The train trip from Tokyo to Tokushima City, on the island of Shikoku, is a trip back in time.
Starting with the ultra-fast Nozomi bullet train (Shinkansen), we are transported at dizzying speed from Tokyo to Ayagawa. There, we hop onto the slower but still comfortable Marine Liner train to Takamatsu, on Shikoku. The next train is a single-car commuter that runs ever so slowly but exactly on schedule, on the Kotoku Line to Bando. Here we disembark. It is early afternoon and, after 6 1/2 hours, our world has changed from the hyper-speed of Tokyo to the sleepiness of rural Japan.
A quick walk leads us to, Ryōjeji, the “first” of the 88 temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage (Henro Mishi).
The trains have also transported us to a land of traditions and rituals dating back many centuries.
The first of these is attiring ourselves as a Henro, the official name for pilgrims embarking on the 88-temple trek. At the Temple 1 shop, we each buy a white vest (hakui) and sedge hat (sugegasa). We also purchase name slips and a stamp-book. More about these later. Other pilgrims go much further, purchasing a stole (wagesa), rosary (juzu) and wooden walking staff (kongōzue). We opted to use our lighter, telescoping carbon fibre walking sticks. Many also buy shoulder bags (zudabukuro) to carry incense sticks, candles, a lighter, as well as their names slips and stamp-book. And maybe a small lunch.
We now have our pilgrim outfit and accessories, passed down through 1200 years. There are also rituals for visiting all the temples, which we try out for the first time at Temple 1.
At the main gate, we bow gently to ward off evil spirits. Passing through the gate, we head for the wash basin to purify ourselves by washing our hands and taking a small sip of the cool, clear water dripping into the elaborate basin (usually through a dragon's mouth). Next comes the bell tower, where we swing a large log at a brass gong. Its deep resonant tones signify our arrival. We move to the Main Hall, usually along the main axis of the front gate. Incense and candles are lit. A large cord suspended in front of the main hall is swung to ring a bell above, announcing to the deity that we have come to pray. Name slips are placed in a chrome box and donations thrown into an offertory box. Most serious pilgrims recite various sutras.
The entire process is repeated at a side temple known as the Daishi Hall, devoted to the founder of the Henro pilgrimage, Kōbō Daishi.
The serious stuff is now done. So it's off to the stamp office to get our 'stamp' for visiting the temple. It costs 300 yen (about $3.30 Canadian), which adds up quickly if you plan to get all 88 temples stamps. But it's worth it. A temple scribe crafts a beautiful page in the stamp-book with elaborate red stamps overlaid by sinuous black calligraphy. A work of art.
Finally, there is the exit from the temple complex. Leaving through the front gateway, we turn to face the main hall and bow for a last time.
We will repeat this time-honoured process again and again in the coming weeks.
The next day, our walking journey begins with an 18-kilometer traverse that includes six more temples. It's a hot and humid day. The day seems long. Thankfully, at a restaurant along the way, the trek is broken with a refreshing lunch of chilled udon noodles and a large Asahi beer. And it's relieved again with an occasional chilled canned drink from the ever-present roadside vending machines. Then, at day's end, a visit to an onsen, Japan's upscale contribution to public spa bathing. Finally, there's an elaborate dinner of tempura and fresh seafood.
The journey has begun.