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PILGRIMS HAVE MORE FUN: Four Days of Excess-- Err, HOLINESS.

Oh yes, this blog was a thing I was doing. Hello, blog. I am back to write you. Let's pretend I wasn't ignoring your calls for six months?

Aww, you're so forgiving. That's why I love you.

So, SHIKOKU PILGRIMAGE. The big finish to our time together as a group before our two-week travel period. Never mind that none of us could stand each other anymore and wanted to be running free and alone through the streets of Tokyo laughing maniacally, offensively drinking bottles of water WHILE WALKING IN THE STREET, staring down the shocked Japanese citizens, daring anyone we met to tell us off (for the record, no Japanese people in Kyoto actually seemed to care if we drank or ate while walking, but our program director insisted that they secretly thought we were appalling heathens).

First, though, let's get seriously religious all up in this shit. Shikoku Pilgrimage, yeah. We can do this, right? We can be super holy and generate merit and things, yeah?

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Let's find out.

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Shikoku is an island in Japan, but it is also the name of a pilgrimage route of 88 temples located on the island. This route was first traveled by Kūkai, also known as Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Pilgrims respectfully refer to him as Odaishisama, and all pilgrims are treated with reverence not only for their ability to generate merit, but also because any one of them could be Odaishisama in disguise. Despite the fact that he's been walking this route since the 700s, Odaishisama never tires of making Shikoku Pilgrimage. A pilgrim's staff usually bears the legend "Going Together With Odaishisama," to signify that on pilgrimage, one never walks alone -- Kōbō Daishi is always there too, even if you can't see him. People make the pilgrimage for different reasons -- tourism, asceticism, to generate merit, to be healed of a sickness or problem, or sometimes even to atone for terrible deeds (I heard of two retired businessmen, friends who agreed that when they retired they would make the pilgrimage together to atone for the unscrupulous things they had done for their jobs). For those who visit all 88 temples (we visited only 15), it may take months. It can be done the traditional way (walking), or by car (seeing as we had limited time, we did both, but there was plenty of walking even for us). Pilgrims are doted upon by lay people, because showing them kindness and providing them with food, shelter, and other amenities means you get a share of the merit produced by their religious asceticism.

So. Pilgrimage. Apparently it involves people stuffing you with food all day. I guess all the walking plus being a major Field of Merit requires a constant influx of potential energy (read: homemade mochi).

DAY ONE

We arrived in Matsuyama City, Shikoku Island at 9:30 the night of the 26th, and proceeded straight from the bus to THE CRAZIEST HOTEL ROOM EVER. Wait WHY. Aren't pilgrims, you know, supposed to be practicing a form of asceticism? Why is this room so big and splendid, with matcha-colored tatami and a STAGE? and wait what's behind the decadent curtain on the stage hang on that almost looks like...

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...a karaoke machine. From the nineties. With cassettes.

We couldn't make it work. So we just ofuro'd (the baths were also decadent and splendid) and flopped straight into bed.

DAY TWO

The next morning we left at 7:50 wearing our white pilgrim shirts (donated by Aimee-Sensei's former-famous-baseball-star friend), 10,000-yen straw hats, wa-gesa (symbolic priestly mantles), juzu (prayer beads), and carrying jingly walking staffs (okay, so I don't know the technical term for the jingly walking staffs).

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I had expected that we were going to be walking at times with other pilgrims, but what actually ended up happening was that we had a permanent, photo-taking, tittering entourage of Japanese people we had never met and were not introduced to. As we later discovered, they were our sponsors (friends of Aimee-Sensei's who had helped pay for our trip, our food, and our religious paraphernalia). This would have been nice to know at the outset, but instead I spent the whole first day wondering why the paparazzi were after us and could we get a restraining order before they shoved us into an unmarked white van and introduced us to our new home in their basement. As we were later informed, however, our fan club included several former professional baseball players and a retired bank president. I gathered that this is what wealthy retired people do in Japan: pay for American students to go on pilgrimage. Laugh at their terrible Japanese. Take selfies with Americans in pilgrim outfits. Collect merit. Repeat.

