I am dreaming I am in Canada, living a regular Canadian life. I am eating my regular Canadian food in my regular Canadian house. I say “Hello” to my neighbours as I step out into my backyard but then they apologize before I get a chance because we both said, “Hello” at the same time. Then we chuckle nicely to each other.
Fred, from across the back alley comes on over to the fence. He’s a good guy and he owns his own garage and gas station down the way. I always go to Fred when I need to winterize my car. My block heater is cracked, so I’m glad he came by so I can ask him about that.
“Hey ya, Mark. Listen up bud”, he begins, “I got a bit of a problem. Do ya think ya can help me out?”
“Sure thing”, I naturally reply, sipping my home brewed Tim Horton’s coffee from my Calgary Flames coffee mug.
“I got my gas station people calling me up, and there’s some guy sleeping in our toilet over there. He’s wearing a big toque (winter hat for those who do not know), carrying a long hockey stick, and he’s got on a lumberjack jacket. I also think he’s growing out a mullet. They don’t know what to do with the guy. They don’t make toques like that any more. It’s so weird.”
“Well sheesh Fred, why do ya think that guy is in your shop’s toilet? Is he sleeping one off?”
“No one knows. He doesn’t speak either English or French, both of which are our national languages, but he did say that he is on a PILGRIMAGE. What do ya think that means?”
“Maybe we need to call the cops, or the RCMP, or someone. Do you think he needs an intervention? Luckily, with our socialized healthcare system we’ll be able to help him and give him all the community support he needs.”
……… EXIT SCENE
Was that you in the gas station toilet? Or in the public park? Or in an elementary school yard?
The siren call of the Ohenro, and the long lonely path on which you may being the journey of several weeks of adventure, is a seductive, and for some, an essential thing to initiate self-reflection, change, growth, and discovery. I would not begrudge a soul for their hope and desire to come to Shikoku and travel on the path of Kukai. I think it is an awesome, and important, and in some cases, necessary thing to do to figure out who you are, what you want to do, and where you need to go in life.
And there it is… “But”.
But don’t be rude. Don’t be a jerk.
What I mean by don’t be rude, is don’t impose or inflict yourself or your personality or your personal needs/desires/hopes/plans/expectations on others. It sounds simple enough, but there is something missing from some of the foreign ohenro who have been coming to Shikoku. Let me elucidate.
During the past several weeks we have met with a lot of people who are involved in the Ohenro pilgrimage, who run temples, who work in promotion, who work in public transportation, and who own shops that equip pilgrims, that there are some pretty serious problems that stem from foreign people coming to walk the pilgrimage.
I’ll outline a few of them here, and invite you to react, or argue, or disagree in the comments section below. I am sharing with you the frustrations we have heard thus far:
- Foreign Ohenro are sleeping in public parks, in restrooms of convenience stores, in cemeteries, and on people’s private property without getting permission to do so.
- Foreign Ohenro leave their trash in temples, expecting that the monks and volunteers there will naturally clean up after them.
- Foreign Ohenro write or carve into moss covered stones that belong to people’s private homes that are along the pilgrimage route.
- Foreign Ohenro book reservations at places and then either suddenly cancel or don’t show up at all. No deposit was given, so the owner loses money because not only did they prepare for that visitor, but they didn’t have a chance to rent it out to someone else.
I don’t know how things work in your country, but I think that in Canada if you are sleeping in public places or in someone’s place of business you can probably expect to get woken by the police and told to be on your way. If you litter in our National Parks and are caught you can expect a hefty fine. If you carve or write your name on someone’s personal property you can expect trouble with the authorities. If you try to book a hotel without leaving your credit card the hotel owner will probably just hang up the phone.
So, why is it that foreign pilgrims think that it is okay to do these things in Japan? Is it because of a false sense of entitlement, or that the “o-settai” culture of Shikoku gives a certain permission to be a jerk?
By design or by culture, most Japanese people I have known for the last twenty plus years are very hesitant to address directly the rather insulting things that foreigners do in their country, in their communities, and on their personal property.
