Shikoku Pilgrimage

Michael Thaler

© 2008 Michael Thaler

What's so special about Shikoku? Isolation is what makes Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, such a special place for me. Shikoku is doubly isolated. Geographically, it wasn’t until fairly recently that bridges connected it to Honshu, Japan’s main island. Before then, travel back and forth was by boat. Despite today’s easier access, it’s still well off the tourist trail. Even Japanese go elsewhere for their vacations. More significantly to me, Shikoku is chronologically isolated -- that is, it’s caught in a time warp in which traditional ways of doing things are still to be found in greater abundance than elsewhere in Japan. The island is divided into four prefectures, analogous to states in the United States (Shi = four, koku = provinces). The pace of life there, even in the cities, is less rushed. The island as a whole, and the rural areas in particular, are less affluent than elsewhere in Japan because most major industries and big corporations are based in the Tokyo and Osaka areas. I think it is this existence outside the frenetic mainstream that has allowed Shikoku to retain so many of the old ways, especially in its rural areas. One of these old ways is the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage, the longest and most famous Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan. The route supposedly was laid out and the temples chosen by the monk Kukai, known more popularly by his posthumous title, Kobo Daishi, or Great Teacher of the Buddhist Law. Kukai (774-835) traveled to China during a period of intense study by the Japanese of the best that China had to offer in terms of Buddhism, philosophy, government theory, and the arts.

Buddhist doctrine filtered from India to China, and then to the kingdoms of Korea and to Japan. Kukai diligently studied the latest trends in Buddhism, and after several years brought back to Japan what came to be called Shingon, a type of Esoteric Buddhism and the last major development in Buddhist thought to come out of India. (Tibetan Buddhism is a branch of Esoteric Buddhism, also called Vajrayana Buddhism, and the similarities between it and Shingon are many.) Kukai also was a master of public works, and oversaw construction of an irrigation lake that still exists on Shikoku. He also is credited with developing the hiragana and katakana syllabaries of Japanese writing, though scholars dismiss this achievement as legend. He was, however, a master calligrapher and samples of his writing can still be seen.
Buddhist pilgrim circa 1890 in traditional attire

Despite his achievements, Kukai is most famous for the Shikoku pilgrimage route, even though he likely had little or no hand in its formation. It circumambulates the island, is about 800 miles long and takes most people about six weeks to walk. I started the pilgrimage in the summer of 1997 while living in Japan, and did another leg during a break from work that December. I returned to Japan in September 2004 from my home in the United States and walked still more. I've thus far visited 30 of the 88 temples on foot, and have finished about half the distance of the route. Like most Shikoku pilgrims (henro in Japanese) who do the circuit on foot, I took a vow at Temple 1, recording in a book, that I would walk the entire route and that I would finish it, no matter how long it took.

The Pilgrimage Route (outlined in black)

For me, the pilgrimage is the best way to see a rural landscape that is fast disappearing, and an excellent way to catch an inspiring glimpse of the soul of Japan. It thus far has also been an unparalleled way for me to be alone with my thoughts. I'm approaching my mid-40s, and am learning to appreciate the joys of solitude more and more. The Shikoku route has been used for 1,300 years by people seeking themselves, seeking an answer to the questions of existence. The route is well-marked by red stickers showing the outline of a pilgrim carrying a staff and by wooden signposts and stone markers, some modern and some centuries old.

An assortment of route markers

The path leads into cities, follows busy highways and meanders through wooded countryside where I walked for more than a day without encountering another soul. Blisters are a pilgrim’s constant bane, and after walking an average of 15 miles a day, and sometimes as many as 25 miles, I was never so footsore in my life. Did I find myself on the way? Yes, to a small extent, and I also discovered my true threshold for pain. Did I find answers to life’s imponderables? No. But I caught a glimpse of a side of Japan that I hadn’t experienced heretofore. I hope these photos, taken in 2004, convey the beauty I found.