Honestly, we must have been hilarious. I want to be a retired Japanese bank president. It's the only way you can buy entertainment like that. Really though, I'm not actually that cynical; they were REALLY nice people. But they were getting way too much of a kick out of our pilgrimy shenanigans, and by "kick" I do not mean "spiritual fulfillment."

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The temples were all disgustingly gorgeous, as I had come to expect out of all things manufactured in pre-occupation Japan. The first one was 1400 years old, one of the very first Buddhist temples in Japan. It was so old that when it was built, JAPANESE BUDDHIST MONKS DIDN'T EXIST YET. So the first abbot was Chinese. The architecture was truly unique -- a blend of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian. The current abbot performed a special ceremony for us to mark the start of our pilgrimage. He chanted the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra) like a pro, or possibly like Superman -- all by himself, apparently without drawing a breath, while keeping time on a gigantic drum whose vibration shook our ribs. It reminded me of taiko drumming.

We visited one more temple on the mainland, then took an incredibly weird-looking but very efficient boat to Shima Island, where we visited three more temples and trekked around the island, stopping to chant the Hannya Shingyo to every single Jizo statue we saw along the way (and believe me, there were many).

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First, though -- can you guess? -- we were fed lunch. Several very smiley old ladies had set up a picnic lunch outside with all sorts of local food, including rice with octopus tentacles in it and a really strange orange peel jelly. It was all really good, though. Well... maybe not the jelly, on second thought. But as Aimee-Sensei never stopped reminding us, it was our "obligation" to eat absolutely everything we were given. "No choice, we have to say 'thank you so much!'" She said this repeatedly and in a very dire tone, as if we were undergoing some terrible task for the sake of humankind, against our fervent wishes. We weren't. We were pretty okay swallowing our giant boxes of obligation. (Obligation tastes like mochi and tentacles!) Speaking of mochi, the old ladies kept handing us orange-flavored mochi patties that we rolled around globs of bean paste and devoured without mercy. I will never love another mochi as I loved that mochi.

If you're wondering why all the oranges (mikan), I guess I forgot to mention -- Shima Island was COVERED IN ORANGES. Almost literally. In Matsuyama in general, orange trees freakin' EVERYWHERE. And if ever there was an orange better than a Matsuyama orange, it was beaten to death then set on fire and kicked into the ocean by the Matsuyama oranges. And now they reign supreme. Forever. Also, you can buy a huge bag of them for 100 yen (about $1.50 at that time).

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The last temple we visited on the island came as a shock to me because of its familiarity. I think I had actually seen a picture of it the previous semester in my religion class, The Power of Images. The steps leading up to this temple certainly were a powerful image: a long, steep set of stairs with a railing down the middle, into which was set a series of big, Tibetan-style prayer wheels. As you walked up, you could brush your hand along the railing and set them spinning, twirling the sutras inside and generating merit.

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Now I come to a certain point in my story, the point where the hairline cracks in the delicate egg of my sanity were given a righteous smack with the spoon of the-time-Aimee-Sensei-decided-to-show-us-off-to-hundreds-of-old-people-without-telling-us-what-was-going-on.

It went like this:

We returned to mainland Matsuyama, got into a bus, and were driven to a large convention center. Aimee-Sensei told us in extremely vague terms that we were there to watch some kind of "traditional musical instruments performance by some old people."

That is not what happened.

We walked in, were given more food (soup with lots of lovely bits, no I do not know what they were), and Aimee-Sensei left us in the lobby for a while. We then had to finish our soup very quickly after Aimee-Sensei came rushing down the stairs fretting that "they are waiting for us!" (Apparently, there had been some kind of mix-up and they had been sitting and waiting for us patiently for THREE HOURS). We were then thrust headfirst and blinking into a large room.

I noticed several things in quick succession.

First, we were on a stage. Second, there were many chairs facing the stage. Third, these chairs were filled with several hundred Japanese people all over the age of sixty or seventy. Fourth, they were looking at us like we were supposed to be doing something.

