Staying the Course
Each year, thousands of pilgrims embark on a trip around Japan's Shikoku Island. Their goal is to visit 88 temples along a 1,400 kilometer route.
Now momentum is growing to bring the site to the attention of even more people by nominating it for inclusion as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.
A growing number of tourists from overseas take part in what is called the ohenro pilgrimage. The experience draws them deep into Japanese culture and religion, and through some of the country's most beautiful scenery.
"I think it should be broadcast around the world," said one Pilgrim in her 30s.
Taking part in the journey also allows them to meet residents along the way. Locals serve meals to the walkers and even offer lodging.
"We are all here supporting each other even if we can't have full conversation," said Melissa Bishop, another pilgrim. "(It) taught me a lot about human spirit and kindness."
Its popularity with people from overseas has led to renewed calls for ohenro's recognition as a World Cultural Heritage site.
"Ohenro is among the traditions we're most proud of," said a male pilgrim. "I want the world to know more about it."
Kenichiro Kitayama is one of the main advocates of the campaign. He works for Kagawa Prefecture, where part of the route runs.
"This is an important project," Kitayama said. "It's the sort of thing that can really revitalize a community."
In order to be considered for designation, a site must first be selected for the national nomination list. Ohenro has been left off twice.
One of the problems the national panel cited is the lack of a management plan. For example, after a landslide, some sections would take longer to clear than others. And the route crosses private land that's not maintained by the government.
Another issue is a shortage of foreigner-friendly lodging and road signs in multiple languages.
Kitayama decided to visit a pilgrimage route that has been registered, to figure out what else ohenro needs.
In September, he traveled to the path leading to one of Christianity's holiest sites: the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The 800-kilometer route begins in France. It was added to the World Heritage list in 1993.
Kitayama and his team stopped at one of the 70 public lodging facilities along with way. An overnight stay costs just 6 euros, or about $7.
The facilities are operated and managed by an organization called Xacobeo. It's part of Galicia's tourist bureau.
Xacobeo also manages and repairs the roads along the route. The system ensures they are cleared right away, if something happens to block them.
Xacobeo's annual budget is around $6 million. The money helps protect the route as part of the region's cultural heritage.
"This priceless pilgrim route is part of Galicia's identity," said Rafael Sanchez, a representative of Xacobeo. "So we need to do our best to keep it in good condition. Maintaining it well boosts our international profile."
The number of visitors has jumped to 200,000 a year since the route achieved World Cultural Heritage status.
"Finding out about the government's contribution was useful," Kitayama said. "Before we present our proposal again, I plan to incorporate the things I've learned."
Kitayama would like to create a system for managing the route and improving accommodations. He expects to discuss the idea with local governments across Shikoku.
The team understands the need for perseverance. Like ohenro, its pilgrimage depends on staying on the course, and continuing to move forward.