No right way to complete Shikoku’s 88-temple pilgrimage

by Kajsa Skarsgard

Contributing Writer

“Get in the car.” An old woman in thick glasses and a knitted hat gestures from her seat behind the wheel.

Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t consider jumping into a stranger’s vehicle, especially not one that had so suddenly stopped in our path. And, in normal circumstances, the grandmother in the car probably wouldn’t pick up strangers either. But this is Shikoku and we are wearing the white clothes of the pilgrim.

We are traveling the Shikoku Pilgrimage, following the signs for henro (pilgrims), on a 1,200-kilometer circuit that runs between 88 temples on the island of Shikoku. It honors the founder of Japanese Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi.

Devoted people, fortunate with an abundance of time and good health, walk the pilgrimage in one go, completing it in about six weeks. Most, however, take years to complete it, returning when they can and moving forward in fits and starts each time the opportunity arises.

“There is no right or wrong way” is the oft-repeated mantra in guidebooks written about the Shikoku Pilgrimage. With this thought running through our minds, and in the spirit of adventure, we hop into the car.

And we couldn’t have a better host: Sumiko Nagamori, 83 years old, knows exactly where we are heading; she has completed the Shikoku Pilgrimage four times. We, by comparison, have only recently set off on this spiritual journey, with a week in hand and a wish and a hope to experience different parts of this beautiful island, by foot and local transport.

It’s two days before our encounter with Nagamori and we are starting our journey outside the small train station of Bando in the city of Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture. Here, we find a green line painted on the street, leading us through the quiet town and toward Ryozenji, the first temple on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

The scent of incense reaches us before we see the temple. Two ferocious statues guard the gate, accompanied by a mannequin in full pilgrim costume: white clothes; a sedge hat with Kobo Daishi’s name and guiding messages in print; a walking stick; a monk’s stole and mala prayer beads.

Dressed for the part: people of all ages attempt the Shikoku Pilgrimage wearing the pilgrim
Dressed for the part: people of all ages attempt the Shikoku Pilgrimage wearing the pilgrim’s sedge hat and white coat. | CHRISTINA SJOGREN

In the shop at the back of the temple, we change into our own white jackets and sedge hats, a transition that helps focus the mind on the reformative intentions of the journey. There, we learn more about the celebrated monk, engineer and calligrapher, Kobo Daishi, who is also known by the name Kukai. Kobo Daishi lived from 774 to 835, but it was not until the Edo Period (1603-1868) that the pilgrimage in his footsteps became popular among the general population and was recorded in guidebooks.

Now, it is becoming more common for tourists of different beliefs, together with secular Japanese, to participate in the pilgrimage as a way to contemplate life in a beautiful, spiritual setting. As long as the practicing Buddhists and the culture of the temples are respected, everybody is welcome.

In our new garb we leave the shop and, before entering the main hall of Ryozenji, we light three sticks of incense: one for the past, one for the present and one for the future. Hexagonal brass lanterns hang close together from the ceiling, creating a honeycomb effect that casts a warm light through the temple’s interior. In the temple are texts we appreciate for the beauty of their calligraphy — despite not reading Japanese — and statues of deities we are not yet familiar with. The space speaks a universal language of deeper meaning.

As the temple closes for the day, we barely walk two blocks down the street when a woman smiles and calls out, “O-henro-san!” the name for Shikoku pilgrims. A moment later, we find ourselves sitting at her table with drinks in front of us, and hand-towels she has given us as presents. The tradition to give pilgrims such gifts is called osettai, and it is seen as a way for bystanders to participate in the sacred journey.

We are not the first pilgrims who have been welcomed into this woman’s house; she shows us a box full of name slips with the image of Kobo Daishi, the same slips that pilgrims offer at the temples. We leave her ours, and step out into the evening with a feeling of sublime gratitude.

One down: A pilgrim, known as o-henro-san, walks through the gates of Ishiteji, temple number 51 of 88 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
One down: A pilgrim, known as o-henro-san, walks through the gates of Ishiteji, temple number 51 of 88 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. | CHRISTINA SJOGREN

The next day, we stand outside the main hall of Konzoji (temple number 76) where a giant mala hangs. A man in jeans and a plaid shirt has just announced his arrival with a resonating dong from the old bell.

“Tokyo busy, heart busy,” he says when asked why he has come here, introducing himself as Yoshihiro Sasaki. He likes the freedom of choice that the Shikoku Pilgrimage allows, and he is traveling it by car during a week of holiday.

