The Heart and Soul of Japan's Shikoku Jane Reed

During 2016, a Wandering the World group of ten set off to do a two-week walk of Japan's Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku, which is one of the most fascinating and unique walking experiences imaginable. I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for what was such an incredibly moving and spiritual journey, nor for the diversity and sheer scenic beauty of the landscape we walked through. 

Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands and home to the renowned Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage. The promise of being immersed in magnificent natural surroundings, walking along remote, tranquil trails and enjoying the rural charm of the various temple settings and traditional villages we visited, exceeded my every expectation.

The Shikoku Pilgrimage consists of 88 ‘official temples’ and other sacred sites located around the island of Shikoku. The Pilgrimage is made by visiting and offering prayers at each of the temples.

If the entire route is walked, it is around 1,400 kilometres in overall distance. You don’t need to visit all temples in one trip. During the course of our trip, we visited 28 temples and walked just over 100 kilometres.

Our daily walking distances varied from around 9 km – 17km, so it kept the pace pretty relaxed.

Today, people from around the world make the pilgrimage by bus, car or bike and on foot. And within Japan, many aspire to complete the full pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. They come for different reasons: some to remember a relative or friend who has died; to escape from work or responsibilities of everyday life or just to enjoy the outdoors and have time alone.

Whatever one’s motivation for doing the pilgrimage, the hospitality and warm, friendly welcome extended by the local people to all pilgrims – who are known locally as, o-henro-san, is a huge part of this remarkable and memorable experience.

After chatting with this lady as we wandered through her village, she was eager to share some locally grown mandarins with us. And stopping for a drink at the cafe below we received a very warm welcome from all the family.

Japan's founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai who lived 774-835 AD) was born on the island of Shikoku.  He trained and spent time at many of the temple sites and thus plays a central role in the history of the Pilgrimage. There are references to the pilgrimage dating as far back as the 12th Century.

Before starting our Pilgrimage and immersion in the heart and soul of Japan's Buddhist traditions, we spent a few nights’ pre-trip in the vibrant and dynamic city of Osaka.  

Taking in the bright neon lights and a little of Japan's history with a visit to Osaka Castle.

From Osaka, we then travelled by train and cable car up through the forest to Koyasan.

Perched 900metres about sea level, Koyasan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. 

Koyasan is a most significant place to start the trip before commencing the Pilgrimage, as it is here, that Kobo Daishi established the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and as a place of study for Zen training.

It is an unbelievably serene and picturesque village. And one of the most sacred sites of Koyasan is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum.

On our first night in Koyasan, it was extremely evident that the expertise and knowledge of Elena, our local guide for the pilgrimage, was going to add an amazing dimension to our overall trip - and nothing could be further from the truth.

Having trained as a Buddhist monk and lived and worked in Japan for over 12 years, Elena's deep knowledge of Shingon Buddhism, her proficiency in speaking Japanese, her love of the outdoors and all things Japan as well as her tour guiding skills were exceptional -  not to mention her great sense of humour and making sure we were all superbly well cared for. 

To travel to Shikoku we re-traced our train journey back to Osaka and then took a short ferry ride across to the island.

On our first day of  walking we visited Temples 1 - 6.  It was an excellent introduction through rural villages and in total about a 17km walk.

At Temple One we got into the spirit of the Henro, as we all decided to wear the distinctive white tops that distinguish you as a pilgrim. Some of us went a little further and wore the sedge hat and carried a walking staff.

Over the course of the next eleven days not only did we get to walk through spectacular bamboo forests, magnificent mountain trails, along the rugged Pacific coastline, stay at wonderfully comfortable temples and friendly family run ryokans AND enjoy the most sublime Japanese food everywhere we went, we also got to see totally different areas of Shikoku!

At each of the temples visited, pilgrims can obtain a beautifully calligraphed 'stamp' in their 'pass book' as a record of the temples they have been to. They are truly a work of art.

The first few days of our walk was in the Tokushima prefecture in the south-east of the island and from there we transferred to the centrally located prefecture of Kochi.

From Kochi we "jump" to the north-west part of the island taking in the stunning scenery en route to Ehime. It is in Ehime that we have a relaxing rest day and have time to luxuriate in one of Japan’s oldest and most famous hot springs - Dogo Onsen. And also have time to visit the most impressive castle.

And finally, the last prefecture we wandered through was the spectacular country side and villages of the Kagawa  prefecture in the north-east of the island.

The trip itinerary really does offer the best of both worlds: fantastic walking and immersion in the local culture, and with the easy transfers you also get to see and experience four different parts of the island.

On most days our luggage was transferred from point to point, with a few days where we packed the basic necessities in our day packs for the night, and were reunited with our luggage the following day. 

The accommodation we stayed at - was a mix of temple accommodation, family run ryokans and extremely comfortable hotels.

And the delicious meals right throughout the trip.

This trip was absolutely nothing like I have experienced anywhere else and I am so looking forward to getting back to the heart and soul of Japan on this unparalleled walk again.




PHONE: +61 (0) 402 910 552

EMAIL: Glenyce Johnson

or Jane Reed



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Wandering the World specialises in creating and tailoring exceptional walking, trekking and touring holidays in some of the most beautiful places on earth. This includes both escorted small group and self-guided trips, as well as individually tailored itineraries for privately organised trips.

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