Increasingly, the Shikoku Pilgrimage has become a longer-term travel experience for backpackers in Japan, Buddhist pilgrims, and cultural and history enthusiasts. The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a roughly 1200-kilometre circle around the whole island, covering 88 temples and 20 bangai (side) temples. Below are, I have compiled frequently asked questions from friends and my Shikoku Pilgrimage diary readers who are considering visiting the temples, or undertaking the full journey.
How does the pilgrimage work?
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a route of 88 Buddhist temples around Shikoku. These temples usually have associations with Kukai 空海, also known as Kobo Daishi 弘法大師, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Every temple has its own founding history and may have switched Buddhist sects over the years depending on the leadership. Information about each temple is found in the English Shikoku 88 Route Guide (2018) (available on Amazon, though it is more reasonably priced at Temple #1 — approx ¥1800/US$18). In addition, there are 20 Bangai temples, secondary temples, which pilgrims completing the pilgrimage can also optimally visit, making the total number 108 temples.
Pilgrims who participate in the pilgrimage are called o-henro, so you will often be called,”Ohenro-san”. The pilgrimage is often referred to in shorthand as the “Ohenro”, though the full route name is Shikoku Hachijuhakkasho 四国八十八箇所 and the pilgrimage is called the Shikoku Hachijuhakkasho Junrei 四国八十八ヶ所巡礼. The sections of the pilgrimage are divided by prefecture as follows:
- Tokushima Prefecture 徳島県: Place of Spiritual Awakening 発心道場
- Kochi Prefecture 高知県: Place of Ascetic Training 修行道場
- Ehime Prefecture 愛媛県 Place of Enlightenment 菩提道場
- Kagawa Prefecture 香川県: Place of Nirvana 涅槃道場
The only requirement for pilgrimage completion is that all 88 temples are visited. This can be done in any order, through any means, and any length of time. Anyone can be a pilgrim for any reason. Usually, pilgrims pray for one thing at each of the temples they visit. For more information, I recommend reading the website Dave Turkington has put together
When to go
The most popular times to walk are:
- Spring: April/May
- Fall: October/November
The worst times to walk are:
- June: Rainy Season
- July – August: High summer (30+ degree weather and high humidity)
- Winter is also not recommended because the mountains may have snow
Shikoku does not usually snow, but the past few years have seen winters with snow. Pilgrims who intend to camp during should be experienced alpine mountaineers.
Is there a proper way to do the pilgrimage?
No. there is no fixed way to do the pilgrimage. By visiting all 88 temples, every pilgrimage reaches their kechigan 結願, the completion of their pilgrimage. Pilgrims can:
- Toshi-uchi 通し打ち: All the temples at once
- Kugiri-uchi 区切りち: Do part of the pilgrimage
- Ikkoku-mairi 一国参り: Do one prefecture
- Saka-uchi/Gyaku-uchi 逆打ち: Do the pilgrimage backwards (thought to be luckier)
- visit the temples in any order
- take as long as you want (years)
- go as fast as you want (5 days on a bus tour)
- do it as many times as you want (some people do 100+)
In addition, pilgrims may also do an Oreimairi お礼参り, which means to either visit the first temple that they began the pilgrimage at (which may or may not be the first), or to visit Mount Koya, a day-trip from Osaka. Mount Koya is a mountain town that is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and Kukai’s Mausoleum is where pilgrims may go before or after their pilgrimage to give thanks to Kobo Daishi for a safe journey.
The various methods of getting around Shikoku can include any of the following:
- Walking (30-50 days)
- Cycling (2 weeks)
- Bus tour
- A mixed method
There is one unspoken bottom line for the pilgrimage. Irrespective of why most of us, I assume, as foreign visitors and laypeople are doing this walk / pilgrimage, one thing we (certainly, I, occasionally) forget is that to virtually all the Japanese who walk the pilgrimage, it is a religious act of faith. Our journey may be one of self-discovery, but it is not the religious pilgrimage many Japanese people take seriously. Our “ohenro-san” or “pilgrim” title is one bestowed to us by our hosts on Shikoku. As the Shikoku Pilgrimage has now gained international interest, it is increasingly important that those of us who do embark on this journey are mindful of ourselves, respectful this religious undertaking, and grateful for the privilege that we have been given to be allowed to partake in it. In that sense, think of yourself as an ambassador for the global community to Japan, helping to build local confidence in international visitors, so that future henro may also enjoy the same welcome that you experience.
Do I need to know Japanese?
No. You don’t need to know Japanese to do the pilgrimage. Knowing Japanese helps a lot for you to communicate with people, make orders and reservations, and generally get things done.
