88 temples · 1.200 years · 4 prefectures · 1.150 km

The Shikoku pilgrimage to the 88 temples – on pilgrimage in Japan

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. Some overland bus routes currently have limited or no service. Let’s hope for an improvement soon. I’ll keep you informed here.


The Shikoku Pilgrimage Trail

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 Shikoku 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 even bicycle.

The route passes through all four prefectures of the island, touching 20 Bangai temples. These are historically connected to the pilgrimage route, 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 lengthens to over 1,400 km.

Most pilgrims begin their trek 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 path is well signposted and there is less chance of getting lost.
Particularly difficult, but also worthy of recognition, is the counterclockwise pilgrimage and visiting the temples in descending order (Gyaku-uchi). In this direction it is tedious to find the right paths. The signposting of the paths is very limited.
Traditionally, pilgrims walked the entire pilgrimage without stopping (Tōshi-uchi), if only because the journey to Shikoku was long and arduous in many cases.
Today, many people walk the pilgrimage with several interruptions, spread over longer periods of time (Kugiri-uchi). And walk part of the route every weekend, every annual vacation, every spring.
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 important. 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 is that Kechigan 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 – Shikoku Pilgrimage Trail

Many thanks to Matsushita-san, the author of „Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide 2020“ for providing the elevation profile of the pilgrimage route and the accompanying legend. More info at: henro88map.com henro88map.com/pdf

Source overview map

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 on pilgrimage for religious reasons. But even then, the pilgrimage was a way to escape everyday life and experience something new.

Today, the motives why people travel to Shikoku and go on pilgrimage or pilgrimage are very complex:

    • Enjoy the seasons in nature. In spring, the cherry blossom; in autumn, the changing of the leaves, especially of the maple trees.
    • Visit and admire the temples, some of which are centuries old.
    • Staying mentally and physically fit and active.
    • Interest in hiking, in outdoor exercise.
    • Escape from everyday life and gain new experiences through travel. For Japanese, by visiting Shikoku, another part of Japan. For non-Japanese, by getting to know Japanese culture, different customs and traditions.
    • The desire to relive the positive experience of a previous pilgrimage when repeating the pilgrimage (shikoku byō).
    • Asking, praying for the fulfilment of worldly wishes. Good health for family/friends, but also for oneself. Seeking comfort and healing, recovery from illness, finding a (marriage) partner, safe childbirth, success in one’s job, studies or with one’s own business.
    • Finding the way to a better life, from illness, unemployment or after a bereavement; because of heartache or separation. The desire to overcome problems on and through the pilgrimage and to return home rejuvenated.
    • Pilgrimage after the emergence of personal problems and the desire, the hope to solve these problems on 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 and they were socialised with pilgrimage.
    • A possible motive may also be a competitive spirit or record pressure. Pilgrims who want to walk the path 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 hiked the 88 temples. This boom was triggered by Danish TV and radio creator and celebrity Mikael Bertelsen, who set out on a pilgrimage in Shikoku in 2017 with a backpack and film crew. The 10-part documentary has helped the island of Shikoku and the 88-temple pilgrimage gain unexpected popularity in Denmark. (A similar effect on the number of German pilgrims on the Way of St. James was had by the mega-bestseller “Ich bin dann mal weg” (I’ll be off then), published in 2006 by Hape Kerkeling, who 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, made the first pilgrimage to Shikoku.
He lived with his eight sons in the area in Iyo Province (in the present-day city of Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture) and was a fabulously wealthy man, the head of a powerful family, but also selfish, greedy and miserly.
According to this legend, one day a wandering monk came to his door asking for alms, but Emon refused to give anything and drove the monk away. The monk returned the next day and was driven away again. For eight days the monk returned to Emon’s house, and each time he was driven away again. 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 another. After the eighth and last son died, Emon realized that the cause of his sons’ deaths 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 look for the monk, to 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 again in the opposite direction, counterclockwise. In this way he hoped that he would meet Kūkai. But even now he failed to meet Kūkai, and near 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. When Emon died, 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 (now Ehime Prefecture). This child kept his hand closed for a long time, and no one was able to open it. Finally, when a priest was called who managed to open the hand, a small stone with the inscription “Emon Saburō reborn” was found in the palm. As he grew up, he performed many wonderful and good deeds for the community, including 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 practices of the Shikoku pilgrimage that are still current today:
The custom of giving osetai, or alms, to the needy; of 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 already divided into four provinces in earlier times. Their boundaries 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. Area (18,300 km²) and population correspond to that of the state of Saxony.
The larger cities are almost all located in the north of the island. The only major city in the south is Kōchi. Otherwise, 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.

Tokushima (徳島県)Awa730.000Tokushima260.000T1 - T23; T66165 km
Kōchi (高知県) Tosa700.000Kōchi330.000T24 - T39415 km
Ehime (愛媛県)Iyo1.350.000Matsuyama510.000T40 - T65390 km
Kagawa (香川県)Sanuki960.000Takamatsu420.000T67 - T88175 km


Kūkai   空海

Kūkai, posthum Kōbō Daishi (774—835) der Begründer des Shingon-Buddhismus in Japan
Kūkai (774—835)

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.

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