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The Temples of Shodoshima

The Temples of Shodoshima

Candace Rose Rardon shares the journey behind her latest Sleep Story. 

A little over four years ago, the opportunity arose for me to visit Japan for the first time, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled about it. While I was growing up, my uncle was stationed in Japan with the U.S. Navy for several years and I loved being pen pals with my aunt, whose letters always arrived on colorful Sanrio stationery. Sometimes, there were even gilded sheets of origami paper tucked between the pages.

 

My aunt’s descriptive stories of their life in Japan filled my mind with its first real images of the wider world beyond my childhood home, and they played an instrumental role in stoking the wanderlust I already felt as a child.

 

Finally getting to plan my own visit to Japan thus felt like I was preparing for a fitting full-circle journey — a trip that would honor one of the first countries that had inspired me to become a traveler. Key cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto were natural stops on my itinerary, but there were also about ten days in my journey that I didn’t immediately know how to fill or where to spend them.

 

And so I decided to dig deeper in my research and look for a Japanese version of the places I have always been drawn to in my travels: Islands.

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One of my favorite things to do when looking for an island to explore in a new country is to open Google Maps, find a stretch of coastline or body of water nearby to where I’m already planning to be, and zoom in until I can see the names of any islands that might have popped up on the map. Then it’s just a matter of researching the islands and figuring out how to get to them — and, of course, what I’ll do when I’m there.

As I began this process for my trip to Japan, I narrowed my focus on the Seto Inland Sea, the 9,000-square mile body of water separating three of the four principal islands of Japan. The sea also serves as a waterway connecting the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, and is home to almost 3,000 islands, many of which are uninhabited. To an island-lover such as myself, this sounded pretty much idyllic.

 

The first island I saw on the map, Awajishima, is also the largest in the Inland Sea, but then I read on Wikitravel what the island is primarily known for: Onions. This didn’t exactly fit with what I was hoping to experience in Japan — especially after so many years of dreaming about the country from afar — so I decided to keep searching.

 

Next, just a little to the west of Awajishima, I spotted the second largest island in the sea, known as Shodoshima. Again, I visited the Wikitravel page for the island and read that what onions are to Awajishima, olives are to Shodoshima, even giving the island the occasional nickname of “Olive Island.” But as I kept reading, something else caught my attention — that in addition to olives, Shodoshima is also home to a smaller version of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage also found on neighboring Shikoku Island.

 

As my heart begin to race with anticipation, it was then that I knew — I’d found the island for me in Japan at last.

 

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As I recently shared in my newest Sleep Story for Calm, “The Temples of Shodoshima," the history of pilgrimage in Japan reaches back centuries into the past — more than a millennium, in fact. And arguably one of the most well-known Buddhist pilgrimages in the country is the 88 Temple Pilgrimage on Shikoku Island, which spans around 750 miles and can take up to two months to complete on foot.

 

While I would have loved to complete such a storied pilgrimage, I sadly wouldn’t be in Japan long enough — and so to discover Shodoshima and realize a smaller version of the pilgrimage existed on the island seemed like the perfect alternative.

 

Instead of taking two months like the Shikoku circuit, the shorter 88 Temple Pilgrimage on Shodoshima takes only about a week to complete its 100-mile route. But despite the great difference in their lengths, the two journeys still have much in common — and they offer those who travel their sacred paths many of the same rewards.

 

Throughout the eight days I spent walking the pilgrimage, slowly circling my way around Shodoshima, I felt these rewards on every level. First, there was simply the reward of pushing myself physically, moving at my own momentum through a foreign country and witnessing so many stunning natural landscapes I never would have seen had I not been traveling Shodoshima on foot. There were mountains and bamboo forests and incredible vistas when the trees parted to reveal the Inland Sea glittering below.

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There were also cultural rewards, as my knowledge of Japan grew deeper with each day I spent on the trail. Visiting up to a dozen temples a day, not only did I get to know more about the country’s rich traditions and history of pilgrimages, but I especially enjoyed seeing local life unfold around me. At times, the path led me directly through someone’s back garden, and I loved waving hello to islanders as they looked up from their work.

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But the greatest rewards I discovered on Shodoshima were those I felt on an emotional and spiritual level. As soon as I crossed the threshold of each temple, I felt the strongest sense of rest and repose wash over me, as though I were deep in meditation.

 

Every temple slowed my breath, focused my attention, and calmed my busy mind. There was a singular beauty in the bell that always hung at each temple; in the scent of incense and the gentle curl of its smoke as the fragrant sticks burned; and in the smile of each priest and temple volunteer, who always greeted me with warmth and kindness.

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More than realizing my childhood dreams of traveling to Japan, and even more than exploring a beautiful island in the Inland Sea, peace was the true gift that my time on the pilgrimage gave me — and as you listen to my new Sleep Story about Shodoshima, I hope it brings you some of the island’s serenity as well.

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