Being homebodies, one of our favourite past-time at home involves travelling of another kind – watching travel programmes on the TV. Quite by chance a decade ago, this favourite Taiwanese travel programme of ours introduced Shikoku 四国 in Japan in a brief one-hour episode. Interested, we read up further and decided that one day we would find the time to complete the 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimmage that spans the circumference of the island of Shikoku, otherwise more formally known as the Shikoku Henro 四国遍路.
Not known to be particularly religious folks (not even close, to be honest), it therefore caught many by surprise whenever we described what our next vacation destination was about. Perhaps even puzzling to some non-Singaporean acquaintances of mine, since I’m Roman Catholic. To explain it succinctly, if being born and bred in Singapore ever taught us anything, it’s about being accepting and respectful of all religions, if the teachings are sound. It really didn’t matter to me much that it was going to be a Buddhism-centric pilgrimmage.
Not surprisingly, this was usually the first question.
Japan is made up of 4 main islands: Hokkaido 北海道 up far north, Honshu 本州 the largest island, Kyushu 九州 down south and Shikoku 四国, a little island somewhat nestled between Honshu and Kyushu. Some people would also include Okinawa 沖縄 as the 5th island (but most don’t). Shikoku, being the least know of the 4 islands, is not a common travel destination, even amongst domestic Japanese travellers.
Frequently the next question that follows, if the other party was interested in learning a little more.
Of several interesting nuggets of information about Shikoku (including a very rugged terrain right smack in the centre and a beautiful, relatively untouched southern coast facing the Pacific Ocean), the singular most definitive activity associated with Shikoku is the 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimmage (also know as the Shikoku Henro) that retraces the footsteps of monk Kūkai (posthumously titled Kōbō–Daishi) who walked the route of 1,200km in the 9th century.
While still a large number of pilgrims opt to do the entire route on foot at one go, more and more modern pilgrims now take chartered buses, drive or cycle and break up the pilgrimmage into parts. Some who cannot afford a few days at a stretch even complete the pilgrimmage over numerous weekends. We ourselves were close to dedicating 20 days to completing the whole circuit four years ago but things cropped up along the way forcing us to postpone our plan, and we never found the opportunity again.
There are official guide books written in Japanese on how to go about performing this Shikoku Henro. It also includes specific information on the temples, the treks, surrounding accommodation and other pertinent information. Noticing that increasingly more and more non-Japanese embark on this pilgrimmage, the guide books were then translated into English to facilitate the trend. With some help from friends living in Japan, I managed to purchase these books ahead of time to aid in our trip research.
These books (and some very useful online resources) detail how to prepare for the pilgrimmage. In the strictest sense, a pilgrim has a specific dress code. There are loads of information online like this website so I won’t repeat what has been so eloquently and detailedly explained. However, I do think performing a pilgrimmage does entail what one feels most comfortable with; it’s not a means to an end but a process. We didn’t wear white, nor adorn the white vest, henro sedge or carry a staff. The mister and I discussed about it prior to the trip where we came to an understanding that we’ll commence the pilgrimmage with simply the stamp booklet 納経帳. Should we feel like adding on to the gear/procedure, we’ll do so accordingly when the time comes.
There are two shops at Temple 1 offering the full suite of supplies for purpose of the pilgrimmage. Subsequently we saw that at every temple, there will be some semblance of a shop providing some or all of these supplies but I think not many of them have a range as complete as the ones at Temple 1. The supplies they carry also tend to differ from temple to temple.
Here’s the process we adopted at every temple: after the mister offered his simplified prayers, we would go to the Temple Admin Office to get our stamp booklet ‘stamped’. In actual fact, it’s more of a signature and less a stamp whereby the temple staff would start writing the name of the temple in the booklet in very beautiful calligraphy writing. In exchange we contributed ¥300 (I refuse to use the word ‘paid’) to the maintenance and restoration of the temples.
Again, this awesome website spells out in detail the procedure to be performed at each temple (which we referred to frequently). The mister didn’t follow everything to the T but adapted to what he felt most comfortable with while I stuck with the basic – washing my hands and cleansing my mouth, followed by offering a little prayer.
This is admittedly a little harder to explain in words. People embark on this 1,200 km round-the-island pilgrimmage either on foot, by public or private transport for a variety of reasons but broadly they fall into two categories: for religious purposes or for tourism. The mister and I lay somewhat in between these 2 categories. While I do not practise Buddhism, I view this pilgrimmage as an opportunity to embark on a journey of spiritual healing and self-discovery. I’ve also been wanting to take time out to get over the intense grief of losing our senior golden retriever to cancer, and coming to terms with my own parent being diagnosed with a very tricky cancer. You could say that both the mister and I are going through varying degrees of existential crises and I personally am hoping this journey will shed some light and bring some clarity to the way ahead.
It could easily have been the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage instead (another pilgrimmage I hope to do one day), except that it’s not. I’ll say this much about it: a lot of factors led to our decision today; we didn’t take it lightly and most certainly did not decide it on a whim.
Strictly speaking, we are not solely embarking on a pilgrimmage per se; the temples-visiting are interspersed with visiting other attractions in Shikoku. Also, we have decided to drive around in a rental car to complete the 88 temples in 4 trips, once for each of the 4 prefectures in Shikoku: Tokushima 徳島, Kochi 高知, Ehime 愛媛 and Kagawa 香川. We would have wanted to try walking part of the way (walking the whole route takes between 40 and 60 days, and we simply don’t have the time to spare) but with limited time we can afford to be away from work, we could only settle for the current arrangement.
During the course of several years, we researched extensively and collated numerous travel guides, mostly written in Japanese and some in Traditional Chinese to scour for information since Shikoku wasn’t that popular a destination 5 years ago and there simply weren’t enough resources online on how to go about doing the route by car. I even once contemplated asking a friend living in Japan to find me a driving map of Shikoku just in case the GPS provided by the car rental company failed us.
Fast forward to 2018. Data roaming is now very affordable, what with overseas wifi-routers’ rental or data-only SIM cards. We’ve also learnt to trust the Japanese GPS, having had prior drive-holidays in Japan since. Planning for this trip was also slightly easier since I already had a ready itinerary sitting on my iMac desktop – I just had to rehash it a little. We were so ready to embark on this unique holiday!
While I asked for a Nissan Note but understood that they may replace it with a car of similar performance, imagine my surprise when we were shown to this Suzuki Swift at the rental company. We opted for a bigger car with a more powerful engine with the knowledge that there are mountains to manoeuvre on this trip, and were rather disappointed (my first car was a Swift, and I kinda know the performance limit of this car). Turned out to be such a blessing in disguise. The mountainous roads to some of the temples were not only steep but oftentimes also very narrow – the road as wide as a single lane in Singapore yet meant for cars both ascending and descending the mountains. I have to admit I sweat on such occasions (thank goodness they didn’t happen that often), and eventually learnt to appreciate this small car immensely.
This spring, the cherry blossoms (or more commonly known as sakura 桜 in Japan) bloomed approximately one week earlier than usual. We were not expecting to see them in full bloom while in Shikoku but we did! Another unexpected blessing that I’m thankful for, and that made up for not seeing them at their most beautiful in subsequent cities we travelled to.
A total of 3 posts will be dedicated to the 23 temples we visited in the first part of a series of visits to Shikoku over the next few years (the posts are going to run very long, but I’d rather that than too many posts). We’re hoping to have time to make a trip to Shikoku once a year so we can complete the pilgrimmage in four. Fingers crossed.