Statue of Kobo Daishi on a hill above Dogo Spa

You don’t have to be in Shikoku long before you see them: People dressed in white, a walking staff in one hand, perhaps a cone-shaped sedge hat atop their head, and all of them clearly on a mission. They are henro, or pilgrims, making their way to 88 temples strung along a circular religious route in Shikoku. Many are making the pilgrimage to honor Kobo Daishi (see my previous blog for information on Kobo Daishi), Japan’s most important historical religious figure who was born on Shikoku in 774 and, according to popular folklore, is said to have visited all the 88 sites in his lifetime. The henro believe that Kobo Daishi is walking every step along the way with them, and they often begin and conclude their journey with a trip to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum on Mt. Koya outside Osaka, to ask for his help in completing their symbolic journey and again to thank him when they’re done. Others take on the pilgrimage as a personal challenge, a way to see some of Shikoku’s stunning rural scenery, or simply for the adventure. I myself have never been able to make the pilgrimage, but it’s on my very long list of things to do.
No one knows for sure when the Shikoku pilgrimage first began, but it was already well established by the Edo Period, when the shogunate had strict control over virtually everyone’s lives and commoners were allowed to travel only for religious purposes. Walking the whole circuit, which snakes around the entire island for about 868 miles, takes approximately 45 days. Unsurprisingly in today’s busy world, bus tours covering the circuit nowadays cut travel time down to less than two weeks. But really, what would be the point of that?

Pagoda at Ishiteji

In June I visited Ishiteji, the 51st temple of the pilgrimage. It has a handsome tower and a gate constructed in 1318, but for me the most interesting aspects of the temple are the two gigantic straw sandals at the entrance-people visiting the temple with feet or leg ailments are thought to regain their health by touching them. There are also regular-size sandals at the temple, donated by older Japanese in hopes of regaining new strength in their legs and no doubt also by people worn out by walking the pilgrimage.

My friends Hisashi Harada and Yuki Tomitani demonstrate how large the straw sandals are at Ishiteji

But if you ask me, I doubt it’s the 88 temples that mark the highlight of the trip. The temples, after all, are mostly simple, rural constructions, and just how excited can you get by yet another temple after you’ve just seen several dozen? Rather, I suspect it’s the trip between the temples that makes the journey so memorable, the camaraderie one develops with other henro (as many as 150,000 a year make the trip by foot, bus, and car), and the good will, food, and gifts extended to henro by villagers, who believe that such acts of kindness will bring them favor.

At Ishiteji, there’s a lit tunnel with stone statues representing the 88 temples of Shikoku. It’s said that if you pause in front of the statues, you’ll be taking a short cut of the actual pilgrimage, a convenience for those who don’t have time for the real thing but still hope for the pilgrimage’s blessings.

As with most things, however, I’d have to say that the substitute doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing.

Paper cranes folded for peace at Ishiteji