Despite being one of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is not a very popular tourist destination, perhaps because it’s the smallest, most rural, and least populated of the islands. However, it is also host to what is likely one of the most culturally rich activities you can partake in while travelling in Japan: the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. I walked it with a friend in the fall of 2009, as part of a larger 9-month backpacking trip in Japan, and it’s undoubtedly the best experience I’ve had during my trip.
History of the Shikoku Pilgrimage
As its name implies, the pilgrimage is a circuit of 88 Buddhist temples that make a loop around the island. The circuit is about 1200 km long in total. The pilgrimage is associated with Kūkai, a very famous Japanese Buddhist monk who lived in the Middle Ages. Kūkai was born on Shikoku (at temple 75, in fact), but he left Shikoku to study in China, and during his visits back to the island he founded many temples, which now constitute the eponymous 88 temples. The pilgrimage has been walked from the early 800s (during Kūkai’s lifetime) to the present day, so it is extremely rich in history.
Prepare Yourself for the Shikoku Pilgrimage
The first thing you have to decide is how you are going to do it. This is the most important decision you will make. Traditionally, the pilgrimage was done on foot, of course, but unlike other famous pilgrimages (e.g. Santiago de Compostella), today people can do it however they want. The most popular way is probably by organized bus tour (which takes about a week), but you can also do it by car, by motorcycle, by bicycle… and by walking, of course. There is no “wrong” way to do it. We even met a guy who had repurposed his tractor into a travelling caravan and used that!
Because we had a lot of time, we decided to walk it. It took us 45 days, at a pace of 30 km/day. I highly suggest walking, as not only is it the most authentic and traditional way to complete the circuit, it is also the most interesting. Walking for such a long period of time makes for a very unique experience, which you might very well never be able to repeat. You will be able to really explore, get deep into the culture, and you will meet great people. It is a challenging test of endurance, but at the end of the day, isn’t that what a pilgrimage is all about? I have nothing against the people who do it by bus, but let’s face it: pilgrimages are supposed to test your limits, which is what makes them life-changing, spiritually rich experiences. You won’t get that by travelling in a bus or a car.
Being a Buddhist pilgrimage, its traditions are strongly associated with asceticism. Historically, pilgrims walked the circuit as a way to gain good karma, or conversely to expunge bad karma. Therefore, the more ascetic you were while doing the pilgrimage, the more good karma you accumulated, and the more you were respected. This attitude is, to a certain extent, still present today. For example, the people who walk the pilgrimage are more respected than the people who do it by bus. But that also means that camping (wild and urban) is accepted, and even respected, so if you feel like roughing it, you definitely can. Public parks are the best place to sleep, but you can also sleep in parking lots, beaches, under bridges, in train stations, etc. There are even some huts and shelters specifically made for walking pilgrims, who can use them for free. One night we even had a whole house to ourselves! We camped out every night (except when people offered us places to sleep) and we never had any problems. Doing this is called nojuku (“sleeping outside”), and, while it is the most difficult way to do the pilgrimage, it is also the most traditional and rewarding, as it most approximates what pilgrims were actually doing hundreds of years ago. When you sleep outside, you really feel like you’re part of the cultural fabric of the pilgrimage, so I definitely recommend it as well.
If you’re going to camp, your journey will be a bit harder, because you will now have to carry around an expedition backpack with all your camping gear. I also recommend hiking boots, a waterproof jacket and pants (Gore-Tex and so on) and some warm clothes. Remember that you will carry everything you own all day, everyday, for the better part of two months, so I suggest getting some quality stuff that’s as lightweight as possible.
Where do I Start the Shikoku Pilgrimage?
From Tokyo, the cheapest way is to take the night bus to Naruto, the city where Temple 1 is located. From Naruto, a farmer gave us a ride to the first temple so I don’t know how to get there by public transport, but everyone will know where it is, so it will be easy to find if you ask around.
Once you’re at Temple 1, you can buy the essentials: the white overshirt and the walking stick, to officially identify you as a pilgrim, and the English guidebook, so you can find both your way and the nearest convenience store or rest hut. Speaking of convenience stores, plan your food carefully: you will often be in the middle of nowhere, with no store or restaurant in sight, so I suggest you always carry a few backup meals (tuna cans or something). We weren’t aware of this in the beginning and we spent quite a few dinnerless evenings.
When you’re all set, start walking! You will soon notice that people have put up a lot of signs, posts, stickers, etc. on street lights and telephone poles; they are quite useful, and with the help of the guidebook you should be able to find your way (most of the time at least).
Most of the walking (about 70% of the circuit) is done along roads, but there is also a good number of hiking trails. The path usually goes through the countryside, but there are several temples in each of Shikoku’s four main cities, so you will also be in cities at certain points.
The distance between each temple varies quite a bit: you will probably be able to do 6 or 7 temples in your first day, but there are days where you will only visit one temple, or even none. The longest distance between two temples is 89 km, between temples 37 and 38.
You will of course also have to face the climate. We walked a whole day in the middle of a typhoon once, but fortunately we were able to sleep inside a train station.
Walking in the rain is never fun, especially when you have to do it for the entire day, but walking for a month and a half was never supposed to be easy anyway! It’ll only add to your sense of accomplishment once you finish it.
If your interest is piqued, there is a lot more information about the pilgrimage on Wikipedia and Wikitravel, as well as on many websites specifically about the pilgrimage.
If you’re interested in walking and camping, I suggest you check out this website, which shows an English translation of a list in Japanese that circulated among pilgrims when we walked it. It lists all the free accommodation, so it can potentially be very useful, although it could be a little bit dated. Here is the website:
And here are a few more pictures:
Link to my blog: http://simondes.wordpress.com
I am a friendly Canadian from Quebec who likes travelling and learning languages. I studied linguistics and world religions in university, before graduating in 2014. After that, I found a teaching job in China. I love East Asia: I backpacked in Japan for 9 months, sleeping in a tent the whole time, and I am now spending a year (maybe more!) in China. My next stop will probably be South Korea.