electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 6 in 2008
First published in ejcjs on 20 July 2008

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Reflections on Fieldwork by a Visual Anthropologist


Tommi Mendel

PhD Candidate
Institute of Religious Studies
University of Zurich

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About the Author


This paper contains embedded links to film sequences recorded  by the author, Tommi Mendel, in the course of producing his film Arukihenro (2006). The film sequences can be viewed by any multimedia software that supports the '.mov' format. Please click on the links provided to watch these sequences. For a review and more information about the film, please click here.

Matsuyama, Ishite-ji – Temple 51 on the Shikoku pilgrimage route, March 2003 early morning: A group of older people dressed in white firmly steps off the bus to walk together through the temple area to the main hall. There, they stand with a slight bow and palms pressed together while reciting mantra prayers before hurrying back on the bus to be driven to temple 52. A little aloof, in the opposite building, another man in his mid-forties, also dressed in white, packs his little backpack, seizes his walking stick and walks with a limp towards me. Encounter, mutual astonishment. Neither did he expect to meet a foreigner in this place, nor was I prepared to come across a henro, a pilgrim. Curious and interested, we exchange information. He hands me some chocolate and his card before vanishing through the temple gate, dragging his right leg – thirty trekking days behind him, twelve more to go.


Ideas often come unintended and in an unexpected context, more often than not when one is far from the comfort of a writing desk. That was the case in the above recounted incident when the pilgrim and I met. This chance encounter was the starting point and inspiration for the project Arukihenro, my master's thesis in social anthropology at the University of Zurich.

As a passionate traveller and explorer of worlds new to me, my visit to the Ishite temple was rather accidental, a stop on my return journey from Kyushu via Shikoku to Tokyo. Before, I had not known of the Shikoku henro, and I was surprised to learn that in modern Japan numerous people still leave their daily routine to undertake a pilgrimage, and march for several weeks. My astonishment at that chance encounter turned into a strong desire to learn more about it.

My interest in Japanese culture had grown out of long periods living in and journeys across the country, as well as due to me marrying my Japanese wife Atsuko. The Shikoku pilgrimage was a good opportunity to continue my interest in learning more about Japan and Japanese culture; 'step-by-step'. Such a venture would require me to undertake the entire pilgrimage as a participant observer, and thus the plan grew into a field research project of several months' duration. It was a prospect that I was doubly intrigued by – being at once a globetrotter and social anthropologist. The decision to realise the theme as a film was easy at hand: the sensuality of the Ishite temple together with the traditional clothing of the pilgrims and their joint chanting of the Heart Sutra represented perfect scenery. To render this unique atmosphere accessible, together with the thoughts and experiences of the pilgrims, priests and residents of Shikoku, to collect the tales and legends, and to present the reoccurring rituals at each temple, film was certainly the best medium to choose.


After the initial idea, a plan had to be drawn up and then put into action. The theme had to be specified and narrowed down, and a concrete thesis had to be formulated. Back in Switzerland, in Spring 2003, I started my research and studied the little literature available (not in Japanese) on the Shikoku pilgrimage. Interestingly, the literature did not differentiate between motorised and walking pilgrims. Walking pilgrims account for only about one percent of the pilgrims, in absolute numbers that equals about 2,000-3,000 persons per year. Compared to Japan's 127 million inhabitants, this is a tiny minority. However, it is striking that this number has doubled in the last ten years. Furthermore, it has to be pointed out that a period of 40-60 days – which the foot pilgrimage requires – is a long time out from professional and daily life. Thus, one wonders about who the people who undertake such a journey are and why they do it. Hence, the Arukihenro project focuses on what triggers their pilgrimage, and the motivations of today's walking pilgrims. How does it come about that one decides to break out of daily routines, to leave one's social environs for almost two months, to be a walking pilgrim? Is the trigger to be found in the general structure of society or are personal reasons the decisive factor? What are the pilgrims hoping for by embarking on their journey and what kind of inner transformation are they expecting to occur during, or as a result of, the pilgrimage? These questions were the starting point and guideline for my research.

Regarding what motivates the Shikoku pilgrims, there exist two quantitative studies. However, these do not differentiate between walking pilgrims and their motorised counterpart. In 1991 Ian Reader (1996: 274) studied 3,164 osamefuda at the Gokuraku temple, of which 569 were furnished with individual wishes.[1] The other empirical study was executed by sociologists Osada Koichi and Sakakita Masaaki of Waseda University (2004). In this study 1,237 pilgrims filled in a 35 point questionnaire, of which one question asked about motivations and another one the trigger. Their results were as follows, with the most frequent answers stated first in the table:

Osamefuda Wishes

Waseda University:

Waseda University:

