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The Protection of the Cow Demon

Mainly a demon, this creature is said to have terrorized villagers in the 16th century until it was killed by a samurai.

Ed Readicker-Henderson

On a remote Japanese island, an intrepid “pilgrimage junkie” discovers the glorious secret of settai: By helping the traveler, you are on the journey yourself.

This article appeared in our October 2003 issue. The cow demon spreads its wings over me. Cow demon? I keep thinking I have to be wrong, but it’s definitely a cow, and it definitely has wings. It rears up, like a bucking horse, and the wings stretch out like those of the bats that don’t live here anymore. It’s very beautiful. “Nande?” I ask — “What is that?” — and the guy who picked me up when I wasn’t even hitchhiking says, “Ushioni” Cow demon. As though that’s a good answer. But then he smiles at me, and I realize it’s more than good enough. Shikoku, home to this man and this cow demon, is the smallest of Japan’s main islands. No gaijin, foreigner, ever bothers to go there. Bhutan gets 10 times more foreign tourists than Shikoku. Even Japanese from the other islands tend to avoid the place. My friends in Osaka warned me against going: They’re uncivilized on Shikoku; they eat dogs; they speak in a dialect even we can’t understand. It was like New Yorkers talking about New Jersey. But Shikoku is home to Japan’s most important pilgrimage route, a string of 88 temples encircling the …

Ed Readicker-Henderson is the author of Traveler’s Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages (Weatherhill). He has gone on pilgrimage around the world, and in 2003, was working on a book about sacred places in America.

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