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