Japan: Henro, The Pilgrimage of the 88 Temples of Shikoku (Part 1)
Updated: Nov 15
The pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku, also known as Henro in Japanese, involves connecting 88 temples of Shingon Buddhism, spread across 4 prefectures. Several thousand pilgrims venture onto these paths spanning about 1200 kilometers every year. Traditionally, the pilgrims, called Ohenro, travel on foot on this ambitious journey in a personal quest. History, challenge, and organization of the most famous pilgrimage in Japan.
© O. Robert
Everyone will find the right reasons and motivation to undertake this challenge based on their beliefs, spiritual expectations, curiosity, or any other personal conviction.
Discovering oneself, pushing one's limits, soothing personal torments, defying illness, commemorating the loss of a loved one are just some of the reasons that were shared with me by the pilgrims I met during my stays on the Henro paths.
Others, such as my wife and I, embark on these paths out of curiosity, an interest in ancient history, or the pleasure of walking in unique places, pushing ourselves, discovering breathtaking landscapes, and satisfying a craving for documentary imagery.
In this first article, I discuss the history of this pilgrimage dedicated to Shingon Buddhism. Why undertake this challenge and what does it represent today? What attire should one wear to walk the sacred paths of Shikoku? And finally, how is the pilgrimage on the island organized?
In the second article, you will find practical information related to photography in these 88 temples. How are they distributed across the prefectures, which are the most beautiful temples to photograph, and when is the best time to visit them? You will also find advice on physical preparation and on-site logistics.
Contents of this article:
Sanskrit Prayer's Book © O. Robert
Although this pilgrimage is undeniably linked to Japanese Buddhism and its history, there is no religious obligation involved. We also noticed the touristic nature of this pilgrimage today. As evidence, I point to the vast parking lots reserved for coaches near some of the famous temples. But rest assured, these are often temples located in cities or on their direct outskirts. The more authentic and remote temples do not appear on the list of tour agencies. And that's a good thing.
No matter the reason for undertaking this challenge, whether believers, the curious, or athletes, all come together with a single goal: to complete this long journey, hoping to find revelations about oneself along the way.
For us, we embarked on the route of the 88 temples multiple times without any religious beliefs. After first starting this journey in 2013, we finally completed the pilgrimage in 2019 with immense personal satisfaction and not without deep emotion.
Fascinated by Buddhist statuary and temple architecture, we visited on four separate occasions to experience varied weather conditions and to capture characteristic atmospheres conducive to our photographic quest. The mountains and forests where most of these temples are situated are indeed endless sources of inspiration, and the tranquility there fosters reflection and meditation through imagery.
Dainichiji Temple Pavilions and Goshoji Temple Garden © O.Robert
Even though traditionally this pilgrimage is done in one go, for many it represents a massive physical challenge and requires time. It's not uncommon to spend at least 2 months walking daily around Shikoku to complete this long journey (see distances below). Also, many Japanese people undertake the route by car.
The temples are now all organized accordingly and have parking lots that can accommodate those who cannot or do not wish to walk. However, this convenient solution deprives the pilgrim of a fundamental value: spiritual reflection and the connection to nature that accompanies the walker (see my articles on walking as a tool for inspiration).
My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 head. The lightweight carbon tripod that's ultra-stable for landscape photography.
What is Shingon Buddhism
The history of Buddhism in Japan has undergone numerous transformations over the centuries. Religious wars, internal disputes within different spiritual movements (also called schools), and the merging of some of these schools into new religious movements are all reasons that have substantially changed Japan's spiritual landscape. Today, 13 Buddhist sects still exist. The Shingon school (sometimes called the Shingon sect) is the oldest still in practice today, following the Nara school of Buddhism which is no longer practiced.
The teachings of the founding monk Kukai are called Mikkyo in Japanese. This can be translated as "Secret Teaching". The uniqueness of Mikkyo lies in its oral and spiritual transmission. Therefore, Shingon Buddhism is an esoteric form of Buddhism. There are few or no writings on this subject. Mikkyo is based on the idea that teaching must come through experience in the quest for enlightenment and is taught from one person to another.
The Mikkyo teaching recognizes five deities, called the 5 Buddhas, with Dainichi Nyorai being the central Buddha.
Statue of Kongoken Bosatsu © O. Robert
Characteristics of Shingon Buddhism
When the monk Kukai founded the new school of esoteric Buddhism, which he called Shingon (literally "Words of Truth"), he distinguished himself from previous thought streams by imposing two fundamental pillars in his teachings:
Every practitioner has the possibility of achieving enlightenment during their physical life on earth without resorting to reincarnation (this notion is called Sokushin Jobutsu).
