The Shikoku pilgrimage is about 750 miles long (about 3 months), and it is meant to be a sacred journey for those who seek enlightenment or answers they can’t seem to find. The term “Henro” is the Japanese word for pilgrim.
Two of my best friends, Alex and Grant, were telling me about this pilgrimage they are going on in August. They are venturing on a Buddhist pilgrimage consisting of 88 temples around the circumference of the Japanese island of Shikoku. The reason they are going on this pilgrimage is because they are like many of us, fresh out of college with no idea what they want in life.
“It’s going to be scary,” said Alex, former RA and graduate of FGCU. “It’s going to be crazy, but that’s all the more reason to do it. You can’t discover who you are by just sitting on a couch and watching Netflix.”
“You kind of get to this point in your life where you feel stuck,” said Grant, FSW student. “I need this to figure my life out.”
This place has done that for so many people, and I think this is amazing. But how did it all start?
The most popular legend related to the origins of this pilgrimage is that Kūkai, a Japanese Buddhist monk, civil servant, scholar, poet, and artist who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism, walked to all of the sacred places on the island, found several of the temples, and established the pilgrimage.
However, research on his life makes it easy to argue that this is not the case. Although he did travel to several of these mountains, he did not walk around the island or perform the first pilgrimage.
Actually, for most of his early life, Kūkai followed the example of the hijiri, or wandering ascetics, that came from Mt. Kōya to visit the religious centers on the island.
The Wandering Holy Men of Mt. Kōya build the foundations and tradition of performing religious austerities on the peaks of sacred mountains and preaching to the people. Once Kūkai died, wanderers began making the journey to Mt. Kōya to visit his mausoleum and the sites that were important along his life.
The first written records mentioning the pilgrimage and the fact that monks and hijiri were walking around the island date from the mid-twelfth century, but the pilgrimage in that century is far different than what it is today. The end of Japan’s internal wars of the 16th century and the peace of the Edo Period (1603-1868) settling over the country is what made the pilgrimage the one we recognize today.
What is today’s pilgrimage like, you might ask? Well, In the 50’s, when the economy started to pick up, a company named Ejime Pefecture suggested the idea of the henro bus tour, which turned out to be a huge success. This made the pilgrimage popular again after the second world war. Now, although many people go to Shikoku for the religious and enlightening experience, many people visit for the beautiful sight seeing.