Shikoku Pilgrimage, visiting the 88 Buddhist temples on the island of Shikoku, was historically a walking path around the island, but now pilgrims mostly use some sort of motorized transportation. My choice of transport was a rental car when I completed the pilgrimage in April 2018, and here I’d like to share some of my experiences, starting with a brief overview.
What is Shikoku Pilgrimage
Everyone who has ever set foot on the island of Shikoku is, most likely, at least familiar with the word O-henro. It roughly means pilgrimage, but here on Shikoku (and everywhere else in Japan, for that matter) refers specifically to Shikoku pilgrimage and people who do it: covered in white to various degrees, sometimes wearing a conical hat and almost always with a staff in hand, bells jingling at their every step, they’re impossible to miss at temples, but can also be spotted at your regular tourist attractions or on the streets.
The goal of Shikoku Henro is to visit the 88 temples associated with prominent Japanese monk Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, who was born on Shikoku and left a huge footprint not only on the history of the island, but the country itself. You don’t have to know much about Kukai – or Kobo Daishi, as he is posthumously known – to do the pilgrimage, you don’t even have to be a Buddhist; there is a set of customs and rituals associated with it, but everyone is free to do as much or as little as they want.
The temples are located more or less on the circumference of the island, some further inland, some closer to the shore. The most customary way to visit them is in sequential order, starting at number one and finishing at number 88, which makes for almost a full circle around the island in clockwise direction. Another way is to go counter-clockwise, from number 88 to number one. It’s also very common to break the route into parts and do them at different times (for example, a few temples every weekend, or whenever you can take some time off).
It has been my longtime dream to do the Shikoku Henro. Historically, of course, this was a walking course, and still many people walk it today: the journey on foot may take up to 3 months. I don’t have neither the stamina nor the time for this; luckily for me, the great Japanese pilgrimage has adjusted itself to the needs of modern age, and now the majority of people do it either by tour bus, or by car. I rented a car and completed the Shikoku Henro in 15 days.
It’s worth mentioning that I’ve been to Shikoku many times before, and even visited some temples from the circuit. Still, doing all 88 of them in one set was a very new experience for me; somehow everything’s different when you’re on a mission. Those 15 days felt like a great journey. I can only imagine what walking pilgrims might be experiencing in 3 months on the path.
The reasons for setting out on this journey vary from person to person – prayer for wish fulfilment, accumulation of Buddhist merits, spiritual quest, desire to physically and mentally challenge oneself. Some just do it as a form of tourism, without any special meaning. I’ve read accounts online by adventurous youngsters who did the whole thing in 4 days, like this: drive to a temple, take a picture at the gates, go to the next one; eat and sleep, taking turns, in the car. I’ve also read accounts of people who conquered depression by doing the O-henro.
Shikoku Henro is growing in popularity among younger Japanese – and foreigners. I was surprised by the number of western pilgrims I have encountered on my way, and the fact that most temples are equipped with English signs, showing where to go. I guess the locals are serious about seeking the UNESCO World Heritage status for Shikoku Henro (the initiative has been under way for some years).
I wish them good luck in their efforts. Shikoku Henro is a beautiful tradition that should be preserved and passed on to future generations. It very much deserves wider international recognition.
What to see and what to do on Shikoku Henro road trip
My road trip started and ended at Tokushima airport. I took a plane from Tokyo to Tokushima, and rented a car at one of the airport outlets. It’s only half an hour drive from the airport to temple number one, Ryozenji.
Since O-henro drive is a condensed experience (people sometimes visit as much as 10 temples per day, even on a “non-rushed” schedule), it’s more about the temples themselves rather than the spaces in between, although driving on Shikoku’s mountain roads is unforgettable in its own scary way.
Unlike the refined and polished temples of Kyoto, Shikoku’s temples are closer to nature, so to speak. Often quite literally: many are located at the foothills (or on top) of the mountains, surrounded by dense woods. Those are called “mountain holy places” and since their founding they were training grounds for Buddhist and Shugendo practitioners seeking enlightenment or special abilities. Kukai himself trained in some of those locations.
Of course, there are city temples too, standing on busier streets or in quiet residential districts. Some look more interesting then others, but they are all different and all worth a visit, especially if you like history and folk tales: each temple has its own story to tell. If you want to really delve into the legends surrounding each temple, all those special statues, miraculous springs, magic stones and sacred trees that abound on temple grounds, as well as historical figures who did this or that here or there, you’ll need much more time. My Japanese guidebook called two weeks a leisurely pace; I had 15 days and felt very rushed on my schedule. If I ever do this again, I’ll plan for at least 3 weeks.
