Hike This Japanese Pilgrimage on Shikoku Island

Hike This Japanese Pilgrimage on Shikoku Island

Peaceful Shikoku Island is certainly a much-appreciated change of pace from bustling Osaka. The day ahead of me promised a 7.5-mile trek along beautiful forested mountain paths as part of Japan’s Shikoku Pilgrimage. Though, like most people, I was only doing a small portion of the trail over a few days, the multi-month walk around the island stops at dozens of temples along the way, many of them tucked into the woods, surrounded by perfectly curated gardens, past bamboo forests, rice fields, moss-covered stones, and waterfalls. Whether you take a car, bike, or walk the course over weeks or just a couple days, it’s truly a tranquil temple pilgrimage.

My second day was the leg between Fujii-dera (the pilgrimage’s 11th temple) and Shosan-ji (Temple 12). With over 3,600 feet of elevation gain, this would be one of the most challenging parts of the route—in fact, this particular stretch is sometimes called henro-korogashi, or the “pilgrim tumbler.” But it’s also one of the most beautiful sections. The surrounding trees and shrines along a root-strewn dirt path occasionally opened up to magnificent views of green mountains overflowing in a tumble of forests.

Even better, after reaching Shosan-ji and spending some time at the temple—which is the second highest at 2,300 feet and is known as “burning mountain temple” due to tales about a fiery dragon—we set off to drive to that evening’s accommodation at an onsen hotel. There we would enjoy a delicious kaiseki multi-course banquet dinner and soak in onsen thermal hot spring baths.

japan pilgrimage
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The Shikoku Pilgrimage circumnavigates the Japanese island on a journey of around 745 miles, with stops at the 88 temples along the way. The pilgrimage honors Kūkai, also known as Kōbō Daishi, who lived from the year 774 to 835 and founded Shingon Buddhism. It’s almost hard to imagine, but the first guidebook to the pilgrimage was published in 1687.

“The Shikoku Pilgrimage is also a journey to face one’s inner self and seek a change of mind while visiting and moving between temples—especially the walking pilgrimage,” says Kazuki Nakamura, with Tourism Shikoku. “It is said that even if you don’t think too much about it, just walking around the temple will change your mind.”

japan hike
Photo courtesy of Walk Japan

What does one need to do to become a pilgrim, known as henros or O-henro-san? John McBride, who first walked the full Shikoku Pilgrimage in 1982 and now guides visitors along the route with Walk Japan, says, “To be a pilgrim, one needs to have respect for the history of the pilgrimage, an interest in why the pilgrimage exists, and an open mind to taking care and being respectful along the route.”

Reasons for embarking on the journey are as numerous as the pilgrims themselves: some visit the temples for religious reasons, after losing a loved one, to pray for someone who is ill, as a healing journey, or as a quiet time for reflection and self-discovery. Walking brings henros through beautiful and challenging mountains, on routes with stunning seaside views, alongside rice paddies, through towns, and on stretches along paved roads.

Traditionally, this pilgrimage was done on foot, but today there are many options, including group bus tours, cars, and even bicycles. While some set out to experience all 88 temples in one go, many complete it one section at a time over months or years.

Shikoku Pilgrimage
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Many pilgrims wear a distinctive outfit, including a white jacket or vest, Buddhist stole, and sedge hat, with a walking staff in hand, along with a bag containing items like incense sticks and candles. Wearing the traditional clothing, though, is not required.

At each temple, henros can obtain a calligraphy stamp in a nōkyōchō book. Jamie Dwyer, who has worked with Walk Japan for 10 years and now develops the company’s self-guided tours, says people are eager to collect stamps, but they mustn’t rush to the temple office first thing to obtain one.

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“When you enter at each of these temples, they don’t want you to just run in and try and get your stamp—they don’t want that to be the purpose of your journey,” Dwyer says.

Instead, people should first properly visit the temple’s Main Hall and Daishi Hall, perform the rituals, recite sutras or pray, and pay a small amount before getting the nōkyōchō signed and stamped.

long hike japan
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How to plan your hike

There are a variety of ways to experience the Shikoku Pilgrimage, including guided tours, self-guided tours, and traveling independently.

