A Buddhist pilgrimage route in Japan

Shikoku is known for its forested mountains and slow pace of life

The Iya valley and Kazurabashi vine bridge in Shikoku, Japan
The 750-mile Shikoku pilgrimage around Japan’s smallest island takes in 88 Buddhist temples
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Japan is crisscrossed with ancient pilgrimage routes, and walking them is a slow but rewarding way to experience the country’s religious art and architecture, its cultural traditions, and its wild landscapes.

Among the best known is the Shikoku pilgrimage, says Marta Giaccone in The New York Times – a 750-mile circumnavigation of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four major islands, which takes in 88 Buddhist temples that all claim a connection with the celebrated 9th century monk Kukai, or Kobo Daishi. The route is popular with devotees of Shingon, the Buddhist sect he founded, but also with walkers of other faiths.

Shikoku, in the relatively balmy south of Japan, is known (among other things) for its steep, forested mountains, its traditional rural villages and its relatively slow pace of life. Kukai was born here into an aristocratic family in AD774, and travelled to the city of Xian in China in 804 to study the esoteric Buddhist traditions from which the Shingon sect – one of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan – would develop. Among the temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage route are the sites of his birth and burial, and places where he is said to have meditated or performed particular rites. Some pilgrims visit them on bus tours, or combine walking and driving.

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The route, 80% of which is on asphalt, takes you through open fields and small towns, along beautiful shores and, occasionally, over mountain passes. Accommodation is generally in family-operated bed and breakfasts and traditional inns, many offering “delectable” food.

The peace and “vastness” of the landscape, and the sometimes “stunning” views, make for “an abiding aura of serenity” – and so does the generosity of the local people, among whom “warmheartedness” towards pilgrims is a firm tradition, exemplified in the practice of osettai, or the giving of gifts, ranging from snacks and sweets to offers of lifts and even free overnight stays in temple lodges.

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