Bring eternal peace to Japan through his practices and actions.
The main teaching of Shingon Buddhism is that enlightenment is possible in this very life through esoteric practices. Unlike other Buddhist schools, which may view enlightenment as a process extending over many lives through reincarnation, Shingon teaches that rapid enlightenment is attainable through correct practice.
For more information on Shingon Buddhism, its origins, and the history of its founder Kukai, I invite you to read my article dedicated to this topic.
Statues of Jizos and Incense Sticks © O. Robert
The Dress Code of the Ohenro Pilgrim
While there is no particular obligation to wear traditional clothing, many pilgrims equip themselves with the typical accessories of the Ohenro for their journey. Being more identifiable along the roads, they benefit from the generosity of locals who often offer food to the pilgrims as they pass through the villages.
The specific attire of the Ohenro-san consists of:
A conical bamboo hat called Suge-gasa, which may or may not be covered with transparent plastic to protect against the rain (like in the month of June). It's very effective and also provides protection from the sun.
A white cotton jacket called Hakue (with or without sleeves) similar to a chasuble, which has inscriptions in Sanskrit on both the front and back. These texts are excerpts from prayers, thoughts, or principles of the monk Kukai.
White cotton pants (less commonly worn).
A shoulder bag called Zutabukuro, used to carry essential items for prayer in the temples, such as incense sticks, coins, matches or lighters, a Sanskrit prayer book, and a stamp book for the Goshuin stamps.
A necklace called Wagesa.
A walking stick made of wood or bamboo topped with bells called Kongo-zue. This stick also has Buddhist inscriptions in Sanskrit, meaning "Kukai and I walk together" or "I place my faith in Kukai, the universal illuminator." Tradition dictates that pilgrims leave their walking stick at the last temple as an offering to Kukai.
Bamboo Hat and Walking Sticks of Ohenro-san © O. Robert
It should be noted that the traditional shoes made of rice straw and hemp ties have long been abandoned. Pilgrims far prefer to ensure their hike with modern walking shoes or suitable sports shoes, such as those for running. This is something I highly recommend.
Lucrative and Mandatory Tourism
All these accessories can be purchased at temple number 1, Ryozenji, in Naruto. Many temples have a shop where it is also possible to buy these clothes or accessories or even change them along the way. Their prices are quite high.
The Henro pilgrimage has also become a business affair for Shingon Buddhism. Despite the government aid (tax exemptions) or local assistance (volunteer work, etc.) that these temples can benefit from, they have been facing a particularly worrying economic situation in recent years.
My equipment: URTH Filter Kit. High-quality filters for all situations.
The maintenance of these splendid ancient buildings requires huge financial means that the owners cannot ensure through the simple donations of pilgrims. Although often generous and sometimes excessive (I have observed donations of over $10,000), the money collected throughout the year from the pilgrimage unfortunately does not cover these significant expenses.
Furthermore, the administrative center of Koyasan levies disproportionate taxes on the profits generated by the temples of Shikoku, under the mere pretext that they generate revenue "thanks" to the image of Kukai and Shingon Buddhism. Everyone will appreciate it as they see fit...
Also, many temples have now turned to the B&B business and offer packages that allow staying in traditional monks' rooms and participating in very early morning incantations and ceremonies with the monks. This in itself is an incredible experience.
My Library: Buddhism in Japan | Sacred Koyasan.
If you are visiting Koyasan for the first time, you might be tempted to stay in one of these temples, called Shukubo. I recommend it because the experience is interesting. But without wanting to shatter dreams or beliefs, keep in mind that this practice of welcoming tourists within the Shukubo temples is purely commercial and addresses an economic need. Several conversations with Koyasan residents over the past 10 years have unfortunately convinced me of this reality, not without some disappointment.
Lanterns, Ryozenji Temple and Nosatsu, Kirihataji Temple © O.Robert
The Goshuin Notebook
Pilgrims embarking on this long spiritual journey carry a small booklet with them in which they collect signatures from the visited temples. These signatures, called Goshuin, consist of a vermilion stamp, the temple's seal indicating its name, another vermilion stamp indicating the temple's number and the deity it is associated with, and a beautiful calligraphy made in front of you that also notes the date of your visit.
