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Travel Books - Statler's Japanese Pilgrimage

For more than one thousand years, pilgrims have been walking clockwise around the Japanese island of Shikoku seeking the spirit of the Buddhist priest Kukai, known to posterity as Kobo Daishi. The trail is 1,150 kilometres long, often through rugged mountainous terrain, and takes around two months to complete. Legend has it that the first pilgrim was Emon Saburo, a miserly landowner who drove Kobo Daishi from his gate, and then, repenting of this rash act, pursued him around the island seeking his forgiveness. Whether the story is true or not, pilgrims have been following Kobo Daishi’s footsteps ever since, stopping along the way to pray at the 88 temples along the route.

These days most pilgrims drive rather than walk, but in 1968 an American scholar, Oliver Statler, decided to walk the route. He returned the following year to live on the island, in the town of Matsuyama, in order to further study the pilgrimage; and, in 1971, he walked the trail again. The result was Japanese Pilgrimage (William Morrow, 1983). Readers expecting a straightforward travel narrative will be disappointed. The first two-thirds of the book are background.

The first section is a digressive biography of Kobo Daishi, who is the focus of the pilgrimage. Born to an important Shikoku family in 774, he left his studies, effectively renouncing his inheritance as a member of the Japanese ruling class, to become a wandering ascetic. His Buddhist studies took him eventually to China, where he studied esoteric Buddhism under the tutelage of a master. Returning to Japan, he founded the Shingon school of Buddhism, and became an important scholar, educator, artist, social worker and engineer. He is the best-known and most loved religious figure in Japan. His title, Kobo Daishi, means “the great teacher who spreads the Buddha’s teachings,” and was bestowed upon him posthumously. His legend is associated with many places in Shikoku—Temple 75 is his birthplace; Temple 24 is constructed near the sea cave where he gained enlightenment—and pilgrims believe that in walking the pilgrimage route they are following not only in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi, but that Kobo Daishi walks beside them. The motto of the pilgrim is: “We two—pilgrims together.”

I loved Japanese Pilgrimage, but others wanting a more traditional travel narrative may want to try Don Weiss’s Echoes of Incense. But, as I’ve said, I loved this book, and I have added the pilgrimage around Shikoku to my bucket list.

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