Ep. 039: The Sacred Pilgrimage of Shikoku

Around the island with Kobo Daishi

Come along as I take the briefest of looks at one of the world's most significant pilgrimages, the 88 Temple Route on Japan's Shikoku Island, in this episode of


In 2001, I undertook a pilgrimage, mostly on foot. This circular route was the last part of my Aki Meguri or "Autumn Journey," and came after I had walked the linear Tokaido Highway end to end from Tokyo to Kyoto, and spent a couple of days visiting key points in the old Yamato area.

A gathering of pilgrims on Shikoku; older Japanese people who opt to travel the course generally do so by the busload.

The Shikoku Hachi-ju-ha Kasho or "88 Sacred Places of Shikoku" route is located on Shikoku, the smallest and least populous of Japan's four major islands, located across the narrow Inland Sea from the western end of the main island, Honshu, just east of Kyushu. For generations it has been the site of a 750-mile pilgrimage made up of 88 temples centering on the life of Kukai ("Sky-Sea"), also called Kobo Daishi, or "Great Master Who Spreads Widely the Buddha's Teaching," perhaps Japan's greatest Buddhist monk, whom we met in Episode 032.

History and Tradition

Shikoku is an island of legend. Oh, it really exists. But as a friend told me, it seems imbued with mystery. Every tree, every stone, seems to have a legend attached. Many of these center on Kukai (774-835), Shikoku's most famous son.

Statue of Kobo Daishi in the cemetery at Koyasan

The Daishi (and he is the Daishi, preeminent among many others) is said to have established this pilgrimage. Scholars dispute it; believers don't care. That he lived here is certain; that he traveled extensively, and practiced religious rigors throughout the island, is also certain. Whether it was he or his followers (the members of the Buddhist Shingon sect), somebody established the pilgrimage, securing this smaller-than-New-Jersey island's place in World Buddhism.

As the stories surrounding the pilgrimage developed, the four provinces of the island each took on an attribute related to the pilgrim's progress. These are:

  • Tokushima Prefecture (formerly Awa Province): The Dojo (training room) of Awakening Faith

  • Kochi Prefecture (formerly Tosa Province): The Dojo of Religious Discipline

  • Ehime Prefecture (formerly Iyo Province): The Dojo of Enlightenment

  • Kagawa Prefecture (formerly Sanuki Province): The Dojo of Nirvana

What the well-dressed pilgrim must buy. A creepy, silent sales pitch at Temple #1.

In this age of pilgrimage by train, bus, and car, the significance of this progression--from Awakening, through Discipline, to Enlightenment and finally Nirvana--may have been lost for many. But friends tell me that television specials in Japan have centered on the idea that pilgrims are walking again, in greater numbers all the time. This is a sign of hope.

As you would expect of a tradition that has been around in more-or-less this form since the 14th century, the pilgrimage is knee-deep in lore. For example, the mundane name of the island--"Four Provinces"--is also a homophone for "Death Country." It is said that the ill (or simply unwanted) were sent here to tread the circuit repeatedly until death overtook them. That is why pilgrims wear white (the color of death in Japan, as black is in the west), and carry a hat with the pilgrim's name and hometown written in calligraphy, as well as a stick. Thus, when the traveler succumbs, whoever happens upon his or her remains can bury them, and set up the stick and hat as a tombstone, however temporary. (I have mine in the front porch of my house here in the Philippines, for when I take that final journey. See a photo below.)

Detail of the scroll from my five-day, 60-mile pilgrimage (done entirely on foot in late July, 2001) in Chichibu, near Tokyo.

Another Japanese tradition regarding pilgrimages: one obtains a stamp-book, or sometimes a scroll. At each temple, it is submitted to an office, where the temple's official stamps are placed in red over the calligraphy of a monk or volunteer. This becomes a treasured keepsake; some even consider it to have "magic" powers. I have one from this pilgrimage and two others, and a scroll from a fourth. They (and my laptop) are the first things I'd grab in a fire.

The Route

The Shikoku route runs through the four provinces of the island.

