Shikoku has had pilgrims circulating around the island supposedly for 1200 years. From what I’ve read, most pilgrims were wandering monks, until the late 1600s, when a popular guidebook to the pilgrimage was published, and lay people took it on. And even then, the pilgrimage in its modern form, of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in organized tour buses, didn’t happen until the 1960s, when the roads to the temples were improved as an economic development scheme.
So, it’s hard to know exactly for how long there’s been on Shikoku a culture of supporting pilgrims. Fifty years? Three hundred? More than a millennium? But it exists today.
As two foreign women, we were pretty unusual. During the entire pilgrimage, we met a total of four other non-Japanese pilgrims: a single British man; briefly, a single French woman; and a Canadian mother-daughter combination. Most (90%?) non-tour bus, non-driving pilgrims are older, retired Japanese men. It is possible that we personally received more osettai (gifts of material or nonmaterial value) because we were more visible.
We did, however, receive a lot of osettai. People would stop their cars or mopeds, or whatever, and spontaneously give us 100 yen, or four oranges. A shopkeeper would offer green tea or coffee. But most of the personal osettai we received was in the form of getting directions.
Here is a story about this. We were planning to take the Community Bus, leaving from a stop about one km from a temple, back into town. We didn’t know exactly which road, or which side of the road, but the monk at the stamp office made a dot with a pen on our map.
Community Buses are not like regular city buses. They don’t take commuters. They run typically about four times a day, go all over tarnation (the “milk run”), and are oriented to mostly getting the handicapped and the elderly to their likely destinations. Since it was a Community Bus, its last run of the day was 3:47, and if we didn’t catch it, then our fall-back was to walk another couple of kms to a shopping plaza and catch a bus about ninety minutes later. Possible, but not high on our list.
Based on my reading of the map, it was possible that the farm road that crossed the highway was the general location of the bus stop. Of course, no minor road is labeled, either on the map or in real life. There was absolutely no one to ask, and it wasn’t long before the bus was coming. No one to ask but this elderly Japanese man, creeping along the road with his walker. I came up to him, and asked in my best Japanese, “Excuse me, where is the Community Bus stop?” He looked at me blankly. I tried again, slower, and more distinctly, “Community Bus stop?” Still a blank look. “Bus stop?” He finally said, “I don’t understand” in Japanese, and I thanked him, and we walked up and down that road, and then up and down the highway, searching for the stop.
Meanwhile, the man inched along the road with his walker. He then sat down. It was at this point just a few minutes before the bus was due, and I said, “let’s go to where the old man is.” We didn’t have a clue, and waiting somewhere was better than nowhere. We raced over to where he was sitting, and there was a bus stop sign there. He sat there with us, silently. I thought, when the Community Bus rolled up, that maybe he was getting on board too, as he was a typical Community Bus rider. But he didn’t. As our bus pulled away, I could see him out the bus window, struggle to stand up, and then work his way back where he had come from. Without saying a word, inch by inch with his walker, he directed us to where these two pilgrims wanted to go.
But beyond these individual acts of kindness and assistance that we received, there is a whole culture of helping henro. What struck me is, while what has been done may help pilgrims, it also helps all kinds of other people. The whole system of henro rest huts means that anyone gets shelter. Whether it was that old couple gathering firewood in the forest, two young high school students looking for a romantic place to smooch overlooking a mountain vista, a family on a road trip needing a picnic bench…it just wasn’t pilgrims who need a place by the side of the road or trail.
It means that mountain trails are well-marked and well-maintained.
It means public restrooms are even more available.
It means that the benches in the train station, rather than being designed to discourage sleeping, have cushions, and blankets, so someone who didn’t have a place to stay overnight would be comfortable and warm.
Kindness to henro extends kindness to everyone. What if we had a culture of kindness? What if we extended ourselves to help others? Why are we so afraid of being taken advantage of?