This is a packing list mostly for people who intend to walk the Shikoku Pilgrimage, though it can be adapted by backpackers who want to camp through the Japanese countryside. People who are driving or taking the bus will likely not have as many weight constraints and can pack more clothes. I have tried to outline the guiding principles for a Japan / long-distance walking packing list, so that you can use them to work through the gear that is suggested and adapt them as necessary based on the seasons. My three main principles for long-distance walking and backpacking are as follows:
- The season you walk affects your packing list.
- Weight limits are non-negotiable.
- Train and make trade-offs.
A quick note about the seasons. Your packing list for Japan, especially for clothing, should be adjusted to the season. For example, bringing layers in early Spring and late Fall will help you adjust to temperature fluctuations. In the summer, bringing dri-fit sports shirts will be more convenient than cottons. In the winter, if you want to pack light, then you can get some Uniqlo Heat-tech clothing and invest in other alpine sports clothes. In June, you will probably want to pack rain boots and sandals will be helpful for summer. In the summer, staying hydrated will be essential, so a bigger water bottle is better.
This guide includes the following sections:
- Essential Gear for Walking Henro
- My Mistakes that You can Learn From
- Packing List for Driving & Bus Henro
- Packing List for All Walking Henro
- Packing List for Nojuku Henro
- Pilgrimage-Related Gear
Essential Gear for Walking Henro
The essential gear for the pilgrimage depends on whether you intend to do nojuku, camp out or stay in free huts along the route. This option is usually taken by henro who would like to economise on their trip, as accommodation is by far the most expensive part of the budget. Irrespective of whether you intend to camp or not, if you intend to be an aruki henro, a walking pilgrim, then you should aim to comfortably walk for 8+ hours a day (mostly on concrete roads). Carry a manageable weight and have a good backpack with back support.
The bottom line no matter what you bring is to make sure you can comfortably walk with your bag. Below is a general guide for weight to get you started:
- Cis-males: 12-15kg
- Cis-females: 6-10kg
The numbers above are estimates to help people find the right weight-to-muscle-mass ratio. For example, people who are taller or have a higher muscle-to-fat ratio will, in theory, be able to carry a little more than the “average”. If you need knee supports to walk or have a heart condition, for example, then you will want to adjust the weights accordingly. For trans and genderqueer friends, please just make an appropriate decision based on your muscle mass.
The best way to find the right weight is to do walks. Even if you do sports or go to the gym, please try walking with your backpack about 3 times before your trip. The first day will usually be discouraging because your body’s not used to the weight and distance, which is why it’s good to try a few more times to figure out what works.
My Mistakes that You can Learn From
I did no training before starting my walk, so my backpack was too heavy and it severely affected my walking. I ended up sending two shipments of things away to lighten my backpack. If you are shipping overseas, it is risky and costly, especially when it is items like a heavy camera. In addition, I had no real idea of how far I could walk, especially with the heat of summer.
I did not get a proper daypack with back support. This put unnecessary strain on my shoulders, especially my left shoulder. I still get a pain in my left shoulder if I am tense, so the chronic issues are real.
Avoid summer at all cost. I do not recommend doing the Ohenro between June and August after I have done it in July. I had a great time and have no regrets. One of my big advantages was that I never had to plan ahead because there were no other walking henro who would stay in temple tsuyado (whereas they are usually booked up during peak season). Walking in June is rainy season, which is messy. Walking in July and August means insufferable heat for people from Europe and the US (with the sunshine it’s easily 40 degrees Celsius around noon), and the nights rarely drop below 20 degrees. It is humid, which means you will be drenched in sweat day and night. And there are lots of mosquitos. Having said that, I would probably still choose to do it in summer, but that’s because I don’t mind the physical challenges and prefer having fewer people.
Packing List for Driving & Bus Henro
If you are driving or taking a bus tour to do the pilgrimage, then pack whatever you normally pack in your suitcase since you do not need to carry it yourself.
The only additional items are the Pilgrimage-Related Gear at the bottom of the post.
