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The “henro”

It’s interesting how some things just pop up when you’ve been thinking about them. For a few months now I’ve been quite interested in this pilgrimage called the “henro” (遍路) which spans 88 temples and over 1200km in the Shikoku area of Japan. I first heard about this pilgrimage as early as last year during one of my lunch time conversations with my former principal, who was as wise as he was detail oriented. (Extremely.) I don’t remember why the conversation turned to this particular subject, but we spent the remainder of lunch talking about the henro and what it was all about. He lectured me on Kubo Daishi, formerly named Kukai, the story behind why the pilgrimage got started, and many many other facts about the pilgrimage. Here’s the story of the pilgrimage, courtesy of wikipedia, which sums it up far more succinct than I ever could:

A mendicant (beggar) visited the house of Emon Saburō, richest man in Shikoku, seeking alms. Emon refused, broke the pilgrim’s begging bowl, and chased him away. After his eight sons fell ill and died, Emon realized that Kūkai was the affronted pilgrim and set out to seek his forgiveness. Having travelled round the island twenty times clockwise in vain, he undertook the route in reverse. Finally he collapsed exhausted and on his deathbed Kūkai appeared to grant absolution. Emon requested that he be reborn into a wealthy family in Matsuyama so that he might restore a neglected temple. Dying, he clasped a stone. Shortly afterwards a baby was born with his hand grasped tightly around a stone inscribed ‘Emon Saburō is reborn’. When the baby grew up, he used his wealth to restore the Ishite-ji (石手寺?) or ‘stone-hand temple’, in which there is an inscription of 1567 recounting the tale.”

Just as a point of reference, the pilgrimage I mentioned earlier is 1200km long. Emon Saburo traveled this 20 times, a grand total of 24,000km. Impressive! Of course this is myth, not fact, in case you were in doubt. Since that fascinating talk I’ve always kind of kept the henro in the back of my mind and continued along my merry way.

Then a few months ago I read a book which made mention of the henro, which re-ignited that little spark. Finally, during my bike trip down the Shimanami Kaido (see blog post below) I biked right along part of the pilgrimage and saw many “o-henro san” as they are called, people who are walking the pilgrimage. They’re easily noticed by their white shirts, pointy hats and walking sticks. Walking the henro can take from 30-60 days and as with much in Japan is mostly done by the elderly, who have lots of time on their hands! Traditionally the pilgrimage was of course done by foot, but with the advent of technology there are people doing it through various modes of transportation. Bicycle, taxi, bus…in true Japanese fashion it’s not so much the outcome that’s the issue, just how you’re dressed while you do it. Japan loves its uniforms, so if you go golfing you wear golfing clothes. If you go play baseball you put on your baseball pants and jersey, your cleats and special baseball socks. If you go do the henro (which regardless of how it sounds is not a cool new dance,) regardless of whether you walk, peddle, paddle or cruise, you wear the white shirt, the pointy hat and the walking stick. It’s really the sense of belonging to a group that’s the point here, I think.

Anyway, I’m getting side tracked. While biking down the Shikoku coast I saw lots of henro-san’s walking along, and I suddenly felt that “fire in my belly,” just like Sarah Palin. Except I don’t want to run for President, or ruin America. I want to do that pilgrimage, one way or another. I don’t think I could really respect myself if I took a taxi or bus, which leaves the bicycle or my feet. Either one is a daunting challenge and there’s really only one time I can complete it, which would be at the end of my contract. This is one of those things that I’d really like to accomplish, mainly because it’s not one of those “oh, everyone does that when going to Japan” things like going in a hot spring, or even “climbing Mt. Fuji.” Whether I will have the chance to actually do so is another question all together! Only time will tell…

Here's a map of the whole trip.

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Categories: Pre-Japan
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