Our goal for the day is to reach Zentsuji temple (75), walking past rice paddies and vegetable fields tucked in between family houses. For the pilgrim, the way is more important than the goal, and walking through the everyday landscapes of Shikoku is as humbling as a visit to the route’s most ornate temple.

Zentsuji proves to be worth the visit. At the temple, you can perform a symbolic pilgrimage around a statue of Kobo Daishi that is itself surrounded by 88 statues that represent each of the 88 temples. Beneath the hall that now stands where Kobo Daishi was born, it is possible to complete an “enlightening walk” through a 100-meter passage in complete darkness.

The five-story-high pagoda at Zentsuji is as impressive as the giant camphor tree close by, where Kobo Daishi is said to have enjoyed the shade on hot days. Along the temple wall, hundreds of life-size statues of arhats stand side by side, each with a bald head and its own expression.

On the bridge marking the transition back to the outside world, we meet two pilgrims taking advantage of their day off from their jobs as a chef and a waitress in a nearby town. Soon we are in their car, invited to a restaurant to eat Sanuki udon noodles, the dish that has put Kagawa Prefecture on the gourmet map of Japan.

Between the slurping sounds that accompany the rapidly disappearing noodles, we talk about why we are doing the pilgrimage.

“I want to reset, to recharge my energy and clear my mind,” says the chef, Norihisa Kayahara. We nod our agreement.

Over the next few days, we head south toward Cape Ashizuri. We ride the train through luscious mountains and over scenic bridges, hike ancient forest trails that run through villages we would never have discovered if it was not for the signs pointing the way.

Atmospheric: mist descends on Shosanji temple, temple number 12 of 88 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
Atmospheric: mist descends on Shosanji temple, temple number 12 of 88 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. | CHRISTINA SJOGREN

The temples we visit all have their particular beauty. The woodwork at Kokubunji (29) is enchanting; Chikurinji (31) is renowned for its garden; Zenjibuji (32) overlooks the Pacific Ocean; and at Iwamotoji (37) locals have decorated the ceiling with their own paintings.

In the cities, it is easy to find accommodation, but in the trail’s more isolated areas local advice can be helpful. The night before we reach the most southern temple, on Cape Ashizuri, we stay in a tatami room in a guesthouse recently opened by a surfer couple in the city of Tosashimizu.

The beach is only a five minute walk away and it is possible to hike along the coast to Kongofukuji temple (38). We take the bus, passing fishing villages hidden away in the bays and dramatic cliffs that plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

Monks leave the cave on Cape Muroto, Kochi Prefecture, where the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi achieved enlightenment in 804.
Monks leave the cave on Cape Muroto, Kochi Prefecture, where the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi achieved enlightenment in 804. | CHRISTINA SJOGREN

Kongofukuji occupies a mountainside overlooking the sea and is enclosed by dense forest. The sound of trickling water follows us everywhere in this oasis, and around the pond, in which carps glimmer in the sun, there is a garden of stones. This is one of the trail’s most remote temples, but it is also one of the most stunning. Close by are trails through a national park that lead to a glistening white lighthouse on the cape.

Before leaving Shikoku, we go back north to Kanonji. The town is famous for its sand sculpture of a huge coin — 120 meters across — dating back to the 1600s. It can be seen in its entirety from the top of the hill that leads to the neighboring temples of Jinnein (68) and Kannonji (69).

At Kannonji temple, we find pilgrims chanting sutras, creating a comforting melody that adds to the stillness. One man is dressed fully in white and the pages of the book in his hand are bright red. Similar books are carried by most pilgrims to collect the stamps of the temples they have worshipped at. But his is special: He has completed the pilgrimage 78 times.

He gives us a photo of the sun, then we exchange name slips. His are of golden paper, a sign of the many pilgrimages he has done. Ours are simply white; we have not yet even visited all the 88 temples. We are only at the start of a greater journey, and we will definitely be back.

The 1,200-kilometer Shikoku Pilgrimage can be completed on foot or by a combination of train, bus, foot and car. The starting point is Ryozenji temple, near Bando Station. From Shikoku’s Tokushima Airport (flights to Tokyo and Osaka), take a bus to Naruto and then a train onward to Bando Station. For itineraries, visit www.tourismshikoku.org and explore the “Itineraries” and “Maps & Brochures” pages.