A South Korean living in Seoul has become the first non-Japanese woman to qualify as a guide for the 88-temple pilgrimage course in Shikoku.

Choi Sang-hee, 38, who received her license in December, hopes to see more of her compatriots make the pilgrimage, believing it would help transform relations between her country and Japan.

“South Koreans will change their impressions of Japan” if they walk the course, she said.

She is the first foreign woman among some 15,000 registered guides, called “sendatsu,” since the Showa Era (1926-1989), according to an association that issues sendatsu certificates. She is the first South Korean and the fifth non-Japanese to be given the certificate. The 88 temples are all associated with the Buddhist monk Kukai, posthumously known as Kobo Daishi.

Choi learned about the Shikoku pilgrimage on the Internet and first undertook it in 2010 to pray for her late father, who loved to travel.

She visited again the following spring to pray for a happy future with a man she was about to marry.

Choi returned to Shikoku in spring 2012 and made her fourth pilgrimage in May 2013. Four is the minimum number of pilgrimages to qualify as a guide.

She is scheduled to visit Japan in March to speak at an event in Osaka about her experiences in Shikoku.

“As a sendatsu guide, I hope to be of help to others and return the favors to those who helped me,” Choi said.

Recalling those years, Choi said, “When I got pains in my back, a local resident drove me to a nearby hospital, and there was also a time when a family let me stay at their home.”

Her Japanese skills improved dramatically by the time she had completed her fourth pilgrimage.

Choi has been introducing the pilgrimage tradition, which marks its 1,200th anniversary this year, to South Koreans on her website and is currently compiling a book about her experiences.

To emulate the traditional welcomes that Shikoku gives to pilgrims, she has made direction stickers with arrows to help foreign pilgrims who know little Japanese and has asked households along the routes to post them.

Choi has also prepared 1,200 metal badges with a message both in Japanese and Hangul saying “We support pilgrims.” In the spirit of the local custom of “osettai,” or giving gifts or help to pilgrims, she plans to hand out the badges on her next pilgrimage scheduled for this fall.

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