The first blog post we did in 2006 as a sort of technical test was a report about the „88-Temple-Pilgrimage“ (in Japanese 四国八十八箇所, shikoku hachijū hakkasho ) - a pilgrims' path on the Japanese island of Shikoku. The following text is a revamped version of this original first blog post with more pictures!
“We are now at Temple Nr. 45 of the 88-temple pilgrimage, the Iwayaji-Temple. The main hall is up the stairs, the Kobo Daishi hall is on the left side. Be sure to be back at the bus down in the parking lot in 20 minutes,” the guide urges her group of about 20 Buddhist pilgrims clad in the traditional white pilgrim’s garb from head to toe. It is ten past seven in the morning, and we watch them hurry through the temple grounds, busily lighting candles and incense, offering their name cards (inscribed with their name and a wish) and rattling breathlessly through the Heart Sutra in front of the main hall and the Kobo Daishi hall.
Meanwhile, their bus driver hauls two huge bags up to the temple office. They contain the group’s pilgrim’s books and traditional scrolls, all to be stamped and signed with a beautiful calligraphy at the price of 300 Yen (around 2,50 €) each.
After 20 minutes the group leaves on time. This was their first temple for today and there are still eight to go until five in the afternoon, when most temples close. With this tight schedule the tour groups cover all 88 temples in 11 days. But we take it slowly by walking and watch the bus pilgrims come and go.
The 88-temple pilgrimage was established in the 9th century by the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi, who was born on Shikoku at the site of today’s temple Nr. 75, Zentsūji temple, as the son of the local ruler. A widely travelled monk and founder of the Shingon School of Buddhism, he brought not only religious impulses, but also modern engineering and agricultural innovations from China, where he went as a scholar or exchange student, back to Japan. The followers of Shingon Buddhism believe that completing the pilgrimage and being buried with the pilgrim’s book will bring them closer to paradise.
Today most pilgrims do the 1440 km tour by bus, car or taxi. But as there have been a number of documentary programmes as well as a feature film, “Road 88” by Nakamura Genji, walking or cycling has become increasingly popular. Not all pilgrims are deeply into Buddhism, as an elderly man in full pilgrim's gear explains. “I’m not really that religious. This is the fourth time I’m walking – it’s good for my health.” On the other hand we also met Imakawa-san, who was on his 121st round (80 times by car and 21 times by bicycle). “The pilgrimage gives me mental power,” he said, moving his hand dramatically into the sky. “If I concentrate, I can move those dark clouds.” At least it did not rain that afternoon.
The bicycle is also the transport mode of choice for an unlikely group of pilgrims: the homeless. A growing number of long-term pilgrims just keep circling the island. From No. 88 they continue on to No. 1 and start all over again. For them it is a socially acceptable form of being out-of-society, and they prefer the pilgrim’s life to the blue tarp tent in a public park in Tokyo. One of them, a mid-forties cyclist in blue training slacks and a white singlet muses: “Sometimes I think I should return to a normal life and look for work, but the Buddha protects me well. And, you see, Kobo Daishi is so kind to me…” and he proudly shows us the Buddha sticker on the tail-light of his heavily laden bicycle.
We walked the Shikoku Pilgrimage in six legs over a period of 7 years, the final one, temple No.44 to temple No.88, in April 2006. Our initial reason to start the pilgrimage was the possibility of experiencing a rural part of Japan while hiking. Over time we became more and more enchanted with the land and the people of Shikoku, an island full of greenhouses and rice paddies, old hunchbacked Japanese working in the fields and quirky culinary delights such as eggplant soft ice cream and hand-made noodles.
At first we felt a bit like impostors. Not being Buddhist, we didn’t participate in the religious rites. Eventually we started reading the Heart Sutra in Japanese aloud like the other pilgrims did. Chanting to (foreign) gods felt strange and daring at first, but with some practice, reciting the Sutra made us slow down from the continuous movement of the pilgrimage and let us appreciate the silence and grace of the temples. At temple No. 81, Shiramine temple, we even bought one of the conical pilgrim’s hats to reach our goal, No 88, in style.
“Congratulations! You must be exhausted,” a fellow pilgrim greeted us warmly when we finally arrived at Okubo temple: Nr. 88. He handed us some sweets and his camera. “Could you please take a photo of me in front of the main hall?” And after that we asked him to take the obligatory finalist picture of ourselves!
There are good maps and guides in Japanese available; a good English companion book is “A Henro Pilgrimage Guide to the 88 Tempels of Shikoku Island Japan” by Bishop Tiasen Miyata (a Shingon monk from California). Along the way you can stay in hotels, private pensions (minshukus) or temples. Sometimes there is free accommodation for pilgrims in huts or sheds (maps usually indicate these places, you have to bring your own sleeping bag).
We carried a tent and a stove and just camped out in the wild, sometimes close to the temples, a few times within the temple grounds. The people of Shikoku are used to pilgrims and believe that helping the pilgrims also brings merit onto themselves. Quite often we got food from them and occasionally were offered accommodation.
The walking is mostly through fields and along smaller paths, but there are some unpleasant parts along roads with heavy traffic and through tunnels. A few stretches (before No 12 for example) are quite hilly, but altogether for anyone of average fitness it should be possible to hike the whole pilgrimage. If you only have limited time the first 12 temples make a nice hike for just a few days.
The start and endpoint of the pilgrimage are near the city of Tokushima, which has an airport and is otherwise easily reached by bus or ferry from other parts of Japan. The closest international airport is Kansai Airport near Osaka. Throughout Shikoku you can travel by (infrequent) buses.