The 88 Temple Pilgrimage of Shikoku

No 70 of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, Motoyamaji
Temple No 70 of the 88 Temple pilgrimage of Shikoku: the Motoyamaji Temple

The first blog post we did in 2006 as a sort of technical test was a report about the „88 Temple Pilgrimage of Shikoku“ (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 Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi

pilgrimage sign
Sign for pilgrims on the 88 Temple pilgrimage of Shikoku

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.

Pilgrims walking or cycling

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 88 Temple 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.

Homeless pilgrims on the 88 Temple pilgrimage of Shikoku

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.

Becoming a “real” pilgrim on the way

Temple No 81 of the Shikoku Pilgrimage:  Shiramineji

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. This also 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.

Arrival at Temple No. 88!

Shikoku Temple No 88: Ookuboji

“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!

Since then, we have undertaken more pilgrimages in Japan. First of all, we went on to Mount Koya to finish the Buddhist Pilgrimage connected with Kobo Daishi. There is also a Shinto pilgrimage nearby on the ancient networks of Kumano Kodo. Part of this pilgrimage is on a river! And similarly, a very brief boat pilgrimage leads through the famous Miyajima Floating Torii to the Itsukushima Shrine.

Bangai Temple No. 14: Joufukuji Tsubakidou
Camping under a temple roof

What you need to know to go on the 88 Temple pilgrimage of Shikoku

Maps for 88 Temple pilgrims

There are good maps and guides in Japanese available. A good English companion book is “A Henro Pilgrimage Guide to the 88 Temples 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.

Camping on Shikoku

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.

Hiking the Shikoku Pilgrimage

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. However, 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.

Transport to Shikoku

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. Many pilgrims afterwards travel to Mt Koya-san as well, the mother temple of the Shingon School. But you may also want to stay on a little and explore Shikoku, or the nearby art island of Naoshima.

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  1. This sounds like such an interesting pilgrimage. I understand why you felt like an imposter, I would have felt the same way! It’s nice that they treat the pilgrims with such respect and kindness. The part about the homeless pilgrims moved me, I guess they prefer this life than living a traditional existence.

    1. Dear Lisa, the homeless pilgrims are indeed a very memorable group of pilgrims. Doing the 88 Tempel pilgrimage is a wonderful way to experience rural Japan.

  2. I have researched the 88-temple pilgrimage a few years ago, when I was planning to travel to Japan. I thought it was such an interesting path to do, which of course, requires a long trip on its own to Japan. I didn’t know back then that you can do it by bus or car, I thought you had to walk it. I don’t think it’s authentic at all to be hushed in and out of the bus and given only 20 minutes to see the temple, whilst the driver sorts out the stamps for you. Congratulations for completing this long path! Even if you’ve done it over a few years, I can imagine the satisfaction of completing such an iconic pilgrimage.

    1. Dear Joanna, at each temple you collect a small caligraphy in a special book. If you have all 88 calliegraphies, it might help you getting a better position in your next life. I think for this aspect it is not really important if you walked it or went by car.

      1. Your pilgrimage to the 88 Temple of Shikoku is quite an inspiring one, completed with sheer determination over a period of 7 years. And it’s nice to see many pilgrims decide to go up the just for fitness and mental power some of them being homeless as well.
        And it’s good to know that in the process you started chanting heart sutra and also fell for the beautiful landscape of Shikoku and its people. The story of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon school of Buddhism is also very inspiring.

  3. I am certain I would not book an 88 temple pilgrimage. Even if it would give us an amazing variety of sights. But I was stunned when I read that someone did this 121 times! And 21 times by bicycle. But I might be able to do this over several years and segments like you did.

  4. This was an interesting read about the ancient pilgrimage route in Japan. 88 temples in 11 days is definitely a feat that has so many challenges and rewards. What is even more fascinating is that a devotee has done it over 100 times – Wow! Fascinating history and belief to it – to be buried with the pilgrims book to get salvation!

  5. The 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku is very interesting. I have visited Shikoku but only for tourism purpose just for a day to see Marugame castle and the beautiful Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu. The best part of the 88 temple pilgrimage, as described by some, is the workout of walking or cycling that goes with it. Many places like temples and monasteries around the world do give a feeling of mental peace and quiet and perhaps, some kind of happiness. 88 temples in 11 days is quite an achievement! I would love to walk through rural routes, enjoy the scenic views of green rice paddies and freshly cooked food. 🙂

  6. What a wonderful spiritual way of seeing the more rural parts of Japan. This was a very interesting read as I have not heard of the 88 temple pilgrimage before. I would do it for a good way of travelling with a target of reaching temples. I would have imposter syndrome as well and well done on completing this pilgrimage!

  7. What excites me to go to shikoku 88 pilgrimage after reading your travel blog is the fact about how people over there are so kind and humble enough to enlighten the passerby’s pilgrims with food and a place to stay selflessly. I think exploring the path to 88 temple shikaku which involves living with the culture, traditions, people and the lifestyle that they propose in itself has a sense of enlightenment that makes the journey so much more special.

  8. The information given on the Shikoku 88 pilgrimage is an interesting read. However, what stands out for me is the homeless people who are on a continual pilgrimage, completing the circuit repeatedly as they have nowhere else to be. Also interesting is that the pilgrimage is now mainly done by bike or car rather than on foot, and you don’t have to be religious to participate. It’s good to know that if you haven’t the time or fitness to complete the circuit, you can still see some temples on a shorter hike. Well done on your personal accomplishment of completing the pilgrimage.

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