Shikoku 88 temples Pilgrimage

There is in Japan a pilgrimage route around the island of Shikoku, connecting 88 temples belonging almost all to the Shingon Buddhist school. The pilgrims (henro) walk around the island of Shikoku on 1130 km, in general clockwise, 1400 km if one holds account of the additional temples. They let stamp their notebook in each of the 88 temples before returning to the temple number 1.

The term “Henro” 遍路 (へんろ) means as well the pilgrimage itself as the person who does it. The way is called Henromichi 遍路道 (へんろみち).

This pilgrimage is quite comparable with the Way of St James in Europe, but it was born independently, well before Europeans and St Francis Xavier accosts in Japan. The distance, the stages, the stamps, the marking, the inns and of course the friendship between pilgrims are identical, although the religious goals are at the beginning different. The frequentation underwent the same phenomenon of revival as in Europe in the 10 last years.

The pilgrimage of Shikoku follows the traces of Kûkai: the legend wants that Kûkai walked this pilgrimage in 805, which seems not easily reconcilable with his biography. However, the way passes by places where he lived.

Kûkai (whose posthumous Buddhist name is Koubou Daishi) (774 – 835) is a Buddhist monk, founder of Shingon Buddhism. He is considered in Japan a great saint, a well-read man who inspired Japanese civilization, a poet and a large organizer, creator of popular schools. He would have created the hiragana syllabary to write Japanese. He founded the Holy City of Koyasan and directed the Tô-ji temple in Kyoto, always centres of Shingon.

He was born in Shikoku (Zentsuji) in 774, as Saeki no Mao (佐伯 真魚). He made studies in Kyoto, and then moved towards Buddhism. He had one period of wandering ascetic, inter alias in the caves of the Cape Muroto in Shikoku, where he took the name of Kûkai, then left for China in Ch’ ang-an to study at the time of an embassy (at the same time as Saichou, founder of Tendai). He learned there Sanskrit and esoteric Buddhism Mi Tsung, from Vajrayana “diamond vehicle”, that Tibetan Buddhism developed later.

He returned to Japan, and founded the Shingon School. Contrary to the other schools, he affirmed that one could “Become Buddha in this life with this body”. In 815, he founded Koyasan 高野山 こうやさん, the Holy City of Shingon on the peninsula of Kii in the south of Osaka, and in 832 took charge of Tô-ji in Kyoto.

His tomb is in the Oku No In 奥の院 おくのいん temple in Koyasan. The faithful ones think that it is there always in meditation. Million of Japanese came to put their tomb close to him, along a one mile road under hundreds of year old cryptomeres . It is a much attended place of pilgrimage, seat of the Shingon school.

He received 100 years after the posthumous title of Koubou Daishi (Daishi = Great Master, Koubou = Transmitter of the Law). Employed alone, the term Daishi (great Master) in Japan refers generally to Kûkai.

Japan, with a popular and distinctive feature of the island’s cultural landscape, and with a long history, large numbers of pilgrims (known as henro (遍路)) still undertake the journey for a variety of ascetic, pious, and tourism-related purposes.  The pilgrimage is traditionally completed on foot, but modern pilgrims use cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, or motorcycles. The standard walking course is approximately 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) long and can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete.


In addition to the 88 “official” temples of the pilgrimage, there are over 20 bangai — temples not considered part of the official 88. To complete the pilgrimage, it is not necessary to visit the temples in order; in some cases it is even considered lucky[citation needed] to travel in reverse order. Henro (遍路) is the Japanese word for pilgrim, and the inhabitants of Shikoku call the pilgrims o-henro-san (お遍路さん), the o (お) being an honorific and the san (さん) a title similar to “Mr.” or “Mrs.”. They are often recognizable by their white clothing, sedge hats, and kongō-zue or walking sticks. Alms or osettai are frequently given. Many pilgrims begin and complete the journey by visiting Mount Kōya in Wakayama Prefecture, which was settled by Kūkai and remains the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. The 21 kilometres (13 mi) walking trail up to Koya-san still exists, but most pilgrims use the train.

Newly born babies are just one body, but as they live their lives and the years pile up, everything, from the necessary to the unnecessary, begins to adhere to them. Then when death comes, we are wrapped up in family, all of the possessions we leave behind, flowers, memories, …

What about stopping here and throwing yourself with impartiality into all things; into pure nature, into the universe, into the simplicity of surrendering yourself to natural and spontaneous activity, just like plants and animals. The world of simplicity lies there.

