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IHCSA Café Vol.31



Japan’s Prayer: Part 1

Pilgrimage Experience in Tokushima Prefecture

The Shikoku Pilgrimage around 88 temples in the region where the famous monk Kukai (774?835), also known as Kobo Daishi, did his practice many centuries ago, has the meaning of both a journey of belief and, among young people, a journey of initiation into adulthood. In recent years many people have come to make the pilgrimage by bus or car, but the walking pilgrimage, similar to the original practice conducted by trainee monks and ascetics, remains popular among energetic retirees and young people. The walking pilgrimage also attracts foreign travelers, who see it as a relatively cheap and good way to have a deep cultural experience.

Kukai and the Shikoku Pilgrimage

Kukai was born in 774, and when he was young he studied at a university in the capital, in preparation for a career as a court bureaucrat. Kukai grew tired of studying, however, and at the age of 19 he began practicing to become a monk in the mountains of Shikoku. Subsequently he entered the monkhood, and in 804 he crossed over to Tang China as a student monk on a diplomatic mission. Kukai returned to Japan two years later, having studied esoteric Buddhism, civil engineering technology, medicine, and other subjects. In 816 he initiated the construction of a monastic complex on Mount Koya. After Kukai’s death, his disciples traced his footsteps and began a pilgrimage that was the prototype for the Shikoku Pilgrimage. In the Edo period (1603?1868), the Shikoku Pilgrimage became popular among ordinary people as well as monks.

Dress and Manners

Beginning at Ryozenji in Tokushima Prefecture, the first temple and starting point for the Shikoku Pilgrimage, I experienced the walking pilgrimage. First of all, I went to a pilgrimage equipment store in front of the temple to procure the necessary things. The cartoon illustrates the full gear of a pilgrim, but as the photos show, actually people are free to go as they please.

     The basic sequence and manners for worshipping at a temple are as follows: (1) At the temple gate, put your hands together and bow. (2) At the temple washstand, purify your hands and mouth. (3) At temples that permit it, strike the bell in the belfry. (4) At the Hondo (main hall), submit a card with your name, date, address, and so on written on it, offer a candle, incense stick, and money, and read a sutra. (5) At the Daishido (hall with a statue of Kukai), follow the same procedure as (4). (6) At the Nokyosho (sutra office), receive a stamp as evidence of your visit. (7) At the temple gate, turn back to face the temple, put your hands together, and bow.

     Temples along the Shikoku Pilgrimage do not question a person’s religion and do not force you to accept the Kukai faith. Even if you are not a follower of the Shingon sect, and even if you are not Japanese, you can freely experience the pilgrimage and come face to face with yourself in the process.

Enjoying the Individual Temples and Pilgrimage Roads
One of the pleasures of the Shikoku Pilgrimage is that each temple has its own unique personality. The colors and shapes of the temple gates and main halls are different, but that is not all. Some temples have original gardens, or attractive surrounding scenery, or abundant types and numbers of Buddhist statues. Your interest will be piqued all the time.

     Today, as the transport network has developed, most of the roads along the pilgrimage route are ordinary roads. Nevertheless, you will pass some old-fashioned pilgrimage paths as well. These are

narrow paths where people used to walk across fields. When you walk along these paths, you feel a link with Kukai and others who treaded this way in the past, as well as the people walking now in front of and behind you.

     Another surprising thing along the pilgrimage roads and at the temples is the hospitality that local people show to pilgrims. While researching for this article, I met people who walked for several kilometers with me between temples, showing me the way and directing me to places. And in the precincts of temples, people would give me handmade souvenirs. In this day and age, when human relations have become so weak, it was a rare experience indeed. At first I was a little confused, not understanding the sense of distance in human relations. But thinking about it afterward, it was perhaps the most memorable experience.

Reasons for Making the Pilgrimage: Memory of the Deceased and Initiation
At the lodging of the 6th temple, Anrakuji, I spoke with the chief priest, Shuho Hatakeda.

Q: What is the main reason why people make the pilgrimage?

A: The most common purpose is to pray for the souls of family members. People make the pilgrimage in memory of deceased loved ones, such as parents, a spouse, or a child. There are also people who go around the temples to pray for recovery from illness or something. Completion of the pilgrimage to all 88 temples is called kechigan [fulfillment of the pilgrimage].

Q: Young people seem to see it as a journey of self-discovery.

A: Kukai was 19 years of age when he first began practice in Shikoku and went walking. It was a journey of self-discovery for him as well. So the Shikoku Pilgrimage and the initiation of young people into adulthood go very well together.

Q: The Shikoku Pilgrimage is not necessarily religious. There is a strong tourist aspect as well, isn’t there?

