The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage
A trip through Shikoku's four prefectures : Tokushima, Kochi, Ehime and Kagawa.
The 88 temples pilgrimage is a pilgrimage of the Buddhist sect Shingon; this sect was founded by the monk Kukai, better known by his posthumous name Kobo Daishi. The route, approximately 1200 km long and crossed by 100 000 people every year, circles around Shikoku island, passing through the prefectures of Tokushima, Kochi, Ehime and finally Kagawa.
How to get there?
There are two ways to go to the starting point of the pilgrimage, in the city of Naruto (Tokushima-ken), the first of the 88 temples of the pilgrimage: Ryozenji.
- By bus: From the Kansai International Airport (KIX). The trip costs 3000 yen, and takes approximately two hours (depending on the traffic conditions in the Bay of Osaka). The bus is leaving directly from the airport, but you need to get off at Highway Naruto. From there, you can reach by foot the Naruto railroad station, and then take a train to the Bando station.
- By train: The JR Shikoku railway network in well-developed. The Bando station is very close to the Ryozenji temple. From the station, the path to the temple is clearly indicated.
There are several way to do the pilgrimage:
- On foot, which is the 'traditional" way of doing a pilgrimage. It takes about 50 days to complete the loop. The pilgrim is then called "Aruki Henro." See also « On foot, by bicycle ».
- Cycling. Some pilgrims, a minority, chose to cycle, which is overall less tiring than walking but equally rewarding in terms of effort. Keep in mind that some passes are already difficult to climb by foot... See also « On foot, by bicycle ».
- By car, on motorcycles.
- By bus with a tour package.
Traditionally, pilgrims practice wild camping called "nojuku" in Japanese. However here it is not about camping in a tent in the mountains, but rather sleeping on a bench in a michi-no-eki, in a tent erected in a park, or in the luckiest case in a small room of a temple, for free (this is also considered as nojuku). Typically, people allow pilgrims to sleep where they want, but it is safer to ask for authorization first, even if the place seems to be a public spot.
You can also spend nights in hostels (minshuku or ryokan), and many of them are indeed on the path of the pilgrims. Often, a nice welcoming is reserved for pilgrims. Despite the fact that this option is somehow more expensive, enjoying a good bath and a traditional japanese meal is very pleasant.
On foot, by bicycle
The oldest way to do the pilgrimage is to do it on foot while practicing nojuku. The physical effort is intense, but it is linked to a mental effort too, because it is necessary to constantly plan for the place to sleep, and where to find food (the latter is relatively easy given the profusion of konbini, even in rural areas).
Doing so require to carefully prepare your backpack with camping gears, a first aid kit, spare clothing,… It is almost necessary to change and wash clothes daily. The public toilets, which are frequently encountered, will quickly become essential.
Since such pilgrimage require a constant physical effort, it is not advisable to walk or ride a bicycle in summer, when heat can be unbearable due to the humidity.
Although the pilgrimage is mostly a solitary experience, you meet with many pilgrims who can accompany you on a section of the path, or share a place for the night and for talking. All those whom I have had the honor to meet with were very kind, gentle and generous: I was even offered a night in a hostel by another pilgrim who didn't want me to sleep outside because of a typhoon !
Often, pilgrims meet one day and spend some hours together, to find each other again after a couple of days of solitary walk; this is quite common as pilgrims follow a standard timetable, stopping sometimes together to eat, sleep and rest. What a delight to have a conversation in the evening, facing the Pacific Ocean or the majestic mountains of Honshu, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette! (by the way, I am not suggesting you to drink or smoke !!!).
Being together is also an opportunity to exchange information on the remaining of the journey: free housing in temples, onsen available for pilgrims,... The walkers I met were very well informed about the prefectures we passed through : small lectures on history, geography or culinary traditions are sometimes welcome!
The landscapes of the island are really beautiful, but since I only went in the Shikoku I can not compare with the rest of the country! The prefecture of Tokushima is especially beautiful, and although the prefecture of Kochi does not have such a reputation, the coast can be sometimes extraordinary.
City and Countryside
The boundaries between city and country – this is something that struck me during my trip – are much less clear than in France. Homes can be found almost everywhere, sometimes stuck together but never widely spaced, especially along the seaside. When you are walking in a flat area it is very rare not to see any house on the horizon! Unless you are in the middle of a ricefield… The advantage is that you are never far from "civilization", which prevents worrying about food supply or potential health problems.
In mountainous areas, houses can be seldom encountered as the paths (which are in fact very often two-lane roads). As the pilgrimage roads wind often in the mountains, the pilgrim can be isolated in a wild nature. Some sections are walked on small mountain trails, but I do not recommend them for the summer as there can be quite a lot of mosquitoes as well as other insects!
Temples, the religious aspect
Let me conclude on the esoteric side of the adventure. I am not myself a Buddhist, and although I am reluctant to handling percentage numbers, it appears that many pilgrims are also in that case. In addition, the elderly, who are more likely to be classified as Buddhists, are typically using organized trips traveling by cars. So not to be a Buddhist is definitively not a reason not to make this pilgrimage on foot! Once I met a 65-years old pilgrim who was traveling twice as fast as me (40 km per day on average)!
Despite of your religion, when passing through a temple, it is strongly advised to show respect and submit yourself to some of the most basic practices of Buddhism: bowing to the Sanmon (entrance door) before entering and leaving, purifying hands in the fountain at the entrance, offering a coin and bowing to the altar of the main building.
Indeed, resting in a temple is very enjoyable, as everything is clean and there are often benches available to visitors. Some temples even offer a view of the sea; it is then a great pleasure to enjoy your meal while sunbathing (although I am not sure if this is allowed everywhere)!
(En) The pilgrim guide by David Turkington
(En) Experiencing the Shikoku Pilgrimage by Ashley Wright
(En) A Brief Shikoku Pilgrimage "English" Guide by Jeffrey Hackler
(En) Kikusui Henro House
(En) International Institute of Shingon Buddhism
(Fr) Le guide du pèlerinage par Alain Thierion
I will add the web site I am now building (one of the web sites I am working on at the moment...). It is not comprehensive for the moment, so I hope to improve it as soon as possible; this site is mostly aiming at describing the practical details of this pilgrimage.
Not available for the moment...