Japan: Photographing the 88 Temples of the Henro Pilgrimage (Part 2)
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 each year on these paths, which are about 1200 kilometers long. Traditionally, these pilgrims, called Ohenro, travel on foot this ambitious journey in a personal quest. Explanations and advice for photographing the temples and the grandiose landscapes of this pilgrimage.
© O. Robert
Everyone will find their own reasons and motivation to take on this challenge based on their beliefs, spiritual expectations, curiosity, or any other personal conviction. Discovering oneself, surpassing personal limits, soothing personal turmoil, challenging illness, commemorating the loss of a loved one are all reasons shared with me by the pilgrims I met during my stays on the Henro paths.
Others, like my wife and me, embark on these paths out of curiosity, interest in ancient history, or for the pleasure of walking in unique places, to surpass themselves, discover breathtaking landscapes, and satisfy a craving for documentary imagery.
In the first article, I discuss the history of this pilgrimage dedicated to Shingon Buddhism. What is the purpose of taking on this challenge and what does it represent today? What is the appropriate attire (or not) for walking the sacred paths of Shikoku? And finally, how is the pilgrimage on the island organized?
In this 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 what is the best period to visit them? You will also find advice on physical preparation and logistics on site.
Contents of this article:
Iwamotoji Temple Pavilion © O.Robert
Although this pilgrimage is undeniably linked to Japanese Buddhism and its history, there is no religious obligation in undertaking it. We have also observed the touristic nature of this pilgrimage today. Evidence of this is the immense parking lots reserved for buses near some of the famous temples. But rest assured, these are often temples located in or directly around cities. The more authentic and remote temples do not feature on tourist agency lists. And that's a good thing.
Whatever the reason motivating this challenge, whether it's for believers, the curious, or athletes, all minds meet around a common goal: to finish this long journey, hoping to find some self-revelations along the way.
As for us, it is without any religious belief that we have traveled the route of the 88 temples several times. After embarking on these paths in 2013, we finally completed this pilgrimage in 2019 with immense personal satisfaction and not without a certain emotion.
My library: The Gardens of Japan.
Fascinated by Buddhist statuary and the architecture of the temples, we visited four times to benefit from varied climatic conditions and find characteristic atmospheres conducive to our photographic search. The mountains and forests in which most of these temples have been built are indeed infinite sources of inspiration, and the calm that reigns there is conducive to reflection and meditation through images.
Even though traditionally this pilgrimage is undertaken in one go, it represents a huge physical challenge for many and requires time. It is not uncommon to spend at least 2 months walking daily around Shikoku to complete this long journey (see the distances below). Therefore, many Japanese complete the journey by car.
The temples are now all organized accordingly and have parking lots to accommodate those who cannot or do not want to walk. However, this practical solution deprives the pilgrim of an essential value, spiritual reflection, and connection to nature that accompanies the walker (read my articles on walking as a tool of inspiration for more information).
Ishiteji Temple Lantern and Unpenji Temple Rakans © O.Robert
How the 88 Temples are Distributed
The territorial distribution and the distances separating the temples are not equal in each prefecture. Some prefectures have more temples, thus the distances are shorter. For example, the Tokushima prefecture has many temples located in cities or urban centers, making it easier to connect them on foot.
Conversely, the Kochi prefecture presents a more mountainous and wild terrain. As a result, the distances are longer and the complexity of the route is greater.
The temples are mostly located in the countryside, forests, or on mountain slopes. The daily distances are long, and lodging can sometimes be challenging. It is necessary to plan for spending some nights outdoors. Some temples offer lodging in basic shelters at the entrances. But do not expect to find comfort or amenities there (see below).
To help you orientate, here is a list of the temples by prefecture with the names of the cities and the distances between each temple.
1. Tokushima Prefecture (Temples 1 to 23)
2. Kochi Prefecture (Temples 24 to 39)
My equipment: FERRINO Trekker Rain Cape with backpack protection and front opening. Practical comfort and 100% waterproof.
3. Ehime Prefecture (Temples 40 to 65)
4. Kagawa Prefecture (Temples 66 to 88)
What is the Best Time to Undertake the Henro Pilgrimage
Although this pilgrimage can be undertaken all year round without any restrictions, I strongly recommend avoiding the months of July and August. The intense summer heat in Japan makes traveling extremely difficult. Winter is also a challenging period as it can be very cold some years, even on the island of Shikoku. And, as mentioned earlier, sometimes you may need to plan to spend the night outdoors.