A: Japanese Buddhism has a very tolerant religious view. It developed by adding Buddhist philosophy to primitive nature worship. So from a tourist perspective, it’s fine if people just feel lighter or better after the pilgrimage. But please do not forget that at the time of Kukai and other ascetics, it was an extremely harsh practice indeed. The pilgrimage roads were steep, and there was no food. The hospitality toward pilgrims arose out of sympathy for people who were making this tough journey.

Q: Do many foreigners make the pilgrimage?

A: Many foreigners, especially from Europe and North America, make the walking pilgrimage because they have a deep interest in Japanese culture. Rather unusually, the other day a group of Russians stayed here, and we had a discussion for about two hours after dinner. They said that in Russia at the moment there is a yearning for a return to natural religion and a lot of interest in the Japanese religious view.

All Kinds of People Walking
I walked in the reverse direction from the 17th temple, Idoji, to the 13th temple, Dainichiji, and on the way I encountered all kinds of people.

     Shinsho Hirano, from the Shingon sect Daikokuji temple, had walked all the way from Kagoshima Prefecture---a real trainee monk! “I walked 65 kilometers a day,” he said, “so it didn’t take that long.” The usual traveling distance for walking pilgrims is 30 kilometers a day, so he was going at more than double that speed. And after the 1,200-km Shikoku Pilgrimage, he said, he was going to walk back to Kyushu!

     Shiro Sakata from Hyogo Prefecture explained that he was doing the walking pilgrimage to commemorate his retirement and in memory of his deceased wife. His fresh smiling face was very impressive.

     Shio Nakajima from Fukuoka Prefecture was 26 years of age. He had quit his job in a restaurant, where he had worked for three years, and was having a go at the walking pilgrimage while touring Japan by bicycle. When I asked him about his future plans, he answered clearly, “I want to do organic farming and run a restaurant using vegetables grown without any agricultural chemicals.”

     Klaus from Germany completed the Shikoku Pilgrimage last year in about 50 days, and this was his second time. “Last year I lost my wallet during the trip,” he said. “Somebody found it and, wanting to return it to me, delivered it to the next temple. I knew there was no need to check the contents. There wasn’t likely to be anything missing. That’s the Shikoku Pilgrimage.” When I asked whether he would recommend the pilgrimage to others, he thought for a moment and then replied, “Although I don’t speak Japanese, I like Japanese culture and have a good understanding of the Japanese people, so there is no problem at all. But maybe it’s a tough journey for people who don’t have much interest in and understanding of Japanese culture and don’t like inconvenience.”

     The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a journey of self-discovery and, especially the walking pilgrimage, an encounter with others. I think I understand why people head for Shikoku when they reach a milestone or turning point in their lives or feel a sense of impasse or whatever.

     For foreign tourists, bearing in mind Klaus’s advice, walking in Shikoku for a few days will lead to a deeper understanding of Japanese culture. Guides with maps, written in English, Korean, and unsimplified and simplified Chinese, are available at the first temple, Ryozenji. The following websites might be useful as well.


“Around Shikoku”:

Photos: Fumio Kimiwada




Japan’s Prayer: Part 2


Koyasan, the headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon sect of Buddhism, was founded 1,200 years ago by Kukai (774?835) as a training center for the Shingon sect. In July 2004 it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range,” as a result of which the number of foreign visitors has been increasing. In this article I introduce the attractions of Koyasan through my experience of a solemn ceremony that takes place once a year and the unique accommodation facilities, called shukubo (temple lodging).


Evening-Before Ceremony Bedecked with Flowers and Candles

Kukai is said to have passed into eternal meditation at Koyasan on March 21, 835, by the lunar calendar. This year that date fell on April 23. An evening-before ceremony called Otaiya was held on April 22, and on April 23 there was a grand festival called Kyu Sho Mie-Ku.

     The Otaiya ceremony made use of all the Danjo Garan* buildings. At six in the evening ordinary worshippers holding small flower bouquets and candles gathered on the lantern-lit temple approach. The area around the Miedo (Portrait Hall), which displays a portrait of Kukai, was bedecked with flowers and candles offered by worshippers.

     At the Kondo hall, located by the Miedo, there was a dedication of songs and dances, and at the Daito (Great Stupa) there was a memorial service for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The

sound of sutra reading could be heard coming from all of the Danjo Garan halls, and each was warmly lit up by a bonfire. The Miedo is open to the public just once a year on this day, so worshippers, each with their own personal prayers, waited in a long queue to enter.

* Danjo Garan: This is the general name for the group of halls and buildings built by Kukai on the basis of esoteric Buddhist thinking.

