For a five day break in Japan, Heather and I decided that we wanted to go to Shikoku, an island that is a site of a famous 88-temple pilgrimage. We had made some overly ambitious plans to hike to the highest mountain on the island and sleep in different huts along the way and spend the last night in the city going to hot springs. This would have been a great plan if the world’s biggest typhoon of the year wasn’t headed straight towards Shikoku. We found out about the storm and changed out plans to spend two nights in a city and eat food and go to hot springs. When the storm passed, we were hoping to be able to get outside and spend at least one night outdoors.
Our first couple of nights went well and were uneventful due to the storm. When it passed, we decided to go to temples 60-64 because Heather had done some research and was specifically interested in those places. The train dropped us off in the middle of nowhere outside of the city Saijo and we had no idea where to go or what to do next. We had a couple poorly detailed maps that gave us some kind of idea, but otherwise we were lost. When we pulled out our Japanese Rail Pass to get off the train, a young man wearing hiking clothes and a small backpack exclaimed, “Japan Rail Pass? I want one!” This man’s name was Luke and he is a biology grad student from Korea studying in the US. He had just completed the entire pilgrimage and was now coming back to his favorite temples.
He had 12 hours to kill before a festival that he wanted to attend started, so he offered to take us to the temples and guide us throughout the day. Luke was amazing. He had the best advice, great maps and gear, a good sense of humor, and most importantly he could put up with our nonsense. At the end of the day, we found ourselves in a truck stop eating ramen about to fall asleep and it was only 5:30 pm. Luke said that he could take us to a park to sleep in. When we seemed hesitant, Luke reassured us that he slept in parks plenty of times during his month long pilgrimage. By 7 pm, we were in our sleeping bags borrowed from my host family lying on a baseball field next to a cemetery in an unknown town watching the sunset. By 8, we were all asleep, and when I woke up at 11 to use to bathroom, Luke was gone.
By 9 o’clock the next morning, Heather and I once again found ourselves lost and confused in a convenience store off the main road. We knew we were near the pilgrimage trail but we couldn’t quite figure it out. We saw two men who were in their 70s wearing all white with backpacks and buying snacks and after asking them for directions, Heather and I were once again recipients of kindness and generosity from strangers. The men told us they were going to the same temple and they offered to guide us up the trail. On the hike up to the temple, the men kept shouting “strong legs!” to Heather and me in reference to our ability to hike quickly uphill with giant backpacks on. When we got to the temple, we shared some lunch and said goodbye when, for the third time in two days, strangers helped guide us.
A man and his father lived in the area and sometimes hiked in the mountains around the city and on that particular day they chose to come to temple 60. When we told them we were going to the train station to make it to another city on the other side of the island, they quickly offered to drive us to the train. On the drive over, we stopped at different temples and different viewpoints. They even made us get out of the car and walk along a parade that was happening on the street. Later that week when Heather and I were back in class and recounting our stories and praising all of our saviors, Professor Benard looked at me and said that they were all sent there by Kobo Daishi, the creator of the pilgrimage, to guide us and help us along the pilgrimage. Even if they weren’t sent there for us and it was just a mere coincidence, our pilgrimage experience would not have been possible without the help from strangers and the spirit of the pilgrimage, and for that I am grateful.