Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands in Japan, is home to the longest pilgrimage in Japan. The 88 temple pilgrimage trail circles around the outskirts of the entire island.
The temples were all visited or founded by the first pilgrim, Kukai. Kukai is also known as Kobo-Daishi, and he founded Shingon Buddhism. He was born at Zentsu-ji, temple number 75 on the trail.
The majority of the temples are simple. They reflect the communities using them, not the interests of emperors or lords. That simplicity keeps people returning, even after completing the pilgrimage.
The temples capture the imagination of non-pilgrims, too. Make time to experience the henro (pilgrim) journey. You’ll be surprised by what you discover.
If you have a few days on Shikoku and want a taste of the 88 temple pilgrimage, this is the guide for you!
A Flexible Journey
People go on the pilgrimage for many reasons.
Some go to further their faith, to ask for the curing of an illness, or to give thanks for answered prayers.
Some repeat the heart sutra before the altar at each temple, clutching their prayers beads tightly. Others just want to get their book stamped, anxious to get back on the tour bus.
That’s right…tour bus.
Can you imagine Kobo-Daishi taking a bus from temple to temple? Can you picture him staying in first-class hotels along the way?
That’s what most modern pilgrims do. They feel as valid as pilgrims who complete the entire 670-mile trail on foot.
The pilgrimage is what you make it. You can drive, cycle, use public transportation, or do as pilgrims of old did and walk.
Walking is the most rewarding. It’s challenging, but the journey becomes both physical and spiritual.
The journey takes you through four prefectures.
Temples 1 to 23 represents the spiritual awakening of the pilgrim. These are the most popular temples.
Once the fun has worn off, the pilgrim reaches Kochi prefecture. There are large gaps between temples 24-39. It’s all about discipline.
In Ehime Prefecture, temples 40-65 represent enlightenment. This assumes you haven’t given up yet!
Kagawa, the final leg with temples 66-88, represents Nirvana.
The Local’s Attitude Towards Pilgrims
Shikoku’s people encourage the pilgrims.
Pilgrims walking the trail are greeted and given small gifts known as osettai. These gifts must be accepted. Giving a gift grants a blessing to the giver.
Houses were built along the trail for pilgrims to sleep in – for free. A few remain today, but it’s better to leave them to the hardcore pilgrims. The conditions aren’t always great, and they’re crowded during the peak season.
Your Options: Full, Partial, Day-trip?
Few people have time to do the full pilgrimage.
Walking the complete trail takes between 30-60 days. The fitness level of the pilgrim and the weather cause the 30-day variation.
In winter, some of the mountain trails can be particularly difficult. Heatstroke is a constant hazard in the humid summer.
For Information on the Full Pilgrimage
This is probably the best, and most informative guide you’ll find on the 88 temple pilgrimage of Shikoku online. It is an excellent resource to check out if you plan on doing the pilgrimage.
If your Japanese isn’t good enough to try it alone, WalkJapan offers an 11-day walking tour. It is very pricey though.
Make a day trip of it. This isn’t cheating. Many Japanese pilgrims complete the pilgrimage in spurts; there’s no set order.
Most pilgrims do the route clockwise, starting with temple one. The trails are well marked and easy to follow. They lead through forest, fields, and city back roads
Some consider it more “beneficial” to do it counter-clockwise. Why? It’s more difficult to follow the signs going counter-clockwise. Most are set up with the clockwise pilgrim in mind. The 88 temple pilgrimage will be more of a challenge to test you.
As long as you approach the people on the pilgrimage with respect, you can do the pilgrimage any way you want…. whether you intend to complete the entire trail, or just be a pilgrim for a day.
You can start anywhere you like — even on Mt. Koya in Wakayama. Here you can invoke the blessing of Kukai himself!
Traditionally, pilgrims start with the temple nearest their house. They finish the 88 temple pilgrimage with a return to the temple where they began.
Sample Itinerary: Tokushima
Most pilgrims start their 88 temple pilgrimage at temple number 1, Ryozen-ji, in Tokushima. It’s close to the bridge connecting Shikoku to Awaji Island and Kobe.
Ryozen-ji is a great place to sample the pilgrimage. As temple number 1, it’s a hub for pilgrims.
The temple is larger than most. It has a festive atmosphere with pilgrims and sightseers arriving constantly.
The temple shop carries all the items a pilgrim needs. They sell prayer beads and straw hats. You can buy books about the pilgrimage (mostly Japanese) and stamp books.
You present your stamp book at each temple. Each temple has their own signature stamp for you to collect.
The staff at the shop like to see foreign visitors. They especially love Japanese speakers. My attempt to ask directions was not only answered…. I received my first osettai from the priest helping me!
The white happi coat he gave me marked me as a pilgrim. I made sure to pay my respects at each temple I visited in my new happi!
Ryozen-ji is an easy 15-minute walk from the JR Bando Station.
It’s also within walking distance of the next two temples, Gokuraku-ji (1.2km) and Kozen-ji (2.5 km from Gokurakuji). If you walk, you’ll feel you’ve earned your first two stamps.
The walk is not particularly scenic. It takes you through narrow back streets. The roads (except for those around Ryozen-ji) aren’t busy. You can walk with confidence.
As you wander through the streets, you see sights most tourists never will. You glimpse flowers escaping from gardens and growing over walls. You see nursery school students wheeled to excursions in box-shaped carts. With the steady trickle of pilgrims (and tour buses), you won’t get lost.