I don’t mind telling you direct. I don’t have that cultural hesitancy. So here goes…
Don’t sleep in public places. If you can’t get to your intended free lodging, PAY money for a hotel, a ryokan, a guesthouse, or an AirBnB. Don’t sleep in a park where kids play or people walk their pets. Don’t sleep in someone’s place of business, and no a convenience store bathroom is not your personal shower or bathing space. Do find an onsen or public bath and PAY money to use their facilities.
If you cannot afford to pay for lodging on your vacation, you don’t get to take a vacation. Yes, the Shikoku Pilgrimage is a spiritual experience, but your experience must not be at the expense of other people. Don’t you think that is fair? You may have an image in your mind that it is okay for people to wander through the cities, towns, and fields of Shikoku and all your food and lodging is a kind of “gift” for you, because you are you, and you are special, and all of that… But that is not quite accurate. That is not what being an ohenro is, and that is not what “o-settai” is all about.
Of course you can, and should, and maybe MUST, come to Shikoku. It’s a great thing to do, and you should do it. But you cannot do it while making trouble behind you, dropping your trash and causing trouble for others. That’s not cool. That’s not cool at all.
So, I would recommend the following. Here goes… again.
- Don’t sleep rough. Plan your trip carefully. Go a little slower so you are not “stuck” someplace you don’t plan to sleep at. Book, and pay in advance, all your lodging. A plan like, “Well, I will book the hotel, but if I don’t make it, I’ll just sleep in the school yard after it gets dark” is not a good plan. That is not cool at all. That park is for kids to play in. Japanese people pay taxes for public spaces. You didn’t pay a penny for it. I don’t have too much sympathy if the police come by and tell you to either go to the nearest hotel or keep walking. Imposing yourself in this manner is not culturally sensible or sensitive at all, and in the West we wouldn’t tolerate it for a minute. Try that in Germany, or America, or Australia, or England and see what happens. My guess is that the locals would not tolerate it so much, and would handle the situation much more aggressively than they do here in Japan.
- Don’t leave a single thing behind in temples, such as plastic bottles, maps, paper, gum, old socks, unwanted shoes, or anything else. There is no garbage cans for you to use in most temples. Japanese people often carry their trash with them until they get home. So, if you have trash, carry it with you until you get to your next nicely prepared, pre-paid, reserved lodging. Then, dispose of your rubbish there. Temple monks are not your personal janitor. Don’t disrespect them by thinking that they have enough time to clean up after you.
- Do not carve your name into moss, stone, or wood. Ever. At all. Vandals do that. Idiots do that. It is supremely uncool, and ugly. If that instinct is in your brain, attend to that. There is nothing interesting enough about you, or me, or anyone, where you need to carve into anything your name, your feelings, the fact that Suzy will provide a “hot time” at the following phone number you provide, or your rendition of your favourite Pokemon character. Don’t do it.
- You know it’s wrong to steal, so don’t steal someone’s time and energy by failing to show up for your reservation. If you can’t get to a reservation on time, don’t make reservations. Just like a promise. If you’re not sure you can keep it, don’t make it. Sounds simple enough. Many elderly Japanese inn keepers are not technologically savvy enough to get and use credit cards for reservations. Some work only with cash. So when they accept your word and reservation they prepare space for you, prepare meals for you, and deny access to those who call after you. Not showing up steals their time, their income, and is wasteful and disrespectful. Being an ohenro is supposed to improve your character and understanding of others. It would be a good idea, with that spirit in mind, to do what you say you are going to do. If you miss your reservation, at least have the guts and kindness to show up the next day and pay the bill anyway. It’s the right thing to do.
Ok, thus endeth the lecture. But seriously, these are things that people we know here in Shikoku have issues with foreign ohenro. It only takes a few rotten apples to make trouble for all the good, humble, thoughtful, non-jerks, that come, make the most of their time, make new friends, and have an experience that changes them forever.
I think that we can figure this one out together, but if you disagree with me, just let me know. There are a lot of people who are involved in the ohenro experience, and if you have questions about something specific, or general, or whatever, I can see what I can do to get you the information you need.
In the meantime, have a great day, enjoy the paths, the trees, the beaches, and the temples. Just don’t be a jerk.