In Shikoku, ancient Japan is no ghost. The smallest of Japan’s four main islands, it remains isolated by the Inland Sea despite the increasing development of its north coast cities in the wake of recently improved access to Honshu and Kyushu. Away from this densely populated ribbon of conurbation, Shikoku remains the loveliest and most bucolic region in the country. The south, especially, fits a traditional image of Japan – of fabulous mountain scenery, samurai castles, craft workshops, farming villages where oxen pull creaky wagons, and of small terraces of vegetable or orange trees cut into the hillsides of dense woodland.
This warming, humane landscape is the backdrop to Japan’s oldest pilgrim circuit – the 1,450-km (906-mi) journey to 88 shrines established by the 9th century Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi. Every year, more than 100,000 of his followers – called henro – complete the rite. Most, devout and determined but subject to modem pressures, do so by bus or car. A small proportion travel on foot, fulfilling the ‘walk of life’ that Kobo Daishi proposed as an opportunity for setf-examination by confrontation with the unexpected and unknown.
And you do confront it: even those who set out merely to enjoy the hiking discover that as a henro, they are drawn into a quite novel experience. Pilgrims wear white to show their status. Throughout Shikoku, they find they are the recipient of 1,000 small charities or gifts of food or money. These they must accept in humility as o-settai, gifts to help them on their way from people who cannot make the journey themselves. The constant exchange of moral responsibilities and actual goods adds a revelatory dimension to the usual introspections of a long, long hike. However, 1,000 years of pilgrims’ comments indicate that the 88 temples hike benefits much more than just leg muscles or lungs.
On foot or by bus
TIME TO GO:
April to October. It is feasible (for the ascetic) in winter, but some of the more isolated temples are unable to offer winter travellers food or shelter they could otherwise expect.
TIME IT TAKES:
60-80 days (on foot): 10-12 days (by pilgrim bus): 6 days (in a fast car). The pilgrimage formally begins and ends with a visit to Mt Koya, the HQ of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, on
Honshu, Mt Koya has Its own 21-km (13-mi) pilgrim trail, but It’s not one of the ‘88’, so even determined hikers usually take the bus. in any case, these visits add 2 days to the
Every time you hear the phrase ‘Gokurosama-deshita’ (‘Thank you for your trouble’), which Is what tour-bus pilgrims and bystanders throughout Shikoku say when they understand
you are walking the entire route. You never get used to this goodwill.
Bathing at Japan’s oldest hot spring, Dogo Onsen, near Matsuyama.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
The tsue (walking stick or staff) is even more important equipment for this hike than the white henro coat. Inscribed with the characters Dogyo Inin (‘we two will walk together’), it Is
a symbolic replacement for Kobo Daishi. it may seem far-fetched to be walking with the saint, but many pilgrims admit ‘thanking’ their tsue when the staff has saved them from
a nasty tumble.