The Ohenro Pilgrims of the Shikoku Pilgrimage

The white-clad figures that pop up frequently during a search about the famous Shikoku 88 pilgrimage have an official name. They are called Ohenro.  It is not an exclusive term -  anyone can become one when walking the trail. There has been some confusion regarding the  proper name for the pilgrims of Shikoku but the simple explanation lies in the way Japanese use language. The official name of the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japanese is Shikoku Henro. The word ‘henro’ simply translates to ‘pilgrimage’ and is generally used for any pilgrimage. The ‘O’ character is an honorific, a prefix used to add an air of importance to a word. This is why tea, or ‘cha’ is  ‘ocha’ and a person undergoing a pilgrimage becomes an ‘Ohenro’.

Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage

Curiously, in Japan this more esteemed term is almost exclusively associated with the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage, despite it containing a wider meaning. This is because in the case of Japan, the ‘Shikoku 88’ was the first type of pilgrimage to ever exist. During the Heian period (794 – 1185) the Shikoku area was a training ground for monks and people trying to attain spiritual enlightenment. Kukai, posthumously known as Kobo Daishi, was the monk who started it all. He was born in Shikoku and, later in life, founded the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism. Because of his prominence his birthplace and training ground became a sacred place. Just as Kobo Daishi travelled across Shikoku to improve people’s  prospects for enlightenment; many of his adherents wished to follow in his footsteps. In doing so, this became the first type of pilgrimage. Over the years, many more trainees followed and the pilgrimage extended throughout the island.

It is said in Buddhist canon that human beings have 88 worldly desires and every temple visit helps you purify yourself of these desires. Because of the expansion of the pilgrimage route, the Shikoku pilgrimage never had a set order. The first guidebook for the trail was written in 1687 titled Shikoku henro michishirube and instituted the numbering system of the temples called fudasho. This guidebook extensively used Ohenro as an honorific description of pilgrims, reinforcing its usage among the populace.

The Pilgrims Known as Ohenro

As the term Ohenro became normalized, so did their appearance, but the origin of the white clothing is a somber one. While white is generally considered a symbol of purity in the West, in Japan it holds the meaning of a ‘new beginning’ or an ‘empty slate’. The white garb of the Ohenro is meant to represent a shroud. Before cremations became the norm, Japanese people used to be buried wearing a pure white kimono. More than 1,000 years ago when the pilgrimage was established, a long journey through the mountains was extremely dangerous.

Guidebooks did not exist until much later and pilgrims often had no idea about the terrain and dangerous animals lurking in the woods. As such, the white clothing was a preparation for a dangerous journey so that the body would be properly cared for in case of death. Of course, nowadays the pilgrimage isn’t life-threatening, and roads have become more accessible. Despite this, modern-day pilgrims continue the white tradition as symbol of preparation for the journey and to identify themselves to the locals.

Some of the final items that an Ohenro will possess are a conical sedge hat called a sugegasa and a wooden staff called a kongozue. This wooden staff with carvings is said to embody Kobo Daishi as he is said to accompany every pilgrim on their journey. The sugegasa is used simply because it protects the wearer from sunlight and rain. Other essential items for the serious pilgrim are a Buddhist prayer beads, bell, candles and a pilgrimage book to record your visits.

An Ohenro on the Shikoku Pilgrimage is someone who not only carries on a journey of self-reflection and enlightenment, but an active practitioner of an ancient tradition and its customs. Anyone and everyone can become an Ohenro, continuing the pilgrimage for another thousand years.

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