Three days before setting off on my 88 Temple journey on Shikoku Island. If you want to see and read more about this pilgrimage, type in “88 Temples” on your browser. Many links will appear. Particularly helpful is the one for the PBS documentary on the pilgrimage.
Why am I doing this walk? I have known about this walk for about five years. The catalyst for deciding to commit to the journey occurred in November 2017 when Sharon and I were on a bus leaving Koya-San, the temple complex founded by Gobo Daishi who is the patron of the pilgrimage, in Wakayama Prefecture. We met a 40 year old Australian policeman who had just completed the pilgrimage and his visit to Koya-san. I asked him, “What effect did this journey have on him?” He said that the pilgrimage “restored his faith in mankind.” About a week later, I said to Sharon that I wanted to make the pilgrimage starting in March 2019. I have planned to complete the pilgrimage in 60 days plus 10 (the extra 10 for days when I am tired, ill, or wanting to wander around an especially beautiful area). If all goes according to my general plan, I should complete the journey on 14 May, my father’s birthday.
I will then have 13 days in order to visit my maternal grandparents hometown, Yanai City, Yamaguchi-ken and perhaps other areas of Japan. My maternal grandmother left her village in 1915 and arrived at Seattle. She married my grandfather three days later. With her passport in hand, her marriage certificate, my mother’s birth certificate, my mother’s marriage certificate, and my birth certificate, I was able to secure my grandmother’s koseki, her entire family history from the Yanai City archives. My contact in Japan will have translated the koseki. She will give me that document when I arrive at her home. Sharon and I had a homestay with her on our last visit to Japan. With the koseki in hand, I will travel to Yanai City where a member of the city staff will take me to the address given on my grandmother’s 1915 passport. Who knows what physical structure if any will be on the site. Regardless, I will stand on the grounds where my grandmother lived and left when she came to America as a 22 year old woman.
The reasons for making this journey run deeper than the snap decision of December 2017. I have mentioned to some of you that I have only two regrets in my life: not learning Japanese, and declining to go on junior year abroad in 1968-69 to Waseda University in Tokyo. I often think about what my life would have been like if I gone to Japan at that time. What would I have become if I had chosen the other road as Frost wrote?
For years, I have felt awkward in knowing that I am Japanese by origin and looks yet not being comfortable to speak Japanese and to be around Japanese people. According to my mother, I spoke only Japanese until I was five. Then, regular American schooling ensued. My parents did send me to Japanese language school on Saturdays. I was a total failure. I wasn’t interested in learning the language; baseball and playing with friends were higher priorities. I must add though that the school served native Japanese speakers and thus those of us English speakers were literally placed at the back of the bus.
My first trip to Japan was in 2004; Sharon made the trip before me a month after 9/11. My Japanese was almost non-existent. I did discover that I could read most of the kata-kana and hiragana characters. We spent 12 of 14 days in Kyoto experiencing a city that has 20 World Heritage sites. Kyoto is Sharon’s favorite city in the world; it is my second favorite.
I returned a few years later to Tokyo as a member of a school accreditation team. Remember — my spoken Japanese was almost nil. The awkward moment came when the chair of team, who was white but who had spent over 30 years in Japan, explained in Japanese to the head of school, that I was an American, third generation (Sansei). The head of the school nodded with the universally known phrase, A-so desu after exhaling the sound, huh. It is hard to write out what that sound is but it is not honorific.
Then came my third trip in November 2017 and our encounter with the Australian policeman. Since then, several of you have seen me walking around Bethlehem. I have also walked to Coopersburg. Lehigh has been an excellent training grounds by providing uphill and downhill slopes as well as the seemingly endless steps to climb. While walking, I have listened to hours of Japanese lessons. I think that I have ascended from a toddler to perhaps a seven year old. I will need this Japanese when I walk through the mountains and villages of rural Shikoku. My favorite phrase is: oka-wari, meaning second helping. Preparing for this trip has been enriching and has helped me become more confident in order to talk with people whom I will meet.
The most important aspect of the journey will be how it will affect my views on life. I will not speculate about how I will answer the question that I posed to Australian policeman. I will let you know after the journey is finished and after a time of reflection.
I await Saturday with great anticipation.