SHIKOKU, Japan - It is 4. a.m. Inside a tiny Japanese inn near rural Hirata, a white-haired Western gentleman slips quietly from his futon, folds the bedding carefully, lifts himself to his feet and shuffles across the tatami mat floor to the wash stand. Seven others begin to stir and soon they too are preparing themselves for the long, hard day ahead.
A breakfast of soup, raw egg over rice, fish, seaweed and tea is served by the inn's elderly proprietor and the eight travelers consume all that was laid before them. Then the six men and two women don short white robes, silk sashes and wide straw hats, and with walking staffs in hand, they file out into the misty pre-dawn morning and move down the lane toward the shadowy mountain range looming in the distance.
The white-haired man is Oliver Statler, author of the best seller "Japanese Inn" and other works on Japan. He and his student companions, dressed in the clothes of Japanese buddhist "henro" (or pilgrim), are beginning the last stretch of a substantial portion of the Shikoku pilgrimage.
For more than 1,000 years, countless Japanese henro have come to Shikoku to pray at the 88 Buddhist temples built along the 1,000 mile perimeter of this southern Japanese island a half day's train ride from Tokyo.
Seeking Healing Powers
Most were commoners. Some were the old or infirm who sought out the healing powers of the Compassionate Buddha and the priests who maintained his temples. Crutches and braces stacked near the glittering temple altars of lacquered wood and gold bear witness to the curative aspects of the pilgrimage.
Others among the thousands of men and women who walked all or part of the henro path each year, were drawn by the physical and mental challenges presented by the often grueling journey through Shikoku's mountainous countryside. The experience developed a participant's character and confidence in the same manner these qualities are fostered today among army recruits during basic training.
There were also those who endured the pilgrimage simply to give thanks for life's rewards. Prayers, money and gifts were offered at each temple to the Buddha, the temple's patron deity, and to Kobo Daishi, a very special personage revered throughout Japan.
Kobo Daishi transmitted Shingon Buddhism from China to Japan in the late eighth century and modified it to work in the Japanese context. This most famous native son of Shikoku is described by one contemporary scholar as "...one of the most colorful and charismatic figures in the religious history of Japan."
He is also greatly admired for his accomplishments as a linguist, painter, sculptor, calligrapher, a gifted poet and prose writer. And he is credited with initiating a number of ambitious engineering projects, some of which remain intact to the present day. He is the embodiment of all that is good - all that is Japanese.
Much legend surrounds this deeply religious figure. Kobo Daishi is said to have been the first henro to walk the path around Shikoku, establishing each of the 88 temples on sacred ground along the way. Over the centuries following his death in 835, pilgrims have insisted that Kobo Daishi, in disguise, still walks the henro path to lend assistance to pilgrims who waver from the trail. The staffs henro carry symbolize Kobo Daishi's support. Written in Sanskrit and Japanese on their handles is the inscription: "We two walk together."
To the side of each main temple is a smaller one dedicated solely to Kobo Daishi. Japanese often give more generously at this smaller edifice, demonstrating the strength of their affection for a uniquely Japanese Buddhist spiritual leader.
There are not many walking henro today. Long stretches of the henro path which wind through Shikoku's forested mountains and along its beautiful seacoast have been widened and paved. Now henro in private cars or on chartered buses speed by the very few walking pilgrims, but they no longer reap many of the rewards their ancestors once did from the experience.
"The pilgrimage is an ascetic experience," explains Oliver Statler.
"An ascetic experience is one of mental and physical challenge and these challenges are absent for the bus henro."
Mr. Statler came back to shikoku this year with his companions to cover the only 200 mile segment he had not walked previously. It was not a painless journey. Badly blistered and broken down feet, sore muscles and dehydration plagued the group for the entire two weeks needed to cover the distance between temples 33 and 40.
But what the ordeal took from the body it returned ten fold to the spirit. The shared hardship taught members of the group the value of team effort in meeting the mental and physical obstacles that lay in their path. The successful completion of each day, however tough the going, strengthened the group's resolve to push ahead the following morning. Morale seemed to improve even as the problems with blistered feet and heat rash became a serious hindrance to progress. The great sense of accomplishment and well-being felt by members of the group at journey's end gave them some small insight into the meaning of the pilgrimage for Japanese.
There were other rewards, Japanese from all walks of life offered material as well as moral support to the foreign pilgrims. Shop keepers often greeted the henro with gifts of ice-cream, cool drinks, watermelon and vegetables. A young bus driver gave 100 yen to each of the henro. A rural housewife gave each 500 yen. Both explained that their parents had received such aid years ago when they had walked the henro path. The foreigner's stereotype of the Japanese economic animal was shattered by Japanese warmth and generosity.
The last stretch of the Shikoku pilgrimage for Mr. Statler and his friends was to be a difficult one. By dawn of the last day, they reached the base of the mountain range they had to cross to reach Kanjisaiji, home to temple 40. A vegetable farmer, whose family worked the upper reaches of the valley where the old henro path began up the face of the mountain, pointed the way to the pilgrims. He warned them that the path was steep and easily lost in the undergrowth as it is not traveled frequently.
The farmer's warning proved justified. The narrow path steepened sharply as the group moved up the 2,000-foot slope and was soon lost in heavy underbrush. A boy in shorts and sandals appeared suddenly from nowhere and with his guidance the group pulled themselves inch by inch up the last 200 years of the mountain's near vertical face and again picked up the henro's ancient route along the mountain's ridge.
The young guide disappeared before the exhausted henro dropped their packs and broke out a snack of hard-boiled eggs and water, but shortly thereafter the vegetable farmer was seen coming along the path. The farmer had seen them struggling up the mountainside and had come to make certain of their safety. After thanking him for his concern, they asked about the boy who had helped them find their way. The farmer looked puzzled. He said he knew of no such boy living nearby and had not passed anyone on the path coming up the mountain.
The group fell silent. None believed they had really seen Kobo Daishi disguised as a boy, but the stories of how he had appeared through the centuries to give assistance to those lost on the henro path played on their minds for the rest of the day.