Japan's post-war generation seeks solace in pilgrimage

As solemn bells ring across the temple, Buddhist priest Kensho Oyamada asks Japanese retirees to give away, for the moment at least, what they have spent their lives earning.

He tells them to take off their watches, throw away their business cards and forget about their job titles—abandoning the values and status symbols by which they judge themselves in modern Japan.

“I would like people who have shouldered companies or families to recognise that it is fine to spend time as a pilgrim,” he said.

Oyamada is the chief priest at Senyuji, one of 88 temples that dot Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.

The 1 400km pilgrimage through the mountainous south-western island to visit all 88 temples is a 1 200-year-old tradition established by the legendary monk Kobo Daishi.

The temples now expect a renaissance of sorts as the baby-boomer generation, which watched Japan emerge from the ashes of World War II into the world’s second-largest economy, heads towards retirement next year and yearns for spirituality.

“I am sure that there will be more and more people who make the pilgrimage as the baby boomers will retire soon,” said Michio Tokuzen (68), a pilgrim at the Senyuji temple in the Ehime prefecture.

Tokuzen, who lives in Tokyo though he is originally from Shikoku, said he grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of the pilgrimage.

“I decided to walk as now I have time after my retirement and I’m still in good shape,” Tokuzen said.

“Eventually I won’t be able to walk after I lose shape,” he said.

He said he was inspired by Naoto Kan, a senior leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Kan went on two reflective pilgrimages to the Shikoku temples after resigning in a 2004 scandal for failing to pay into a government pension plan.

About 150 000 pilgrims—known in Japanese as henro—visited at least some of the 88 holy temples last year, according to the temples’ liaison office.

Eiji Okino (47) offered incense as he prayed at the 1 200-year-old Zentsuji temple in Kagawa prefecture.

“There is something that attracts me. I need something for my foundation, something to restrain myself,” he said.

Wearing the white cotton jacket and pointed straw hat of a pilgrim, Okino hiked to the temple using a wooden staff with bells to support himself.

Okino, who lives in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, has been coming periodically to Shikoku since the 1980s in his bid to pray at each of the temples and become a full-fledged henro.

Sometimes he has come alone, at other times with his mother, or with his wife on weekends.

“I would like to return as long as my physical strength continues.
Hopefully I can take more time once I retire,” he said.

Coming back for more

There is no one way to go on the pilgrimage. Many visitors choose to criss-cross Shikoku instead of heading to temples sequentially.

Most pilgrims stay at simple lodges set up for them, although some temples offer lodging for a full experience that includes waking at the crack of dawn to chant mantras, and sharing the monks’ vegetarian food.

The most important part, however, is supposed to be the introspection while walking the route.

While some pilgrims come by car or bus, 5 000 of them last year completed the entire journey by foot, according to the liaison office.

People in Shikoku, which was monk Kobo Daishi’s birthplace, have long been known to welcome visitors on the generations-old pilgrimage.

With the advent of modern technology, the hospitality has taken a new turn. Japan’s mobile phone leader, NTT DoCoMo, has set up 120 shops geared for pilgrims where they can sit down, ask directions—and recharge their phones.

Interest in the Shikoku temples soared after public broadcaster NHK ran a series on the pilgrimage geared toward older travellers.

Kensuke Miyauchi, the programme producer, said the print-run for the book accompanying the 13-part television series quickly sold out and was doubled to 100 000.

“We found that there were many people considering making a pilgrimage in Shikoku after retirement,” Miyauchi said. “I think the pilgrimage is a good opportunity for those who retire to look closely at their lives.”

Retirees often feel a need to go in a completely different direction after spending years in the rigid hierarchy of their workplaces, said Masako Amano, a sociologist at Tokyo Jogakkan College.

“Many of them get involved in something in nature, such as farming or horticulture, or they start social activities. The pilgrimage in Shikoku is an option for them to find themselves as they walk on the long route,” Amano said.

“I think choosing to spend time as a pilgrim is special compared with the other possibilities. It has deep meaning because it comes from an old tradition,” she said.

Oyamada, the priest at Senyuji temple, said that many people return to Shikoku for pilgrimages after being deeply moved by their first visit.

“It is extremely difficult to attain complete spiritual enlightenment because people can easily have earthly thoughts while walking. Even so, gradually, they become fulfilled,” he said.—AFP