Impact of Earthquake Disaster and Nuclear Power Plant Crisis Evident at Koyasan Too

At the evening-before ceremony I met a Canadian couple. When I asked if I could have a little talk with them, because the number of foreigners visiting Japan has dropped due to the impact of the earthquake disaster and nuclear power plant crisis, they replied apologetically, “We’re so sorry. Everyone is just too nervous.” The couple had visited Japan to attend the wedding of a friend in Nagoya. After the wedding, they had enjoyed themselves following the Kisoji route. “Koyasan is wonderful too,” they said. “And when we return home, we’ll tell all our friends that there are absolutely no problems due to the disaster.”

     I also spoke with a group of Australians. “When I told them I was coming to Japan, people said I was crazy,” one of them laughed. “Donations are fine, but I came because I thought actually coming to Japan was a way of support. There are no problems at all. I’m really enjoying myself.”

Weight of History Felt in Solemn Memorial Service in the Rain

In the morning of April 23 the memorial service moved to the Okunoin,* the site of the Gobyo

mausoleum where Kukai is said to be continuing eternal meditation even today. In the rain falling quietly on the cobblestones, there was a procession of senior monks holding long-handled umbrellas. And in the Torodo (Lantern Hall), just in front of the Gobyo, a solemn memorial service was held to express gratitude for Kukai’s constant divine protection.

     In the afternoon the memorial service moved back to the Danjo Garan. After tea and flower offerings in the Miedo, monks brought the two-day festival to an end with repeated sutra readings and sange (the scattering of flowers and lotus-shaped paper in memory of Kukai).

* Okunoin: This is the central part of Koyasan faith. In the mausoleum at the very back, Kukai is said to be in a state of deep meditation that has continued for more than 1,200 years. The 2 km road leading from the Ichi-no-Hashi (First Bridge) to the mausoleum is lined with the moss-covered gravestones of famous lords of the Warring States period (1467?1568) and towering cedars more than 1,000 years old.

Temple Lodging Experience

It only takes about 90 minutes to reach Koyasan from Osaka: 80 minutes by special express train from Namba to Gokurakubashi Station and then 10 minutes by cable car to Koyasan Station, 330 meters up the mountain (just one station). So visits for worship or sightseeing can easily be done in a single day. But when making the trip to Koyasan, visitors are recommended to experience the temple lodging that is available.

I spoke with Daigen Kondo, the chief priest of Ekoin temple, which is popular among foreigners as well.

Q: Please tell me the relationship between the Shikoku Pilgrimage and Koyasan.

A: After completing the Shikoku Pilgrimage, many people visit Koyasan in order to express gratitude for the safe journey and report that they completed the pilgrimage. But this is not a must. And some people visit Koyasan before starting the pilgrimage to pray for safety along the way.

Q: I imagine the number of ordinary visitors has increased since Koyasan was registered as a World Heritage site. What are the recent trends?

A: While many Japanese come to hold memorial services for the deceased or worship, a lot of foreigners come in order to see Japanese culture. These days many Japanese are attracted by the “power spot” advertising copy, but personally I think this is different from getting close to religion and seeking a miracle. I would like people to remember that miracles happen when you do your best and believe. As for foreigners, our temple also received nearly 1,000 cancellations following the earthquake disaster and nuclear power plant crisis. They don’t seem to understand that there is no problem at Koyasan.

Q: What are the problems in temple lodging, if any?

A: The Mandala thinking in Buddhism has a very tolerant view of the universe and does not discriminate at all among Buddha, human beings, animals, and so on. All religions are the same in that they seek to save people’s souls. The Shingon sect has a strong respect for other religions, so I don’t think there is any religious problem here.

     Our temple is purely Japanese style, and we try to make it very temple-like, so we do not emphasize the kind of comforts you get in hotels. For example, the doors have no keys, and you cannot take a shower in the morning [laughs]. People who do have special needs should contact the Shukubo Temple Lodging Association, and they will introduce a temple that meets these needs.

Q: What do foreigners enjoy about temple lodging?

A: Since they come looking for Japanese culture, foreigners enjoy just staying in a purely Japanese-style room in a temple. At our temple, visitors can experience the Ajikan method of mediation, the method of meditation of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. Also, from 6:30 every morning there is a sutra reading in the main hall, and from 7 small pieces of wood are burned on the altar in the Bishamondo hall [to invoke divine help]. These bonfire prayers are especially popular among foreigners. Almost 100% of our foreign guests participate.

     Meals are vegetarian and relatively fancy. Rather than the fare of trainee monks, they are the cuisine served at temple gatherings. No meat is used at all, so people who have dietary restrictions for religious reasons or prefer vegetarian meals are very happy.