Good health

For the ancestors

Family safety/welfare

Healing of illness

Travel safety

Help in studying/success in education

Finding a spouse/having children

Business prosperity

Good luck/attainment of wishes

Memorials for dead babies

Prevention of danger

Praying for passed away relatives and ancestors

Health of the family

Religious motivation

One's own health

Time out for the soul



To meet other people

Business success

Exam success

Private problems

One's own health

Yearly ritual

Death of a loved one

Advice of a friend


Reading a book

No special trigger

Family problems

Illness of a loved one

Career problems

Further information can also be found in MacGregor's (2002) qualitative research, which involved interviews conducted with 161 pilgrims in Shikoku in 2000 and 2001. However, she also did not differentiate between walking and motorised pilgrims. She summarises the motivation of the interviewed pilgrims as follows: 'To pray for the repose of the soul of a deceased person', 'to improve one's health by walking in the fresh air' and 'to be in harmony with nature'. However, she also mentions 'self-discovery', 'the historical significance of the pilgrimage', 'sightseeing', 'to meet other people', 'faith', and 'ascetic training'.

The so far quoted results were of only limited use for my project as they are rather general and their validity might be challenged for the following three reasons. Firstly, as stated before, the studies did not differentiate between walking and motorised pilgrims. Secondly, the inquiries were conducted anonymously – on one occasion via analysis of osamefuda, and once by using questionnaires – which may not be suitable for bringing out personal motivations, especially not in a reportedly collective culture as Japan. Thirdly, it is possible that a walking pilgrim does not disclose his or her true reasons, wishes and what he or she hopes for in a five minute marching break, especially not to a stationary stranger. Studying the table above, we notice that categories like 'Private problems' along with 'Career problems' are named in the last position, a psychological field correlating to MacGregor's abstract terms like 'self-discovery' and 'ascetic training'. It seems that '[...] pilgrimage can, and frequently does, take the form of a personal therapeutic act or an explicitly instrumental plea for divine intervention to sort out some earthly woe' (Morinis 1992: 9) – and this is exactly the aspect I wanted to look into in my research on the Shikoku walking pilgrims.

Motivations and triggers to undertake the Shikoku foot pilgrimage have to be placed in the broader context of the socio-cultural and political as well as religious factors present in modern Japan. Thus the documentary film Arukihenro on the one hand aims at documenting the process of change the pilgrims undergo during their trekking as well as to document their motivation in the first place, and on the other hand, to transmit information on modern day Japanese society and Japanese religiosity. To collect my data I chose qualitative methods such as unstructured conversations, and a semi-structured interview, which followed for this purpose specially developed interview guidelines. A further method was participant observation documented continuously in a research dairy. To ensure validity, I also wanted to involve the priests and residents of Shikoku, thereby complementing the inside view of the pilgrims with external onlookers' observations.

One important factor in planning my field research was to recognize the dynamic character of a pilgrimage. Compared to a study conducted in a stationary location, it is more difficult to approach candidates, to build up closeness, to gain confidence, and to persuade protagonists to be part of a film. If the plan is also to document the process of change a pilgrim undergoes throughout walking the pilgrimage, the task is further complicated. Keep also in mind that most foot pilgrims are solitary travellers and that this is often part of the pre-conditions for undergoing the process of change. Thus, a sudden companion who was not considered to be part of the journey from the outset, and furthermore, who is a foreigner and travels with a camera filming most of the time, hardly counts as a welcome addition. Complications like this had to be considered when drawing up the production schedule. As the main seasons of pilgrimage are Spring and Autumn, I scheduled nine months to collect my data, including both peak phases of pilgrimage.

Yet, pre-production not only meant developing my research concept, but also to reflect on the realisation of a film – inspired by the literature on the Shikoku pilgrimage. As the progress of my research was not predictable, and as I was dependent on fruitful encounters during the first production phase, I was deprived of the option to have a pre-created film structure or a scheduled shooting script. However, while the film structure and the images captured had to be reflected upon continuously during shooting, the decision on the narrative style of my research project had to be taken at the beginning and then to be adhered to subsequently. Thus, I decided to focus exclusively on the protagonists as carriers of the narrative of the film Arukihenro, considering all statements and, disregarding whether they occurred diegetically or as voice-over. In other words I would not employ a so-called 'Voice-of-God'[2] commentary. This decision was taken in respect of my maxims of ethnographic film, especially regarding the participation of protagonists and of their addressing of the audience. I believe that when a film maker restrains himself to edit a film completely out of protagonists' statements, he imparts some of the creational influence on the film's structure onto the protagonists themselves. Furthermore, this results in a communication between protagonist and spectator, thus providing space for identification. We should not forget the fact that a recipient receives guidance in assessing the protagonists' statements by the insight offered on the collaboration between film-maker and protagonists – it allows for a kind of glimpse onto the pre-filmic reality.[3]

