JAPAN HERITAGE Shikoku: 88 stops on the road to celestial joy

Pilgrims, dressed all in white and wearing grass hats, receive a warm reception at Ryozenji temple in Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture, the first stop in Shikoku's 88-temple pilgrimage. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

June 10, 2011 Asahi Shimbun

Eighty-eight Buddhist temples associated with the monk Kukai (774-835) are scattered around Shikoku–the smallest of the four main islands of Japan and which comprises Tokushima, Kagawa, Ehime and Kochi prefectures. For centuries, it has been popular among the devout to go on a pilgrimage, or “henro,” totaling about 1,400 kilometers and visiting all 88 sites.

Perhaps the best known of the pilgrims is Naoto Kan, the prime minister who took office in June 2010. He went on the pilgrimage in 2004 after he stepped down as president of the Democratic Party of Japan following a revelation that he had failed to pay into the national pension program.

Ironically, it was found later that he had actually paid. Still, he kept returning to Shikoku to continue making the rounds. His last visit was in June 2008. Kan has now covered 53 sites.

Also, the pilgrimage seems to have gained international appeal. Chozen Yoshimura, the head priest of Ryozenji temple in Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture, the first stop on the route, said he is puzzled by a sharp hike in the number of foreign pilgrims over the past couple of years.

“People are coming from as far away as Latvia and Estonia,” he said. “I wonder what is behind this sudden popularity.”

The sacred temples honor Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan. He studied in China as a monk and upon his return created what has become Shikoku’s famed pilgrimage. He is known not only as a Buddhist saint but also as a great calligrapher and for his cultural contributions.

One can only wonder what Kukai might think of the package tours and their luxurious coaches. It takes more than 45 days to visit all 88 temples by foot. Even using public transportation is time-consuming–about 25 days. A private car is the fastest, if least enlightening, taking by some estimates 10 days.

It is not required that pilgrims hit all 88 sites in a single journey.

The pilgrims, called “ohenro-san,” carry a special book they have stamped after worshipping at each temple.

They are easily identifiable, whether they arrive by foot or in a gaggle disgorged from a bus. All wear a special conical grass hat and a white kimono jacket. Underneath, casual clothes and hiking shoes are just fine.

They also carry a walking stick–sold at the first temple on the journey–said to be the embodiment of Kobo Daishi.

Those who actually walk are treated to exceptional Shikoku hospitality, even offered cash, snacks or a bed for the night at no charge. This comes from the belief that local residents also gain cosmic brownie points when pilgrims do the round of the temples.

To say “thank you” for a good turn, be it a gift of fruit or a bed for the night, the pilgrims hand over a special slip of paper with their name and address printed on it. It is identical to the ones they leave at each temple.

You don’t have to be religious to go to Shikoku–the 88 stops on the pilgrim trail are near scenic spots and the region has many tourist attractions, including the Dogo hot springs in Matsuyama. This was the setting for the famed novel “Botchan” by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), about a city-bred teacher who brushes up against cultural differences when he arrives for a teaching job.

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There are flights to airports in Tokushima, Kochi, Matsuyama and Takamatsu. Express buses are also available to the prefectures of Shikoku from Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe.

The pilgrimage can be done on foot, by car or as part of a bus tour designed for pilgrims. The first stop in the Shikoku pilgrimage is Ryozenji temple in Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture. Items needed for the pilgrimage are sold at the temple. The temple is about a 10-minute walk from Bando Station on JR Kotoku Line.

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