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Japan is known for many things but rarely thought of in terms of scenic beauty, ancient customs or religious fervour. Most travellers to the country experience the great population centres of the Pacific seaboard like Tokyo and Yokohama and are lucky to be shown the odd cultural site of the old capital, Kyoto. One of the most difficult things to grasp, however, is the Japanese attitude to the wild, untouched countryside that covers over 70% of the surface of the archipelago, and is inextricably linked with the nation’s most ancient religious and spiritual values.

Shikoku is not only the smallest of the four main islands but also the most traditional, unspoilt and old-fashioned. Most Japanese people would probably associate the island with one figure, Kukai (774-835), a native of Shikoku’s northern Sanuki Province, scholar, writer and founder of the esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan. Kukai enjoys enormous popularity to this day and is generally referred to by his posthumous title as Kobo-Daishi (Master of the Spreading of the Teaching). He first combined Buddhist doctrine with the native Japanese belief in nature gods (Shinto). In him “Mountain Buddhism” culminates.

The Shikoku pilgrimage is essentially a form of ascetic exercise in the tradition of this “Mountain Buddhism”. Along a path of 1.400km, the pilgrim visits 88 temples, the number of “evil passions” that are to be eradicated, and performs religious rites like offerings of incense, money, prayers and hymns. Kobo-Daishi is regarded as the spiritual father of the pilgrimage, however there is little evidence of him having visited more than a handful of sites on the route. The tradition was probably started by his followers in the decades after his death. There are records of the 88-temple path being in existence in the 15th century, and it is fully documented in the first guidebooks in the late 17th century.

Even the pilgrim’s garb is of great antiquity. It is kept in white, the colour of death, which reminds us that the characters for “Shikoku” can be read as “Four Provinces” or as the “Land of Death”. This is one of the central ideas: the pilgrim is “dead to the world”. The island has indeed always had something mysterious and forbidding about it. This is driven home powerfully by the experience of the numerous mountain temples in their haunted isolation but also applies to the spectacular capes on the rugged Pacific coast. In the past, walking the Shikoku trail really did mean risking your life. Nowadays, after an unprecedented increase in pilgrim numbers in recent years, there are about 150.000 people to be found on the Shikoku Pilgrimage every year. Modern Japan caters for them with clean facilities, good accommodation (often provided by the temples) and cable cars where roads are too narrow for coaches. The weather is favourable in spring and autumn when the vast majority chose to go on the pilgrimage. Most people travel in organised groups, only a few thousand walk, and virtually all of them are Japanese.

My involvement with Japan led me to Shikoku in search of more off-beat travelling routes. Originally just intent on picking out some attractive “model” temples, I soon found myself completely captivated by the atmosphere of the pilgrimage. Although the vagaries of Japanese history have caused many temples to lose their ancient or medieval buildings and only relatively few of them would rank as prime artistic or architectural sites, they often exhibit a powerful combination of architectural and natural features. This is very different from the better-known forms of Zen-inspired monastery or palace gardens of Kyoto. It is a more ancient, more religious and more immediate approach to nature as the seat of powerful divinities that work their magic for the benefit of the Buddhist devotee. The Shikoku pilgrim will forever remember the sheer unending stone steps, often flanked by impenetrable jungle, that take him to so many temples in their isolated natural locations.

My pilgrimage was carried out on a road bike, with the support of members of my family who drove a support car. Time was limited, constraints of schedule also meant that we had to travel in the summer, at the end of the rainy season. Against all advice and against all expectations, this proved to be a great blessing. The pilgrimage route was very quiet compared with spring or autumn, the roads – often hair-raisingly narrow and precipitous – clear of large tourist coaches, the countryside resplendent in the most intense shades of green, always behind a veil of mists and vapours due to extremely high humidity. Physically, it was a considerable challenge at 140km on the bike per day, and climbing a total of about 11.000m, partly on gradients in excess of 23%. An unseasonal typhoon on the Pacific coast also ate into our precious rest time.

As a cyclist, one is so immediately exposed to all environmental influences, in this case ranging from columns of passing 24-tonne lorries on the unforgettable Route 11 along the North coast to the scent of subtropical jungle, dripping with humidity, on a deserted road up to Temple 12 where moss grew on the tarmac. Often these vastly different impressions were only a few miles apart. Shikoku offers a constantly varying picture of mountains, forests, coastline, villages in deep valleys, steep mountain passes but also of suburban and industrial areas and cities. However, while the pilgrimage is no sightseeing tour, it is no saunter through the countryside either.

