In the southern part of Japan sits the little island of Shikoku: the smallest of the main four islands that make up the Japanese archipelago. Circling this gorgeous island, rich with incredible natural wonders, are the 88 temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, or Henro. Travelers and seekers of spiritual enlightenment embark on a soul-searching journey that reaches across all four of the island’s prefectures, where visions of the enchanting landscape wait to bring peace and inspiration. Due to the island’s location across the Seto Inland Sea, Shikoku has preserved a distinct culture and landscape apart from the main island, and much of the trail experience – from the situation of the temples to the strict teachings they observe is something only to be appreciated on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
While there are a lot of things to enjoy in Shikoku, the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage is by far the most renowned attraction, where centuries of local history and tradition meet marvelous nature scenes.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is centered around the renowned Buddhist monk Kukai who, in the late 6th century during the Heian period, popularized Shingon – an esoteric Buddhist school of thought.
Until the 17th century, only monks and priests would undertake the pilgrimage, but after that, the journey gained popularity among ordinary people due to infrastructure development. The pilgrimage involves traveling 1200 kilometers to all 88 Shikoku temples in all 4 prefectures of Shikoku: Ehime, Kagawa, Kōchi, and Tokushima, via chartered buses, cars, or on foot. If done by walking alone, the arduous journey takes about 50 days to complete. Along the way, pilgrims get to experience the land with all of its majestic beauty and natural wonders while the locals shower them with hospitality.
Most commonly, the middle-aged and elderly are seen to take the journey to reflect onto their lives, gain enlightenment to live a better one, atone for sins, and pray for health and success along the way. Young people credit it as an excellent opportunity to do some soul searching to find more about themselves as a person. Nowadays, the Shikoku pilgrimage has gained popularity among those outside of Japan to experience an authentic Buddhist spiritual journey of enlightenment.
The 88 Shikoku temples are scattered throughout the island, with most of them near the coast, but what makes the pilgrimage unique is its circular route, where a pilgrim reaches the first temple they started with at the end of the expedition. Pilgrims are seen wearing traditional white robes (byakue), a narrow scarf (wagesa), and straw hats (sugegasa). They can get their robes stamped with the temple’s seal or get the stamp placed in a particular stamp book (nōkyōchō or shuincho) at each temple. The white robes were meant to symbolize funeral clothing for those who perished on the Shikoku pilgrimage, but most believe that the color white symbolizes equality in the Buddhist faith. The walking stick is considered an incarnation of Kukai and considered as a symbolic partner along the journey. The scarf is essential when entering praying areas in a temple, worn out of respect for the deities. Historically, the stamps were meant to keep an official record of travel as per strict restrictions. The practice remains to this day, and the book or robe gets buried with a person upon their death.
The foundations of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage began before the time of Kukai, about a hundred years after Buddhism came to Japan from China. A monk by the name of En no Gyoja lived in the mountains of Shikoku and practiced an austere lifestyle, preaching people to seek enlightenment throughout the island.
After En came Gyoki. He followed En’s footsteps, helping the poor along the way and establishing the first 37 of the 88 Shikoku temples. Finally, Kukai, born in Zentsuji, Shikoku (present day Kagawa Prefecture), continued the legacy. He is said to have attained knowledge regarding the Buddhist teachings from a priest when he moved to the capital at 15. He practiced severe austerity in the Shikoku Mountains. In one of the caves, Mikurodo, he gained enlightened wisdom and changed his name to Kukai (sky and sea) attributed to the view he saw from the cave when meditating. At the age of 31, Kukai set forth for China to master Shingon Buddhism, and upon his return, he established a school near the capital city at Koya-san to preach and meditate.
Besides bringing the teachings of esoteric Buddhism to Japan, developing them, and pioneering the Shingon sect, Kukai restored and built the 88 Shikoku temples, establishing the route for pilgrimage. He became a renowned scholar, poet, historian, calligrapher, and linguist. Present followers affectionately refer to him as Kobo Daishi (the great teacher), a title bestowed upon him posthumously.
Most pilgrims start at Mount Koya, the headquarters for Shingon Buddhism, by preparing for the journey. Here, they can purchase the traditional attire and stamp book if they like. They can then start their walk from Ryozenji temple at Naruto in the Tokushima prefecture, officially beginning their journey. From there on then they visit the 88 Shikoku temples clockwise. However, there is no stated rule for completing the Shikoku pilgrimage. Pilgrims can start at any temple and work their way either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Some even claim that walking counter-clockwise from the 88th temple is more spiritually beneficial.
At each temple, pilgrims perform a set of rituals. They start by bowing at the temple gate, followed by a purification ritual where they wash their hands and mouth, and finally, ring the temple bell alerting Kobo Daishi of their arrival at the temple. Inside the temple, pilgrims chant “sutras” or prayers based on waka poetry specific to each temple that signify the temple’s blessings upon the pilgrim. They light candles or incense to gather Buddhist deities before praying and submit a slip of paper bearing their name. When leaving for the next temple, they can get their stamp collected.
Each stage of the pilgrimage symbolizes a specific aspect of Buddhist teachings towards enlightenment.