The traditional way to complete the full journey is to start at the first temple (Ryozen-ji) and walk in a clockwise fashion, visiting each temple on the way to Temple 88 (Okubo-ji). This way of doing it is called jun-uchi, while going counter-clockwise—which is trickier since signage is set up in the opposite direction—is called gyaku-uchi.

Walking the full route takes between six weeks and two or three months, depending on who you ask and how fast a pilgrim wishes to walk. However, many pilgrims do not have a couple free months to make the trek, so they explore smaller sections at a time, which is called kugiri-uchi. You also don’t have to follow them in order.

guided hike japan
Photo courtesy of Walk Japan

“The Shikoku Pilgrimage has 88 temples in Shikoku, but you can start from any of them,” Nakamura says. “If you walk at a pace of about 30 kilometers (18 miles) a day, it will take about 45 days. Many people aim to go all the way around, but due to time and physical strength, many people decide on a route based on their own time and physical strength.”

Rather than walking the whole way, many use buses, cars, and taxis for some or all of the journey. If you don’t have time to see all the temples, try to at least stop by the first (Ryozen-ji) and last one (Okubo-ji). Additionally, Zentsu-ji (Temple 75) is Kūkai’s birthplace, and has sizable grounds, as well as a pagoda, exhibits, and more.

Walk Japan offers an 11-day, 10-night small group guided tour that covers a selection of more than two dozen temples, and a shorter self-guided option.

Once you have planned your journey, there are a number of ways to reach Shikoku Island—including ferries, trains, and buses—from Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and other cities.

japan pilgrimage
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Best time of year to go

Peak season for the pilgrimage is spring and fall. Spring (including April, May, and sometimes late March) is the most popular time of year, with beautiful green spring foliage and blossoms. Autumn (particularly October and November) is also popular, with fall colors and golden rice fields. Some people avoid summer due to heat, humidity, and rain, while others skip winter because of the shorter days and cold weather that requires proper preparation.

japan temple hike
Photo courtesy of Walk Japan

Sleep in traditional Japanese inns and slurp up udon

A variety of lodging options are available along the hike, including traditional ryokan inns, minshuku (similar to family-run bed and breakfasts), hotels, and shukubo temple lodging (which can allow visitors to observe and participate in temple rituals). Some accommodations also have onsen hot springs, so make time to enjoy a relaxing soak.

Shikoku is known for a variety of delicious foods. Slurp steaming bowls of udon noodles, savor dishes made with sudachi (a type of citrus fruit), and enjoy fresh seafood to fuel your journey.

temple hike
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Be as prepared as an eagle scout

The Shikoku Pilgrimage involves mountain paths and coastal routes, so make sure you are prepared for the weather and conditions you may encounter. The terrain can be challenging in some areas. Be aware of drop-offs and coastal hazards like tides, and know what to do in the event of a tsunami.

If you are going on a self-guided trip, take some time to learn about navigation before setting out. Wildlife to be aware of include venomous mamushi pit vipers, suzumebachi giant hornets, boars, mukade centipedes, Japanese macaques, and bears. Though most people don’t have any life-threatening confrontations with the animals, it’s good to at least know what they look like so you can avoid accordingly, if needed. Traveling with a guide adds that extra comfort of being with someone who knows how to deal with any encounters.

japanese temple
Photo courtesy of Walk Japan

Know etiquette and how to be a respectful guest

Before visiting temples, it’s important to take time to learn proper temple etiquette so you can visit respectfully. Nakamura recommends people spend time on Shikoku Tourism’s website as well as other sites to learn more about the journey and familiarize themselves with proper etiquette.

“Prayer has been said to be important for pilgrims since ancient times. Please pray carefully when you arrive at the temple,” Nakamura says. “In addition, the Shikoku Pilgrimage is a cultural asset rooted in the lives of the people living in Shikoku and a source of pride for them. The most important thing is to pay respect. The locals will warmly accept your pilgrimage if you show them respect.”

After learning the ins and outs of the trail, take guidance from a Tourism Shikoku brochure that says, “Do not worry too much. Just take the first step and, as you travel around, you will have time to reflect on yourself and obtain something from this endeavor.”

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Kristen Pope is a contributor for Thrillist.