It is difficult to imagine how busy the independent pilgrim keeps. There is orientation, finding food, accommodation and, most importantly, timing, as temple offices close at 5pm after which the prized seals for the temple book are unavailable. In my case, maintenance of my bike and equipment was an added concern. It is a well-known fact that even the Buddhist foot pilgrim finds little time for quiet contemplation. The route itself becomes the dominant factor in he pilgrim’s life, everything beside it gradually loses its claim to reality. Yet the route in itself offers no goal, no obvious climax, no finale. Temple 88 is just over 10km from Temple 1. This is not a linear journey but a circular one, a perfect image of Buddhist philosophy in which all things are cyclical, impermanent and have nothing but emptiness at their core. In fact, many pilgrims come back for another go…

Shingon Buddhism is not easily penetrable for the outsider, however impressive it is in its architectural, artistic and cultural manifestations. It is perhaps unlikely that the Shikoku Pilgrimage will convert the sceptic or non-Buddhist. However, it is undoubtedly one of the great spiritual experiences that any culture has to offer, as it opens a completely new window onto reality. As Matsuo Basho (1644-94), himself a great traveller and pilgrim, said: “Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home”.

Alex Koller

A version of this article was published in History Today, Vol. 57, 11 (November 2007)

Shikoku Pilgrimage - Kakurinji
Kakurin-ji (Temple 20): The last few metres before arriving at Kakurin-ji, one of the most challenging ascents of the pilgrimage.

Kakurin-ji (Temple 20): Jizo statue at the bottom of the three-storeyed pagoda. This bodhisattva, guide of the souls of the dead, has a constant presence at virtually all Japanese temples.

Tairyu-ji (Temple 21): Main Hall of one of the most scenic mountain temples in Shikoku.

Hotsumisaki-ji (Temple 24): Site of Kukai’s enlightenment, perched on a rocky cliff above the Pacific.

Hotsumisaki-ji (Temple 24): Interior of the Main Hall: as most Shingon temple halls, it features a sumptuous array of religious implements and imagery.

Konomine-ji (Temple 27): It rains every day in Tosa Province, is a common saying on the pilgrimage. This is the toughest of the four provinces that the pilgrim has to cross.

Konomine-ji (Temple 27): The inner shrine of Temple 27, near the Pacific coast. A towering composition of steps and terraces, more akin to a castle than a religious building.

Kokubun-ji (Temple 29): Guardian figure at the gate to this ancient provincial head temple. The crystal eyes are characteristic of the medieval Kamakura period.

Kokubun-ji (Temple 29): A remarkably pristine pilgrim couple at prayer. There are many ways of completing the pilgrimage, and the use of modern comforts is by no means taboo.

Chikurin-ji (Temple 31): Garden of the abbot’s residence. A glimpse of the type of Japanese design that foreign visitors get to see in the refined gardens of Kyoto, a rarity on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Shoryu-ji (Temple 36): Temple Office: first port-of-call for any arriving pilgrim to have his nokyo-cho (temple book) signed and stamped.

Shoryu-ji (Temple 36): A modern pagoda and an equally modern image of Fudo-myo-o, one of the most venerated deities of esoteric Buddhism, on the short, steep ascent to Shoryu-ji.

Kongofuku-ji (Temple 38): The furthest point of the henro path in the very Southwest corner of the island, and one of the few temples that double up as tourist attractions. Note the clear skies after the typhoon.

Meiseki-ji (Temple 43): A group of henro – a rare sight in the summer, outside the main pilgrimage season – in front of the “Daishi Hall”, praying to the much-revered instigator of the pilgrimage, Kukai.

Iwaya-ji (Temple 45): Gateway and ascent to one of the most compelling temple experiences in Shikoku. The banners display invocations to Kukai.

Iwaya-ji (Temple 45): The old henro path just above the temple, nowadays largely disused due to better road access from the valley.

iwaya-ji cells
Iwaya-ji (Temple 45): Temple-monastery buildings clinging to the side of the cliff.

Ishite-ji (Temple 51): One of the most celebrated temples, with a superb array of historic buildings.

Approach to Taisan-ji (Temple 52): Shikoku is the most traditional of Japan’s four main islands, as is visible in these rural houses on the road to Taisan-ji.

Unpen-ji (Temple 66): The “roof” of the pilgrimage even if the strenuous and hazardous ascent has been made a great deal easier by the construction of a cable car.

Kannon-ji (Temple 69): Giant sand mandala at the foot of this double temple, on the shore of the calm waters of the Inland Sea.

Motoyama-ji (Temple 70): Eighteenth- century pagoda. The extremely slender proportions are typical of later pagodas. This is one of the most outstanding pieces of architecture on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Motoymaya-ji (Temple 70): Main Hall. A remarkable piece of Kamakura-period architecture in its classic simplicity and clarity of line.

iyadan-si caves
Iyadan-ji (Temple 71): Caves. Cave temple with extremely rare stone-carved Buddha images.

Iyadan-ji (Temple 71): Pagoda roof. In the wet, humid months many temple buildings appear as though devoured by vegetation and shrouded in mists.

Zentsu-ji (Temple 75): There is no “main temple” on the Shikoku Pilgrimage but this site, Kukai’s birthplace, takes precedence over all the others in the context of the veneration of the founder of the pilgrimage.

Shido-ji (Temple 86): Main Hall. A lavishly furnished interior in this Edo-period hall, a last architectural highlight before the ascent to the final temple.

Okubo-ji (Temple 88): Main Hall. Point of completion for many pilgrims but not the end, as this place is only ten kilometres from Temple no.1, a poignant reminder of the cyclical nature of all things in Buddhism.