After Kozen-ji, you can walk 10 minutes to JR Itano station. Or, if you’re not exhausted, it’s a 4.9 km walk to temple number 4, Dainichiji.
If you make it there, Jizo-ji, temple 5, is only another 2 km. From Jizo-ji, it’s a 50-minute walk or 15-minute taxi-ride back to JR Itano station.
While you’re in Tokushima, check out the Naruto whirlpools. You can see them through glass panels on the bridge over the river.
At high tide, the whirlpools are very impressive. At low tide, they’re nothing special. Time your temple visits around the whirlpools, particularly if you travel by car.
Scenery Highlights: Kochi’s Kongofuku-ji Temple
Kongofuku-ji perches on a cliff high above the sea. It’s the most isolated of the 88 temples.
The temple, number 38, is on the Ashizuri Peninsula, the southernmost point of Shikoku. There’s a distance of 80.6 km between Kongofuku-ji and its predecessor. It’s also 72.5 km to the next temple.
Kongofuku-ji commanded the patronage of noble clans. They include the Minamoto, Chosokabe, and Yamanouchi families.
It survived the Meiji period unscathed — due to its isolation. Today it sits within the Ashizuri National Park.
The sights include a lighthouse and a statue of John Manjiro.
Manjiro was a local fisherman rescued by an American whaling ship after his boat capsized. He befriended the captain, who took him back to Connecticut. Manjiro lived in America for 10 years, learning Western ways.
After the Meiji restoration, the ban on Western contact ended. Manjiro returned to Japan to become a translator. He was a member of Japan’s first diplomatic mission to the United States.
The coast is gorgeous. It’s unmarred by the concrete tsunami barriers seen around most of Japan’s shoreline. It’s also the only place in Japan I’ve seen dolphins in the wild!
Reaching Kongofuku-ji without a car is a mission.
There are buses to Ashizuri from Kochi Station or JR Nakamura, the closest train station. There’s a bike road from JR Nakamura Station that takes about 3 hours. From JR Nakamura Station, you can join the henro trail and walk, but be warned — it’s 42.7 km, which normally translates to a 10-hour walk.
A compromise: take a bus from JR Nakamura to Tosashimizu and walk from there. This reduces the hike to 3.5 hours — about 13 km.
Enjoy walking through coast unchanged since the days of the earliest pilgrims. You’ll feel like you’re following in Kobo Daishi’s footsteps.
There’s a pilgrim house in Ashizuri. There’s also a youth hostel if you need to recover from your exertions.
Matsuyama’s Ishite-ji Temple
Ishite-ji temple in Matsuyama is my favorite among the 88 temples.
Not only is Ishite-ji larger than most of the temples, there’s a ton to see and do on the grounds.
The Cave Tunnel
One of Ishite-ji’s most unique features is the cave-tunnel. The dark tunnel has intermittent lighting so you can see the statues placed along the walls. It’s about 200 meters long.
The Inner Temple
On the other side of the tunnel is a dome-shaped inner temple. A statue of Kobo-Daishi stands on the hill above the temple.
In the bamboo forest on the main temple side, there’s a collection of Jizo statues. Jizo protects travelers, women, and children. All the statues have crocheted bonnets and bibs.
The Shopping Street
Leading up to the main temple gate, you see another reason Ishite-ji is a great place to sample the pilgrimage. You come to a shopping street with stalls selling traditional wares.
Like Ryozen-ji, Ishite-ji sells stamp books and other necessities for pilgrims. All the temples on the pilgrimage will stamp your book. Not all the temples sell the book.
Ishite-ji is a 20-minute walk from Matsuyama’s most famous attraction… the unmissable Dogo Onsen. The nearest station is Dogo Onsen Station, on the Matsuyama City tram line.
From Ishite-ji, you can follow the henro trail clockwise, heading 11.8 km to temple 52, Taisan-ji. Although you walk across Matsuyama city, the henro trail sticks to the outskirts. You go through rice-paddies and at one point climb a forested hill to follow a series of artificial lakes.
Taisan-ji sits atop a small mountain, surrounded by trees. From Taisanji, it’s 2.5km to temple 53, Enmyoji.
Enmyo-ji contains a statue of the Virgin Mary, disguised as a Kannon. The statue dates from the time when Christianity was suppressed in Japan.
The nearest station to Enmyoji is the JR Iyo-Wake Station, a 5-minute walk. If you want to see mountains, walk counter-clockwise from Ishite-ji to temples 50, 49, and 48. The walk to Hatan-ji, Jodo-ji, and Sairin-ji climbs through forested hills surrounding Matsuyama.
You feel like you’re in a different world. I did it in winter and found the walk comfortable. If you walk it during any other season, people say you should wear a bell to scare away snakes. Not sure how effective this is, and to be honest, I’m not sure I could bring myself to ring a bell if I see a snake!
The “Cheating” Option
Of course, if spending even one day as a pilgrim is too much for you, there’s an easier option. Visit Daisho-in Temple, Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture. The cave here has statues from each of the 88 temples.
You can complete a mini-88 temple pilgrimage in less than 5 minutes. You won’t have the fun of filling your temple book with stamps, but you’ll save time — and blisters.
How About You?
How will you attempt the 88 temple pilgrimage? Are you walking or taking the bus? Have you tried it before? How many temples have you seen?
Tell us your thoughts in the comments below. Invite a fellow pilgrim along for the journey by sharing this article.