For any kind of field research the formation of the collaborating team is crucial. In principle, regarding ethnographic film, the best results are achieved in a small team – especially taking into account today's technical possibilities. If one plans to go on a foot pilgrimage of more than 1,200 kilometres, the idea of a large team does not occur in the first place, as the physical challenge would present too high a risk of including members who drop out along the way. Thus, the Arukihenro project was planned as a two-person quest, involving my wife Atsuko and myself. The advantages were as follows. As a Swiss-Japanese couple we not only complemented each other regarding gender roles, but also regarding an insider-outsider perspective. Especially regarding rural Shikoku which is not often confronted by foreigners, the Japanese dichotomy of uchi and soto – belonging and being an outsider – had to be respected. Atsuko with Japanese as her mother tongue belonged and, she provided a more familiar point of contact, thus hopefully reducing potential participants' inhibitions. On the other hand, my status as 'exotic' might be a bonus on a different level, for example regarding opening doors reserved only for guests. Moreover, Atsuko intended to accomplish her own project, an art-work, and at the same time use the project as a way to bid farewell to her deceased grandmother.[4]

During pre-production, the technical equipment also had to be chosen and tested, along with the trekking gear. In addition, a fundraising mission was executed, although with a disappointing result. Pre-production found its end with the flight to Japan in early August 2004. Now it was time to put the concept into practice and to write the according images.


The production phase of Arukihenro followed roughly the afore-mentioned schedule. The first phase of the production process comprised of completing the pilgrimage in one go while staying focused on the previously defined goals. From the beginning it was clear that we had to march the route in one go without including longer breaks so that we too could share the experience of being a walking pilgrim at first hand. It took 44 days to complete the 1200 kilometre circuit of the island and to visit all 88 temples; two days out of the 44 we had to take a break because of typhoons. We started with no pre-established contacts, neither with pilgrims, nor with residents or priests, but the goal was to change that along the way. A worry was that we had chosen the low season for this first phase of the field research. So why then did we pick the hot summer season to set off? We had three reasons. Firstly, the temples would not be crowded with bus loads of motorised pilgrims and therefore the hostels would not be fully booked weeks in advance. Secondly, less trade meant more time at hand to talk to the priests, landlords and residents. And thirdly, because there were not so many walking pilgrims on the way, it was easier to break the ice as there was less 'competition' to exchange experiences with fellow travellers. Fortunately, these considerations were proven to be correct.

Production stage one: the march

During the 44 days of foot pilgrimage, countless encounters, conversations and interviews took place – with or without camera. Though I cannot relate in detail at this point, I want to point out that all exchanges, verbal or non-verbal, and no matter how short they were, contributed to my impression of the Shikoku pilgrimage and had an influence on the end product Arukihenro. I will now go into detail on the most relevant encounters for the film.

Nasuda Momoko, a young woman of only twenty years, we met on the very first day at temple 4. We continued our journey together and on the next day, at temple 11, Ogawa Nae, another woman of the same age, joined our group. On the third day, our group of four grew further as we met two men on the long and remote route between temples 11 and 12, 28 year old Maegawa Ryūta and 35 year old Ae Shigaru. For the next four days the group stayed together and I had ample opportunity to document group conversations, but also to conduct individual interviews in a relaxed atmosphere, as they were all supportive of my project. I was torn between feeling excited about this early success, and being worried as a group of six that we did not meet the usual picture of a Shikoku henro. On the sixth day, the group broke up due to divergent ideas regarding marching speed and daily distances to be covered. However, only two days later we ran into Ryūta again at temple 23, and shortly afterwards we came upon Shigeru, and thus we continued the foot pilgrimage for the next four days as a group of four again, before Shigeru left our group for good at temple 25. Despite the fact that from the twelfth day onwards we still met more walking pilgrims, and although we marched now and then with some of them as a group of four, I decided to concentrate on Ryūta and to document his journey if possible from beginning to end. From that point we accompanied Ryūta for the whole circuit, with the following two exceptions: once he chose to march in solitude for two days, and another time for three days. In total, we travelled 36 days with Ryūta, who thus turned out to be the main protagonist of Arukihenro.

Further encounters of prominence – which especially influenced the research in the third part of the production phase – were encounters with residents and priests we met along the pilgrimage route. On the eighth day, we got to know the landlady Miyauchi Sachiko, who shared many nice pilgrim anecdotes with us, and on the next day, we met Fukunaga Masumi who owns a little coffee shop along the route. The special shelter that was built for the walking pilgrims thanks to Kanehira Fumie, lies 6.5 kilometres from temple 38. It is placed so that the pilgrims pass through on the outbound and return journey. We reached that place on the twenty-first day, and we were invited to stay, and got to know Kanehira-san and several other pilgrims who were staying there for a few days to regain strength. A further relevant acquaintance we made on the twenty-sixth day at temple 42, where a lively conversation evolved between us and the young priest Matsumoto Myōkei, a nephew of Miyata Taisen.[5] Throughout our own pilgrimage, there was no time for longer conversations and interviews with residents and priests, thus we re-visited all the aforementioned people during the third stage of the production phase.

