So, you are thinking about coming to Shikoku to walk the 88 Buddhist Temple pilgrimage? That is a great idea. Or, you have already decided to come? That is awesome. This series of blogs will take you through the items that the Ohenro (pilgrims) typically wear as they travel from temple to temple.

As a caveat, you need to understand that you do not have to use or wear any of the items I am going to introduce to be an “Ohenro”. Nothing is required of you. Nothing at all. The only “requirement” is simply a hope that as you travel the route, in your own way, that it might bring you some personal benefit or insight into your own mind and heart. Sometimes people get lost in the “things” of the activity, rather than just being in the moment as it presents itself.

But, it is nice to know the artifacts and tools used so that you can decide for yourself what is helpful, useful, symbolic, or meaningful.

The Ohenro Walking Staff

The staff is considered to be a representative of Koubou-Daishi himself. In Japanese it is called “kongotsue” When you travel with your staff you are travelling with the Great High Priest. On the staff is usually written “Dougyo Ninin” or roughly translated “Two people pilgrimage together”. There are a few ideas that float around as to how to treat your staff and what to do and what not to do with it.

Often it is believed that you ought to treat the staff with respect, as it is the embodiment of Koubou-Daishi. It is suggested that you do not take it into washrooms with you. I have found suggestions that you should wash the tip of your staff when you arrive at your accommodations and leave it in the alcove. There is a sentiment that because Koubou-Daishi had to camp out under bridges you should not tap the staff on them as you walk over. This will give you a good night’s sleep.

Symbolically, it would be used as the “grave marker” of a fallen Ohenro on the trail. There may also be a cover over the top of the staff with a bell attached. As you walk you tap the staff on the ground and the bell is to help you keep your mind on the trail, and on the things you want to think about as you journey.

The Ohenro White Robe

The white robe of the Ohenro is called “byakue” or “hakue” or “hakui”. If it has no sleeves it is called a “oizuru”. The white robe is the symbol of purity, but it is also the color used to dress the dead. So, the pilgrimage is considered to be an act of confronting one’s mortality, and finding meaning within the context that death is inevitable for all living things. The white is considered to also be a color that cleanses the mind, that maintains the sanctity of the pilgrimage itself, and a human departure from the secular world.

On the back of the robe is the phrase, 南無大師遍照金剛 (Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo) which can be translated as “Praise to the Great Teacher (Koubou Daishi)”. The robe is kept as clean as possible during the journey, and it with an understanding for some pilgrims that they may very well perish on the road as they circle Shikoku seeking personal enlightenment.

It is not uncommon for people to have their white robes stamped with the temples they have visited. Upon completion of the pilgrimage the robe becomes quite a memento of an unbelievable experience.

The Ohenro Conical Hat: Sugegasa

sugegasa09The straw conical hat of the Ohenro is often seen on the roads and paths of Shikoku. It can be worn on the head, or worn on your back. Some people have it on their pack, especially when it is windy. Symbolically, the hat represents the “coffin” the Ohenro would be buried in.

On the front of the “sugegasa” is a sanskrit character, and this represents Koubou Daishi. Have that one face the front. There is no need to remove your hat when you enter the temple. You are considered a pilgrim and even in the presence of a monk you need not remove it.

There is some discussion about the quality of the hat, and comments that the quality is not as strong as it used to be in terms of keeping out the rain. You can get plastic covering for your “sugegasa” if you need to and perhaps also line the inside with a bandana or thin towel to protect the inside ring rubbing your head to harshly.

Part 2 and beyond coming soon!