What is most important is not reaching the goal, but the journey itself. The warm hearts of the people you meet and the beautiful nature of Shikoku you see will perfectly complement your action of doing the pilgrimage.
(from: „Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide 2020“)
Current: Due to the Corona pandemic, entry to Japan is very restricted for non-Japanese. Overnight accommodations on Shikoku are limited. Some intercity bus routes are currently operating on a reduced schedule or not at all. Let’s hope for an improvement soon. I’ll keep you posted here.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage
The pilgrimage route leads to 88 Buddhist temples spread all over the island. Some of the 88 temples are located directly by the sea or lonely in the mountains up to 900 m above sea level. Many are in the middle of villages and towns.
Traditionally, pilgrims covered the 1,150 km on foot. Today, only one to two percent of pilgrims do so. The majority use modern means of transportation. Bus, car, train, motorcycle or bicycle.
The route runs through all four prefectures of the island, touching 20 Bangai temples. These are historically connected to the pilgrimage, but are not counted among the 88 main temples. For pilgrims who visit the 20 Bangai temples in addition to the 88 temples, the route extends to over 1,400 km.
Most pilgrims start on Shikoku at temple number 1 “Ryōzenji” in Tokushima Prefecture. Then visit the other temples in Kōchi and Ehime prefectures in ascending order. And end at Temple 88 “Ōkuboji” in Kagawa, or continue from there to Temple 1 to complete the circle.
However, pilgrims are free to start at any of the 88 temples. Pilgrims who live on Shikoku usually begin their journey at their home temple.
Especially for a first pilgrimage on Shikoku, it is recommended to go clockwise and visit the temples in ascending order (Jun-uchi). In this direction, the route is well signposted and there is less chance of getting lost.
Particularly difficult and therefore particularly worthy of recognition is the pilgrimage counterclockwise. Thereby the temples are visited in descending order (Gyaku-uchi). The signposting in this direction is very limited and the right paths are therefore difficult to find.
Today, many people walk the pilgrimage with several breaks, spread over longer periods of time (Kugiri-uchi). They walk part of the route every weekend, every annual vacation, every spring. Traditionally, pilgrims have walked the entire pilgrimage without interruption (Tōshi-uchi). If only because the journey to Shikoku was long and arduous in many cases.
After an interruption, the pilgrims continue their walk where it ended the last time. For the journey to the starting points and for the return journey from the end point, public transport is usually used.
The goal of most pilgrims is to visit all 88 temples (Kechigan). The order in which the temples were visited is not prescribed. The 88th temple that a pilgrim visits is his “Kechigan temple”. This can be the temple with the number 88, but also any other temple. Another interpretation of Kechigan is that it is reached when all 88 temples have been visited and the return to the temple where the pilgrimage began has taken place. The “circle” is then closed.
In both cases, it is customary to continue traveling to Kōya-san. And to report to Kūkai about the successful pilgrimage.
Map and elevation profile of the Shikoku Pilgrimage Route
Pilgrimage on Shikoku?
The motives why people take on the imponderables and hardships of this long trek are very different.
In earlier centuries, people travelled to Shikoku for religious reasons. But even then, the pilgrimage was a way to escape everyday life and to experience something new.
Today, the motives why people travel to Shikoku and go on pilgrimage are very complex:
- Enjoy the seasons in nature. In spring, the cherry blossom. In fall, the changing of the leaves of the maple trees.
- Visit and admire the temples, some of which are centuries old.
- Staying fit and active; mentally and physically.
- Interest in hiking. Interest in outdoor exercise.
- Escape from everyday life and gain new experiences through travel. Many Japanese have never visited Shikoku before the pilgrimage. Through the pilgrimage, they get to know a part of Japan that was previously unknown to them. For many foreigners, the Shikoku pilgrimage is often their first contact with Japan and the Japanese. It is an excellent opportunity to get to know Japanese culture, as well as the customs and traditions.
- The wish to relive the positive experience of a previous pilgrimage by repeating the pilgrimage (shikoku byō).
- Asking for the fulfillment of worldly wishes. Good health for family and friends, but also for themselves. Seeking comfort and healing, recovery from illness, finding a (marriage) partner, safe birth. Praying for success in one’s job, studies or with one’s own business.
- Finding the way to a better life. Overcoming illness or unemployment. Finding support after a bereavement; after heartbreak or separation. The desire to overcome problems through the pilgrimage and return home retreaded.
- Pilgrimage after the emergence of personal problems. The desire, the hope to solve these problems through the pilgrimage.
- Finding oneself.
- Pilgrimage in memory of deceased relatives, children, spouses, parents …
- Accompanying friends or partners without having their own reason for pilgrimage.
- Seeking a challenge or even just employment in retirement.
- To strengthen body and mind through an ascetic pilgrimage. To do penance.
- Japanese people go on pilgrimage partly simply because grandparents, parents or relatives were already pilgrims. They were socialised with pilgrimage.
- A possible motive can also be a competitive thought or a kind of record pressure. For pilgrims who have the goal to walk the pilgrimage route particularly often or in a particularly short time.
