Three weeks into my trek, as I climbed a steep path to Yokomine-ji, the 60th of 88 temples along the Shikoku Pilgrimage, a relentless fog enveloped me. In an instant, the colorful forest around me—mostly red cedars and ferns—faded away, leaving me in a world of muted gray. Because I could make out only the faintest shapes in the surrounding trees, I was convinced that I had landed in an eerie fairy tale.
Quietly, in the distance, I began to hear a chorus of small bells. Then suddenly the company of chance musicians came into view: a large group of Japanese pilgrims who, coming towards me, neatly lined up to let me pass.
Within an hour, the fog began to lift. Within two hours it was completely gone, replaced by an equally relentless midday sun. In the newfound brightness of daylight, I began to wonder: Was the courteous group of fellow pilgrims only in my mind?
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The pilgrimage on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, is a 1,200-kilometer route connecting 88 Buddhist temples. journey to China in the ninth century, founded one of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan.
After Kukai’s death in 835, wanderers began making pilgrimages to the places on Shikoku associated with his life and work: his birth and burial places, the caves where he meditated, the sites of various religious rituals. Later, these locations were connected and the temples and shrines were formally numbered.
As is the case with many modern pilgrimages, the ranks of Shikoku pilgrims—once exclusively practitioners of Shingon Buddhism, one of Japan’s major schools of Buddhism—have grown to include travelers with a more diverse set of motivations. And so the steady succession of monks, priests and staunch Buddhists has given way to young people on voyages of discovery, elderly hikers enjoying their retirement, and even foreign visitors like myself, who know little of the language and customs but are attracted by the adventure of the trek, through Shikoku’s breathtaking views and through his sublime lessons on Japanese cultural heritage.
And the pilgrimage is now easier than before. Although pilgrims traditionally traveled the route on foot, guided bus tours now transport many visitors to the sites. (After all, the point for many people is to visit all 88 temples, not endure the rigors of a 750-mile hike.) Others choose to take private cars, or to pull and walk part of the way. drive (or driven) for the rest.
Even for non-religious trekkers, the most prized pilgrimage souvenir is a fully canceled nokyocho, or stamp book. The books have special pages for all temples, on which a clerk applies various stamps and some beautiful calligraphy strokes, made with a traditional brush.
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One hot afternoon I met a middle-aged German couple who told me that this was the fourth time they had embarked on the Shikoku pilgrimage. I asked why they chose to return instead of trying other treks elsewhere in the world. They said that on each pilgrimage they discovered something completely different. And the food is phenomenal, she added.
Another day, I walked a few hours behind two Japanese men through paddy fields in Kochi Prefecture, which follows the island’s concavely curved south coast. I stopped at a rest hut on the way and found the two men there, accompanied by two other men, all smoking and chatting.
In my limited Japanese and their limited English, they told me they were all from Shikoku. Two of them walk two days a year while the other two travel by car, carry the bags and join the walkers at the temples to worship together.
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“Wait, then how long will it take to complete the whole pilgrimage?” I have asked.
One of the men threw his arms in the air. “Who knows? Decades!” he said, and they all laughed.
Wherever I went on the island, a sense of tranquility seemed to follow. In Shikoku, the people I encountered were almost always nice. They seemed pleased. Although I am not a spiritual person, the stillness and vastness of the landscape – and the warm-heartedness of the people I met – created a lasting aura of serenity.
A custom that distinguishes the people of Shikoku is the practice of osettai, giving gifts to the pilgrims. These gifts come in the form of food, drink, trinkets, car rides, meals, a place to sleep – sometimes even small amounts of money. More than once I saw drivers stop in the middle of the road to hand out treats from their car windows.
One evening, after receiving free lodging from a temple (which happened twice), I heard a knock on the door of my hut. A young woman, a temple attendant who spoke no English, bowed and handed me a slip of paper: “Miss Marta, you can use the temple bath for free,” it said in Japanese.
In total, over the course of my 28 days visiting all 88 temples, I also received: 700 yen (about $5), 11 candies, seven small cakes, seven car rides, six mandarin oranges, five rice balls, three cookies, three chocolates, three cups of green tea, two crackers, two mochi, two soda cans, two multipurpose cloths, two packs of yuzu juice, a yokan (a snack with red bean jelly), a bicycle (loaned to me for half a day), a bag of steamed chestnuts , a bag of cherry tomatoes, lunch and a bowl of homemade udon.
The pilgrimage temples are scattered around the perimeter of the island – some near the coast and some further into the mountainous interior. Some are grouped together and others are 50 miles apart.
As a pilgrim, I often got up early—at 5:30 a.m. in the spring—and spent a whole day on the road. About 80 percent of the route is on asphalt, mostly through open fields and small towns and along a beautiful coastline. I spent a few days climbing and descending mountain peaks.
The blurring of Japan’s rural population is dramatically apparent on Shikoku. Young people have fled to the cities or to other islands that offer a better quality of life. My experience confirmed that: almost all the young people I saw were in the capitals of the island’s four prefectures.
For breakfast and dinner, many pilgrims use home-cooked meals offered by most minshuku, or family-run bed-and-breakfasts, and ryokan, traditional Japanese inns. These meals usually consist of rice, miso soup, fish and pickled vegetables. For lunch, depending on one’s location, convenience stores can provide a quick bite.
Despite the mouth-watering food, stunning vistas and captivating cultural histories, it was the people I met that impressed me the most.
One evening in a hostel I met Midori-san, a 71-year-old pilgrim who spoke no English. She showed me how to behave in a large sentō, or public bathhouse.
Once when I asked the two employees of a mountain temple’s stamp office if the temple offered free accommodation, they said no. But when they spoke to my phone through a translator, they offered to take me to a place where I could camp in a nearby valley.
A few days later, hoping to see the landscape from a different vantage point, I boarded a small ferry with a fellow pilgrim, Patricia, and went zigzagging in Uranouchi Bay for nearly an hour. Patricia and I were the only travelers on board.
On a very rainy day, after walking for several hours under a waterproof but sweltering poncho, I decided to hitchhike to the next temple, which was a few hours away. After sticking my thumb out on a busy road for a few minutes, a man pulled up in a beat-up van. He didn’t speak English, as I learned on Shikoku, and I only knew a few relevant words in Japanese. But as the old van cautiously pulled up a winding road, we managed to exchange a few sentences.
I got the sense that the situation greatly amused him – and I was proved right when he called his wife on an old telephone and said laughingly that he had picked up a foreigner who had become desperate under a downpour.
Before we parted, he asked me to repeat my name and wrote it on the back of a receipt in katakana, a Japanese alphabet commonly used for foreign words. “Ma-ru-ta,” he said aloud, sounding out the characters. And then he was gone just as quickly as he had appeared. Grateful for the favor and grateful to be dry, I watched his truck disappear around a bend and turned toward the path to the temple.
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