tolerated and often quite comfortable with the availability of public washrooms.
A Buddhist pilgrimage is also different than a Catholic one.
While I am not a member of either religion, there is something about the quiet non judgemental Buddhist philosophy that I love. I may not have found Nirvana but I do believe the simple words: “Life is Henro.”
Temple 75 Zentsuji
Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu-Chuo.