I landed in Osaka a few days ago. It’s been about three months since we finished our SE Asia run and since then I’ve been pinballing around greater Asia, including two and a half weeks in Taiwan, another month back in Thailand and then a month in South Korea. These jaunts had been unplanned and capricious but moving northeast into Japan has been in the works for some time now, since before we started the SE Asia run, but I’ve just been delaying until the weather is about right because I’m planning to spend a great deal of time outdoors just south of here, on the island of Shikoku.
Shikoku is the smallest of the four “home islands” of Japan. That’s almost the total extent of my knowledge on the subject, except for the reason I’m going there – roughly running the perimeter of Shikoku is a trail that connects 88 Buddhist temples and depending on the exact route taken extends for at least 1,150 km and upwards of 1,500 km. My vague and tentative plan is to walk this trail over the following eight weeks.
This plan dates back in some form or another to 2012, after we finished the Mongol Rally. After a couple weeks in Mongolia I dropped down into the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China where I’d intended to spend an indefinite amount of time but due to unforeseen circumstances had to leave the country after a month. I hightailed it to my nearby stomping grounds of old, Seoul, where I rented a room and more or less got wasted for a month. Shaking off my liquor funk I jumped on a boat to Kyushu, the southern-most home island of Japan, bought a new tent and sleeping bag and bungee cords to hold my hobo bindle all together and walked out of Fukuoka and into the rural parts of the island.
I spent the next three weeks hoofing aimlessly around Kyushu, usually camping rough but occasionally freshening up in onsens and hostels here and there. The friendliness of the people I met was remarkable, many days I met more deer than people but when I did cross paths with others they’d often try to give me food or money or a ride to the next town even though they spoke little or no English and I spoke (and continue to speak) no Japanese. I’d been to Japan previously but only visited large cities, which are great in their own way but not at all the same as the rural areas, and when I flew out of Narita Airport I started trying to figure out an excuse to come back.
Japan has numerous long-distance walking trails but the Shikoku pilgrimage has more information in English than the others, and it’s also further south and presumably warmer earlier in the season than the others, so I started looking into it. The selling point for me was when I read about the “nokyo-cho”, a book with 88 empty pages that you buy when you start and get a page stamped and signed with calligraphy when you reach each temple. My inner nerd really appreciates the idea of collecting stamps as I go.
Besides an excuse to visit rural Japan, sleep outdoors and get a bit of exercise, I’m also doing this to see how I jive with long-distance walking. I’ve walked fairly significant distances before – in Kyushu, in Patagonia, and elsewhere – but nothing on the 1000+ km scale. I’m curious to see whether it suits me… I may just get bored after a hundred kilometres or x number of temples and quit, but if I don’t it opens up the possibility of a lot of other long-distance walking trips around the world.
Tomorrow I’m getting a train out of Osaka then a bus to the city of Tokushima, in the northeast of Shikoku. I’ll spend a day there taking care of a few last odds and ends and then set out to the first temple.