The route is fairly straightforward. It runs in a clockwise direction, never straying too far from the island's coast. It starts on the eastern end, in Tokushima Prefecture (22 temples), which was closest to the ferry from Koyasan, where Kobo Daishi's remains are enshrined (and the pilgrimage properly begins); continues south and west through the island's largest Prefecture, Kochi (16 temples); next it runs northward up the island's west coast through Ehime Prefecture (26 temples); then it swerves back into the mountains of Tokushima for one temple; and finally enters Kagawa (23 temples), not only the island's, but the entire country's smallest prefecture. But one can actually jump on the course anywhere, and some people are even compelled by circumstance to travel it in small chunks.

Incidentally, this pilgrimage has a full complement of 20 unnumbered temples beyond the 88 (and 20 + 88 = 108, a very sacred number in Indian religion). I only visited four of these, but I have done some research on the full list; you can see them all on TheTempleGuy.org.

My Approach

Having become aware of both the Tokaido and Shikoku during my nearly five years of working in Tokyo, in 2001 I started planning an "epic journey" to be undertaken after I quit my job, but before I returned to the 'States. I started walking longer and longer distances in the springtime, and did 60 miles in five days in Chichibu in late July.

Meanwhile, I had begun soliciting my friends for two things: first, that they would give me their "prayer requests" to carry along and express in an appropriate location every day; and second, to make donations to help defray my expenses. It must be pointed out that these two were not to be linked: I would carry their requests whether they donated or not, and donations would (naturally) be accepted even from those who wanted nothing.

My friends "ordain" me before I start out on the journey.

The response was overwhelming. As near as I can figure today, cash gifts totaled upwards of $6,000 US (plus more received along the way--and lots of fruit!). I also received help of all kinds, from logistics to translation to simple encouragement.

But more than that, I was privileged to be included into the hopes and fears of so many people around me. As I wrote in my journal during the trip: "People I've known for years, who never said much, have come to me and told me the most amazing, heart-wrenching stories about family problems, illness, etc. It has opened up new dimensions in relationships that were hitherto pretty much moribund. It has been very fulfilling." About 85 people made requests of one sort or another before I left; I added nearly 30 more after starting out, sometimes just in thanksgiving for their kindness.

At first I intended to walk the entire length of the Tokaido, walk through Yamato (including Koyasan) to the ferry across to Shikoku, and walk around Shikoku. Ha. It turns out the Tokaido, once a thoroughfare for travelers, is no longer set up very well for people on foot. So I had to modify things quite a bit: I would "base" at a hotel, and take a train or bus to my starting point for the day. At day's end, I'd take transpo back to the hotel, and then out to the stopping point the next morning. Once I was well past the hotel, I'd "move base" on down the road, and continue in the same manner.

As I start out to walk every step of the Tokaido. Every. Damn. Step.

In this way I walked every step of the Tokaido. Once I reached Kyoto, however, it was all public transpo until I reached Shikoku. There, I used the same technique, but took trains and buses over long open stretches. You can read more about my Shikoku experience in my original-but-updated journal entries.

What?! "Original-but-updated?" What's that supposed to mean? Here's the deal: I "blogged" every day I was on the road. Actually, although blogging software and platforms were newly available, I was not aware of them. So I created a full HTML page (using that late lamented warhorse, FrontPage) and uploaded it through a unique Japanese technology of the time, the "H Card" (or "Edge Card"), which fit into the mammoth PCMCIA slot on my laptop. With that, as long as I was near a public phone booth (fitted with an antenna for the "Handy Phone" system) and a "slot" was available (each antenna could accommodate only three nearby users at a time), I was able to upload my latest production to my homepage.

The website I registered was called "Connected Japan," and I had great plans for it (as usual). When through an administrative snafu I lost that address (now available, I note, for a mere $2,888), I moved the entire site to my old Temple Guy (.com) URL, where I upgraded the design and rearranged some of the structure. It's still there--until I dismantle it--but an even more updated and improved version (with larger pictures, for example) is now on my current site, TheTempleGuy.org One very important difference: the 2019 build is “2.0,” built on Blogspot, allowing for greater interactivity--and assuring it will live long past my demise (no monthly fees for hosting the content, which will live as long as Google keeps it going).

