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Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage

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Travel Notes: Travel-Write: Asia Travel Articles: Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage

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The 88 Temple Pilgrimage of Shikoku has a long history of discipline and ascetic practice.

Modernism and Tradition

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.

The 88 Temple Pilgrimage of Shikoku

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 the mind.

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 transportation.

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 paved.

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 different way.

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.

The Shikoku Pilgrimage

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 surprise.

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 ohenro-san: pilgrims.

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 days.

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 tunnels.

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.

Japanese Religion

This religious experience has become an important, moneymaking tourist attraction.

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 religion?'

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 indigenous religion.

Most Japanese people are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.

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 Buddhist temple.

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 the Japanese.

The Change of Japanese Tradition

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 their traditions?

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 Modern Japanese Pilgrims

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 together.

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 temples.

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 122.

These pilgrims reflect the heart of Japanese people. They negotiate the complicated terrain between traditions and the modern culture of materialism that is Japan.

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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