Of course, it all depends on what exactly it is that you want to do on your Shikoku pilgrimage. There are customary things to do at each temple, like incense-burning and sutra-chanting; it takes time. Taking photos takes a lot of time, and for someone like me, who’s into meditation – well, that’s an indefinite amount of time; give me two hours at any temple, I’ll find what to occupy myself with. But that’s just me, others might be content with 15 minutes – that’s what Japanese sources quote as a “standard” time to complete the minimum of customary rituals and receive the pretty calligraphy in your nokyocho book (more on that later).
And there’s so much more to see and do along the route besides the temples. I can’t imagine the first time visitor skipping Kochi or Matsuyama castles, Dogo onsen, Ritsurin garden, capes Ashizuri and Muroto… I couldn’t, although I’ve been to all those locations before. Of course, it’s impossible to see all that Shikoku has to offer while doing the pilgrimage at the same time even if you have a whole month on your hands, but most pilgrims include at least a few key attractions in their itineraries.
Bottom line – it’s up to you. The more time you allow yourself, the more you’ll see, but I’d say 2 weeks is a minimum for a meaningful road trip O-henro.
Let’s take a look at the set of rituals commonly performed by pilgrims at Shikoku Henro temples. By no means are the pilgrims obliged to do any of this, but those who wish to receive the commemorative calligraphy stamps should know that it’s usually frowned upon if you head straight to the temple office without paying some sort of respects at the temple first.
Temple visit is called omairi in Japanese. The meaning behind it is that you pay respect to the gods or Buddhas and pray or ask for something. After completing the omairi you can go to the temple office and ask for goshuin – a very pretty calligraphy with stamps that commemorates your visit. There are special albums for those, called nokyocho. Receiving a goshuin is a paid service, it costs 300 yen.
So, for Shikoku pilgrimage you start the omairi by bowing at the temple gates. Then you proceed to purifying yourself at the water basin (wash your hands and rinse your mouth). From there you go to the temple’s main hall that houses the main deity (Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, and Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine, are among the popular ones) to do a set of rituals that includes, but is not limited to, lighting a candle, burning some incense, chanting the Heart Sutra and putting a piece of paper with your wishes into a special box (this piece of paper is called osamefuda). After you’ve done all that before the main deity you go to another hall, housing the image of Kobo Daishi (Kukai), where you repeat all the same things, with a couple of slight changes. And only after that you proceed to the office to get your pretty calligraphy, and upon leaving the temple you bow again at the gates.
It might seem overwhelming at first, but it’s actually not that difficult. I chose to do the ritual things to some extent, maybe to 70%. By the end of the first day (first 9 temples) I got everything down, and by the end of the last day I knew the Heart Sutra almost by heart. I actually missed chanting it in the following week or so. Again, there are no obligations here. Many Japanese skip some of the things too, and no one would expect a foreigner to be chanting sutras during the O-henro, even if they wear all white. I didn’t wear any white, by the way.
The reason why the O-henro pilgrims wear white is because historically in Japan white has been associated with death and dead people: when a person dies, they are clad in white. The O-henro path is some 1200 kilometers of ups and downs, it’s difficult to walk in this day and age of paved roads, stone steps and railings – imagine how difficult it was centuries ago, when it all started. People actually died on the trail, so, setting out on this perilous journey a pilgrim wanted to be prepared for sudden death – hence the white. Now, of course, it mostly symbolizes purity.
During my trip I’ve seen a few people clad in white from head to toe, but that’s not very common. Most of the modern pilgrims wear a white jacket or even just a vest on top of casual clothes; those driving or on a bus tour put this jacket on before stepping out of the vehicle. Similarly, not everyone wears the traditional conical hat (I’ve heard it’s not the most comfortable thing to wear and doesn’t really protect from rain either), many people just substitute it with regular sun hats.
