The slow boat for Shikoku departs Hiroshima at 8 a.m. Early one cloudy, May morning, my cycling companion and I carefully wheel our heavily loaded mountain bikes onto the lower deck of the small, rusty ferry. Tent poles and sleeping mats sprout from the sidebags of our bicycles, rain jackets are strapped to the rear. Our plan is to spend ten days riding the salty ups and downs of the Shikoku coastal route, a much-needed break from everyday work and life in Japan.
Lying just off the eastern coast of the Japanese mainland, the island of Shikoku is only ten kilometers from the skyscrapers and pulsating, technology-fueled nightlife of Osaka, but in all other ways it is a universe apart. Dense foliage blankets the island’s mountains, shadowing thatch-roofed farmhouses and terraced rice paddies. Groves of orange and loquat trees cascade down steep hillsides, and in weather-battered fishing villages clinging to the coast, old men continue to eke out a meager existence from the sea.
Most visitors to Shikoku are pilgrims who come to walk the eighty-eight-temple circuit founded in the 800s by Kobo Daishi, who brought Shingon Buddhism from China to Japan. Pilgrims circle the 1,400-kilometer course in hope of gaining inner peace and karmic merit. Some leave their jobs and families to complete the two-month pilgrimage; others take a few days each year covering as much distance as possible in time stolen away from commitments and careers. This is Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, drawing seekers for more than a thousand years.
Pilgrims are far from my mind this May morning. Boarding the ferry, I feel as if I am escaping. The spring has been hard. Recent staff transfers in the Japanese office where I work have thrust me into a job for which I am neither trained nor qualified. I try to gaman-to persevere-as is the Japanese way and work hard to make up for the deficiencies, but I am worn to the breaking point from feelings of constant failure and lack of sleep. Shortly before leaving for Shikoku, I received a letter from my best friend. Standing in the small, cramped entryway of my apartment, I hungrily read the letter and her words, so kind and comfortable, brought me to tears. What was I doing here, I wondered, so far from those I cared about?
Three years of living in Japan have caused all the edges of my life to blur. From the beginning I wanted to experience the country and culture as deeply as possible-to become part of it. I didn’t want to leave Japan laden with photographs of quaint festivals, yet with no real understanding of the why behind the culture. If Japan is an enigma, as is often said, I wanted to get as close as possible to its enigmatic heart.
But in my attempt to become part of Japan, I seem to have lost part of myself. Three years of living here have given me the gift of insight into the Japanese way of doing things. By birth and upbringing I instinctively understand the gaijin (Western) way, but I no longer know where I belong. I fall somewhere between the two extremes now, a place where there are no clear rules or boundaries. My manner of dress, body language, and sense of humor have all been toned-down in order to render them understandable and acceptable to my Japanese colleagues and friends. The end result leaves me feeling like a pale, washed-out version of who I really am, or who I thought I was.
A week before the planned trip I came down with a kase-a virulent Japanese cold. Feverish and coughing up small pieces of what felt like my lung, I considered staying home to use this precious time to rest and recuperate. I quickly rejected the idea. I needed to go, I needed to get away. The word “escape” crossed my mind; I am escaping to the island of Shikoku.
On the ferry the ocean air feels like a wake-up call. As our boat draws near, the island emerges out of the mist: emerald-green mountains rising from clear waters. The mountains are impossibly steep, like ancient scroll paintings of rocky cliffs studded with pine branches in an Asian art museum. I had always assumed the steepness an artistic device, and find myself overwhelmed by the reality.
The mountains become my challenge, a physical mirror of my inner struggles. The sidebags on my bike weigh heavily as I slowly pedal up near-vertical inclines. The hills never seem to end and each mountain pushes me farther than I comfortably want to go. I’m coughing badly and breathing is difficult. I consider turning around, going home, but the idea of reclimbing the mountains already behind me is heartbreaking. I decide life must be lived in the forward direction, at whatever speed I am capable of.
While every incline tests me, the payoff is worth the struggle. To stop pushing, to simply coast down thrilling, spiraling hills from summit to sea, wind streaming past my face and tugging my hair out from beneath my helmet, is perhaps as close as I will ever get to the joy of natural flight. I feel like a child on a swing-set with the world rushing up to meet me. I shout out my joy to the empty green canyons, and it echoes back at me and all around.
I am riding back through time to a Japan unknown to the children of today living in cement apartment blocks in the urban sprawl. I cycle through misty, jungle-like ravines, past terraced rice paddies aflock with white cranes and hillsides covered with blooming orange trees, their heady perfume overwhelming the senses. At night we camp on deserted beaches, the sound of waves invading our dreams, and wake to the noise of villagers on their way to harvest seaweed from the rocky shore. I am struck by the beauty of this ancient life and reminded of why I was drawn to Japan, a world so unlike my own.