Regarding the field research, it has to be pointed out that the work was difficult. Almost 20 kilograms of trekking and film equipment to carry, a humid-hot climate and the daily strain of marching took their toll. More than once I was too exhausted to conduct interviews in a concentrated way, or to shoot footage at suitable moments. Furthermore, the physical strain was also felt by my fellow pilgrims which posed an ethical conflict. Do I really dare to confront the pilgrims with more questions when they are already tired? Can I reasonably expect them to give an interview after a long exhausting marching day? Another problematic area was my twofold role of being a pilgrim and researcher. Many people in Shikoku associate walking pilgrims with Kobo Daishi,[6] believing that he walks alongside the pilgrims. Many residents thus saw me not only as a researcher, but also as a henro, a pilgrim who had to be provided with o-settai.[7] I did not always find it easy to do justice to both roles.

Another problematic area that a pilgrimage brings with it is the individual tempos of the participants. Each has to find his or her own rhythm regarding taking off and arrival time, daily distances to be mastered and regarding length and number of breaks. Thus, Atsuko and I had to adapt to each of our informants.

Now we are at a point where an important film-ethnographic approach has to be mentioned: namely the collaboration with the informants during the field research. Ryūta supported our project not only by filling us in on his daily schedule, but moreover by his willingness to share his thoughts in front of the camera. He never refused to be filmed; he even helped the project by, for example, slowing down the execution of the rituals at the temples so that they could be better portrayed on film. He offered this without our asking, as I was following the maxim of never shooting anything staged.

To summarise, during the 36 days we marched together, Ryūta gradually opened up and thus the thoughts he imparted in front of the camera grew more personal every day. In many ways Ryūta represented the 'classical' young Shikoku walking pilgrim: a young person who has been drawn to this pilgrimage by the idea of adventure and of escaping daily life, without being truly aware of the spiritual or religious background of such a journey, but nevertheless sticking rigidly to the traditions and conventions. He was enjoying the time out and the numerous encounters during the pilgrimage made him reflect on his own life-style. However, the situations offering themselves to conversation with other pilgrims were more difficult to master as we never spent more than one or two days with the same people, with the exception of the group we travelled with in the first few days. As soon as the daily conversations were moving onto a more personal level, the pilgrims politely evaded answering and one time it was even pointed out how inappropriate it is to ask a pilgrim about his motivation.

Regarding the encounter with Ryūta, as well as with other protagonists, the mixture of our project team – my Japanese wife Atsuko and me being a foreigner – worked as we had hoped for. The applied method of participant observation paired with unstructured interviews and conversations proved to be more than adequate for this research project.

Production stage two: analysis and further planning

The second phase of the production process took place in Kobe and extended from October 2004 until January 2005. During that time we analysed the material gathered thus far, we planned the next steps of our project, and a small film was produced.

During the first phase of production we had shot 25 hours of footage. Analysis of the recordings and of the research diary demonstrated Kobo Daishi's omnipresence for the pilgrims as well as for the residents. Central for the pilgrims along the 88 sanctuaries was neither one specific Buddha or Bodhisattva, nor the teaching of the Shingon School, but the affinity to Kobo Daishi. However, this affinity often appeared to develop during the pilgrimage. Furthermore, the experience of the first research period suggested I should differentiate four groups of Shikoku walking pilgrims. Firstly, young people who were either still completing their education or who had just finished it. Secondly, pensioners. Thirdly, Unemployed of all age groups. And fourthly, homeless people, whereby their status as a pilgrim supplied them with enough gifts to keep on living constantly along the pilgrim circuit. Concerning trigger and motivation to undertake a foot pilgrimage I then differentiated between tatemae and honne[8] in all four groups. In a Japanese context, a time out ordinary life of some duration needs to be justified and thus a religiously connotated pilgrimage lends itself as explanation. This research project taught me to count religiously motivated reasons like 'to pray for the passed away loved ones or ancestors', or 'as religious training' as well as general statements like 'for health', as sometimes belonging to the category of tatemae, while under the surface the real motivation – honne – was hidden. I found the earlier on formulated hypothesis confirmed that many pilgrims set off to Shikoku due to a personal crisis and their hoping to find a solution along their journey. This holds not only true for the many youngsters confronted with the onset of their adult life, and the pensioners challenged by another transitional phase, but especially also for the countless people who had lost their jobs or even their home. Thus the socio-economical background of contemporary Japan is a central factor in the doubling of the number of walking pilgrims in all the above specified groups. Dubisch's (1995: 97) posed question regarding the context of a Greek pilgrims' route also holds true for the Shikoku henro: 'although liminality is an important dimension of pilgrimage, one might ask to what extent pilgrimage creates liminality and to what extent it tends to draw people who are already liminal in some way'.

