This is the archive of a digital diary that became a Wordpress blog back in 2015. The Shikoku Pilgrimage diary covers my 40-day mostly walking trip around Japan’s forth largest island. It has been stripped down to its text. I will also prepare a PDF / eBook version that has some of the photos I included in my original diary.
At the time, I took notes en route and formalised them into entries that are about 2000 words long each. The first version was intended to help other foreign pilgrims who may also have struggled to find information at the time and included resources such as glossaries and extensive links.
A basic copy-paste of the original resource pages remains on this mini-site. They include budget lodgings in bilingual English and Japanese, a glossary of terms, a budget breakdown, and a map for the temple coordinates. I do not think they are as necessary as they used to be, when I had gone through Shikoku without a data SIM card and without nearly as many Japan travel apps and resources.
This version has been lightly edited from its original. At the time, the posts were experimental and I had been focused on capturing my state of mind because the experience was formative and still guides how I move about the world. Reading these entries five years later, I recognise those thoughts even though I have moved on from being the person who had them.
I no longer have the same compulsion to explain my writing. One day, I will sit down to write a more readable version.
In the meantime, I hope this is either helpful or entertaining for you.
Athena 2020 November
How It Started
Notes from 2016
I fell into the Shikoku pilgrimage on an arranged coincidence.
I discovered the pilgrimage shortly after leaving a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to Hong Kong’s first maker space, a project that I believed in so strongly it justified risking staying in a city I love but have deep ambivalence for. It was an opportunity that was ridiculous to pass up on, but after trying for a few months, it was not going to work. The maker space now has a team, bigger location, and more programs.
By spring in 2015, I could travel again. I hashed out my priorities. Whatever I was going to occupy myself doing had to fulfill the following:
- Be in Japan (summer is nice, and I have an affinity for the place)
- Be somewhere rural (wanted to be in nature, not cities)
- Have an active lifestyle (to burn my daily excess energy)
- While remaining super cheap (because I had no income)
They were simple and open points, but surprisingly difficult for traditional travel styles (even backpacking) to fulfill.
In a blitz of research, I discovered a hike to a Mounnt Koya (Koya-San) that would take a day. Then, I learned it was part of a pilgrimage network known as the Kumano Kodo, which is well-kept in various parts and promised to be wonderfully wild in others. Google’s search results of moss-covered stairs were exciting, perhaps too adventurous. At the time, I had solid shoestring backpacker credentials by sleeping in airports and train stations and a deep appreciation for wilderness having grown up with black bears for neighbours. I had never done multi-day hikes, much less camped alone.
I kept searching. Could there be another walking route that skirted close to civilisation and its comforts? That rabbit hole emerged onto Japan’s fourth largest island of Shikoku, which is traced by a pilgrimage centuries old – the Ohenro – dotted with ‘henro huts’ to shelter in, and packed with anecdotes of local generosity.
Despite the immediate logistical challenges I imagined, my heart was already nudging, ‘Go.’
I did it because it seemed like a good challenge at the time.
I had enough basic Japanese to get by, and this was a chance to improve it. Japan’s about the safest country to travel alone in. I liked the simple premise of the pilgrimage: hit 88 temples, however you want, whenever you want.
It was only near the end of my pilgrimage that someone told me Shikoku calls to the pilgrims who walk it. When it had been just pixels on a screen outlining a butterfly island, the call had been simple: Just try. Simple, inviting, forgiving.
My insecurities could span several pages. Could I walk for a day? Could I walk for a month? Could I survive monsoon, and then a hellish summer? Why should I be walking during the worst season, the one all veterans recommend against? Would I lose my way? Was it really safe for a woman? Can I sleep out in the open? In parking lots? How much weight could I carry? Imagining the potential challenges, I realised how little I knew about myself. Those questions seemed like invitations to find out. My heart was halfway out the door. Let’s go for a walk.
My head raised an eyebrow. You’re biting off more than you can chew.
The heart muses, Probably.
The head says, We have no idea what we’re doing.
The heart chirps, That’s okay. That’s what you’re here for.
I was adrift, bobbing along with nothing on the horizon. My ambitious brain instinctively wanted to swim for shore, anywhere, and get on with Life. It would have drowned trying. My heart is used to riding waves and weathering storms, floating back to the surface, a little more battered but still buoyant.
That’s how I ended up in Shikoku, walking, for who knows what, to God knows where. In retrospect, I appreciate something that I hadn’t thought much of at the time: setting off without mission or purpose.
My heart and brain agreed on the bottom line: Shikoku wouldn’t kill me. What would this island make of me?