Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 2, 2017

"Japanese Pilgrimage" by Oliver Statler (Best Non-Fiction)

This is where one begins. On this mountaintop, at the holiest spot of this sprawling complex of temples, in the shadow of these towering cedars, one stands before the tomb of the saint whose life and legacy inspire the pilgrimage. Here one asks his blessing, his guidance and protection, his company, on the pilgrimage to come. (Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler, describing a visit to Koyasan before embarking on the Shikoku Pilgrimage)
One of the things still squarely on my ToDo list, is the Shikoku Pilgrimage of 88 Temples. A few times, I have dipped in a toe, so to speak, by visiting No. 1, Ryozenji, in Tokushima; No. 31, Chikurinji in Kochi; No. 51, Ishiteji, in Matsuyama; and No. 84, Yashimaji near Takamatsu. But these were random visits and not part of a pilgrimage. While this big but pleasant task is still glittering in my future, I am thinking about the book that first aroused my interest in the Shikoku Pilgrimage: Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler. It was Statler's fascinating account that made me fantasize about threading in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi. In this expertly written book, the author combines a personal account of the Pilgrimage with substantial cultural information on the topic. I first read Japanese Pilgrimage in the mid-1980s and that book now is so brown and broken that I have to be careful when turning the brittle pages. I think I have read it at least three times.

[Ishiteji Temple in Dogo Spa, Matsuyama]

Oliver Statler (1915-2002) graduated from the University of Chicago and came to Japan with the American army in 1947. He was gripped by the beauty of wood block prints of which he became an internationally known expert. His interest in the Pilgrimage dated from a first visit to Shikoku, in 1961; he first performed the whole 1000-mile circular pilgrimage in 1968. From 1969-1971 he lived in Matsuyama on Shikoku in order to further study the pilgrimage, and in 1971 he made the entire pilgrimage again (with a Japanese friend - this is the biographical account we find in the book). It was a Guggenheim Fellowship which permitted him in 1973 to finally write the book, which was first published in 1983.

As Japanese Pilgrimage shows, Statler was a beautiful stylist of the English language. His account is a lyrical, impressionistic portrait of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, anecdotal and episodic and yet securely built on an underlying narrative plan. It is well-researched and highly evocative of Japanese religiosity as it functions in daily life. It also contains biographical information about the priests and pilgrims prominent in the long history of the pilgrimage, starting with Kobo Daishi (774-835), saint, miracle worker, flamboyant evangelist, scholar, poet and even (later) a deity. He struggled to find the "right way" here in the mountains of Shikoku; and he sought it in China where he inherited the mantle of a great esoteric Buddhist master. He finally reached the understanding that all human beings possess the seed of Buddha and can, with hard effort, nurture that seed and reach enlightenment during this present life.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first one ("Master"), Statler gives an outline of the historical personage of Kukai (later known honorifically as Kobo Daishi), the 8th/9th-century monk and founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism in Japan upon whom the pilgrimage is focused. In the second part ("Savior"), Statler attempts to portray how layers of legend and belief enlarged Kobo Daishi and how faith in him as a divine savior was spread among the populace by wandering, itinerant holy men (hijiri). Finally, in the third section ("Pilgrims"), the pilgrimage itself comes into sharper focus, both through discussions with current pilgrims and priests and accounts of past pilgrims such as the Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danzo VIII and haiku poet Masaoka Shiki.

And while telling these three stories Statler shares with the reader his own experiences of the thousand-mile journey, a demanding route through deep mountings and along rugged coasts, taking almost two months to walk. All three sections are full of legends, folk stories, anecdotes and miracle tales that perfectly capture the mood and feel of the pilgrimage.

Perhaps to cut back on Japanese names for those not used to the language, Statler calls the 88 temples by number ("Number One," etc.) , but at the back of the book he provides a concordance with the temple names. The author also skips back and forth (without discussing all 88 temples) and doesn't give any practical information - in other words, this is not a guidebook. It is a book about the spirit of the pilgrimage, its history and its culture. You don't even actually have to perform it to enjoy this fine account. But that is a dangerous thought for me - it could make me lazy, for the Pilgrimage is still waiting, on my very doorstep as I now live in Kobe instead of Tokyo...

Remember, the Pilgrimage is circular, and like a circle, it has neither a beginning nor an end; like the quest for Enlightenment, it is unending...
Biography at University of Hawaii website. Bibliography of books on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. For a guide in English, see A Henro Pilgrimage Guide to the Eighty-eight Temples on Shikoku, Japan, by Taisen Miyata. A scholarly account is Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku, by Ian Reader. More scholarly articles on the Pilgrimage can be found in No 24:3-4 (Fall 1997) of The Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (available online).

Best Non-Fiction


(Auto-) Biography
Sir Vidia's Shadow by Paul Theroux

Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson



The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.