Sticking to the coast, we pedal our way through towns bypassed by the new highway. The tiny villages where we buy food are festooned with colorful carp banners hung to celebrate the upcoming Children’s Day holiday. The bright, fish-shaped flags dance merrily on the ocean breeze, the only visible movement in many of these faded, sleeping towns. We ride past local festivals and through a blessing ceremony for a new house. The Shinto priest and members of the family throw pieces of celebratory mochi rice paste to the villagers assembled in the street below. Wrapped in brightly colored kitchen towels, the balls ofmochi go sailing by on the spring breeze, only to be snatched up by the wrinkled hands of the practical oba-chans, the village grandmothers. Once the villagers see us, we are inundated by offers of these colorful parcels. Uncooked, the mochi tastes like glue and sticks to our teeth. We tell them it is delicious and they laugh, delighted.
The unlikely sight of two foreigners on bicycles livens up most places we pass through, and we become the center of attention whenever we stop. Where are we going? Where are we from? Where will we sleep tonight? We answer their questions, doing our best to wade through the unfamiliar local dialect, and in return they give us gifts of food for our travels.O-settai, they call them, gifts for the pilgrims. We receive so many oranges, the local specialty, that by the third day we are forcing them down and swearing off all citrus fruit for months to come.
The kindness of the local people is touching. One night it begins to rain and, when the locals in the public bathhouse where we’ve gone to bathe discover we are planning to camp, a playful competition erupts over who will take the foreigners home. Not wanting to impose, we ask the owner of the bathhouse if we might pitch our tent in the covered parking area after the baths are closed. Instead she takes us to a small shed built on the roof of the bathhouse. It is filled with tatami mats and evidence of a late-night card game, but it is dry and comfortable. In the morning we offer her money, but she refuses. Other pilgrims have stayed there before, she says.
The pilgrims are always with us. Carrying wooden walking sticks, and dressed in traditional white clothing and pointy straw hats, they plod along the pilgrimage course. We exchange greetings of “Ganbatte” (Do your best) when we pass them on our bikes. In ancient temples along the route, their chanting blends with the scent of burning incense and wafts by on the wind. What lives have they left behind them, I wonder, and what are they searching for?
Days spent on the bike leave me with time for thinking. Realizations dawn slowly, the result of hours of uninterrupted cycle meditation. While never a disciple, I too am searching. However, it is not karma I hope to gain. Through my travels and my life in Japan, I am searching for new horizons and challenges. I want to push myself beyond what is comfortable-both mentally and physically-in order to test my own spirit. I want to discover myself: my boundaries, my strengths, and my weaknesses. It is not the succeeding lifetimes that concern me; I want to fully experience the present and to discover new vistas, not only around me, but within me as well.
Shikoku is the answer I seek. Amidst early-morning climbs up steep ravines and adrenaline-filled, late-afternoon sprints along a rocky coastline, I find my stride. Recovered from my illness now, my body responds to the demands of biking, growing stronger each day. Sweat-stained and dirty with bike-chain grease and sore from days riding and nights sleeping on the ground, I am happier than I have been in months. The mountains-along the road and in my life-no longer seem overwhelming, and I am excited about the surprises that lie around the next curve. I begin to lose the feeling of being lost between two worlds. I am not lost; I am simply in a place I have never been before.
One morning late in the trip, I slip outside the tent to watch the sun rise. Sitting on a sandy beach, so like the beaches of my childhood, I look past the small, offshore islands cloaked in mist and across the ocean toward the country that is my home. Soon I will return to my job-and the small apartment that is home for the moment. My job will not have changed. I will still be faced with the challenge of balancing who I am with what is acceptable and appropriate in this traditional society. However, Shikoku has left me with a clarity of vision and a sense of self I had not known before. I am a bridge connecting two worlds-one, the world of my birth, and another, more ancient world I have sought to understand and come to love. I may always feel this conflict, this fear of losing what I was, but I am compensated by the process of learning another way of being. I will never fit entirely in either world, but I have the gift of being able to connect the two and find parts of myself in each.
The sun begins to break through the mist and glints off calm waters. I fill my hands with the sand of Shikoku and watch as the grains slip slowly through my fingers. As the early-morning sunlight warms me, I realize what I had thought of as an escape was really a search. The Japanese dawn begins to break in all its fiery brilliance, and I realize I too have been on a pilgrimage and, like the pilgrims of Shikoku, I have found the peace and knowledge I was looking for.
About Tara Austen Weaver:
Born to traveler parents, Tara Austen Weaver crossed her first international border at five weeks of age and has been hooked on travel ever since. To date, she has lived in five countries on three continents, including four and a half years spent in the mountains of Japan. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she works, plays, and commutes by bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge.