As someone interested in looking beyond what was found in most guidebooks, I was particularly drawn to Shikoku - the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. It’s still considered off the radar for many first time visitors to Japan, despite being conveniently accessible via airports and with direct trains from the main island of Honshu. However, I learned that Shikoku is a paradise of its own, brimming with unique culture, scrumptious meals, and the allure of the ancient Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage that regularly draws visitors from around the world.
Likeminded pilgrims walk sections of the 1200km circular route to visit the 88 temples, following in the footsteps of Kukai (known posthumously as Kobo Daishi), the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Traversing a forested trail lined with Jizo statues and punctuated with emotive and unique temples gives a sense of purpose and progress to your journey. It is a route of legends, faith and solidarity, with travellers visiting throughout the year clad in white robes, conical hats and walking sticks in hand. And on these sticks you will see the the Japanese mantra of the pilgrimage, dogyo ninin (同行二人/travelling together), in reference to Kobo Daishi accompanying you on your journey.
Beside the philosophy of dogyo ninin is another tradition of the Shikoku pilgrimage; o-settai (お接待/charitable giving), where locals welcome pilgrims with food, drink, sweets and even money to help them on their way. This act of giving is voluntary but represents their vicarious participation in the pilgrimage, so the pilgrim is obliged to humbly accept their gift. In my own travels I was offered help in the form of directions, beer and even a bottle of fresh milk from the back of a dairy farmer’s truck.
Along your travels you will encounter other pilgrims paying their respects at each temple, and exchange friendly greetings and smiles as you pass each other by. Each individual’s purpose for undertaking the pilgrimage is different; some choose to walk for spiritual reasons, while others walk for the benefits of being closer to nature. Nonetheless, everyone shares a sense of camaraderie and spirit.
I found the forested trails to be extremely rewarding - the paths were beautiful, wild, diverse and there was such a sense of arrival when I reached each temple. On wet days the trail through the mountains was misty and the atmosphere of a remote mountain-top temple in these conditions was unlike anything else I have experienced. While walking between Temples 11 and 12 (Fuji-dera and Shosan-ji respectively) I arrived at stone steps halfway through this densely forested route, and was greeted by a giant cedar tree beside a statue of Kobo Daishi. On such a rainy day the mountains were shrouded in mist, and taking a break in the rest area within view of Kobo Daishi’s image reinvigorated me for the rest of the walk.
Finally emerging from the forest again I found myself on a walkway lined with impressive statues of Buddha and other Buddhist deities greeting me. Shosan-ji (literally, burning mountain temple) earned its name from its very unique history - a dragon set fire to the mountain on which it stands, and Kobo Daishi sealed it away in a nearby cave. Like this, each temple along the trail has its own purpose, story and style. They’re emotive and atmospheric and even without a deep knowledge of esoteric Buddhism, you find your own enjoyment, meaning, and purpose from the pilgrimage.
And while the pilgrimage has a strong narrative and purpose, there are other aspects to enjoy and explore which are unique to Shikoku.
With its own culture, the island also allows you to stay in a variety of traditional inns, from hot spring ryokan to shukubo temple lodgings. The shukubo in particular offer a unique chance to stay at a working temple and immerse you in the pilgrimage story, where you can enjoy beautifully prepared shojin-ryori Buddhist cuisine and join in morning meditation. Arriving at your next inn, experiencing their wonderful hospitality and enjoying their meals showcasing local produce, are further rewards for your travels.
Aside from the enjoyment of walking the trail itself and exploring its temples, you are also discovering unique aspects of Shikoku - be it through eating chewy Sanuki Udon noodles to fuel your travels, taking a relaxing soak in the famous hot spring waters of Dogo Onsen, or keeping yourself dry with a locally produced and high quality Imabari towel. Above all the wonderful scenery, emotive temples and experiencing all Shikoku has to offer, it is likely that your interactions with locals and fellow pilgrims are what will create a lasting impression of Shikoku, and become the most meaningful to you during your time in the region.