For centuries, religious pilgrims, and latterly thrill-seekers and those wanting to “find themselves”, have undertaken a month-long trek across northern Spain, along the Camino de Santiago.
Few, if any, of the 200,000 or so people who complete the walk each year will realise that it is now being used as a blueprint to market and promote others around the world. The latest is Japan, which is hoping to use the popularity of the Camino to sell its own pilgrimage, the Way of the 88 Temples, a 750-mile path through the island of Shikoku’s Buddhist past.
Both walks have their roots in religious experience. The Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James, actually covers several routes through northern Spain, which eventually lead to the magnificent cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral is the supposed resting place of James the Apostle, whose remains were said to have been brought to Spain and interred in a crypt after he was beheaded in Jerusalem in AD44.
What will interest the Japanese tourist authorities more than the legend of St James, however, is the success that their counterparts in Spain have had at marketing the Camino. The city of Santiago is taken over by walking shops and souvenir outlets selling T-shirts and furry toys linked to the Camino; the hotels and hostels do a roaring trade.
Back in the 1980s, however, no more than a trickle of people travelled to Spain for the walk. In the Middle Ages, it was a well-travelled route but, over the centuries, the black death, the Protestant reformation, wars in Europe and the Spanish dictatorship, meant that the popularity of the Camino fell in decline.
Concerned that the walk would be lost for ever, the authorities in Galicia, the north-western Spanish region that is home to Santiago de Compostela, began a campaign to reinvigorate the Camino.
The vast majority of those who complete the Camino these days are foreigners. It was recognised as a “European cultural route” in 1987 and later was named a Unesco world heritage site.
The turnaround has been an obvious success and it is this that the Japanese want to tap in to. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the head of the Galician government, and his counterpart from Japan’s Kagawa province, an area on Shikoku island, held a meeting in November and agreed to work together to promote the Japanese pilgrimage. Almost half a million Japanese tourists visit Spain each year.
The ultimate goal, according to the Japanese, is to have the Way of the 88 Temples “recognised as a world heritage site, based on learning from the long and abundant experience that the Camino de Santiago possesses”.
It would seem that they are already en route to achieving that goal. The Shikoku trek already has a number its own customs and traditions: many of the walkers wear white clothes, topped off with sedge hats. That said, if the Camino is at least in part a test of human stamina, many of those who complete the Japanese trail today use cars, bikes or even taxis. About half a million pilgrims walk the circular Japanese route each year, but the vast majority are Japanese.
Traditionally, pilgrims complete the walk in a clockwise direction, but it has recently been considered good luck to complete the route the other way round.
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