Sunday, January 17, 2021

Book Review: Walking In Circles

Todd Wassel sent me a copy of his book Walking In Circles and asked for a review. I am pleased to offer that and let people know that it is a wonderful read.

The two book subtitles tell you up front what to expect: Finding Happiness In Lost Japan and A Shikoku Memoir. I assume the Lost Japan part is a riff on Alex Kerr's very, very good book of the same name. But, it is a good addition here because in so many ways Shikoku does represent that rural part of Japan that is disappearing in so many other parts of Japan. He also tells us with the title that this is a memoir, and not a detailed travel guide. So, if you are looking for details of the temples or the trail, this isn't the book for you.

What Todd has given us is an accounting of his nojuku (camping out) trip around the henro trail in 2005. He brought to the walk two things that most readers won't: this was his second walk so he knew what to expect and he is fluent in Japanese, having previously lived on the main island for six years. While neither of these are requirements for the walk, it will mean that your experience will be different.

There are as many reasons to walk the henro trail as there are people who attempt it. Todd tells us at the beginning of the book that his mission was to "figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up." And whenever you meet someone who approaches a walk such as this with that mission a smile should spread across your face because missions like that are notoriously hard to accomplish. As Todd also admits at the beginning of the book, though, "It never occurred to me that I was asking the wrong question."

It is almost impossible to predict what your experience is going to be when you walk the henro trail, or any pilgrimage for that matter. The henro trail occupies a space that is neither your normal secular world nor the strictly spiritual world you would find living in a temple or monastery. As Todd writes points out:

"In Japan there is a very thin line between the [secular and the profane].

"The Shikoku pilgrimage is a good example of this. It is much more than just a collection of roads and paths. It is a gateway to a life cut off from everyday society but grounded in a physical landscape. Pilgrims occupy a unique space. We travel over and through a world stained by all the excesses and pettiness of human existence, but also through a world filled with spiritual value and meaning. This [torii] gate sitting between the tides of salvation and depravity was a reminder that you can't have one without the other."

To enter each of the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines you encounter along your walk you must pass through a gate: a sanmon or niōmon at the temples or a torii at shrines. On one side of the gate is the secular and mundane world, immediately on the other, the sacred. Throughout the book Todd makes it clear that the distance between these two worlds can be amazingly small and that more often that not, they are entwined.

As Todd came to realize between Temples 12 and 13, each and every henro (pilgrim) walks at a different pace. There is no correct pace, there is no better or worse pace, there is only the pace that you need to walk to ensure you make it around the island in good health and in the time you have allotted for your pilgrimage. You will inevitably meet many interesting people during your walk, and you may want to walk the entire trail with them, but if they are stronger/weaker than you, healthier/in more pain than you, or on a different schedule you are going to have to separate and walk your own pilgrimages. Which means that at times you are going to have to walk alone, even if you don't particularly want to. As he says: "Relationships are like that on the pilgrimage—intense and over quickly."

And as there is no correct, better, worse, or otherwise pace, there is no better, worse, or otherwise way to do any part of the pilgrimage. We are each different, we approach it differently, and we will walk the trail differently.

"Rather than pushing my physical limits, muy challenge was becoming apparent—to control my ego and stop comparing myself with others. I needed to stop trying to gain something that I could measure, compare, and feel proud of. Instead, I needed to release that part of me that judges, competes, and criticizes in an attempt to be the 'best'."

Another reason that each henro will have a different experience is that the people we each meet along the trail will obviously be different. Different people, in different settings and situations ensures that no two of us will have the same experiences; similar, yes, but never the same. Todd gives us another fabulous lesson in pointing out that no matter what we think, you can not judge a book by its cover. You meet someone and are absolutely convinced that you know the type of person he/she is, their personality, their generosity, and everything else about them.....and, wham, in the blink of an eye they say or do something and you realize you were completely wrong, in every aspect. It brought a huge smile of remembrance of my times in this trap when he had to point out on one occasion: "He didn't strike me as the overly generous type. It turned out that I couldn't read a person at all." It also brought a nod of recognition when he pointed out on one occasion as he decided to walk alone: "I enjoyed talking to him, but we just had very different views."

Having never camped out while walking this pilgrimage myself, i can understand, but not relate to many of the experiences that Todd had during his walk. His schedule was too short, forcing him to walk more kilometers each day than his feet could tolerate, he struggled many a night to find somewhere to sleep out of the rain, he often found it hard to find food and something to drink, and since he walked during the summer, the heat and humidity were always an issue.

"Some days don't go well, no matter how hard you try and how well you plan."

"[T]he path doesn't care how you feel."

"Where to sleep is probably the most important decision walking henro face, and the availability of decent places sets each day's pace and destination."

But if you can learn to ignore the hardships you encounter, or, more accurately, learn to accept them as simply part of your experience, you enter a different world as you progress around the island.

"On long walks you become a part of the environment and notice things that others, who live in the area but pass by in cars, might ignore every day.""

"When you discover the world on foot, everything you used to know in life changes. You no longer think in terms of time spent traveling but in distance covered."

"Time slows down and life becomes simplified to its bare essentials: water, food, shelter, and companionship."

"Days of the week mean nothing, and time is dependent on the sun, not the mechanics of man. The world becomes a bigger place, and your life but a speck in the infinite universe."

If you are planning to camp out as you walk the henro trail this is a great read: introducing you to the culture of Japan, the types of people you may meet, the types of places you will find to sleep, and how to handle food and drink procurement along the way. If you are staying in minshuku and ryokan each night this won't teach you much that can be used to plan your walk, but, it is still a wonderful introduction to the world of being a henro.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to all past, present, and future henro.