In the land of the rising sun, there is an island that stands out for its unique cultural, natural and historical wealth. It’s Shikoku’s. For several centuries, the Shikoku pilgrimage has been a must among the spiritual and offers a unique experience on some 1200 kilometers and 88 temples that make up this unique circuit.
In this post you have a chance to discover and live unique cultural and spiritual experience in the heart of Japan.
Koyasan, an essential site of your pilgrimage to Shikoku
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a pilgrimage to 88 sacred sites, including places and temples where Kobo-Daishi Kukai, the founder of the True Word sect, high priest and man of letters born in 774, performed miracles and spiritual experiences in Shikoku. For this reason, Koyasan is linked with the Shikoku pilgrimage, and pilgrims often visit Koyasan at the end of their pilgrimage to pay their respects to Kobo Daishi Kukai. This year, from May 14 to July 9, 2023, the 1250th anniversary of the birth of Kobo Daishi Kukai will be celebrated. It is said that Kobo Daishi Kukai still continues to pray for the mausoleum of Okunoin Temple, located in the innermost part of Koyasan Shrine. There are other memorial towers in Okunoin. The Okunoin Temple is located in a sacred site in Japan, founded by Kobo Daishi Kukai himself, the site of Koyasan. Located in a remote mountainous region, Koyasan is 6 km wide and 3 km long and today represents a high place of belief. Okunoin Temple is an essential place for pilgrims to report to Kobo Daishi Kukai after completing the 88 stages of the pilgrimage, to express their gratitude, and to receive a red seal (“Goshuin“).
On Koyasan, far from Okuno-in is also another sacred site: that of Danjo Garan, reputed to embody the worldview of esoteric Buddhism and consists of 19 rooms including the main room of the Koyasan site: the Kondo. It also includes a representation of the symbol of esoteric Buddhism, the Dainichi Nyorai. The Koyasan also includes the Kongobu-ji Head Temple, THE main temple of esoteric Buddhism which has 3600 annex temples. It has the largest stone garden in Japan and “fusuma” paintings depicting various subjects.
During your pilgrimage in the region, live the unique experience of sleeping in a “shukubo”, a unique place of accommodation that highlights aspects of Japanese philosophy and aesthetics in its design. Several activities are offered to enter into tranquility, including a practice of ajikan (meditation) or shayko (copy of the calligraphic sutra). It is a unique place where you can live an esoteric experience in which you can discover the ancestral habits and customs of Japan. You can also enjoy vegetarian dishes, including many dishes made from sesame tofu, carefully prepared from the raw seeds that are mixed with Koyasan water and Kuzu. It is a dish with nutritional properties very appreciated by Europeans.
The Ekoin temple
Walk the paths of the 1200 km of the Shikoku pilgrimage
The Shikoku pilgrimage is presented as the start of your journey around Koyasan. Several reasons specific to each encourage a pilgrim to make a pilgrimage: religious practice, an attempt to head towards the path of healing, cultural or spiritual enrichment or the desire to discover another culture. In the end, everyone will find their own personal benefit and come out with a unique experience. The Shikoku pilgrimage showcases a unique culture of hospitality, where food and drink are offered to pilgrims and they can be guided if they get lost. Shikoku pilgrims wear white clothes. This stems from the fact that in the past, pilgrims risked their lives on this pilgrimage, and those who unfortunately fell ill along the way could be buried as they were. The practice of helping pilgrims who risked their lives on the pilgrimage gave rise to today’s “culture of hospitality”. It is implicitly understood that pilgrims should not refuse the offer of hospitality, as it involves the advice of the high priest and the help of the Buddha. By accepting the offer of hospitality, the person who is offered will accumulate virtue, and to refuse would be to deprive him of this opportunity. If the pilgrims refuse, they may find that a difficult pilgrimage awaits them. The island of Shikoku has no less than 88 temples, spread over the following 4 prefectures:
The pilgrimage begins at Ryozenji temple, the first temple in Tokushima prefecture, and ends at Okuboji temple, the 88th temple in Kagawa Prefecture. After visiting the 88 temples, pilgrims return to the first to express their gratitude for completing their journey without incident. A ritual practiced since ancient times. This is called the ‘thanksgiving visit’ (Orei mawari). Ryozen-ji Temple, where the pilgrimage begins, can be reached by bus from Kyoto, Osaka and Namba stations, and is connected by ferry to Wakayama prefecture, where Koyasan is located. After visiting 88 temples, visitors can take a ferry from Tokushima to Wakayama Prefecture and travel to Koyasan.
Must-see sacred sites for pilgrimage
From the start to the finish, you will undoubtedly pass through many temples, and each one is unique.
The first temple, Ryozen-ji, is the starting point of the pilgrimage in a clockwise direction (method called “Jyun-uchi”). It is characterized by the richness of its architecture and its decorations, among which one can count many lanterns, a pagoda, or a pond. It is also an opportunity for pilgrims to obtain the traditional outfit (a white robe), a sutra book, and the accessories that complete the outfit (a stole called “Wagesa”, a stick called “Kongozu”, candle and incense). Going a little further in the circuit, you will pass by the Anraku-ji temple, which is the sixth temple out of the 88 sacred places that make up the circuit. It is one of the Shoukubo temple (accommodation) out of the 88 temples in Shikoku where you can take a bath in a public bath. It is also possible to participate in the services of the temple (singing of the sutras, listening to the monks, kusu-kuyo).
Le temple Anraku-ji -the 21st temple is the Tairyuji, surrounded by rows of old cedars several hundred years old and with a mysterious atmosphere. It is said that when Kobo Daishi Kukai was 19 years old, he spent 100 days in this temple, sitting on a rock every night and practicing asceticism. The path to the statue is a bit steep, but if you use the chains attached to the rock and climb up to the Kobo Daishi Kukai statue, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view. You will be able to see miles of mountains and the ocean stretching out in the distance. The 31st temple, the second located in the city of Kochi, is the Chikurin temple-ji. It was founded in 724 by another monk, Monk Gyoki, and celebrates the wisdom deity Monju Bosatsu. It is located in Mount Godaisan, about 20 minutes drive from downtown Kochi. In the courtyard of the temple (for an additional cost), pilgrims and tourists can pray and meditate like the sutras. This year will mark the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of the temple.
During your visit to Kochi, be sure to make a detour to the covered Hirome Market, which is ideal for tasting the local specialties. This is the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in local culture and traditions to fully enjoy your stay. Do not miss to stroll between the stalls of the traditional market which is held on Sundays in the city. You can take the opportunity to taste local and seasonal fruits and vegetables, and other local products. If you wish, you can take tourist buses to visit other tourist sites (Katsurahama for example).
Among the other temples that caught my attention, I can mention the Iwamoto-ji, located near the city of Shimanto. It is the only temple on the circuit that celebrates the five Buddhist deities. The temple is recognized for its 575 Japanese-Western style paintings, solicited from parishioners and public authorities. Several subjects are depicted in these paintings, including the iconic Marylin Monroe. Several activities are offered to visitors and pilgrims, including sutra chanting, meditation in the river, or tasting dishes made from local products (ginger, soy, rice or soup).
These pilgrimages to Koyasan and Shikoku promise a unique experience, a Japanese-style “Santiago de Compostela” that will make you discover the habits and customs that have passed through generations of practitioners and non-practitioners to each converge on their own paths.