The first stage in the Tokushima prefecture symbolizes the awakening of the soul, where one opens to the idea of the spiritual journey that lies ahead of them. If starting at Ryozenji temple, pilgrims pray that they succeed in their travels and that they receive enlightenment from the path they travel.
The most challenging aspect of this part of the pilgrimage is a steep 800m climb between temples 11 (Fujiidera) and 12 (Shosanji). Once pilgrims complete this difficult ascension, they’re greeted by a dense jungle of cedar trees that are hundreds of years old. They lead up to the Shosanji temple (Burning Mountain Temple), the second-highest temple on the Shikoku pilgrimage. Pilgrims can witness a breathtaking view up to the Awaji Island from the temple if the weather permits it. At the top of the mountain is a sanctuary in a cave built by En no Gyoja, marking the temple’s origin. According to Shingon legend, this is where Kukai trapped a fire-breathing dragon, which gives the temple its name. Going down the temple, pilgrims can visit Emon Saburo’s tomb, considered the first pilgrim to walk the trail.
Shikoku Temple #1 - Ryozenji Temple
The second stage of the pilgrimage begins in the Kochi Prefecture at the 24th temple, Hotsumisakiji. This part of the route aims to instill a sense of religious austerity into the pilgrims. Near the Hotsumisakiji temple is the legendary Mikurodo cave, which, as mentioned before, holds significance among those of the Shingon faith as the place where Kukai attained enlightenment after intense meditation.
Temple 31 in this prefecture, Chikurinji Temple, is another noteworthy attraction near the capital city of the Kochi prefecture, Kochi City. Located on top of Mount Godaisan, it gives a beautiful view of the town. It is the only temple of the 88 Monju as the honzon (exalted, honored, or main image) and is considered a national treasure. It symbolizes wisdom, so it is common with students who come here to pray for good results in their exams.
Shikoku Temple #32 - Zenjibuji Temple
Reaching temple 40, Kanjizaiji, kicks off the third leg of the Shikoku pilgrimage in Ehime prefecture, also referred to as the path of enlightenment. The temple houses one of the Nanyo gods of luck and fortune, Benzaiten, patron of artists and performers, and brings financial wealth to those who pray to her.
The 45th temple, Iwayaji, is perhaps the most beautifully situated of the Shikoku temples, surrounded by otherworldly rock formations that make it challenging to reach with a 600 m steep climb to the main hall. Surrounding the main hall are caves where monks used to conduct ascetic training. Up another 300-meter hill, there is a cleft in a rock where Kukai practiced austerity and discipline.
Another place pilgrims can visit during this leg of the journey is the Dogo Onsen near temple 51, Ishiteji. It is one of Japan’s most famous hot spring resort areas with many bathhouses and Ryokan, serving as a place for relaxation during the pilgrimage.
Shikoku Temple #48 - Sairinji Temple
The last stage of the pilgrimage, if done this way, is called the path of Nirvana – liberation from existential suffering. This part of the route starts at temple 66, Unpenji, the highest point in the pilgrimage at 911 m, making it the toughest temple to reach by foot. However, most people prefer to take a cable car from Kagawa to make their climb easier. Interestingly, this temple is not part of Kagawa prefecture but is just inside Tokushima prefecture.
Zentsuji Temple is also found in this prefecture, holding significance as the temple near the birthplace of Kukai. The temple showcases Kukai’s statue as a young man, and other treasures such as the bronze pilgrim’s staff and a Buddhist scripture of the Lotus Sutra decorated with Buddhas.
At the 88th temple, Okuboji, the pilgrimage is complete if starting from temple 1. Here pilgrims deposit their walking sticks to mark the end of the journey officially. Kechigan describes the act of completing the Shikoku pilgrimage, meaning “to tie up wishes”, beautifully summarizing the blessings bestowed upon the traveler along the circular path.
Shikoku Temple #88 - Okubo Temple
The people of Shikoku are one of the most hospitable people in Japan who actively help pilgrims on their journey. Many pilgrims talk of great experiences when interacting with the locals, where they provided them with food and directions on their path. Many locals even offer free or low-cost lodging (Zenkonyado) for one night stay to support pilgrims on their travels. If staying at a Zenkonyado, make a reservation beforehand. Don’t overstay your welcome as this practice is frowned upon, put in place to deter the homeless from taking undue advantage of the lodging.
Additionally, be on the lookout for free lodging within the temples, as some of the 88 Shikoku temples provide it, making it an excellent opportunity to interact with the temple priest and other pilgrims. You can also find moderately priced Minshukus, a kind of family-operated guest house that may even provide meal options. Temples closer to cities, larger towns, and Onsens may have big hotels or Ryokans nearby. These are a bit pricy, depending on the kind of services they provide, but are comfortable spots to relax and unwind after a long day’s journey.
As mentioned earlier, there’s no specific way of going about the Shikoku pilgrimage. Most pilgrims like to do it the clockwise route starting at temple 1 and ending at temple 88, but one can start from anywhere going to any temple via any means. You can take the trip once, covering all 88 Shikoku temples in one go, or you can take multiple trips to different temples on weekends at your own pace.