One thing that most of the pilgrims will have with them is a wooden staff called kongozue – it is considered to be an embodiment of Kobo Daishi himself, accompanying the pilgrim on the journey. The O-henro slogan is, after all, dogyo ninin or “two people walking as one”. Everyone wants the support and protection of Kobo Daishi. Again, there can be exceptions. For instance, the O-henro cyclists, doing the whole thing by bicycle, are very inconvenienced by the staff. It’s hard to figure out how to safely attach it to the bicycle so that it doesn’t fall off and cause an accident, this is why many choose to not carry it at all. I didn’t carry the staff either, although most drivers do, taking it in and out of the car every time.
Then there are smaller things like the white shoulder bag where you put all you incense, candles, coins, prayer beads, sutra book, nokyocho, osamefuda, and other things you might need at the temple proper. Many people substitute it with regular backpack (so did I). I also didn’t use prayer beads.
There is another custom associated with the pilgrimage called osettai. It involves local people giving some small gifts or food items to passing pilgrims, and pilgrims reciprocating with a blank osamefuda and the greeting/blessing “namu daishi henjo kongo” recited 3 times. So, historically there has been an exchange here: the pilgrim receives something to ease his journey, and the other party receives a small share of merits the pilgrim accumulates (osamefuda being a representation of that). In the O-henro museum near temple 88 I learned that local families used to gather the osamefuda collected this way in big bundles and hang somewhere in the house; those bundles were passed from generation to generation and could count hundreds of pieces.
Nowadays the custom is transforming, I think. At temple number 1 every visitor I saw received something in what I believe was a community effort, to welcome everyone on the trail. Although I gave the osamefuda to the person I received a gift from, I don’t think it was needed or expected. A few times I received little gifts from staff at temple offices while getting my calligraphy done – again, I didn’t feel that the osamefuda was expected in return, so I didn’t give them any, just said “namu daishi henjo kongo” 3 times (this always produces good reaction, I noticed). And one time I saw a table set with tea and cups at one temple, saying that this was “osettai”, but suggesting a 100 yen donation for it.
Anyways, even if the custom is not what it used to be, it’s good to be aware of it and at least remember this word. If somebody approaches you and gives you something, saying “osettai”, this means you should take it. If you refuse, you’ll be taking away the opportunity for this person to share in on your good karma points. This is a very big no.
Driving the O-henro
While driving the O-henro is much, much easier then walking, there are some difficulties here too that one should be aware of. My main source of all driving-related information was a Japanese guidebook I got from Amazon Japan (actually I got a couple, but used mostly just one). I had it with me all the time and was constantly referring to it; the information there is very detailed, outlining all the difficult parts of the road and advising on best routes. If you can’t access Japanese resources but know how to drive in Japan, especially on country roads (like, have done it before), you’ll probably be fine with a good map and some extra-time embedded in your schedule for when you get lost, because get lost you will. Car GPS is not 100% reliable – and I use the Japanese version of built-in navigation systems in the cars. Sometimes it will take you to the vicinity, and then you’ll have to read the signs, which are not always there, and not always in English.
So, the two possible difficulties are: 1) not being able to find the place, and 2) having to drive on extremely narrow, and/or winding and/or steep roads with two-way traffic that are the only way to get to the majority of the temples.
Driving from city to city on Shikoku is an easy and pleasant experience (modest population makes for almost non-existent traffic in some areas). It’s when you get close to a temple that the difficulties begin. Even the city temples have very narrow access roads in most cases. With mountain temples there’s usually sharp curves and steep incline as added bonus, and there’s always a possibility of encountering an incoming car.
I’m showing here two pictures to illustrate this. The fist one, road to temple #12, may seem nice and well maintained, but it’s the width of a very small passenger car (think Toyota Yaris), and it’s a two way road. Only a few small pockets to pass, so if you encounter an incoming car one of you will have to back up until you find a spot to squeeze yourself into without falling off the cliff (no guardrail whatsoever).
The second example, road to temple #27, is all those things plus 180 degree curves and 45 degree incline. Imagine having to back up on that road for 500 meters.
I have to say that this was my third time travelling in Japan when I was sometimes driving instead of relying entirely on public transit. Only having done several rental car trips of various duration (2 to 7 days) in similar remote mountainous regions did I feel comfortable enough to attempt the Shikoku Henro drive, because it’s not easy, even for Japanese drivers. You have to be used to those specific conditions. I’m very glad that this wasn’t my first time behind the wheel in Japan. It would’ve probably not ended well if it were.
But, having had the necessary experience, I was fine. Yes, there were some scary moments, and I had to be very focused and very careful, but I did it, and I would definitely do it again. Second time would be much easier.