Today, mass media and social media move people. In 2018 and 2019, an unusually large number of Danish pilgrims visited the island of Shikoku and the 88 temples.
This boom was triggered by the Danish TV and radio celebrity Mikael Bertelsen, who set out on the Shikoku pilgrimage in 2017 with a backpack and a film crew. The 10-part documentary has helped the island of Shikoku and the 88-temple pilgrimage to achieve unexpected popularity in Denmark. (A similar effect on the number of German pilgrims on the Way of St. James had the mega-bestseller “I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago”, written in 2006 by Hape Kerkeling. He is very prominent in Germany and writes in the book about his pilgrimage on the Way of St. James to Santiago des Compostela. In 2007, the number of German pilgrims there increased by 75%. There were also significant increases in German pilgrims to Santiago in the following years).
The beginnings of pilgrimage on Shikoku – The Legend of Emon Saburō
The legend tells of Emon Saburō, who, in 824 AD, was the first pilgrim on Shikoku.
He lived with his eight sons in the province of Iyo (in the present-day city of Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture) and was a fabulously rich man. The head of a powerful family, but also selfish, greedy and stingy.
According to this legend, one day a wandering monk came to his door and asked for alms. But Emon refused to give anything and drove the monk away. The monk returned the next day and was driven away again. Eight days in a row the monk returned to Emon’s house and each time he was driven away. Finally, on the eighth day, Emon’s anger broke out and he beat the monk with a bamboo broom. The monk’s begging bowl broke into eight pieces and the shards scattered on the ground. The monk left the place and did not return.
Soon after, the first of Emon’s eight sons died. And within a short time, all his other sons died, one after the other. After the eighth and last son died, Emon realized that the reason for the death of his sons must have been the bad treatment of the monk who had asked for alms at his door. Emon also realized that the monk must have been Kūkai. He set out to find Kukai to ask for his forgiveness.
Emon circled the island of Shikoku twenty times clockwise, but could not find Kūkai. Already completely exhausted, he decided to circle the island one more time in the opposite direction, counterclockwise. In this direction he hoped that he would meet Kūkai. But even then, he did not succeed in meeting Kūkai. Nearing death from exhaustion, he fell at the foot of the mountain path leading up to Shōsanji (Temple 12) in Awa Province (present-day Tokushima Prefecture).
As he lay there dying, Kūkai appeared and forgave him for his past deeds. He also granted Emon’s last wish to be reborn in his home province so that he could do good and help others in the next life. With Emon’s death, Kūkai wrote “Emon Saburō reborn” on a small stone, placed it in the palm of Emon’s hand, and buried Emon beside the road.
A short time later, a child was born to a wealthy family in Iyo Province ( today Ehime Prefecture). This child kept his hand closed for a long time. No one was able to open it. When finally a priest was called who managed to open the hand, a small stone with the inscription “Emon Saburō reborn” was found in the palm. After the child grew up, he performed many wonderful and good deeds for the community. Among them was the construction of the Ishiteji (Stone Hand Temple) in Matsuyama. The stone found in his hand can be seen in a small museum at Ishiteji, Temple 51.
This legend conveys a number of customs of the Shikoku pilgrimage that are still current today:
The custom of giving osetai or alms to the needy. Using one’s wealth to endow temples. It represents the origin for the practice of circumnavigating the island in a counterclockwise direction, promising absolution for the pilgrims.
Shikoku 四国 (four provinces)
“Shi” means “four” and “koku” means “province” or “country”.
Shikoku was previously divided into four provinces (four countries). The borders of the four provinces have corresponded to those of today’s prefectures.
Shikoku is the smallest of the four main islands of Japan. With about four million inhabitants, an extension of up to 250 km in west-east direction and between 40 and 150 km in north-south (18,300 km²).
The larger cities are almost all located in the north of the island. The only major city in the south is Kōchi. Apart from these four larger cities, Shikoku is very rural.
In the north separated from the main island of Honshu by the Seto Inland Sea. On the south coast, the Pacific Ocean.
|Capital of |
|Tokushima (徳島県)||730,000||Tokushima||260,000||T1 - T23; T66||165 km||Awa|
|Kōchi (高知県)||700,000||Kōchi||330,000||T24 - T39||415 km||Tosa|
|Ehime (愛媛県)||1,350,000||Matsuyama||510,000||T40 - T65||390 km||Iyo|
|Kagawa (香川県)||960,000||Takamatsu||420,000||T67 - T88||175 km||Sanuki|
Kūkai 空海 is the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. It is believed that Kūkai, posthumously Kōbō Daishi (774-835) practiced ascetic training in some of the places on Shikoku. The veneration of Kūkai plays an essential role for pilgrims.
dōgyōninin 同行 二人
“two pilgrims doing one practice together”. A pilgrim never walks the path alone. He is accompanied by Kūkai and supported on the way.
“dōgyōninin 同行 二人” will meet you every day on your walk. On signposts and signs, on your pilgrimage gear, and at temples.
Before beginning and ending their pilgrimage, many of the pilgrims visit Kōya-san Monastery in Wakayama Prefecture on the main island of Japan, which was founded by Kūkai and is the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist school.