First day on the henro (pilgrim) trail, September 2004

I began the Shikoku pilgrimage in the summer of 1997 at Temple 1, Ryozenji, in Tokushima Prefecture. By the end of two weeks that summer and two weeks that December, I had walked to Temple 23, Yakuoji, the last temple in Tokushima. In September 2004, I returned to Yakuoji, and set out on the three-day walk to Temple 24, Hotsumisaki-ji, the first temple in Kochi Prefecture.

Yakuoji Temple, Tokushima Prefecture, December 1997

Before 1868, Kochi Prefecture was known as Tosa Province, which had a reputation for the toughness and unfriendliness of its inhabitants and for its wild and windswept coast, which faces the Pacific and which often bears the full brunt of typhoons. Other provinces were known for their handicrafts or for special agricultural products. In Tosa, the locals bred huge mastiffs for fighting, and they still do (though that bit about unfriendliness is largely untrue, at least insofar as my experiences are concerned). They also make Tosa Tsuru, one of the best brands of sake I ever drank. The walk from the last temple in Tokushima to the first in Kochi -- two to three days -- is the longest distance between temples on the pilgrimage. It’s also a big test of the henro’s resolve. Passing through the first town in Kochi was a welcome sight, even though the first temple was still a long way off.
First town in Kochi Prefecture

One of the customs of the pilgrimage is that some locals believe they receive karmic merit when they offer assistance or sustenance to pilgrims. This offering is called o-settai or go-settai. In the past, I have received as o-settai pocket change that I either was entrusted with depositing in the offering box of the next temple or admonished to use to get something to eat, food and/or drink, offers of a ride (though most foot pilgrims sign a vow at Temple 1 that they will walk the entire path), and other small kindnesses. This photo was taken outside a convenience store where this wonderful, anonymous woman offered my traveling companions and me some rice cakes

On the walk to Temple 24, I passed this fish processing operation. I had a little chat with the woman, asked if I could take her picture, and here you have it. She started off speaking in Tosa-ben, a provincial dialect unintelligible even to Japanese people. After she switched to standard Japanese, we had a nice chat.

Here are two traveling companions I met at Temple 23, all of us heading south on the henro path. One of the enjoyable things about the pilgrimage is the people you meet along the way. I often found myself making friends at a temple and continuing on the path together, until the disparity in our paces led to a parting of the ways.

On the path to Temple 24

Kukai is said to have achieved enlightenment at age 19 in a cave near this temple. Through this gate, the long, threeday walk from the last temple in Tokushima Prefecture ended for me. If you think of Shikoku as shaped something like a bowtie, this temple is located at the lower right corner at a place called Muroto-misaki, or Cape Muroto. The east coast of Shikoku is wild and rocky, and much of the long road from Tokushima Prefecture snakes along the coast. Watching the Pacific crash and roll just yards away was a memorable visual and aural experience. It was this wildly undulating sea that really drove home the solitude of the pilgrim’s path. The statue to the left of the gate is of Kukai.

Temple 24 (Hotsumisaki-ji)

Ablution fountain, Kochi Prefecture

All Shinto shrines and many Buddhist temples have ablution fountains where visitors ritually and symbolically purify themselves.

This temple, about 4 miles from No. 24, is said to provide protection for sailors. Note the ship's wheel mounted above the gateway arch at the top of the steps. This wheel also symbolizes the Wheel of the Dharma.

Temple 25 (Shinsho-ji)

Bus henro

For centuries, henro walked the pilgrimage path. Nowadays, you can do it by car or by tour bus (especially popular with older folks). As a foreign henro, I was a constant source of wonder for the bus henro, and slightly less so for the foot pilgrims, with whom a certain instant camaraderie was formed. On foot, the pilgrimage can take from one month (at a heck of a clip) to two months. By car or bus, you can bang it out in a week or less. I know of someone who about 10 years ago jogged the entire 800 miles.

Two large outcroppings, dubbed husband and wife, and “wedded” by a Shinto shimenawa, or straw rope, thus making this a holy spot.