Stage. We were on a stage dressed as pilgrims in front of hundreds of old people and they were NOT playing any instruments in fact it looked rather more like WE were the ones expected to play the instruments except there were no instruments. We all stared at each other for about thirty seconds. It is possibly worth noting at this point that there was not a single spark of panic in me. I was by now completely desensitized to not having a clue what was happening. It briefly entered my head that maybe we should try tap dancing. Then Aimee-Sensei grabbed a microphone. She made a long speech in very fast Japanese, eliciting lots of laughs from the audience. Then she had us introduce ourselves and invited the audience to ask us questions, each of which was answered by one of us. The answerer was defined as whoever Aimee-Sensei threw the microphone at. A white-haired gentleman stood up and asked me why I wanted to do Shikoku Pilgrimage. I told him "Watashi ga Odaishisama aitai" (I want to meet Kōbō Daishi). He seemed to find this answer entirely satisfactory. Then Aimee-Sensei said lots more words, the few of which I could understand gave me the impression she was making fun of how much we eat and how silly we are in general, and we were rushed out. It was one of the most WTF experiences of my life. Objectively, I know this. And I accepted it as readily as I'd accept one more giant piece of orange-flavored mochi when I was already sure I was about to founder and die of overeating.

I believe this incident beautifully sums up my entire experience in this Japan program with a single elegant phrase: "What the FUCK just happened to me and why am I okay with it?"

Then our sponsors took us to dinner at an Italian buffet full of desserts, and we ate EVEN MORE FOOD and marveled at the ability of obligation to expand one's stomach. Sam and I observed to each other that all our should-be ascetic practices seemed to end in being colossally spoiled and laughing our asses off with snarky Japanese people.

DAY THREE

It was a crazy day, we were all exhausted, and there was much sleeping during our brief stints on the bus. Every time we sat down in a seat Sam fell asleep on me. We went to three temples in the morning. One was super gorgeous; the grounds were covered in trees and there were lots of Jizo statues nestled in their shade. I have realized that a disproportionate amount of my photos are of Jizo statues, and am forced to claim for myself the title of "Jizo Connoisseur Extraordinaire." You might think it un-Japanese of me to use so much French. You would be wrong. You would however be right in thinking it un-Japanese to be utterly devoid of humility. Touché, you.

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In the afternoon, the bus took us to a mountainous area and we had a giant amazing soba lunch at a middle-of-nowhere restaurant with a view of mountains and fall leaves.

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At a small but expensive pottery store nearby, the retired baseball star found out each and every one of our zodiac signs and proceeded to buy us all expensive porcelain keychains with our zodiac animals on them. He made the clerk go into the back to find more rams because almost everybody was a ram. We did not know what to do with our faces. They were very much the color red. Then we walked a long, steep path up the mountain to Iwayoji Temple, the 44th on the pilgrimage route. The way was steep and slippery, and kept changing at every turn -- sometimes it was a narrow set of slick steps hemmed in by trees; sometimes a broadish open road flanked by little stands selling food and tea and souvenirs. Before the last flight of steps up to the temple, there was an incredible lineup up stone Jizos, arranged like packed bleachers at a massive sports game. I've never seen so many in one place before.

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Up the last flight of steps to a temple literally built into the mountainside. Towering above the building was a sheer rock face dotted with natural caves that altogether resembled a gigantic face -- that of Fudo Myo-o, the wrathful Shingon deity to whom the temple was devoted. Tiny, motley, and weather-worn statues of Fudo Myo-o made of wood and stone were scattered around the grounds, propped up on ledges and decaying on the ground. One of the volunteers came around and handed us all tiny flashlights, then led us into a dark cave in the rock. Inside, worshipers chanted the Hannya Shingyo to hundreds more statues and dolls of the deity by candlelight.

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This temple was unquestionably my favorite. The sense of awe was palpable, especially inside the cave. We also met another English-speaking pilgrim there, an Austrian man who was making the pilgrimage by himself. That settled it for me: I'm coming back someday, and making the whole pilgrimage on foot.

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Oh and also we found a crab on our way down. MOUNTAIN CRAB? Why not.

Afterward, we were taken to a place that apparently functioned as an all-in-one ofuro, vegetable market, and venue for private parties (what?). Our sponsors had set up (surprise surprise) an amazing banquet with sashimi and strange Japanese/American picnic-type food (corn dog things and french fries and various tempura items were much in evidence on the same platters).

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THEN THEY WHIPPED OUT THE KARAOKE MACHINE.

Oh yes they did.

And the retired baseball star sang a soppy old Japanese love song to Aimee-Sensei, who became enraged and beat on his leg (the only part she could reach without getting up) because the song was apparently about a dead woman. Then she shoved Ben and Jake up to the machine multiple times, insisting they sing The Beatles (the only "American" music that every Japanese person will always force you to sing). Then I looked in the karaoke book and discovered they had an actually quite decent selection of English songs, including The Killers, so I forced Addie and Jake to come up with me and sing "When You Were Young." We were a hit.

DAY FOUR

On the last day, we only went to three temples, the last of which was overwhelmingly incredible. It's where most pilgrims start and/or end their journey, and I can see why. It's the most un-Japanese temple I've ever seen in Japan. The minute we stepped onto its grounds I felt like I had been sneakily teleported to a Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage site in India. The place was huge, smokey, market-like, and covered in colorful prayer flags and paintings of Kukai or wrathful deities.

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We were crammed into a small, dark hallway jammed with variously-sized wooden statues and paintings of buddhas and deities. We were handed sets of plastic juzu (prayer beads). This was to be part of our pilgrimage closing ceremony, but as usual, nothing was explained to us before it just HAPPENED to us (which was an interesting addition to the experience). And we were taken two by two behind some shoji screens, which blocked the others from seeing the ceremony. I could hear chanting as we stood in the semidarkness, packed in close with strangers, staring at the statues, some of which were beautiful and some grotesque (read: equally beautiful, but more interesting). The hallway was also jam-packed with fake flowers, tucked into every available receptacle and into the hands of statues. It took me a while to notice they were fake, actually, and the only reason I did notice was because I realized the smell of that many flowers in such a small space should have been overpowering.

Then all at once I was called up to a small, cluttered altar, had a really strange crown-like paper hat put on my head, told to kneel, and to repeat some mantras (one of which I recognized as Fudo Myo-o's, the same mantra I had screamed over and over again under the waterfall at Mount Omine). They gave me a vajra to hold to my heart, which was attached by a long string to the Buddha statue on the altar. They told me it represented the Buddha mind and to reflect on all the things I had done over the past few days to hurt people or make them uncomfortable. And that's just what I did. They dipped a long stick in a vessel of water (later explained by Aimee-Sensei to be "Buddha's pure water"?) and dripped it onto my head. They they tossed us out to wander around the temple grounds on our own for a while. It wasn't until I stepped out into the sunlight that I finally felt the cold water trickle through my hair to roll down my face like a tear.

Outside I used my little mucking-about time to buy an e-ma (letter to the kami) and dedicate it to my parents. It was mostly them I had been thinking about. How much I owed them.

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That night Aimee-Sensei took us to (apparently) the most famous ramen shop in Japan for dinner. Interestingly enough, the most famous ramen shop in Japan does not have a name. She also informed us that the mayor of Matsuyama had bought us all expensive Daruma folk dolls. I don't THINK we ever met him, unless he was secretly part of our giggling entourage. What the fuck, Japanese people. I do not know how to handle your magnanimity. I'm surprised I made it out of the country without being killed under a rolling avalanche of food and presents.

I need a bumper sticker that says "Pilgrims have more fun."
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Posted by Niadra 19:49 Archived in Japan Tagged mountains trees food leaves japan temple religion india fall island buddha sacred buddhist ancient tibet pilgrimage foliage journey crab prayer pilgrims shinto spiritual oranges deities shikoku sponsor matsuyama deity bodhisattva e-ma shingon esoteric fudo myo-o kobo daishi shima mikan merit mochi wrathful kukai founder

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