Kongobuji, headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon sect of Buddhism:


Shukubo Temple Lodging Association:


Koyasan Ekoin:


Koyasan Cross-cultural Communication Network (KCCN):


Photos: Fumio Kimiwada




Harnessing Traditional Japanese Artisanship for Modern Eco-Living
Reina Otsuka, President, Ecotwaza Co., Ltd.

Ms. Reina Otsuka, the president of Ecotwaza Co., Ltd., has been attracting a lot of attention both domestically and internationally as a promising young entrepreneur. IHCSA Cafe spoke with Ms. Otsuka, who, despite being a youthful modern entrepreneur, discovered her business concept in traditional Japanese management philosophy. 

◇Please tell us about the relationship between your company’s business concept and traditional Japanese management philosophy.
Traditionally Japanese companies conducted their business according to a family or company creed that business transactions must not only take place between the seller and the buyer but also contribute to the entire society surrounding them. The merchants of Omi [present-day Shiga Prefecture], for example, had their philosophy of three-way goodness---good for the seller, good for the buyer, and good for society as a whole. Modern management philosophies like social contributions and corporate visions were taken for granted by merchants in Japan for ages.
     Also, through their tradition and culture of respect for nature, the Japanese since a long, long time ago have cultivated business and products that do not place a heavy load on the environment, as well as the artisanship to support them. By introducing the nature-friendly technologies and products possessed by small and medium-sized companies around Japan, and the stories behind them, to the world, we hope to contribute to the solution of environmental problems. That was the starting point of our business.


Environment-friendly products from around Japan

◇You say that in the Japanese economy in the future it will be important to export values other than the large-scale movement of commodities. What do you mean by that?
I think it is important, for example, not to sell tableware cheaply and in large quantities but to make people like Japanese food culture as a whole. Japan is a major exporting country, but, for instance, think about the European countries with which Japan has an import surplus. The representative ones are France and Italy. Even though they are a long way away, they have attractions that make the Japanese want to go there. And even though they are expensive, they have brands that the Japanese want to buy. Japan is blessed with wonderful nature and a rich culture. From now on it will be important to brand products, and values, that have deep roots in Japanese nature and culture.


Outstanding staff teamwork (left facing: Naomi Ogatsu; right facing: Nanao Sonobe)

◇What is an affluent lifestyle for you?
In terms of products, things that I can use for a long time. In terms of food, eating things that are good for me. I don’t separate work and leisure and think that the more leisure I have, the more affluent I am. I believe that fulfilling work is an affluent lifestyle as well.
     Before graduating from university, I was involved in a traffic accident. Inside the spinning car, I momentarily thought, “Maybe I’m going to die. Oh no! There’s still so much I want to do!” [Laughs] I feel as if I was spared at that time, so now I have a strong desire to put everything into what I do.

◇I hear that you are also conducting activities to support the disaster area following the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Generally speaking, the first month after a disaster is a period of relief, the next three months is a period of recovery, and after that there is a long period of reconstruction. I think there are things we can do in the period of reconstruction. Since May 1 we have been conducting a Support Tohoku Campaign, selling Tohoku products on our website and donating part of the proceeds. In our eco + waza magazine that will go on sale on July 20, we are scheduled to have a special feature on Tohoku products from Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures. We want to introduce many of Tohoku’s environment-friendly products, and the stories and values behind them, to the world and contribute to the disaster area by serving as a bridge between it and the rest of the world.

◇What will you be doing 10 years from now? Do you have a vision for the future?
Around Japan there are world-class products and the artisanship that supports them. The problem is the gap that exists between these wonderful local technologies and products and consumers in other regions. Ecotwaza hopes to be of assistance in linking local and global. I don’t think this is limited to Japan, either; the same is possible throughout the world. So 10 years from now, I would like to see Ecotwaza operating overseas too.

Reina Otsuka
Born in 1980. Grew up in New York until the age of 10. After graduating from the Faculty of Law of Hitotsubashi University (also was an exchange student at the University of California, Berkeley during this period), worked in sales and project planning at Recruit Co., Ltd. Founded and appointed president of Ecotwaza Co., Ltd. in 2006. Ecotwaza introduces and sells Japanese wisdom and goods that will lead to the solution of environmental problems. Specifically, the company transmits ecological information both in Japan and overseas through its bilingual magazine and website and operates a mail-order business for the sale of products to practice an eco-lifestyle.

eco + waza(Inspired Green Living from Japan):
Support Tohoku Campaign:

Photos: Fumio Kimiwada


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