Over the past few years, a different aspect of Japanese culture is gaining in popularity overseas: the Shikoku pilgrimage, in which pilgrims cover a distance of as much as 1,400 kilometers and visit 88 different temples along the way.

When people think of Japanese culture, the places most likely to come to mind are Kyoto and Nara. In the New York Times 52 Best Places to Go in 2015, the only spot in Japan mentioned was Shikoku.

What is the appeal of the Shikoku pilgrimage to people around the world, and what do people in other countries find interesting about it?

Simply put, the Shikoku pilgrimage—an aspect of Japanese culture with a truly long history—consists of visiting a series of 88 temples around the island of Shikoku for purposes of saying masses and prayers. Last year marked the celebration of the ancient 88-temple route's 1,200th anniversary.

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The pilgrimage route begins in Tokushima. From Tokushima Awaodori Airport, where a warm wind still blows, it takes 30 minutes to get to Ryozen-ji temple, the first temple on the route.

Though in principle the pilgrims travel around Shikoku in a clockwise fashion from Ryozen-ji in a particular order (“jun-uchi”), at the same time they need not observe any strict rules regarding the order or temples visited. There are various options that one can choose that meet the needs of different pilgrims, such as a counter-clockwise route (“gyaku-uchi”), a segmented route for busier individuals (“kugiri-uchi”), and also a route travelling one prefecture at one time (“ikkoku-mairi”).

Pilgrims who come to Shikoku from overseas tend to do the pilgrimage differently depending on where they are from. Those coming from neighboring countries such as Taiwan and South Korea often choose the segmented option, which they do on four-night-five-day stays. Instead of completing the entire route at once, they make the trip repeatedly. Meanwhile, pilgrims from Europe and the U.S. tend to do the whole route at once over a longer period of 1-2 months.

Shikoku's special custom of pilgrimage—and the hospitality that goes with it—has quickly been extended to the many people interested from other countries. What kind of reception do these visitors get?

Broadly speaking, there are two different reasons why pilgrims are welcomed.

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First, welcoming pilgrims is a means of accumulating merit in the Buddhist sense. Old records show that during pilgrimage the pilgrims should carry a pilgrim stick as a representation of the great master Kukai, and wear a sedge hat that reads “Kukai is always with me.” By extending themselves to pilgrims, the local people believe that they are doing something advantageous for themselves well as the pilgrim. Another reason why people serve pilgrims is the idea that they are requesting the pilgrim to “make the pilgrimage in their place,” thereby earning them the same merit as if they did it themselves.

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Surprisingly, the hospitality offered is completely free of charge.

This hospitality comes in various forms, such as the offering of fruit, rice dishes, and more. Some people even invite pilgrims to stay overnight. No one is receiving money behind the scenes for extending themselves to the pilgrims, and in fact everyone gives of their own accord.

This special aspect of Shikoku culture, including offering free lodging to total strangers, is not seen in other regions.

The next temple we'd like to introduce is the sixth temple on the route, called Anraku-ji. This area is also known as a hot spring mountain. Kukai is said to have discovered a hot spring here, which he made into a therapeutic bath. Visitors are welcome to bathe in this hot spring, believed to bring the bather good luck and merit.

In addition, Japanese tend to be inspired and pleasantly surprised by the graphical look of kanji characters such as the one shown in the photo below.

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This temple boasts an entire wall decorated with these kinds of characters. Another interesting aspect of making pilgrimages is the fact that, through objects such as these, we can get an idea of the sense of fun that ancient people had.

Our next featured temple is Tairyu-ji, the twenty-first temple on the route.

Tairyu-ji is built deep into a mountainside: witness a magical scene on the ropeway on the ride up to the temple in the early morning mist. This area is peppered with numerous mountain temples lacking access by car, train, or ropeway, making it an entirely different pilgrimage experience—and a somewhat rough one.

The appeal of pilgrimage lies in the fact that it is not simple tourism, and that any difficulties give rise to a previous cultural experience, unusual interaction with other people along the way, and more.

Next on our list is Hotsumisaki-ji, twenty-fourth temple on the route.

Nearby this temple is a cave facing the ocean called Mirokudo, said to be the place where Kukai practiced and ultimately attained enlightenment. His name, which means “sky and sea,” derives from the scenery he witnessed at this place during this time.

Hotsumisaki-ji is an extremely important temple, even amongst the many temples associated with Kukai. The Murotomisaki lighthouse, a favorite spot for couples, is also located here.

The regular route goes south from Tokushima, then heads west, followed by a coastal section.

Though the act of visiting a temple constitutes a rather simple plan, each temple has something entirely new to offer. Also, due to the fact that each pilgrim has in essence the same objectives, pilgrims tend to develop meaningful friendships quickly along the way.

Another primary reason why the Shikoku pilgrimage draws people from overseas is the opportunity it provides to meet people and become immediately friendly. This human component is the reason why pilgrimage is considered a form of living culture.

The real secret to the appeal of the pilgrimage lies in the fact that pilgrims can get an experience here like no other, and for this reason they spend hours and days to walk the entire route.

If you would like the opportunity to meet new people—and otherwise give yourself a scintillating experience—come try the Shikoku pilgrimage.

● Tourism Shikoku

Official Shikoku Region Tourism Site (Japanese and English)

http://www.tourismshikoku.org/

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