Now, back to the journey: The Shikoku part of the trip differed from the Tokaido portion mainly in that I took trains and buses over long stretches of ground, and even went up some mountains by vehicle (once in a multi-purpose school bus, once in a busload of senior pilgrims, and once in a taxi!) The clock was ticking, I was getting tired, and... well... you know. Anyway, I would treasure the chance to go back and do the entire thing on foot, maybe in a milestone year--like when I turn 70? I was hoping for 65, but that's this year, and travel doesn't seem like a good idea right now...

You can see a list of all the temples on my main site. Each temple's name is given in romaji (alphabet) and kanji (Chinese characters), with its location and a link to a Google map. I also mention the date visited. Another way in is to go to the journal itself (as linked above), starting here. This will tell you something about each temple visited. There's also a list of resources here, offered with special thanks to Oliver Statler, Bishop Taisen Miyata, David L. Turkington, Don Weiss, David C. Moreton, Craig McLachlan, and the thousands of pilgrims known and unknown who trod the path before me.

Two Anecdotes

There's so much to be said about each and every temple, and I will, in time, I will. But in addition, there are those wonderful encounters with people, the best part of any travel experience.

By way of example, let me share one little story--as it happens, one that happened my first night on the island--that I've lifted from my journal.

Before I left Koyasan, I had called ahead to reserve a place at Temple #2 on Shikoku (learning that #1 was closed at the time), and when I gave my name to the old priest, he emitted a characteristic "Eh?!" I guess, despite my crappy Japanese, he hadn't realized I was a foreigner? Anyway, I told him--in that crappy Japanese--that I was "James, as in 'James Bond'" which gave him what he needed--and a chuckle besides.

So imagine my delight when, arriving at the temple after a long day's commute from Koyasan, I was greeted by an elderly monk in robes, arms upraised, calling out to me: "Sero Sero Seben!" He was as friendly and accommodating as anyone I had met along the way.

My hat. And stick.

Later that same evening, according to my journal:

I did have a funny encounter tonight. I asked the head priest here to inscribe my hat--something he's apparently not used to doing. So he wrote a Sanskrit letter representing the Daishi, and the expression Dogyo ninin--"We two, pilgrims together." Then he wrote my name in katakana, the Japanese syllabary used for foreign words. A little unsure what to do next, he added ro-su-a-n-zhe-re-su, the name of my hometown. Still not satisfied, he put the name of the temple and his name. It's a masterpiece, a definite one-of-a-kind. (Most pilgrims get Dogyo ninin, a poem, and their name.) I think the padre may have been into the sake before he started to work!

Venerable Fugen, a dedicated young monk heading for the last temple

That story about a monk happened at the start of the pilgrimage. Here's another, from the end:

While struggling up to the mountain peak above Number 88, I had a most unusual meeting: This young monk, of the Rinzai Zen Sect, is named Fugen. He is 26 years old, and from Chiba. He has been a monk for 3 years. After reaching Number 88, the end of his pilgrimage, he will go to Nagoya to visit his grandparents. He will give them his completed stamp book as a gift. I cannot begin to imagine ever parting with mine; his non-attachment to this material thing is exemplary. Then he will continue his studies--not sure where.

They're still with us. The exceptional men (and, one presumes and hopes, women) who give their lives to the search for connection. Perhaps in my next life I can be one, too.

In 31 days I have met no foreign pilgrims. I have met men and women from all over Japan, a surprisingly large number of them walking the entire circuit. I have met the elderly traveling by bus, the middle-aged by car, and the young by public transportation. Some were "weekend henro [pilgrims]," some had left things on hold back home, and some had actually closed chapters of their lives to undertake the pilgrimage, with no idea of what will happen next.

I'm pleased to report that the quest for connection, the search for spiritual fulfillment, the impulse toward enlightenment, is alive and thriving on Shikoku, in Japan.


Look, the month (well, 32 days) I spent steeped in history and tradition on that sacred island couldn't be captured in the hundreds of pictures I shot or the thousands of words I've written, so there's no way we can do more than just scratch the surface in a piece like this. Let me tell you, it's like visiting the Grand Canyon: words fail; we despair at conveying the mystery, and all that's left is an aching to be there again.

So may it be.

And now, until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: It's Dharma Day! Let's talk about the "Six Realms of Existence" in Buddhist cosmology--and their implications in everyday psychology.