This 'liminal' aspect of crisis is obvious in the groups of homeless or unemployed, but in the two other groups, it has to be discovered individually. Let me illustrate this line of thought with the example of Ryūta: In our first conversation, Ryūta gave the death of his mother as the reason for the pilgrimage – an explanation that could perhaps be interpreted on the tatemae-level. Only in the course of the shared pilgrimage did he begin to disclose more personal reasons: he wanted to escape from his daily life, from work and from his parental home; he was looking for a new life. The 'liminal' character of Ryūta's pilgrimage has been overlain with tatemae-reasoning, while the true motivation lies on the honne-level and becomes apparent only with time. However, it has to be pointed out, that for Ryūta – as holds true for most pilgrims – the aspect of wanderlust and thirst for adventures is part of the enticement, which is similar to the backpacking bug and adventure hunger in many western cultures. Thus, pleasure and religiousity do not have to be exclusive; especially in the Japanese context these two components have coexisted for a long time.[9]

As mentioned earlier, Ryūta was an ideal representative of the young Shikoku pilgrims regarding my central thesis. For my film, therefore, I had to balance him as my main protagonist with some older people from one of the three other specified pilgrim groups, and with residents and priests. During the second working phase, from Kobe, we re-contacted the residents and priests we had met during late summer. Everybody agreed to support our project right away, so meetings were scheduled. Additionally, I contacted sociology professor Osada Kōichi of Waseda University in Tokyo. He has been studying the Shikoku pilgrimage for a while and he spontaneously agreed to meet.

In the frame of this second field research phase I also produced a first film of 80 minutes length which documented our 44-days of pilgrimage chronologically and without any claim to being a piece of art or intellectual work. This film with the title Gaijin to Shikoku Hachijūhakkasho wo iku[10] had a double purpose. Firstly, the film gave Ryūta the opportunity to check the material and to give feedback on the footage. Furthermore, involvement at this stage of production offered Ryūta the possibility to correct and to influence the filmic end result. For that purpose I planned a shared screening, a screening which itself would be captured on film to document the influence of the pilgrimage experience half a year after the completion of the temple circuit. Thus, camera and the film medium were once more part of the methodological approach. Secondly, to edit Gaijin to Shikoku Hachijūhakkasho wo iku I had to interact intensively with the footage, a process which helped to identify sequences and images I had to redo or which had been missing so far.

Production stage three: working locally

After this second production phase in Kobe, the next shooting period followed from February until April 2005 in Shikoku and Tokyo. In February 2005, we again travelled along the pilgrim route from temple 1 to temple 51, but this time by car. As before, numerous informal conversations took place following the guidelines of participant observation. In addition to shooting supplementary footage along the way, interviews were conducted with the following residents we had met on our summer foot pilgrimage: Miyauchi Sachiko, Kanehira Fumie and Fukunaga Masumi. We already had footage depicting all of them together with Ryūta, but this was important regarding the filmic narration and the portrayed relationships between the protagonists. Moreover, all three residents had background knowledge almost impossible to surpass as they had years of experience with, and of supporting, Shikoku walking pilgrims on a daily basis. Collaboration with these three women proved to be agreeable and uncomplicated. The interviews could take place 'naturally', and the camera was on the whole ignored. We touched upon the central thesis of Arukihenro and especially about topics which were difficult to tackle for the pilgrims in front of a camera: personal and negatively connotated stories and problems, psychological instability and depression. Insights into these kinds of reports on pilgrims would have to be gathered from these three women as go-betweens.

While we spent one day with Miyauchi-san, and only two hours with Fukunaga-san, we stayed on for several days with the 80 year old Kanehira Fumie. We helped out with the pilgrims' shelter, taking care of small jobs like doing the shopping, cooking and chopping wood. As already mentioned, this hostel is situated as a passing through place on the outbound and return journey to temple 38. Hence, it was the perfect location to contact passing pilgrims and to hope for conversations. At the time we were staying there, Shirakawa Michihiru, a 64 year old man was there too. Twice per year he sets out to walk the pilgrimage, this time already for the 9th time. He spent the whole winter with Kanehira-san, helping her with the organisation and work at the shelter. Working hand in hand and thanks to our shared interest in the Shikoku henro, we soon had interesting and fruitful talks. He struck me as an ideal candidate to complement Ryūta, but he insisted to be of minor importance to my film as his thoughts were too humble. Neither did he want to talk in front of the camera or be filmed when helping out at the shelter. We had to accept Shirakawa-san's wishes and decided to meet up with him at a later point again. In the meantime we travelled to Tokyo to conduct the interview with Professor Osada.

