In Japan, they call it the hachi jū hachi, the 88 Temple Pilgrimage. It is their most venerated, holy route. The number 88 represents the 88 sacred temples that constitute the pilgrimage. You must visit each temple for the journey to be complete. Scattered temples course a circumference of Shikoku, one of the four islands that constitute Japan’s mainland; the other three are Kyushu, Honshu, and Hokkaido. The journey is circular rather than linear, as with many of its European counterparts, an important difference that demonstrates a fundamental contrast between Western and Eastern philosophy.
Often, in the West, life is viewed as a climb; scaling the corporate ladder, moving up the grades from reception to University, aspiring upward towards heaven at the end of life. The East adopts a more cyclical model. A belief in rebirth allows the view of continuation. Never ending upward spirals, if you live positively, never ending downward spirals, if your life choices have been unkind. This endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, transcended only by enlightenment is the holy grail of many Eastern religions, spiritual systems and philosophies. Walking the 88 is considered one such method of attaining this exalted state. It is no coincidence then that the hachi jū hachi has 88 temples. Turn this number on its side and it is the symbol of eternity and cyclical continuation. A reminder of what it is the pilgrim is hoping to transcend.
Walking it feels like an eternity; 1,400 kilometers of gruelling terrain, flats and farmlands, mountains and hills, bamboo groves and copses, concrete jungles and soulless cities, temples and sacred sites. It is heaven and earth in one journey. All of the thoughts, emotion, and circumstance that constitute the rich macrocosm of a full and lengthy life, are experienced in microcosm while on pilgrimage; as with the mayfly that lives its entire life from birth, maturation and death in the space of a single day. Undistracted by usual routine, we can concentrate on our attitudes to this life lived in concentrate. These insights alone can be enlightening, if not in the religious sense.
If walking, the advice is to allow at least 40-50 days. Nowadays, tourists bus around it in a weekend; ‘selfies’ at each temple proving to friends and family that they ‘did the hachi ju hachi’, another box to tick on a lifetime of to-dos. But these modern methods fail to plumb the depths of a gruelling self-reflecting journey.
Life lessons, it seems, are only revealed to faithful pilgrims, not tourists. Not as some gift from a God on high for penance paid while in hiking shoes, but because lessons only show themselves amidst energy spent and experience collected. Visiting St Paul's on a day trip, for example, would not be the same as arriving with the sole purpose of praying for the returning health of a friend. How can it be any other way?
Pilgrimage is more than starting and finishing. It is an over-used, but nevertheless correct cliché, which says that the journey is more important than the destination. To whizz around the 88 on a coach is to miss the power, the wonder and the lessons of living the journey as monks of old: walk the whole way, offer prayers at each temple, sleep where sleep takes you and learn what you learn. I was always going to walk the hachi jū hachi in this manner, in the ways of past traditional spiritual seekers. It was doing it this way, the ways of old, that made it life changing; and it was life changing because it was so wonderfully life affirming.
In the town of Hiwasa stands Yakuōji, Temple 21. From the balcony of its single storey pagoda you look out across the Pacific Ocean from where every year, between May and August, Sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs. I had eaten very little for the last three days on the road and had managed to save enough pocket change to pay for a night’s rest in the town’s YMCA. I stood alone inside the reception area staring across to a wall daubed with the most intense artwork I had ever seen. The artist had used thick reds, and blacks in the calligraphy style of Sumi-e, the beautiful art of Japanese ink painting. The form was not traditional; it had an arty, modern and strangely occult feel to it. I admired it, but it unsettled me as I untied and took off my walking shoes. ‘You like?' came a sudden voice at my shoulder that startled me into a pounding heart and slightly squeaky voice. From where in the shadows had this guy appeared? He was the YMCA manager. A tubby little Japanese in an 80s style shell suit and of indeterminate age, as many Japanese are.
He told me a few important things:
1. What time I had to check out.
2. That I would need to kick the door of the washing machine, gently, on closing before it would whirr into action.
3. That I was the rebirth of Kōbō Daishi (the founding saint of the 88 temple pilgrimage), and that I was to complete the whole journey on foot despite any and all hardship I would encounter. I was then to share all that had I learned with the rest of the world, for the happiness and betterment of all.
Erm, alright then, I was just looking for a room for the night…