Whether you walk, cycle or drive, the Shikoku pilgrimage (henro) will take you on a transformative journey of the mind, body and soul.
Shikoku is a small island with big character. Hundreds of temples hidden among mountains, valleys, hills, beaches and streams dot the island. Every year, more than 200,000 people embark on a pilgrimage here called henro. These pilgrims, or Ohenro-san, travel 1,200 km on a coastal trail by foot, bike, bus, train or car to visit 88 temples on a route originally made popular by 8th-century Buddhist monk Kukai (or Kōbō Daishi). Kōbō Daishi founded the Shingon School of Buddhism, and either he or his apprentices founded or restored nearly all of the temples on the route. Since 1140, pilgrims have been walking the route, which takes about two months—however today many pilgrims will join a tour group or take a bus or train for a portion of the journey, shortening the trip down to as little as a week. Still others will travel a mini circuit between temples 11 and 12, allowing them to visit 88 mini temples and complete the henro in a day.
Visiting tourists often precede their pilgrimage by heading to Mt. Koya in Wakayama, just a couple of hours south of Osaka. There they spend a night at the famous monastery enjoying delicious shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) and wake with the sun for a prayer service before hopping on the ferry to Tokushima to start their journey. While the vast majority of pilgrims travel the route by tour bus, there is a certain allure to completing at least a portion of the journey on foot. Typically travellers complete the route in order from temple 1 to 88, however others go in reverse, while some hop back and forth between the temples in no specific order. Regardless of the route taken, all pilgrims wear byakue (white robes), sugegasa (sedge hat), juzu (prayer beads) and wagesa (sash), and they each carry a kongōzue (walking stick), nōkyōchō (stampbook) and a bundle of osame-fuda (identifying papers), which are all available near temple 1 on the tour.
The 88 temples are divided into four areas, each representing a stage in the pilgrim’s religious journey. The journey through Tokushima (temples 1 to 23) is known as Awakening, and includes some of the most treacherous terrain: climbing mountains, through valleys and across rivers. Temples 24 to 39 through Kōchi allow pilgrims to focus on Ascetic training while walking along beaches, scenic capes, past farms and through dense forests. The temples in Ehime (temples 40 to 65) encourage enlightenment, taking travellers through small towns, lush rice paddies, sombre graveyards and comforting onsen (hot springs). The final section through Kagawa (temples 66 to 88) is said to allow for achieving the transcendent state of Nirvana, and boasts tranquil streams, majestic waterfalls and stunning vistas.
Along the way, pilgrims often visit some of Shikoku’s famous landmarks—the Naruto whirlpools near Tokushima are best viewed from a tour boat, while crossing the remote vine bridges of Iya Valley sends travellers back centuries to rural Japan.
The Dōgo Onsen in Ehime inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s anime Spirited Away and is a welcome rest stop for aching joints and muscles.
Henro is a journey that will test and reward every ounce of your being—from steep, worn paths up mountains and difficult hikes through dense forests to magnificent vistas and introspective experiences, Henro is an indescribable once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Your passport photo may look the same, but you will leave a different person.
Henro follows the coastline on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands, where pilgrims traverse mountains, hills, valleys and rivers to visit 88 sacred temples.