The interview went on for almost two hours and took place in Professor Osada's office at Waseda University in Tokyo. Professor Osada's research on the Shikoku pilgrimage started over 15 years ago and he has published regularly on that topic. The purpose of the interview was to test the so far established hypotheses, while at the same time gaining competent and scientifically grounded facts and insights into the walking pilgrims, i.e. statements which could be used in the filmic narration as an alternative to an off-commentary. This double purpose was met thanks to Professor Osada's generous cooperativeness. He not only confirmed my hypotheses, but supported my findings with actual references to the social and economic changes within Japanese society throughout recent years.

At the end of March 2005 we returned to Shikoku, this time setting out at temple 88 and driving the pilgrimage route in the reverse direction until we reached temple 38. Matsumoto Myōkei, the priest of temple 42, had done us the favour of arranging a meeting with his father, a high-ranking priest of the Shingon school, whose temple in Uwajima belonged to one of the twenty Bangai.[11] The interviews with Okuni Taikei at the Ryukoin temple were held to gain access to the view and experience of a priest concerning my central thesis and hypotheses, and in addition to document his contact with the walking pilgrims.

After the exceptionally fruitful talks with Okuni Taikei, we travelled on to stay again a few days with Kanehira-san. As in the previous month, we helped with the daily maintenance of the shelter; Shirakawa-san was still lodging here. Working side by side again and thanks to our talks in February, the ice was broken and Shirakawa-san gave his consent to be filmed. Thanks to the knowledge gained in February and, moreover, thanks to the by now developed familiar atmosphere, Shirakawa-san was ready to relate his personal story in front of the camera. I assume that thanks to the following factors all restraint was dropped. We had been walking pilgrims ourselves and thus counted as part of the in-group; we were able to recount our experiences regarding certain places and routes during the conversations. Thus, a shared interest was established, and a discussion on an equal basis was possible. To work side by side at the shelter did also help to overcome his initial inhibition and the fact that Atsuko is Japanese also deserves mentioning.

So, Shirakawa-san turned out to be our second protagonist after all, complementing Ryūta. I wanted to film him not only in interaction with passing pilgrims, but also together with Kanehira-san. As we had no footage of Shirakawa-san together with Ryūta, in filming these interactions I followed a double purpose: to integrate Shirakawa-san into the filmic narration, and, moreover, to document informal talks among pilgrims which were not initiated by me. Inspired by films by David MacDougall, I see these kinds of scenes as primary aspects of any ethnographic film, as they allow the audience to take on the position of participant observer. Thanks to the help of Shirakawa-san we could film such moments. As he sees his duties at the shelter also in mental support of the passing walking pilgrims, he always tries to start a conversation. Being almost his partner, I could be present and record the dialogues.

Production stage four: screening of Gaijin to Shikoku Hachijūhakkasho wo iku

To complete the production process, the screening of the February version of the film had to take place for Ryūta, and to be filmed in turn. As mentioned before, the film Gaijin to Shikoku Hachijūhakkasho wo iku should present the research of the first production phase and allow Ryūta opportunity for feedback. The purpose of this screening was twofold. Firstly, Ryūta as main protagonist could take part in the production process, and, secondly, I hoped to gain further insight by studying his response and comments, both regarding the time of the pilgrimage and regarding the weeks following. Although I had held an interview with Ryūta the day after completing the pilgrimage, I was convinced that a pilgrim – throughout the pilgrimage or at the moment of completion – might still not be aware of his or her true motivation and of the changes taking place. I think that to mentally process such a quest, to allow time and distance are necessary for a thorough reflection. Hence, I wanted to have an additional conversation with Ryūta. The screening and the interview with Ryūta took place in Kobe in April 2005, about seven months after completion of the pilgrimage. My concept worked in as far as Ryūta responded directly and naturally to the images, and he verbally expressed his reactions. His spontaneous comment when confronted with the interview passage from the previous summer regarding changes taking place was a success for the post-filmic dramaturgy. In retrospect he had recognised that some changes had indeed taken place. However, Ryūta's critical input regarding the rough cut of the film was minimal. He did not find it necessary to wish for changes.

So, after a period of nine months our field research and production phase found its close. Back in Switzerland, it was now about time to start the overall analysis and to edit the final version of the film.


The whole process of overall analysis, editing, test screenings, alternations, until deciding on a final version, spanned from May 2005 until February 2006 and took place in Zurich. The guideline for the analysis of a total of 47 hours of footage was as follows: Conversations and interviews with each protagonist had to be filtered and the passages had to be checked against the double purpose of supporting my research results (thus the scenes would carry the intended message of the film), while also further the film's dramaturgy. Yet, I did not want to have the film dominated by the verbal layer, as my aim was to combine the parameters of image, language, and content into a unity of filmic narration. I wanted to limit and balance the 'talking head' scenes with meaningful images. In so doing, the audience would not just be confronted with facts, but would be given space and time for their own experience, to follow their own thoughts and to find inspiration.[12] Also, I decided to exclude the issue of the homeless who had established a new kind of homeland along the pilgrimage route by constantly living on it. Although I had material covering that topic, I saw it as such a complex aspect worth its own research project and a more thorough filmic treatment.

