“We are now at Temple Nr. 45 of the 88-temple pilgrimage, the Iwayaji-Temple. The main hall is up here, 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 Diamond 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 (300 Yen 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. With this tight schedule the tour groups cover all 88 temples in 11 days.
The 88-temple pilgrimage was established by the 9th century 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 sect of Buddhism, he brought not only religious impulses, but also modern engineering and agricultural innovations from China to Japan. His followers 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 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. “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, the final one, temple No.44 to temple No.88, in April. When we walked for the first time, seven years ago during a holiday, our main interest was hiking in a rural part of Japan. But 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.
At first we felt a bit like impostors: not being Buddhist, we didn’t participate in the religious rites. Eventually we started reading the Diamond Sutra. Chanting to (foreign) gods felt strange and daring. But with some practice, reciting the Sutra made us slow down from the continuous movement of the pilgrimage and let us appreciate the temples. At temple No. 81, Shiramine temple, we even bought one of the conical pilgrim’s hats to reach our goal 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?”