Packing List for All Walking Henro
Backpack and Accessories
- Guidebook/Maps: Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide (Temple #1, Tokushima Station basement souvenir shop & Amazon)
- Backpack with back support (10-30 litres based on your physical ability)
- Hiking boots / comfortable walking shoes (preferably waterproof)
- Rain gear (poncho) and/or umbrella
- Knee & ankle supports (optional)
- Walking stick (highly recommended)
Electronics (Optional to me)
- Camera (suggest mirrorless over DSLR)
- Extra battery
- Charging cables + US plug outlet
- Pocket Wifi (Optional)
Packing List for Nojuku Henro
For people planning to do camping, the packing list for the Shikoku pilgrimage is a lighter version of packing for a multi-day trek. The reason it should be lighter is because you are walking over 50% of it on concrete, which would be harder on your knees than dirt paths in mountains.
For nojuku henro, I highly suggest you cut back on the electronics. They can make up more than 20% of the weight allocation, especially for women, which could really go to more useful things.
Backpack & Accessories
- Light weight Daypack with back support 30-40 L
- Sleeping bag (as light as possible)
- Sleeping mat
- Mosquito Net (essential for May-October)
- Tent / Hammock (optional)
- Backpack raincover (optional)
- Vacuum-sealed compression bags OR waterproof compartment bags
- Backpack liner or waterproof compartments in your bag
- Ziplock bag for passport, money etc.
- Ziplock bag for pilgrim’s stuff
- Water container
- Walking poles
- Eating utensils
- Alarm clock (preferably wrist watch, not your smartphone)
- Towel – Facetowel / Handtowel
- Towel – Lightweight travel towel
- Eye mask (optional)
- Ear plugs (optional)
- Hooks & clothes line
- Pins / something to hang for your clothes
- Waterpoof hiking / walking shoes
- Socks (min 3x)
- Hiking pants / summer shorts (2-3)
- Knee braces / ankle supports (optional)
- Base layer
- Underpants (hiking ones that are quick dry is even better)
- Shirts / T-shirts (2-3)
- Sports bras for women
- Rain Gear
Seasonal Packing List Items
Fall & Winter: Buff/scarf, heat-tech clothing, fleeces and layers, breathable or shell jacket, winter sports jacket (that’s lighter and that you don’t mind getting dirty)
June (Rainy Season): Umbrella, boots, poncho (better than a goretext jacket), backpack cover
Summer: Sandals, dry-fit sports clothing, bathing suit (if you want to swim in the ocean), sun screen, mosquito repellent
Toiletries & First Aid
- Toilet paper (in plastic bag) and/or tissues
- Hand sanitizer
- First Aid Kit: Rubbing alcohol, bandaids, diarrhea pills
Pilgrimage Related Gear
Do not feel obligated to buy anything at all.
For Temple Visits & Worship
- Osamefuda (nameslips)
- Incense Sticks
- Nōkyōchō (Temple stamp book)
- Kyōhon (Heart Sutra & Mantras)
- Juzu (rosary beads)
- Fudabasami (bag for temple gear)
Clothing & Walking
- Sugegasa Conical hat (essential)
- Rain cover for the hat
- Kongōtsue (Walking staff) (pretty essential)
- Cap for walking staff
- Hakui (white pilgrim jacket — with or without sleeves)
- White pilgrim pants
- Wagesa (cotton / silk scarf)
Notes on What Gear to Buy
Shingon Buddhism, as a school of Esoteric Buddhism, transmits teachings through rituals and acts that have been passed down largely without explanation. So in some ways, irrespective of whether you understand what you are doing, this specific type of Buddhism could well argue that you should go through all the motions anyway. If you believe this, then by all means, buy everything.
Having said that, in my studies of Buddhist teachings there is no necessity for any material items. All items in the pilgrimage and at the temple, of course, have meaning. Someone can follow the teachings without ever having stepped in a temple. Similarly, no temple would deny entry to a homeless person without the means to buy any of the items, but nonetheless wanted to pray.
One of the main tenets of Buddhism is:
shi shiki fu i fu ku fu i shiki
Form differs not from emptiness, and emptiness differs not from form.
shiki soku ze ku ku soku ze shiki
Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.
