I have been walking up and down hills since sunrise and still I haven’t reached my target by midday. It’s day seven of my hike, I just want to eat and sleep.
“That’s part of it,” says Matsuyama town worker Junko who picks me up in her car from the road side. “If you don’t feel really exhausted at least once, you cannot reach Nirvana”.
Nirvana can be reached in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, famous for its pristine nature. The almost sleepy pace of rural life is only occasionally disrupted by a neon-clad, panting cyclist or tour buses loaded with retirees – all trying to trace the steps of Kukai (774-835). Known posthumously as Kobo Daishi, he’s the iconic founder of Shingon Buddhism, one of the major schools of Japanese
Buddhism. You will need good stamina and general fitness to endure the strains of walking the 88 Temples
of Kobo Daishi. The 1400-km long pilgrimage route meanders through some of the wildest terrain in Japan.
The only things protecting an “ohenro” – a traditional walking pilgrim – from the often pouring rain and blazing sun are the white cotton jacket, pants and a sedge hat.
Junko drops me at Number 44, Taihoji, where my eyes need a few seconds to adjust to the cool blackness of the pine forest. The temple ground is like a wooden sanctuary. The warm smile of a monk, the smell of resin and the trickle of a small waterfall give you a sense of why people have done the pilgrimage since the 12th century.
The 88 temple route circles Shikoku and traditionally begins in the mountainous East, in Tokushima Prefecture at Temple 1, Ryozanji. It goes clockwise to the South along the rugged Pacific Coastline of Kochi Prefecture, up to the Western prefecture Ehime through valleys, rice fields and mountain plateaus and winds up in the North at Temple 88, Okubo-jji, in Kagawa prefecture.
Each prefecture represents a different region on the path to Nirvana or Enlightenment. Tokushima is “Awakening Faith”, which starts off as an easy stroll through thatched roofed villages, becoming increasingly difficult as you make your way through Kochi where the temples can be found in the most remote areas as far as 100km apart. The first “hardships” of Kochi prefecture, namely the lack of
convenience stores, should lead you to “Taking Religious Disciplines”. To ease the hardships of Kochi join local surfers at Oki Beach on your way to the most southern Temple, Kongo fuku-ji. It’s at Cape Ashizuri, where you can end the day’s hike watching the sunset over the Pacific.
There are plenty of signs along the route giving you directions to the next temple so it’s hard to get lost. While on the tour I camped at playgrounds and even car park spaces, often fed by locals. Hospitality and moral encouragement will become one of your best pilgrimage experiences.
Ehime Prefecture with a high density of temples stands for “Attaining Enlightenment” and if you have
reached Kagawa prefecture, you are “Entering Nirvana”. This may just be indulging in Sanuki Udon – Sanuki being the ancient name for Kagawa.The silky, chewy Udon noodles with a dash of daikon, ginger and scallion are said to be one of Japan’s best.
I never reached Nirvana, because I started with “Attaining Enlightenment” in Ehime. I then went anti-clockwise, which is fine so long as you complete the 1400km loop and return to the temple where you began. That’s when you’ve become a real “ohenro”. I never
When: Late March – June or
September – beginning of November
Don’t forget to pick up a free route
map at ferry terminals or airports