Imagine sitting on the rustic stone steps of a 300-year-old wooden shrine, looking out onto a sea of luscious greenery. The morning mist fades gently into the ray of vermilion beams as the morning sun rises. No other houses are visible. All you can hear is the drip of the predawn rain from nearby branches and the occasional scurrying of squirrels searching for food under bristles of wispy moss. The scent of nature is faint and refreshing. You gradually rise to your feet. Turning back to see the familiar wooden shrine for the very last time, you inhale a long deep breath and take the very first step onto your pilgrimage.
Much has been said about the beautiful, natural landscapes of Shikoku, including its four prefecture capitals – Kochi, Matsuyama, Takamatsu, Tokushima – but the one most salient aspect of Shikoku that accentuates its wonders is the 1400km long pilgrimage.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a centuries old pilgrimage that recreates the journey of the revered Buddhist ascetic Kobo Daishi (弘法大師), also known as Kukai (空海), on the elusive and beautiful island of Shikoku. It is believed that Kobo Daishi accompanies each and every one of these pilgrims, or o-henro-san (お遍路さん), in what is known as dou gyou ni nin (同行二人) on their pilgrimage journey. At the end of the 88 temples and around 47 days, it is said that the rewards a pilgrim receives is immeasurable.
However, the pilgrimage is no easy task. It is arduous, if not, painful. A pilgrim has to endure a myriad of obstacles – the rain and sun, long-distance trekking in mountainous terrains, blisters and aches, you name it! It is no wonder that many pilgrims surrender to these hardships, particularly during the walk to Cape Muroto (室戸岬; also known as ‘Doorway to the Land of the Dead’), arguably the most difficult leg of the pilgrimage.
With the intensive demands on one’s physique, experienced pilgrims have commented that perhaps the one most important preparation to make prior is to be clear about why one is even on the pilgrimage. It could be vastly different reasons, be it seeking inner peace, the enjoyment of exploring Shikoku or retracing the steps of Kobo Daishi. Whatever it may be, hold steadfast to this conviction, and one can overcome the worst of any physical difficulties.
Of course, one also has to well-prepared. Adequate research, coupled with the necessary camping equipment and guidebooks, is paramount to a meaningful pilgrimage. Most pilgrims also choose to embark on this journey in April where the spring weather is much kinder.
Typically, they don on traditional costumes, which consists of a white vest (hakue 白衣), a sedge hate (sugegasa 菅笠) and a wooden staff (kongou-zue 金剛杖). This is by no means mandatory, as comfortable dressing is of utmost importance to an equally comfortable journey. If anything, these costumes enhances the pilgrimage experience and makes it easier for the pilgrims to reach out to the local for any necessary assistance. Some also bring along the nokyocho (納経帳) to collect calligraphic stamps at the 88 temples, each handーdrawn by priests, in remembrance of this cherished journey.
*More information here: http://www.omotenashi88.net/en/how/equipment.html
Shikoku is a bastion of tradition – this is encapsulated by the respect, warmness and sincerity that locals display towards o-henro, regardless of where they may come from. These big hearts connect with the o-henro in the form of o-settai (お接待), where locals offer pilgrims food items, shelter and words of encouragements with no expectations of any returns. Recounts of pilgrims have been extremely inspiring – truck drivers going out of their way to deliver lost pilgrims back to the right route; locals opening up their homes to pilgrims who could not find accommodations in the rain; and even stopping mid-road to buy sustenance for these pilgrims.
In return of the same respect, an o-henro must always accept these favours.
“Well,” she says, “did you find the heart of Shikoku?”
“I did,” I say, and they all look at me expectantly. “.But it’s not one particular place. I found it in farmers’ fields and fishermen’s villages, and in the pilgrims who give a sense of the sacred to daily life. And I found it over and over in everyday people who greeted me with a wide spirit and heartfelt hospitality.”
Then they all nod and smile.
The Shikoku pilgrimage is a moving text that is constantly rewritten by its participants, and the supporting characters that made it all possible. These persons inscribe themselves onto the route through their very presence, leaving behind encounters and experiences for subsequent pilgrims to immerse in the alluring, rustic beauty of Shikoku.