These lines are straight from the Heart Sutra, which is what pilgrims are meant to recite at every temple. Therefore, I would urge everyone to consider their reasons for wanting these items. If they have meaning to you, then get what you need. Know also that you literally carry the weight of your attachments to things for the remainder of your journey.
What I Bought and Why
The Walking Staff and Bell
Though I do not follow a particular faith, I personally value many Buddhist and Daoist teachings of non-attachment. I do not believe in ownership. For this reason, I don’t see any need to buy a new, machine-manufactured stick that I call “my own”. Rather, I find it quite heartwarming to take up a staff that someone has graciously left behind, along with their memories and attachments. You can choose your free walking staff from Temple #2, where many pilgrims leave them.
I have two walking staves. The first one I bought along with a generic bell, and immediately regretted once I saw all the beautiful ones left at Temple #2. I love wood. I disliked that they were all uniform and obviously machine-cut. Over 40-days, my stick has developed its own unique shine from the oil of my brow. The second stick is more naturally beautifu because they are polished by monks from Yokomine-ji, Temple #60. These can be picked up up at trail head of the mountain path up. It is in a box by the washroom hut, to be taken for free. Since the pilgrimage, I have kept both.
The Sedge Hat
The large sedge hat is a life saver. More than an aesthetic, it is an essential item. It is effective shade against the sun, and with a plastic cover, a natural umbrella against the rain. I picked up mine for free when. I found a forgotten one around Temple #2. The inside was partially coming off. When it finally came apart, I was gifted another one by a henro who had to stop his trip half-way. His, with an inside lining for the head, was a lot sturdier and better than my ordinary one. I would highly recommend getting the inside reinforced lining.
Items for Worship: Osamefuda and insense sticks
For my temple visits, I only used osamefuda and incense sticks. I did use the candles for a few temples, but dropped it eventually. Perhaps it is because I am Chinese, so I see meaning in the incense sticks. I do not attach meaning to the candles, and also I disliked the amount of waste the wax created. Incense stick ash can be easily discarded in a non-toxic way. The osamefuda was for me to write the names of my friends where pilgrims normally write their own name. The osamefuda are also essential for giving to people who give me osettai, gifts, and so an important part of showing gratitude.
I did not buy the stamp book. I collected stamps from each temple as slips of paper because I dedicated each temple to a friend and gave virtually all the slips away after the trip. I do recognise that for many people, the nokyocho (stamp book) is of significance as a keepsake for an accomplishment. It is also truly unique, as every stamp is handwritten and even friends who do the journey together will have unique books.
A final thought on pilgrimage items
I have specific reasons for not buying all the pilgrimage items, but I want to emphasise that the most important thing is to respect that this is a religious pilgrimage, carried out sincerely by most Japanese as an act of faith. Joining the Shikoku pilgrimage is not an entitlement, but a privilege granted by the people of Shikoku who preserve the route, build henro huts, offer gifts, and remain unquestioningly friendly to strangers in their backyards. In some ways, how we dress is part of how we, as guests in Japan, conduct ourselves. I have studied texts from various schools of Buddhsim, mostly Chinese, as a philsophy and not as part of a faith. For that reason, and my general aversion to consumerism and accumulation of things, I made a conscious decision to pick up certain items and not others. I also felt that, given my interpretationsn of Buddhist teachings, that actions rather than things symbolise meaning. An equal counter argument is that Shingon Buddhism, as an Escoteric school, places great importance on the meanings behind actions that are performed in a certain way, with certain tools. Short of sitting down over a coffee discussion on this, I would like to make clear that my choice not to wear or use certain items is in no way dismissive of their value. What I would like to emphasize is that no matter our leanings to buy or not buy items, I think one of the best ways to show respect for the pilgrimage is to spend time to ask ourselves why and make a concerted effort to consider the other perspective before coming to a final decision.
No matter what you decide to do, I will leave you with this thought. A pilgrim is a pilgrim, in whatever form or fashion you choose to walk. Nothing makes you more or less than thinking makes it so. Have a safe and meaningful journey!
Also, if you would like to get a sense of the cost of the pilgrimage, you can check out my daily Shikoku Pilgrimage cost breakdown.
And finally, if you find Shikoku interesting and want to get an occasional update on new pieces, please leave your e-mail. Thanks!