O-Henro — Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage

Upcoming Sept 2023

Swapna M
4 min readJul 4, 2023

Japan has held my attention since I started watching Naruto way back in the past. I became even more enamoured with Japanese culture when I discovered studio Ghibli movies (Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Arietty and others!) and by default started consuming Japanese movies, food, cultural nuances and even enrolled myself for Ninjutsu (the art of invisibility, as they say) in Singapore, and tried hard to become a true Shinobi! Upon further exploring and reading about Japan, I planned a couple of weeks of getaway to the incredible city of Tokyo in the sticky month of Aug 2015. That trip was memorable beyond belief (makes for another article in itself), but I remember reading about a little known pilgrimage in Shodoshima that one blogger had passingly referenced and sketched in her article.

That small reference stayed with me all these years, and recently after a personal tragedy in March, something told me to go on a soul searching journey to Japan. And what better way to explore Japan than to immerse yourself in nature through a strenuous pilgrimage. Well that’s my idea of fun anyway (regaining control of my life more like). I came across another well-known expedition called the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, which is again a small island near Osaka, and it had me mesmerized.

The Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage is dedicated to a Buddhist monk named Kūkai (who founded Shingon Buddhism) and was established over 1,200 years ago. This circular shaped pilgrimage is over 1200 km long, and takes an average of 6 weeks to complete by foot. Other modes of transport available are by bicycle, motorcycle, car, or bus. If you read any of the literature on this pilgrimage, you’ll realize that people choose to do this pilgrimage for self-discovery, to recover from a life-changing event, to heal or to soak into an authentic version of Japan.

“For example, some come for religious reasons, some to pray for healing or safety in the home, or some in memory of those who have passed away. In addition, some come just to get away from regular life, some for recreation, or some to spend time alone in reflection and to find oneself. For people today, it is being re-discovered as a healing journey. “— https://shikoku-tourism.com/en/shikoku-henro/shikoku-henro

“In general, these days, motivations for making the journey vary from person to person. Some folks do it for religious reasons, like praying for health and safety or sending their best wishes to those who have passed. Others, alternatively, enjoy it as a sightseeing route, as it offers incredible views of this still relatively untouched region of Japan.” — https://japancheapo.com/entertainment/shikoku-pilgrimage/

The very next day, I found myself promptly booking a month-long trip to Japan in Sept, specifically to walk the Shikoku temple route, and hopefully to heal and rejuvenate myself in the process. I’m not exactly sure what this pilgrimage will accomplish for me tangibly, but I assume it holds varied meaning in my life — the desire to isolate myself in nature seemingly away from the rest of the world, to revivify and soothe my soul, to invigorate myself for the next chapter of my life, and emerge stronger — mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally. At the very least, wouldn’t the pain, bruising and exhilarating exhaustion from walking the pilgrimage be testament to my conscious incurred effort, leading to a spiritual awakening of some sort? I hope so anyway.

So the coming month of September is going to be a hell of a journey for me as I traverse through this island alone, sometimes taking public transport but mostly walking the trails hopefully visiting all the 88 temples. I intend to stay at Minshukus (民宿) and Ryokans (旅館), that are family-operated, traditional Japanese-style bed and breakfast places, and sometimes at “Shukubō” 宿坊, which are temple lodgings, if available.

Shikoku is divided between 4 prefectures — Tokushima (23 temples), Kochi (16 temples), Ehime (26 temples), and Kagawa (23 temples) — and takes on through a spectacular passage across the Japanese countryside.

“The pilgrimage route is diverse; it winds through quiet picturesque villages, along striking coastlines, across bustling modern cities, and up ancient misty mountains.” — https://www.henro.org/shikoku-pilgrimage

Over the next month or so, I’d be updating this article as I research and finalize my itinerary, find and book accommodations, create a packing list, detail out the transportation options and plot my tentative journey across the island. I reach Osaka on Sept 1st, and plan to rest a while in the city before proceeding to Shikoku on Sept 3rd or 4th until at-least Sept 23rd (which gives me 3 full weeks to walk the island), after which I plan to spend some time exploring the marvellous city of Kyoto.

So stay tuned!

Please reach out to me if you live in Japan, or have done this pilgrimage before — would love to trade notes, meet up if possible, and learn from you!