Rough Day on the Shikoku Pilgrimage

Shikoku is Japan’s fourth largest island just off the coast of the main island, Honshu, within spitting distance of Okayama, Kyoto, and Osaka. The island is home to the ancient walking trail known as the Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage that connects 88 Buddhist temples and covers more than 1,000 kilometers across the island’s 4 prefectures.

This is a written snapshot of the roughest day during my week-long journey on the trail.

It Gets Rough
One section of the course from Temple 11, Fujiidera (藤井寺) to Temple 12, Shosanji (焼山寺) spans 12km or 7.5 miles and requires close to 6 hours of climbing up and down 3 steep mountain trails. I was forewarned that this portion would be the most strenuous and is often referred to as the bane of the pilgrim’s journey.

Spoiler alert: I never want to do that same hike all in one day ever again. It was about equal to climbing to the summit of Fuji in one day.

With just two small bottles of water and an apple for lunch, no vending machines in sight, and few rest stops along the way, I had come ill prepared for a 6 hour hike through the dense forestry in the mountains.

The steep, muddy, and rocky terrain on both the ascent and descent were unforgiving and seemingly unending. Hope was diminishing quickly every time I looked up only to realize I wasn’t as close to the finish line as I thought. My legs were screaming and my back was caving from carrying two heavy backpacks, one on my back and the other on my front. With each step, I wondered more and more about the likelihood of dying on the trail from fatigue, dehydration, or starvation and whether or not that would happen to me.

After all, it wasn’t my best idea to hike alone on a rainy day without proper nourishment to refuel or cell phone service to let someone know if I was in danger or hurt. What’s more, until about 3/4 of the way in, I hadn’t come across anyone else on the trail. I kept telling myself that I had set myself up for failure and put myself in real danger because I overestimated how strong and capable I really was. The longer I hiked on, the more I felt myself crumbling under my own negativity.

By the time I reached Ryusuian Temple, the halfway point to Shosanji, I was desperate for an escape route.

It Gets Better
For the second half of the course, I cried hysterically the whole way, my violent sobbing and nose sniffling piercing through the dead silence. A lot of buried, unattended to grief about my mother’s passing surfaced, as it unexpectedly does sometimes, my whole body was screaming from exhaustion, and my shirt was soaked completely through with sweat.

Whenever I stopped to rest, which was about every 20 steps by the time I started the ascent up the third mountain, I sat down in the dirt and truly considered letting exhaustion or starvation take my life. Alternatively, I also thought of throwing myself off a cliff as hard as I could and just letting the police find my body because it would’ve been easier than finishing.

When I reached the tall staircase with a grand cedar tree and an ornate statue of Kobo Daishi at the top that marks the end of the hike, I sat down on the bottom step and just continued to cry and cry, wiping away tears with my sweat soaked fingers. I cried from exhaustion, from pent up loneliness and grief, and feeling suffocated by my own harsh criticisms and judgments. It was a breaking point.

In the thick of such a strenuous hike, I so badly wanted to get out of the forest but sitting there on that step knowing the end was near, I realized I wanted to get out from under of all these dark thoughts swimming in my head. It made me realize I was willing to fight for my own life. Some days I do feel so sad and unmotivated that not even the happiest memories can turn things around, and then there are days where I realize I have a lot to be grateful for.

There’s a lot of the world left that I really want to see, memories I want to create, and I’m SLOWLY discovering what I can offer to the world. Even if I leave the Earth without having made an impact on anyone, at least I know my footprint has made a physical impact in the dirt on a hiking trail in the mountains, and that’s enough.

One day, I hope to go back to Shikoku to walk the whole trail. When that day comes, I will be better prepared with a change of clothes, more food and water, and some good company.

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