Wherever you are in Shikoku, you’ll seldom be far from Japan’s longest and most famous pilgrimage, established by disciples of the Buddhist saint Kōbō Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism ( for more on Daishi). It usually takes over two months to walk the 1400km between the 88 temples on the prescribed route, and plenty of pilgrims, known as henro-san, still complete the journey this way, though far more follow the route by car, train or on bus tours. The number of temples represents the 88 evils that, according to Shingon Buddhism, bedevil human life.
Henro-san are easy to spot, since they usually dress in traditional short white cotton coats, coloured shoulder bands and broad-rimmed straw hats, and generally clutch rosaries, brass bells and long wooden staffs – for support on the steep ascents to many of the temples. The characters on their robes and staffs translate as “Daishi and I go together”. Most pilgrims are past retirement age, as few younger Japanese have the inclination or the vacation time needed for such a pilgrimage.
The present-day headquarters of the Shingon sect is Kōya-san, in Wakayama-ken, and this is the traditional start of the pilgrimage. The first temple visited on Shikoku is Ryōzen-ji, near Naruto in Tokushima-ken. Pilgrims then follow a circular route that winds its way clockwise around the island, stopping at all the temples en route to the 88th, Ōkubo-ji, in Kagawa-ken.
Several books in English describe the 88-temple hike, including Oliver Statler’s classic Japanese Pilgrimage. For more up-to-date details, check out wwww.shikokuhenrotrail.com, created by the American henro David Turkington.