The film's framework should follow Victor Turner's (1978) tripartite structure of pilgrimage.[13] This posed a problem, as we did not have material of protagonists prior to setting out on the pilgrimage. I had to play an arty trick to fill that gap and to still achieve the intended structure. Therefore, Arukihenro should start with the screening of Gaijin to Shikoku Hachijūhakkasho wo iku, filmed seven months after completion of the pilgrimage, showing Ryūta in the profane world. Then, in flash backs, I would introduce the life as a pilgrim, follow the route as the liminal stage, and finally would arrive back at the starting point, at ordinary daily life. Thus, the film's structure resembles a circle, similar to the Shikoku pilgrimage itself.

Prologue and epilogue were therefore situated at an identical spatial and temporal level, featuring Ryūta as the only protagonist and therefore was easy to edit. Likewise, the transition sequences did not pose any problems, as I had made sure to shoot enough images of temple gates, bridges and tunnels, i.e. transition symbols and situations. The main corpus of the film, however, was split into two not only on the spatial, but also on the temporal level. There was the route material of Ryūta's pilgrimage, and the stationary scenes of Shirakawa-san at the pilgrims' shelter. We had to find a dramaturgical form which constituted the film as a construed unity able to bridge spatio-temporal diversity. For this purpose we used recurring elements like the Heart Sutra, wind and water wheels, marching legs, gates, bridges and tunnels, signposts and the numbered temples. In addition, the scenes of Professor Osada acted as a kind of bridge between the two spatial complexes, he could introduce them and point out their relatedness. Another structuring principle was to continually portray the process of change Ryūta went through, which went hand in hand with his growing trust of the camera and his opening up towards the implicit audience. The spectator should develop the feeling of being somehow on pilgrimage alongside the protagonist, while growing closer with Ryūta.

Content wise, I aimed at a structure breaking the central thesis into thematic blocks which would move the filmic narration from a micro onto a macro level. Based on the motivation of the pilgrims and via their process of change during pilgrimage, information on the Japanese understanding of religion and of the socio-economical situation of the country should also be passed on.

The renowned French ethnographic director Jean Rouch once said that to make a film is to tell a story. I think that the great challenge in editing is to tell a story in an interesting way, while, at the same time, conveying the content accurately, and to be aware of the audience's receptivity, while not forgetting about the pre-filmic reality. Atsuko was part of the whole editing process, so as to check and clarify any questions of understanding on the verbal, image or content level. Yet, Atsuko had also been involved in the field research and thus she was also missing the necessary distance between pre-filmic and filmic reality to comment objectively on the editing. Test screenings with non-involved persons took place to check the film's comprehensibility and effectiveness. Therefore, I presented the different versions of the rough cut repeatedly to friends, acquaintances and specialists from the ethnology and religious studies circles, but also to film experts. Thanks to their constructive and objective criticism I altered the rough cut over a period of three months, until I finally decided on the 73 minute final version of Arukihenro. The post-production found its end in January 2006 with the release of the film on DVD. To close the research circle, the DVD was distributed among all the people involved.

Sequel Instead of Closure

Despite the fact that Arukihenro was my first film project, and thus represented learning by doing in audio-visual methods, I believe that the result bridges the disciplines of social anthropology, documentary film making and maybe even art. Thanks to the chosen medium of film, the research focus of this project found a broad audience. Thus, the information is not only accessible to experts, but also to interested laypersons, something that I count as an 'academic excess value'. Arukihenro has not only been invited to several international ethnographic film festivals, but finds itself also in demand by different pilgrims and people generally interested in Japan and Japanese culture. Pilgrims of the Way of St James, for example, often give the following reason when ordering the DVD: they would like to continue their own experience as pilgrims in Spain in a new, i.e. unfamiliar cultural and geographical framework. I keep asking about their individual motivations for their pilgrimage-interest when they order the film, as that information presents an additional research perspective. Arukihenro ends 'openly' with Ryūta's final statement 'I would like to set out again on the 88 temple path', and, equally, the hereby reflected research process seems not yet to have completed its full circle.

ARUKIHENRO – Walking Pilgrims, Documentary film, Tommi Mendel 2006. 73min, OV/e. www.tigertoda.ch

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[1] Osamefuda are name cards which pilgrims sometimes furnish with wishes and which they place at temples along the pilgrimage.

[2] See Nichols 1991:32ff.

[3] Hohenberger (1988:28ff) distinguishes five reality references: the non-filmic reality, the pre-filmic reality, the filmic reality, the reality of the film, and the after-filmic reality.