These beautifully crafted notebooks are made of natural Japanese paper and covered in embroidered tapestry or traditional paintings. There are different models available to suit all budgets. These notebooks can be purchased at any temple, but it is obviously recommended to buy one at the first temple you visit.
If, like me, you are fascinated by Japanese craftsmanship, set aside a significant budget because these notebooks are so refined that you will want to buy them all. They will serve as great mementos based on the temples where you had your most memorable photography moments. Not to mention, they will make excellent journals for your subsequent trips.
Goshuin © O. Robert
Please note that the temples close relatively early, between 4:00 PM and 5:00 PM on average. It then becomes impossible to obtain the coveted Goshuin. This situation can be particularly frustrating, especially after hours of strenuous walking. Therefore, plan your arrivals and calculate your travel times accordingly.
How the Pilgrimage of the 88 Temples of Shikoku is Organized
Japanese esoteric Buddhism recognizes four significant stages in the life of every practitioner and beyond, through reincarnation. The Henro pilgrimage is thus divided into four parts, each corresponding to one of these four stages.
These stages are:
1. The Dojo of Awakening (Hosshin no Dojo), temples 1 to 23
2. Austerity and Discipline (Shugyo), temples 24 to 39
3. The Path to Enlightenment (Bodai), temples 40 to 65
4. Nirvana (Nehan), temples 66 to 88
4 Deities of Kanjizaiji Temple © O. Robert
4 Provinces, 4 Stages
By geographical coincidence, the island of Shikoku consists of 4 prefectures (Tokushima, Kochi, Ehime, and Kagawa). The very name "Shikoku" means "4 Provinces," referring to the country's history when it was not yet divided into prefectures but into provinces. Back then, they were referred to as the provinces of Awa, Tosa, Iyo, and Sanuki. These provinces were renamed as prefectures during the Meiji era.
The association was thus evident; each prefecture corresponds to one of the stages of Shingon Buddhism. The temples are distributed accordingly, and this is the primary reason why traditionally one should follow the route in the prescribed order (Jun-uchi in Japanese), meaning from temple 1 to 88.
Due to primarily superstitious reasons, some Japanese undertake the journey in the reverse direction (Gyaku-uchi), claiming it brings good fortune. I have yet to understand the purpose of this practice, and the explanations provided to me have not been convincing.
My Equipment: GITZO Adventury. The ultimate backpack, waterproof and sturdy for photo hikes.
Everyone will see their interest and organize their route as they wish, but I strongly recommend undertaking this pilgrimage in the conventional direction. The paths are also marked only in the ascending direction, from 1 to 88. Numerous small signs indicate, through a logo, the direction of the walk and the distances between the temples.
Furthermore, each temple is also associated with a deity from the Buddhist pantheon. Depending on their beliefs and those of their families, some pilgrims therefore primarily or even only go to the temples representing the deity to which their families are attached.
By this geographical logic and spiritual division, it is not uncommon to travel the Henro paths in four separate journeys, thus visiting all the temples in each prefecture. This is what I personally chose to do, for time reasons. However, the desire to cover the entirety of the pilgrimage in one go is still very much alive.
Pavilion, Iyadaniji Temple © O. Robert
The Henro pilgrimage, often regarded as a spiritual quest around the 88 temples of Shikoku, is in fact more than just a religious journey in Japan. While deeply rooted in Buddhist traditions, it provides everyone, whether practitioners or not, a unique opportunity to deeply connect with nature and immerse themselves in the serenity of Japanese landscapes.
While walking, the pilgrim is invited to personal reflection, to meditate on life, its choices, and its path. It's an invitation to self-discovery, but also to open-mindedness towards other pilgrims encountered and the locals who often offer hospitality and support.
If I were to summarize it in one sentence, I'd say the Henro pilgrimage is a personal act that transcends religious and cultural barriers while allowing each individual to undergo a transformative experience of introspection and discovery.
Regardless, walking the paths of this pilgrimage is a unique, personal, and enriching experience, no matter what motivates you. Whether you envision it in its entirety or in stages spread over several years, you will retain an unforgettable, intense memory commensurate with the effort put forth.
My equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. The essential accessory for hands-free walking and quick access to your camera.
My articles on Buddhism, Shintoism, or Taoism are merely a reflection of a personal interest in art and history. They do not aim to convey religious messages, influence, or convince readers in any way. My texts solely seek to document the cultural evolution of countries through photography. The Henro pilgrimage mentioned in my articles allowed me to bring technical and organizational coherence to this work on statuary. I have therefore traveled it several times with this sole purpose.
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