However, if you intend to use your smartphone, then downloading an offline Google Translate Japanese package, as well as apps like Yomiwa (paid app) will be of great help. You can also check my apps to travel Japan
How should I prepare?
I suggest searching various Shikoku Pilgrimage diaries, as pilgrims come from all over the world. I have also written one in my personal blog, The Cup and the Road. If you are still interested, also find out:
- Cost considerations
- My Shikoku Pilgrimage daily budget
- Budget and free lodging guide (for a list of henro huts, temple tsuyado, minshuku)
Do I need to follow a proper ritual?
There is a proper ritual when going to each temple. However, everyone does it differently. Some people do part of the ritual. Some choose to do the pilgrimage as a walk and do none of the rituals. No-one judges you no matter how you do it as long as you are respectful of the places and the other people who go.
As a general overview, the proper etiquette at a temple is:
- Cross the main gate: bow before entering under the gate
- Purify yourself: wash your hands and mouth at the wash basin
- Announce your arrival: ring the bell (while respecting the temple’s ringing hours)
- Worship at the Main Hall: light one candle and one incense; ring the bell once; place your written nameslip the box and the copied sutra in the box; recite the sutras beginning with the Heart Sutra.
- Worship at the Daishi Hall: repeat all the steps from the Main Hall
- Collect your temple stamp at the temple’s office
- Exit: After crossing the main gate, turn around, and bow once again
Many lay pilgrims may not place a copied sutra, recite all required sutras, or do the same ritual for both the Main Hall and Daishi Hall. It is up to each pilgrim to decide how they would like to participate in the pilgrimage. However, if you do decide to do a step, it is recommended that you do so in the order that is prescribed. For example, ringing the bell upon leaving is considered bad luck.
Finally, even for visitors who do not intend to participate in the pilgrimage, you may consider as an act of respect to bow at the main gate and upon exit. This is common etiquette in Japanese culture.
Why did you do the pilgrimage?
I completed the pilgrimage entirely in the summer of 2015. I had found the pilgrimage when I was looking for a long-distance backpacking trip that involved walking. You can read about my reasons in my Shikoku Pilgrimage Diary Foreword.
A year before walking Shikoku, completed two long-distance solo cycling trips and wondered if I could do a similar long-distance trip around Japan. Initially, I had found the ancient Kumano Kodo trails closer to Osaka, and from there, discovered Mount Koya, and then the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
I also have an academic background in East Asian Studies and have always had a particular interest in Chinese and Japanese history and culture. Buddhism has had a deep influence in both cultures, as religious institutions as well as philosophical schools of thought. Though my main motivating factor was essentially exercise and travel, I do subscribe to many Buddhist teachings insofar as it pertains to how one can conduct oneself through life. Ascetic training also had a deep appeal, as athletics have taught me many valuable lessons in life.
Why I started the pilgrimage does not define what I gained after. Many of the learnings I gained during my 40-day journey have lingered and I documented them in my Henro Afterword.
How safe is the Shikoku Pilgrimage, especially for women?
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is very safe. I encountered numerous solo female walking henro, and the Japanese are generally not the sort to do solo travelling. Before going, I also read blogs by solo female walking henro specifically rather than men because I wanted to get a sense of the experience as a woman. A dose of the usual caution is still needed, but make sure you can walk and relax to enjoy your trip.
How do you meet other Henro? Is there a community?
Yes, there is at least one henro community that I know of. It’s a Facebook group called Ohenro-san which is managed by seasoned pilgrims, both living on and outside of Shikoku.
Are there customs or cultural things I should take note of?
Rural Japan is extremely different from the urban sprawls of Tokyo, Osaka and the Kansai region. It also differs from places like Nara and Kyoto, which were historical seats of power and therefore were amongst the wealthiest of cities for centuries. Shikoku in particular differs from idyllic rural poster child villages such as Shirakawa Go or the Tokugawa tombs at Nikko. The island is poor, with villages that have a high number of elderly. Even for those who speak some Japanese, be prepared to use your imagination when adapting to local pronunciations or dialect.
Please also have a look at my tips for rural Japan for additional notes on how to identify restaurants, what to expect of transit, and the pace of life in the Japanese countryside. This is more true of Tokushima and Kochi Prefectures. Ehime Prefecture from Matsuyama City through to Kagawa Prefecture’s Takamatsu is far more urban.
Any additional questions?
Feel free to reach out at hello [at] foundinshikoku.com.
Also, stay tuned for more information on local Shikoku by leaving your address!