The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage
While I was teaching English in Japan, the island of Shikoku was introduced to me by one of my students. Shikoku is the smallest of the four main islands of Japan and is home to a trekking journey that ensures to test you physically and spiritually.
The journey takes you in a complete circle around the entirety of the island whilst making stops at 88 sacred Buddhist temples, a total distance of about 1125 kilometres(almost 700 miles). The journey, by foot, is estimated to take anywhere between 45 to 60 days. Of course, that is entirely dependent on your pace and fitness. There have been cases of people reportedly finishing the journey in just 30 days.
It is believed the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kōbō Daishi(formerly Kūkai), trained or spent time at many of these places and his memory plays an important role throughout the pilgrimage. People have been walking this trail for about a thousand years, but it saw increased popularity once guide books began being published. These days, the number of henro(the Japanese name for a pilgrim walking this trail) is tremendous. Some elect to make their journey to the temples by car, some by tour bus, others by bike, but the tradition of walking the Henro Trail remains alive and well.
People walk the trail for many reasons. Some, to remember a loved one who has passed away, to escape the stresses of work life, experience nature, be alone, and for some the religious significance plays the biggest role in their journey. Despite reasons, anyone is welcome to take part in the Shikoku Pilgrimage. The walk goes through forests, down coast lines, over mountains, and through cities and small villages alike.
The Henro Trail is a rich tradition in Shikoku and the citizens of the island take it seriously. Especially in the case of those walking the trail, people will sometimes stop to offer assistance whether that means giving directions, paying for a meal, buying a drink, offering a place to rest, or even just providing money for future use. The giving of gifts to help the Henro is called O-Settai and there is real
It was about a 6 or 7 hour drive from where I lived in Gifu Prefecture, but for the first 8 months of living in Japan I’d heard nothing of it. I was eager for some adventure and didn’t need to be given much detail. I was mostly set on going after hearing walking, 88 temples, tradition. It sounded like the perfect thing to bring me closer to the genuine Japanese culture I felt I’d been missing.
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