Meoto-iwa (wedded rocks), near Cape Muroto

Looking back at Cape Muroto jutting into the Pacific, about a half-day’s walk from Temple 26, one of three temples at the cape.

On the path to Temple 27 (Konomine-ji)

Coastline near Cape Muroto

Coastline near Cape Muroto

The henro path traverses all sorts of terrain, from urban to rural, flat to mountainous.

This is one of my favorite photos. As I was walking up a hill, this fellow was coming down. I quickly snapped the shutter, almost as an afterthought. I was very pleased when I saw the result. For me, this photo perfectly captures the pilgrim's path: wooded, bathed in solitude, fellow travelers only occasionally encountered.

Pilgrim on the henro path

At this point, Cape Muroto was nearly a day’s walk behind me. You can just make it out in the far distance, beyond the promontory ringing this inlet.

It is said that each time you complete the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage, your “karmic credit” increases. Some people have walked the Shikoku pilgrimage more than 100 times. People walk it clockwise, from Temples 1 to 88, and counterclockwise from 88 to 1. I met this henro and his friend, who are pictured together in the next photo, on the way to Cape Muroto, if memory serves. They each had walked the pilgrimage route dozens of times and had just completed a clockwise circuit. Here, they are embarked on a counterclockwise pilgrimage. This fellow wore rubber sandals and swore he has never gotten blisters. He and his friend took turns pushing their cart along the trail, up mountains, through woods, and everything in between. This is their life’s calling, and they subsist on o-settai -- handouts along the way. I never met two happier people.
Professional pilgrim

Here are my two friends, the “professional henro,” one of whom is pictured in the preceding photo. They were very affable and were easy to chat with, but they also were anxious to finish their umpteenth pilgrimage so they could begin the next circuit.

Lifetime henro

This statue of Dainichi is at the appropriately named Dainichi-ji, Temple 28. In addition to the Buddha we've all heard of -- Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha who lived about 2,500 years ago -there are other Buddhas, all manifestations of essentially the same thing. Dainichi is the Cosmic Buddha and represents boundless wisdom and insight. The gesture, or mudra, he is making is unique to this particular Buddha and represents supreme wisdom. Dainichi is the central Buddha in Shingon Buddhism, brought to Japan from China by the Japanese monk Kukai.

Statue of Dainichi, Temple 28

This path leads to Kokubun-ji, the secondto-last temple I’ve visited thus far. At this point, I was traveling on my own and had been for several days. My solitude was complete.

Path to Temple 29

Jizo is an extremely popular figure in Japanese Buddhism, savior from the torments of hell, helper of deceased children and protector of travelers. Here he wears a pilgrim's sedge hat, and has a bib around his neck put there as a prayer by a believer.

Jizo statue, Temple 29

Henro at prayer

Michael was never to return to Japan during his lifetime, but before he died, on January 15, 2008, he requested that his ashes be scattered on Shikoku. On April 8, the day celebrated as the Buddha’s birthday, we fulfilled his wish and Michael completed his pilgrimage. Valerie Thaler

View of ocean and beach from Temple 23, April 8, 2008

After he visited this temple in 1997, Michael wrote, “The view from the top of the hill was spectacular, looking over picturesque Hiwasa, the temple town, and then out to the island-studded harbor along the Pacific. The temple itself is quite beautiful, which added to the effect.”

Pacific Ocean off coast of Hiwasa, where we scattered Michael’s ashes

Going on a journey leaving behind everything even myself
Michael Thaler

Yakuoji Temple, Tokushima Prefecture, April 8, 2008

Michael Thaler’s journeys in Japan:

Slice of Japan
Part I: Part II: Part III: Part IV: Chiba Prefecture Kyoto Tokyo, Kamakura, Nikko, and beyond A Final Look

Shikoku Pilgrimage
For more of Michael’s writing and photography, see his blog, One Foot in Front of the Other, at Send comments to: