The 88 Temple Pilgrimage of Shikoku has a long history of
discipline and ascetic practice.
The fog was ubiquitous and the rain fell like an afterthought.
I was used to visiting temples on cold days or when the sun shone, but
I had not yet experienced the rain as I approached the third of six pilgrimage journeys.
As soon as I walked out of the car and breathed in, I saw how the rain
made the temple's appearance, leaves covered in dew; rocks glistening; statues smiling,
magnify the stillness only an early morning can command.
The foggy air, encompassing the outer edge of the temple like a
child's unshrinking embrace, created a dreamlike atmosphere. Looking through the temple's
gates, one could sense its one thousand year history outlining the massive trees and the
contours of the architecture; remnants of another era.
I looked curiously at the guardians of the gate, strong deities who
protect the Buddha as well as the temple, as they looked sternly back at me. I bowed,
spellbound by the sacredness of this place, as the nature's quietude can make one feel,
and walked through the temple's gates to explore all of its misty beauty.
On this serene morning, I could only hear the singing of birds. There
were not many other pilgrims; no hordes of Japanese people dressed in white, bells
ringing, but just a few plain clothed people resting near the priest's office.
Temple number 21's constant incense burning on the temple grounds
smelled like a man wearing musky, mild cologne. The wet wood added a damp, fresh scent to
the already sweet air.
I took in the structure of the temple: two halls flanking each other
straight ahead, a statue of Jizo in the middle, the priest's office to the right, stairs
leading to a pagoda on the left.
Jizo, dressed as a monk, with the lost souls of babies praying
underneath him, looked compassionate yet sad.
Jizo is the saviour of unborn, or aborted, babies and he works to
ease the suffering of those serving time in hell.
I wondered if he had always had that green colour, or if it had turned
that way with age. In the next moment, my peaceful contemplation was suspended due to a
large group of Japanese pilgrims entering the temple from a bus. They entered the temple,
worshipped, and soon left; as they had a strict schedule to maintain.
Walking from temple one to temple 88 and back again, along the
coast of the 4th largest island of Japan, was intended as a test for the body as well as
Nowadays, it is rare for a pilgrim to choose to walk the long, arduous
path, when there are several easier methods, such as driving, bus tours, and public
This pilgrimage's history began with dedicated walking pilgrims who
had plenty of time to examine their souls; their spirit has always embodied the
disciplined and contemplative side of Japanese religion.
When a pilgrim voluntarily walks today, it is an even more remarkable
accomplishment than it used to be. But long stretches of the henro path, which pass
through Shikoku's forested mountains and its beautiful seacoast, have been widened and
One may no longer feel they are walking the same path as many before.
Now o-henrosan in private taxis, or on chartered buses, speed by the very few walking
pilgrims, and many traditionalists believe they no longer reap the rewards that those who
walk did; and still do today.
When I saw those bus tour pilgrims, I wasn't concerned that they might
not receive all of the rewards a walking henro would. I wasn't disturbed that they had
jolted my reverent state. They helped me to see the sacredness of the temple in a
It isn't just the physicality of the temple and its history that makes
the pilgrimage, but how the tradition is carried out today through the people. Even with
their short visit, my thoughtfulness was enhanced by their warmth and genuineness. They
chanted loudly, they smiled warmly, and they bowed reverently.
The pilgrimage grew out of the legends of a great man in Japanese
history, who goes by many names: Kukai, Kobo Daishi, or just The Daishi.
He gave himself the name Kukai, which means sky and sea, at the time
when he is said to have attained Enlightenment. His posthumous name, Kobo Daishi, means
Great Saint. He is seen not even as a man but almost a deity who walked on earth, so that
he transcends sect and religion.
Kukai was born in
Shikoku and lived in the 9th century. He was a top student in University but was not
satisfied with what he learned. He was granted permission by the government to study
Buddhism in China. After two years he came back to Japan with a new kind of Buddhism
called Shingon (True Word).
His new ideas were integrated into the Japanese Buddhism of the time
and he became a leader in the monastic community. He predicted the day he would die and is
said to now be in an eternal state of meditation. Apart from being a Buddhist leader, he
is also celebrated for his linguistic abilities (he is credited with creating the Japanese
syllabery, called hiragana), for his mastery of calligraphy, and for being involved in
educational reform. From these natural abilities and opportunities he took, many stories
and legends have been created about him.
After his death, in 835, many holy men and monks wanted to spread his
teachings and establish a pilgrimage in his honour, on his homeland. It developed
gradually, beginning in the 14th century.
When a pilgrim is journeying on the Shikoku pilgrimage, he is said to
be walking with the Daishi.
"Who's that?" my friend visiting from America asked me in
She had seen an older man, wearing all white clothes with a brown
straw hat. He carried a colourful walking stick and looked as if he had been walking all
day. His facial hair was scruffy. It wasn't just his appearance that my friend noticed but
the constant ringing noise he made when he walked. He had bells attached to his waist so
everyone knew when he was near.
I felt the same surprise that she did when I arrived on the island of
Shikoku, but after living here for over a year, I have become used to seeing walking
The pilgrims who choose to walk these days are my heroes. They are
strong enough, physically and mentally, to endure this 1,000-mile pilgrimage on foot. The
walking pilgrims are usually middle-aged to older men. Occasionally, a man and woman walk
together. And rarely, I see a woman walking alone. At the temples they rest. They remove
their long and heavy backpacks, take off their shoes, and rub their feet. After they get
up and pray, they talk to the priest about their journey.
In the pilgrimage's beginning, thousands of men and women walked all,
or part, of the o-henro path each year. The experience developed a person's strength of
character and sense of discipline, like a spiritual boot camp experience.
The pilgrimage to all of the temples on foot takes from 40 to 60
In the old days, the young people of Shikoku were told to make their
pilgrimage and then worry about getting married. Today, with modern transportation, a
pilgrimage can be made within a week; with the number of pilgrims journeying to the 88
temples reaching 100,000 a year.
Most Japanese pilgrims now arrive by car, or as part of a bus tour.
The latter pray aloud in a group, with the leader banging on a drum; to keep everyone
chanting in beat. These people are usually elderly women and men. It is rare to see a
young person join a pilgrimage tour.
The retired Japanese seem to pray in earnest and enjoy their
pilgrimage journeys. They joke with each other, take pictures, and bow to the statues as
the bus driver waits in the parking lot for their return.
Though the methods may have changed, the purposes of the journey have
remained similar over time.
In the past, pilgrimages were made mostly by commoners who sought the
healing powers and ever-present influence of Kukai at these temples. Crutches piled on top
of temple altars bore witness to the therapeutic aspects of the pilgrimage.
People still believe in its healing powers today.
There were also those who endured the pilgrimage simply for gratitude
of life's rewards and this is a major reason today as well. Prayers, money and gifts are
still offered at each temple. People who have suffered due to the loss of a child or
parent, do the pilgrimage to heal their hearts. Others want to give thanks for
accomplishments or recovering from a disease.
All pilgrimages, such as the 33 temple pilgrimage in the Kansai area,
called the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage, and the ones to Mount Fuji and the Ise Shrine,
contain one or many holy places where the journey to the place is as important as seeing
the place itself.
The temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage are as ancient as the idea of
the pilgrimage itself in Japan. Over time the pilgrim's journey has changed from a walk
through the natural elements and small villages of Shikoku, intermittently stopping at 88
temples, to a series of day trips and guided tours travelling through expressways and
There are many objects pilgrims use on their journeys, such as
candles, incense, and a walking stick. This wooden stick, with decorative fabric at the
tip, helps them to remember that they are walking with Kukai and that he is protecting
them. Pilgrims also wear white clothes as a sign of the journey they are undertaking.
Name slips, for writing not only one's name but also one's address and
purpose for the journey, are also necessary. There are six different coloured name slips,
indicating how many times a pilgrim has gone around.
But one of the most important things in the pilgrim's bag is the
nokyo-cho, or the signing book. In this book there are 88 and some odd pages with the
names of the Shikoku temples printed on them. At each temple the priest signs the book,
for a fee of about $3; as a record of the pilgrimage.
Buying all these religious implements becomes an expensive endeavour.
Yet these items have always been necessary to mark the pilgrim as being out of society.
They are not 'Matsuda-san' or 'Nakamura-san' while wearing these
clothes and carrying these things, but just ohenro-san.
This religious experience has become an important, moneymaking
In the old times, pilgrims saved for their pilgrimages and relied on
the help of strangers they met along the way. Then, as well as now, non-pilgrims help
pilgrims in the form of food, money, or lodging; called o-settai. In the past, o-settai
was more necessary for the walking travellers.
When I first told some Japanese people that I was interested in
Japanese Buddhism, I was surprised at how they would often reply, "Oh, you're
studying Japanese religion?"
From the tone, it sounded more like, 'Why are you studying our
They would go on to relate quite bluntly that they didn't have
religion in their country, as if 1,300 years of tradition could just disappear.
In the beginning of my year in Japan, I believed them. I said
reassuringly, "Don't worry, I want to study ancient religion," to which I often
wished to add, 'when people had passion and belief and Buddhism was thriving with many
clergy and patrons'.
I didn't think to argue that I could find something interesting in the
antiquated state of modern Japanese religion.
Modern Japanese people do have religious sensibilities, though, just
not in the sense that the word 'religion' is often interpreted.
The Japanese word religion, 'shukyo', was created when Christian
missionaries came to Japan. Broken down, shu means sect and kyo means doctrine. Both of
these words go against the fluidity of Japanese religion. Those words describe the rigid
tenets of some Western religions, but not Japanese Buddhism or Shintoism; Japan's
Most Japanese people are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die
hey participate in Shinto rituals when in youth, have their wedding
ceremony in a church with Christian vows and have their funeral taken care of at a
In the in-between times, these religious distinctions are blurred and
they don't see much difference between praying at a temple or a Shinto shrine. These two
religions have blended together in history, owing to the fluidity of religious ideas for
Japan, as most people know, has adapted rapidly to become a highly
technological, industrialised, and almost Westernised country.
The people have shown that they can change, but at what expense to
Since the end of World War II, Japan has been trying to balance these
two vital factors; keeping pace with the present without disregarding the past.
Many young people have lost the connection to their culture, and are
only concerned about 'being Western'; drinking in coffee shops, living in the biggest
cities and watching American movies. These Japanese people will go to a shrine or temple
during a family event or a stressful time; when studying for an exam or feeling frustrated
with their work.
Usually young people believe they will go on the pilgrimage when they
are older and have more time.
The pilgrims, however, reflect a different side, one that is able
to maintain both Western and Japanese influences.
When I became a pilgrim, it was hard to believe that some Japanese
think of their country as mostly secular. Even if the pilgrims use modern comforts, they
are thinking about something outside daily and worldly affairs as they pray and chant
True, they ride a comfortable bus with their friends; but some of the
mountain temples require steep uphill climbs on foot from the parking lots.
The pilgrims spend a lot of money, but they are earnest in their
admiration for Kukai.
After a day's journey visiting a cluster of temples, they return to
their homes; but they will go back the next month and the next until they visit all of the
Many pilgrims make the journey more than once. One name slip I
received on my pilgrimage was multi-coloured, which indicates that this person had gone
around over 100 times. When I turned the slip over I discovered that the actual number was
These pilgrims reflect the heart of Japanese people. They negotiate
the complicated terrain between traditions and the modern culture of materialism that is
As I left Temple 21, I bowed at the gates again, this time in
gratitude and respect. I stared at the guardians once again, chipped red paint peeling off
their wooden figures. Their figures were weather-beaten and aged, except for their eyes;
in which the paint looked brightly white with clearly dark pupils, revealing recent
attention. This reminded me of the stout-hearted o-henrosan, whose traditions are
deep-rooted, but who also see with modern eyes.
On my way out I passed a walking pilgrim who was sitting on a large
rock near the entrance, talking on his cell phone. He laughed and talked loudly.
Here is the allure of the pilgrimage: the excitement of living in the
past, coupled with the comforts of modernity.
By Brooke Schedneck.
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