Follow ancient paths around Japan's fourth largest island on this grand scale pilgrimage
The Shikoku Henro, or 88 Temple Pilgrimage, is one of the oldest pilgrimages in the world and continues to attract pilgrims from Japan and abroad. Established over 1,200 years ago, the route takes in all four prefectures of Shikoku passing through quaint towns and rural pockets of the island. Apart from being an excellent way to see a relatively untouched and undiscovered side of Japan, the pilgrimage offers the opportunity to participate in a key aspect of Japanese culture.
- The architectural treasures and Buddhist statuary on display at the temples
- An eclectic mix of rugged coastal scenery, lush green valleys, and towering mountains
- Purchasing a decorative shuincho notebook and collecting beautiful calligraphy and shuin vermillion seals at the individual temples
- Dressing in the traditional white robes—available at several major temples en route—to make instant friends with other pilgrims
How to Get There
Naruto City is accessible from the main island Honshu by the Kobe Airport Limousine Bus from Maiko Station (one hour). From there, take a train to Bando Station changing at Ikenotani Station. JR passes can be used, and the journey takes around 45 minutes. The temple is a short 10-minute walk from the station.
Alternatively, take a bus bound for Itano Station from Naruto Station and alight at Ryozenji-mae. The journey is only 25 minutes, but buses are infrequent.
The complete Shikoku Henro pilgrimage route extends 1,400 kilometers and includes in 88 temples
The full pilgrimage can take up to 60 days to complete on foot
Buses and trains now make significant sections of the route possible in a day or two
The route was established by Kukai (774-835), a revered monk laid to rest in Koyasan and posthumously known as Kobo Daishi, "the great teacher."
The beginning and the end
The Shikoku Henro pilgrimage is unusually a circular route that beings and ends at Ryozenji Temple . While you can choose to start anywhere or walk just a short section of the 1,400-kilometer route, Ryozenji is easily accessible and caters well to would-be pilgrims, selling white robes, walking sticks and a detailed English-language route guide (also available at Tokushima Station and on Amazon JP).
The Shikoku Henro is not about the destination, but the journey. Walking the route is an act of contemplation. And the stunning Shikoku scenery is likely to give you plenty to muse on. If you decide to walk the entire route, you can expect steep mountain trails, long stone stairways, and paths that meander through pastoral countryside and along calm seashores and remote promontories. If you only have a day or two, do some research to select a section that most appeals to you.
Noteworthy art and architecture
Journeying the route and visiting the temples, you will come across numerous National Treasures, works of art and structures of great cultural importance. Sculptures and other artworks can often be seen in the main halls of the temples and in onsite treasure houses. Treasure houses are generally open to the public and require a minimal entrance fee. If you do choose to visit Ryozenji , don't miss the intricately carved collection of 13 Buddhas, exhibited free of charge in a building just before the main hall.
Another noteworthy temple is Ishiteji , temple number 51 in Matsuyama . As you approach the inner grounds, you will pass through the Niomon Gate, flanked by detailed carvings of fierce Deva Kings. The gate dates back to 1318 and is a National Treasure. Within the inner area, you will find the main hall and a three-storied pagoda. Both are designated as Important Cultural Properties and, together with the gate, exhibit architectural features characteristic of the Kamakura period (1192-1333).
Shikoku and beyond
There is more to see and do in Shikoku besides visiting temples. Sections of the Shikoku Henro route can easily be combined with other attractions. Consider taking a trip to the art island Naoshima or one of the other islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Alternatively, explore the Iya Valley and go rafting, climb Mt. Tsurugi , wander the old streets of Uchiko , or take it nice and slow at the Dogo Onsen hot spring resort in Ehime .
To learn more about Kukai, the great religious figure who founded the pilgrimage route, take a trip to the mountaintop temple town of Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture on the main island of Honshu. It is a popular day trip from places like Kyoto, Osaka and Wakayama City . Set aside at least a day or stay two to experience spending the night in a temple and to do the popular Okunoin cemetery night tour.