This illustrated book of Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, which connects 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi (774–835), is like a serene stroll around a beautiful Japanese garden, and one in the company of a genial host.
John Lander’s images are – as befits the subject manner – calming, beautiful, and honest. When I say the photographs are honest, I mean that they show you what the temples actually look like. It feels as if you are standing there in front of them – at a normal height, with normal lighting, and with the same perspective as the human eye. The photos excel at showing each temple’s distinctive features, so much so that you could actually use the book to identify temples – should someone hand you a temple pic from their trek, you’d be able to find a match.
Thankfully, Lander is, however, not a temple geek, so he doesn’t get too deep in the weeds; he understands that some of the temples are on the dull side, and these get half a page each. The more notable places get multiple pages.
While temples are an inherently photogenic subject, for mortal travellers and readers the appeal diminishes in proportion to the number seen; this makes photographing 88 similar-looking temples a huge challenge. Another obstacle is photography restrictions – many temples forbid interior shots and there are also those which discourage photography in the temple grounds.
Lander has broken up the photographs of temples by adding images of various other subjects. Gardens are a passion – as evident by his Hidden Gardens of Japan (2017) and garden-themed calendars – so these feature.
The book begins with a preface from 78-year-old Dourya Takahara, an ordained nun who first completed the pilgrimage in 1996. That was on foot – since then she has done it by vehicle or on foot an incredible 140 times. Her touching words exemplify the spirit of generosity that lies at the heart of the pilgrimage.
This generosity often takes physical expression in the custom of o-settai, or charitable giving; presents such as food and bottles of water are given to the pilgrims by local people. Lander writes that o-settai “has gone a long way towards redeeming my views on modern man,” and that “witnessing and receiving these simple acts of kindness has the effect of restoring our faith in humanity.”
After the preface, there are introductory sections on Kobo Daishi, and practical information on pilgrimage gear (a white vest, straw hat, and a wooden staff), temple protocols and etiquette, accommodation and food. In the middle of the book, there are profiles of two Japanese and two foreign pilgrims.
Going back to that challenge of presenting so many temples, John Lander has the self-assurance of the professional photographer he is and has resisted the temptation to spice things up by getting overly creative. A greenhorn photographer would likely employ all the tricks; temple framed by foliage, temple framed by architectural detail, cute cat in the foreground with a slightly blurred temple in the distance, temple silhouetted against sunrise, temple viewed from above, temple viewed from ground level, temple in a fisheye lens panorama, and so on. This kind of frenzied packaging shows a lack of respect for and faith in the subject matter.
Some of my favorite temples in the book include: Konomine-ji (No. 27). Dating back to the eighth century, it’s in a remote mountain location and notable for its beautifully sculptured mountainside garden. Another standout is Shoryu-ji (No. 36), which is perched on a small island now connected to the mainland by a bridge. Then there’s Kongofuku-ji (No. 38) with its dramatic coastal setting, colorful garden rocks, and windswept trees. It’s worth noting that all three are from Kochi Prefecture, the wildest and least populated of Shikoku’s four prefectures.
Below: Iwaya-ji (Temple 45)
Pilgrims usually walk sections of the pilgrimage at a time rather than make the complete 1,200-kilometer circuit in one go. For those on foot, it’s a question of finding time (it takes about six weeks) or recovering from bad blisters and busted knees. Pilgrims also visit the temples by car, bus, bicycle, and motorcycle. John Lander, originally from California but calling Japan home for almost four decades, seems to have made the trips for the book over the last few years, and primarily by motorcycle. This makes sense as he’s well into his 60s and was carrying a lot of photographic equipment. Even when traveling by vehicle, there’s plenty of exercise, because getting to temple buildings sometimes involves lots of steep steps.
Lander says the best months for doing the pilgrimage are April/May and October when the weather is more comfortable. He advises against rushing – it’s not a sporting event: take your time to smell the roses and enjoy the many attractions along the way. If you’re short on time, do a section and come back another year, and no need to complete the circuit “in order.” Although Lander has visited all 88 temples – and each one is featured in the book – he did this over years, and not in numerical order.
At the start of the review I compared turning the pages of this lovely book to taking a serene stroll around a beautiful Japanese garden. It’s sometimes too serene. I do like peace and quiet – as I write this here in Taiwan, I’m being bombarded by annoying music/noise from activities related to marking the ninth day of the ninth month on the Chinese calendar. However, I would like to have seen more people in the pictures – locals, pilgrims, monks, even the occasional bus convoy horde. I suspect the lack of people relates to a preference for purer, unobstructed views of the temples, statues, and gardens, but there was also the matter of COVID. There can’t have been many people around when Lander was taking pictures. Foreign visitors couldn’t come, most Japanese were hunkered down at home, and many events and activities were canceled.
The ongoing COVID “quiet” raises an interesting issue. Something that comes through from the author himself and the pilgrim interviews in the book is the beauty of the custom of charitable giving and also its abuse, in particular by foreigners, who have caused local annoyance by not following etiquette, such as sleeping overnight in rest huts which are meant only for temporary respite. This is especially unfortunate because the Shikoku pilgrimage is not maintained by government funding; instead, it’s done on the back of local communities and volunteers, many of whom are elderly and of limited means.
Before COVID closed doors, many places in Japan were suffering from a flood of foreign visitors. Now there’s a severe drought, with communities dependent on the tourist industry hurting. As the current hiatus nears an end, though, it gives an opportunity to consider how best to move forward in a more sustainable way.
The ultimate test of a travel-related book is whether it makes you want to get out of your armchair. The Shikoku Pilgrimage passes with flying colors. I’d very much like to visit Shikoku and do the pilgrimage, but in keeping with Lander’s advice, it won’t be a completist exercise in ticking off temples, but a leisurely amble along one section.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage: Japan’s Sacred Trail is published by River Books.