THE so-called Camino De Santiago — a network of ancient European pilgrimage routes that supposedly follow in the footsteps of the apostle St James and converge on the city of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain — has become increasingly popular with Irish people in recent years.
But would you walk the Camino in Japan?
The island of Shikoku is the fourth biggest province in Japan, and home to a 1,200km Buddhist pilgrimage where religious or spiritual pilgrims recite Sutras in each of 88 stone temples as they walk the ancient pathways.
West Cork travel writer and documentarian Jasper Winn set off last spring to complete this journey, taking six weeks to do so.
Jasper is no stranger to long, self-propelled journeys. Originally from Kilbrittain, Co Cork, the self-professed “slow adventurer” has written a book called Paddle: A Long Way Around Ireland about his thousand-mile sea kayaking circumnavigation of Ireland, and another, Water Ways, about England’s canals. He has also cycled across the Sahara Desert and travelled by mule across North Africa with a Berber tribe.
On foot, his travels include completing the Portuguese Caminho, and walking from Munich to Paris in the dead of winter, following a journey taken by the film director Werner Herzog. Jasper is currently the writer in residence to England’s Canal and River Trust.
“I’ve done a lot of walks in the past 40 years and people ask me how I pick them, and it’s always been sort of challenging to find a way of making a walk interesting, either through a cultural or literary connection, so pilgrimages are great,” Jasper says. “I’ve done quite a few.”
It was the idea of stepping into the unknown that drew him to this particular journey: “I knew very little about this pilgrimage, apart from having read a book about it by an academic in the 1980s; it was really quite an academic book and it didn’t quite inspire me, but it must have stayed in the back of my mind.”
In 40 years of travelling, Jasper says it occurred to him that it was “quite strange” that he’d never been to Japan.
“I wanted to go somewhere I didn’t speak the language and where the culture was totally unfamiliar, apart from all the obvious clichés and misconceptions.
“I was at a loose end earlier this year, and it just came into my mind. I assumed, because I knew nothing about Japan at all, that it would be difficult to do, or very expensive. What I thought I knew about Japan was that it was very urban and very over-populated.”
The island of Shikoku, roughly the size of Wales, is renowned as a place of rural idyll in Japan.
“Having said that, there are still four cities on Shikoku of roughly half a million people each, so it’s not rural in the isolated way that Irish people are used to,” Jasper says.
“The landscape is very rugged: the route is either through mountain passes or along the coastline where it’s flat, and that means that the modern world has encroached on the historic trails to a huge extent.
“It’s an incredible mix of quite high mountains, subtropical forest complete with wild boar and eagles, and then long bits of road where the pilgrims are walking down the hard shoulder of something pretty much like the M1 for 60km at a time.”
Most pilgrims are Japanese, and Jasper said his reception was “interesting”. Wearing the traditional ‘Henro’ (pilgrim) costume of conical straw hat, padded white cotton jacket and walking stick acted, he says, as a “pilgrim’s credit card,” showing that he was taking part in the ancient pilgrimage, which emerged in the 12th century as a way to commemorate the life of Buddhist holy man Kobo Daishi.
“If you’re a henro, you’re an honoured guest and people are actually pleased to see you,” Jasper says.
“You can pretty much throw your sleeping bag down anywhere you want.”
“Shikoku has a very high level of safety and honesty. At the start of the trip, I was as cautious as I would be anywhere new, but by the end, I’d just find somewhere to bed down, even quite literally a park bench, and every now and then someone would come up and offer me a cup of tea or some sandwiches.
“There’s this incredible belief in the goodness of the pilgrim, that in some way, you are keeping this tradition alive.”
Although Jasper was open to the spiritual aspects of the journey in the beginning, he soon realised that adhering to the Sutras was not for him.
“I’m a real secular pilgrim; I have a huge respect for the belief and the faith of other people, but I’m not a Buddhist,” he says.
“There’s a ritual you’re supposed to undergo at each of the 88 temples. I had it written out in Japanese and I was saying them away, and it was doing absolutely nothing for my spirituality other than annoying me.”
With the Rugby World Cup behind us and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics ahead of us, Jasper says it was an interesting time to explore Japanese culture and delve deeper than the pilgrimage trail.
Beyond the scenery, he caught a glimpse of the social problems facing the region, including rural depopulation, an aging population, ecological problems like extreme plastic littering, and the well-documented phenomenon of the so-called hikikomori, young people who withdraw from social interactions but remain living at home dependent on their parents.
Now writing a book on his journey, Jasper says there was one personal revelation that emerged from the epic hike that was particularly useful to him.
“I turned 60 this year and watching all these old men and women doing the pilgrimage, I said to myself, ‘OK, that’s useful to know; there’s another 20 years of walking in me. If I get lucky.’”
A Walk In Japan, an illustrated talk by Jasper Winn, is at Wild Side Sports in Bandon on November 6 at 6.30pm, and at The Crawford Art Gallery in Cork city, as a guest of the Cork Literary and Scientific Society, on November 7 at 8pm. Entry: €6 on the door in Bandon and €8 for society non-members in Cork city.