The Shikoku Pilgrimage, My Time on JET, and Uncanny Similarities
The circle has connected. I’ve finally completed it. After 1,200 kilometers, a book containing $264 worth of ink, and three years, I have finished the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. I am not the first, and certainly not the last, but I can now say that I’m part of the club.
It’s very strange to think it’s over. The pilgrimage was always something that sort of hung over me; A conversation point friends and colleagues who would ask about it before long vacations. Now that feeling of “unfinished business” is gone, which in my lifetime having such business is still rare.
As I show my completion certificates to my friends, students, and coworkers, I’m happy they express their amazement and congratulations. They do seem genuinely happy for me. But when people ask “how was it?” I find myself at a loss. How can I really encapsulate everything that I experienced? Do those pieces of paper really project everything I learned along the way? Is there really any way I can truly express those lessons? In the end will anyone really care?
It was through this thinking I found an uncanny parallel between the pilgrimage, and my three years here on JET.
The First Dojo of Awakening
As I go back and think about what my life was like when I first got here, along with what the trail was like those first days, the similarities become clearer.
At the beginning, everything felt so grand and new that I had an unquenched want, if not need, to record everything. Alongside that thirst was more ambition, more eagerness to share those sights and experiences. My original posts about the Tokushima trail took months to write! But that was largely due to the feeling that I needed to write , that much. Some of the grand projects I thought would be staples here would fizzle out, but it was better that I tried than not attempting it at all.
In fact a large amount of what I have posted on this blog is from my early days when those feelings were at their peak. Perhaps a part of that was the journalistic flame that burned brightly after graduating. It’s not that the fire has totally faded now, but certainly things did change.
A lot of those “firsts” seemed so monumental that it swayed my emotions to the extremes: the first tough mountain I had to climb really did seem impossible, my first bad day at work stung more than the others. Little did I know just how regular the road ahead, both on JET and Shikoku, would become, for better or worse.
The Second Dojo of Discipline
As both my life and the trail continued, the day-to-day became more routine. I no longer struggled with the rituals; They largely became second nature. Of course, staying on a schedule is absolutely ok: Humans tend to stick to and like their routines. However you slowly lose your peripheral vision the longer you’re in a tunnel.
The temples started to form together, and at times it was hard to think what stood out between those in the 20s to the 50s. I really had to sit down and think of specific facets to differentiate them long after I visited. Having the modern technology to record the places I went to certainly helped, but even then sometimes a photo can only do so much.
Off the trail, single syllable months seemed to change to those ending with “er” faster than before. Weekends and holidays were no longer long awaited breaks, but instances that had me questioning how it was that season again. Days between seeing some people became weeks, regrettably sometimes months. I made friends, and suddenly they were making their preparations to leave.
However this middle part perhaps wasn’t just my perception time was going by faster, but also that I myself was going at an increased pace. While driving through Kochi, I spent very little time at the various temples, as I had a more rigid schedule and longer distance to cover. I have a harder time remembering Kochi specifically because I spent so little time at the locations. I found myself always rushing, and in retrospect not enjoying it as much as I could have. Perhaps off the island as well, I was so preoccupied with trying to fit in events, and “checking off things” from my personal checklist that I never really stopped to take a breather. Sure, I may not have seen some people for extended periods of time, but maybe that was because it was me rushing by them so fast.
The Third Dojo of Englightenment
Before you know it, you’re already heading towards the end. On the trail, it barely occurred to me that once I was in Matsuyama I was more than halfway through the pilgrimage. Realizing my place, and attempting to be more in the “now,” I tried to soak in the sights a little more, stay up a little bit longer, add in a few more sentences into the conversation even if I knew I would never see the person again.
Although I should have been more serious earlier, I actually put effort into my rituals: Rather than thinking I would do it, I started meditating, practicing mindfulness and actually implementing it. I tried to eat healthier. I called home a little more often. Knowing how much I didn’t like rushing previously made me try to watch out for moments where I was going by too fast. Of course it’s hard to implement that 100% of the time, but there’s a reason why it’s called practicing mindfulness.
I also began to put more effort into the classroom, making sure I didn’t become the constant phase two, burned out tape recorder. I started more personal projects with the students, and tried to make myself more approachable. In this time I also took to studying Japanese more seriously than I did before, which I think helped on both ends. I was making sure I wasn’t just having the day-to-day conversations, but elaborating on my end and asking more questions. I also made sure that when I spoke to other pilgrims on the trail the topic wasn’t just the one-way conversation about me that it usually became.
The Fourth Dojo of Nirvana
The strongest parallel I’ve seen between my JET time and the Shikoku pilgrimage is that the last quarter is easily the shortest. How I’m writing this post both after actually completing the pilgrimage and with less than two months left on my final contract is perplexing to me.
However I can now only write this part from one perspective: what it’s like to finish the trail.
I found the four to five hour walks became not something that took too much of my time, but ample time to reflect, and think to myself. I could read my map book better, and actually was able to give advice to some other pilgrims walking. I knew just how much distance I could cover, how much to budget, and how to properly do everything.
It is rather unfortunate how we figure out these things right towards the end.
In the last 5 kilometers to Temple 88, I honestly had a very, very hard time. Not only do you have to climb a mountain and then descend, but my knee and Achilles tendon that had been bothering me throughout the trip were at their peak pain. To be completely honest the last 4 km or so going downhill was one of the longest and roughest parts of the trail for me in part because of the pain. But I knew I was close and that I was going to finish, hell or high water.
Then I made it. I visited the temple, gave my donations, got the final stamp, got my completion certificate, and left. I was officially done.
As I left the temple, there was no chorus, no commencement saluting my complete journey. The temple staff who signed my book and wrote my certificate barely said anything to me. It was just me, myself, and I, knowing how far I had come, knowing what I had learned, what I had seen.
I can imagine this is largely what will happen on the last days of my job as well: No real fanfare, but rather something that could be another day in the office. Soon I will be just another face that came through the halls. In those moments after leaving, I will probably think “I wonder if they remember me.” I wonder if my name will be remembered with smiles, frowns, or squints.
Lately I’m thinking a lot about what it’s going to be like to go back home. The thing many JET alumni say is that once you get home, people may be interested in your journey at first, but will very quickly grow uninterested. Of course they have their own lives to worry about and stories they want to share as well. People warn about becoming the person who very quickly adds “Well, in Japan…” to the beginning of every sentence. I don’t know how well I’ve done with holding back on my Shikoku talk to my friends, but I’m using it as practice for what will happen once I go back to America.
Regardless what happens, I’m trying to keep those lessons I learned both on the trail and on JET close to my heart. It’s impossible to walk away from either experience without leaving some mark on you, physical or otherwise. It’s incredibly scary to not know what’s going to happen next, but I need to keep remembering that it’s the start of something new, rather than the end of something entirely.
The road is going to be long, but you can do it. Make sure to stretch. Don’t shy to be more giving. Remember those in the same way you want to be remembered. Don’t take yourself too seriously. The rainy days suck, but there are many sunny ones ahead. Don’t be afraid to poop in the woods. It’s damn expensive, but it’s worth it. Always be grateful. It’ll end before you know it. There’s nothing else like it.
That’s what I would tell any prospective pilgrim, any future JET, as well as my future self.