[4] The art-project Farewell in Shikoku was successfully exhibited in Switzerland twice in 2007. For further information see: http://www.azkotoda.com/Art%20Work.html

[5] Miyata Taisen wrote a pilgrimage guide for Shikoku, which was published in 1984 (see bibliography).

[6] Kukai, also known posthumously as Kobo Daishi (774–835), was a Japanese monk, scholar, artist and founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. All of the 88 Temples are associated with him.

[7] O-settai stands for the support the pilgrims receive from the Shikoku residents who provide small services and treats like gifts, food and drink, and sometimes even the possibility spending the night in the shelter of the giver's home.

[8] Tatemae refers to stated intentions and public behaviour patterns, while honne refers to a person's true personal feelings. See also Hendry 2003:49ff.

[9] See Shinno 2002: 469.

[10] This translates into English as follows: 'With a Foreigner on the 88-Temple Pilgrimage'.

[11] Next to the 88 temples on the pilgrimage route, there are 20 more Buddhist temples which historically are connected to the work and legacy of Kobo Daishi. These temples are called Bangai and many pilgrims visit them too when undertaking the pilgrimage.

[12] See Schlumpf 1995: 115.

[13] Victor Turner (1978) formulated a model for the structure of pilgrimage, which itself was based on the structure of the Rites of Passage as established by Arnold van Gennep in 1908. Rites of Passage are initiation rituals which alter an individual regarding his or her actual condition, social status or age. They are marked by three steps. (1) Separation: the candidate leaves his previous status behind. (2) A liminal, go-between phase: here, the social daily norms and hierarchies are no longer valid and the initiant is being prepared for his or her future status. (3) Reintegration: by-passing the ritual of transformation, the initiant acquires a new status in society. Turner transferred this three-step-model onto the structure of pilgrimage.

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Dubisch, Jill. 1995. In a different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender, and Practice at a Greek Island Shrine. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hendry, Joy. 2003. Understanding Japanese Society. London: Routledge.

Hohenberger, Eva. 1988. Die Wirklichkeit des Films. Dokumentarfilm, Ethnographischer Film, Jean Rouch. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.

Hoshino, Eiki. 1997. Pilgrimage and Peregrination: Contextualizing the Saikoku Junrei and the Shikoku Henro. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 24 (3-4): 271-299.

MacDougall, David. 1995. Beyond Observational Cinema. In: P. Hockings (Ed.). Principles of Visual Anthropology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 115-132.

MacGregor, Fiona. 2002. Shikoku Henro. A Study of Japanese and Western Pilgrims on the Eighty-Eight Sacred Places Pilgrimage. MA Dissertation, University of Sheffield. Accessed: 20 May 2008.

Miyata, Taisen. 1984. A Henro Pilgrimage Guide to the Eighty-Eight Temples of Shikoku Island. Sacramento: Northern California Koyasan Temple.

Morinis, Alan. (Ed.). 1992. Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage. New York: Greenwood Press.

Nichols, Bill. 1991. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Reader, Ian. 1996. Pilgrimage as Cult: The Shikoku Pilgrimage as a Window on Japanese Religion. In: P.F. Kornicki und I.J. McMullen (Eds.). Religion in Japan: Arrows to heaven and earth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 267-287.

Reader, Ian. 2005. Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku. Honululu: University of Hawaii Press.

Reader, Ian and Paul L. Swanson. 1997. Pilgrimage in the Japanese Religious Tradition. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 24 (3-4): 225-270.

Schlumpf, Hans-Ulrich. 1995. Von sprechenden Menschen und Talking Heads. Der Text im Filmtext. In: Edmund Ballhaus and Beate Engelbrecht (Eds.). Der ethnographische Film. Eine Einfόhrung in Methoden und Praxis. Berlin: Reimer. pp. 105-120.

Shinno, Toshikazu. 2002. Journeys, Pilgrimages, Excursions: Religious Travels in the early Modern Period. Monumenta Nipponica. 57 (4): 187-206.

Turner, Victor and Edith Turner. 1978. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Waseda University. Shikoku Pilgrimage Online Database. Accessed: 20 May 2008.

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The author would like to thank Daniela Casanova for translating this paper into English.

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About the author

Born and raised in Lucerne, Switzerland, Tommi Mendel hit the road in his early twenties and backpacked around the world passing through over a hundred countries for almost a decade. Turning thirty, he settled in Zurich in order to study Social Anthropology and Religious Studies at the University of Zurich. The ethnographic documentary Arukihenro is his first film and at the same time his MA-thesis in Visual Anthropology. Currently Tommi is a lecturer in Visual Anthropology while studying for his PhD at the Institute of Religious Studies - University of Zurich.

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Copyright: Tommi Mendel
This page was first created on 20 July 2008.

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