It is OK to go on the pilgrimage alone. In order to live a better life, we should undertake the pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage is extraordinarily profound, but we have elusive general ideas about it. Yet even with the endless wondering to ourselves, loitering among the uncertainties that come and go, over and over again, there is a “you” that sets out on pilgrimage once again. Thus, this sacred journey where people seek a mental and emotional high ground has no end. Being a human means being a pilgrim.

The purpose of this blog is to alleviate the anxiety that non-Japanese pilgrims, who know little, compared to Japanese pilgrims, might have about the weather, the history, and the many other aspects of the pilgrimage. I have comprehensively collected information and put together concise summaries of each area. The intended reader is a walking pilgrim, but because I have also included information for other types of pilgrims, such as those who undertake it by car, please refer to those sections that are appropriate and essential for you.

The Pilgrimage, was compiled with the purpose of allowing non-Japanese who walk the pilgrimage to understand the meaning and historical background of the things they see and hear while on the walk so that they can have a deeper understanding of the pilgrimage and its significance.

Regarding the religious theme of the pilgrimage, the following description was edited while paying constant attention to maximum nonsectarianism, but given the differences in individual understanding and interpretation, in areas where you think there is too much or too little content, please be understanding.


Pilgrimages have played an important part in Japanese religious practice since at least the Heian period. Typically centred upon holy mountains, particular divinities, or charismatic individuals, they are usually to Buddhist sites although those to the shrines of Kumano and Ise are notable exceptions.


Kōbō Daishi

Kūkai, born at Zentsū-ji (Temple 75) in 774, studied in China, and upon his return was influential in the promotion of esoteric Buddhism. He established the Shingon retreat of Kōya-san, was an active writer, undertook a programme of public works, and during visits to the island of his birth is popularly said to have established or visited many of its temples and to have carved many of their images. He is posthumously known as Kōbō Daishi.


The legends and cult of Kōbō Daishi, such as the episode of Emon Saburō, were maintained and developed by the monks of Kōya-san who travelled to expound Shingon and were active, along with other hijiri, in Shikoku. In the Edo period, the policy of tochi kinbaku (土地緊縛) restricted and regulated the movement of ordinary people. Pilgrims were required to obtain travel permits, follow the main paths, and pass through localities within a certain time limit, with the book of temple stamps or nōkyō-chō helping to provide proof of passage.



Shikoku literally means “four provinces”, those of Awa, Tosa, Iyo, and Sanuki, reorganised during the Meiji period into the prefectures of Tokushima, Kōchi, Ehime, and Kagawa. The pilgrim’s journey through these four provinces is likened to a symbolic path to enlightenment, with temples 1–23 representing the idea of awakening (発心 hosshin), 24–39 austerity and discipline (修行 shugyō), 40–65 attaining enlightenment (菩提 bodai), and 66–88 entering nirvana (涅槃 nehan).


The pilgrim’s traditional costume comprises a white shirt (白衣 oizuru), conical Asian hat (すげ笠 suge-kasa), and staff (金剛杖 kongō-zue). This may be supplemented by a ceremonial stole (輪袈裟 wagesa). The henro also carries a bag (ずだ袋 zuda-bukuro) containing name slips (納札 osame-fuda), prayer beads (数珠 juzu) (also known as nenju (念珠)), a booklet (納経帳 nōkyō-chō) to collect stamps/seals (朱印 shuin), incense sticks (線香 senkō), and coins used as offerings (お賽銭 o-saisen). The more religiously-minded henro may also carry a book of sutras (経本 kyōbon) and go-eika (ご詠歌) set with a bell.[9]



Upon arrival at each temple the henro washes before proceeding to the Hondō. After offering coins, incense, and the osame-fuda, the Heart Sutra (般若心経 Hannya Shingyō) is chanted along with repetition of the Mantra of the main image (本尊 honzon) and the Mantra of Light (光明真言 Kōmyō Shingon). After kigan and ekō prayers, the henro proceeds to the secondary temple (大師堂 Daishidō). Coins and a fuda are similarly offered, and again the Heart Sutra is chanted, along with repetition of the Gohōgō Mantra, namu-Daishi-henjō-kongō.

Imitative versions
Attesting to the popularity of the Shikoku pilgrimage, from the eighteenth century a number of smaller imitative versions have been established.These include a 150 kilometres (93 mi) circuit on Shōdo Island northeast of Takamatsu; a 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) course on the grounds of Ninna-ji in Kyoto; a route on the Chita Peninsula near Nagoya; circuits in Edo and Chiba Prefecture. Outside Japan, another version is on the Hawai’ian island of Kaua’i.

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