Therefore, spring seems to be the best period. Especially for photography, if you visit in April, for example, you can admire the cherry blossoms at many temples for a few days. This adds significant interest to your visit.
My library: The Gardens of Japan.
For my part, I have always preferred the rainy season in June. The heat is already significant, but the light is exceptional. The vegetation of the temples and forests is lush green. The Momiji maples or the mosses offer contrasts and shades of green that are almost artificial in their perfection.
However, you will then have to deal with sometimes very intense rains for several hours. Therefore, it can be difficult or even impossible to walk all day in these conditions.
Doryuji Temple Pavilion and Garden © O.Robert
The Most Beautiful Temples to Photograph on the Henro Paths
Here is a list of the most beautiful temples that I recommend for photography, where you will find numerous subjects. This is, of course, a personal selection based on my expectations, the atmospheres, and the light condition I found during my visits. It is merely the result of multiple factors and is by no means a certainty of finding inspiration.
I illustrate this selection with some of my photographs representative of these temples.
Temple No. 3 Konsenji
Temple No. 6 Anrakuji
Temple No. 7 Jurakuji
Temple No. 9 Horinji
Temple No. 10 Kirihataji
Temple No. 12 Shozanji
Temple No. 18 Onzanji
Temple No. 20 Kakurinji
Temple No. 31 Chikurinji
Temple No. 38 Kongofukuji
My equipment: URTH. High-quality filters for landscape photography.
Temple No. 40 Kanjizaiji
Temple No. 45 Iwayaji
Temple No. 51 Ishiteji
Temple No. 66 Unpenji
Temple No. 71 Iyadaniji
Temple No. 75 Zentsuji
Temple No. 77 Doryuji
Temple No. 85 Yakuriji
Temple No. 88 Okuboji
This list is not exhaustive. It is the result of the interest offered by the gardens and buildings of these temples during my visits. Everyone should form their own opinion depending on the time of their visit. All temples have their unique features, and it is essential to visit them with the same positive mindset. Although preferences are inevitable and become apparent quite quickly.
This is not easy when the distances traveled on foot are long, and fatigue sets in at the end of the day or after a few days. It is certain that the temples I was able to photograph in the morning always brought me greater satisfaction and the best photographic results.
My equipment: GITZO Adventury. The ultimate, waterproof, and sturdy backpack for photo hiking.
Physical and Logistical Preparation
If you plan to embark on the Henro adventure on foot, even in just one prefecture, you need to be well-prepared physically.
Except in cities, you won't find quick medical assistance should you need it. It is wise to carry the necessary equipment to address potential first emergencies. I have often encountered people who were injured in their knees or ankles. Indeed, the thousands of steps that must be taken to access certain temples can be challenging, irregular, and slippery (especially in winter, of course).
Accidents are not uncommon. And even if they are often minor, the location of the mountain or forest temples does not easily allow access for rescue services. One must then descend as best as possible to the main road. Being injured, this is far from easy. And in any case, even a minor injury of this type will immediately end a journey that you have likely prepared for months or years.
My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3. The lightweight and ultra-stable carbon tripod for landscape photography.
Food and Lodging
As everywhere in Japan, along the way, you will find many small stores called Konbini (Seven Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, or others). You can always buy drinks (hot or cold), food, and other useful items like toiletries, batteries, cables for charging your smartphone, electrical plug adapters, etc. These Konbinis are often open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
You will also notice that several residents offer food to pilgrims. This ancestral custom continues even today and is very much appreciated. Thus, you will likely receive rice cakes, pancakes, vegetables, and fruits. It is not nearly enough but generally helps you get by until the next store or local market.
Let's not forget that the initial objective of this pilgrimage was to walk in connection with the spiritual thoughts of Kukai, the founder. Also, Buddhist monks eat little to ensure the best physical and mental conditions for the practice of their religion.
Ma library: The Japanese Garden.
Regarding accommodation, you will find along the way several hotels or guesthouses of varying quality but largely sufficient for a restorative night's sleep and an early start the next day. As indicated, you will also sometimes prefer to sleep outdoors near the temples, in the absence of a hotel or simply by choice. This option is obviously dependent on the season.
And once on the road, you might even be invited to stay with a local who will then offer you lodging and meals. The residents are accustomed to seeing thousands of pilgrims pass by each year and enjoy sharing their local stories, customs, or simply showing generosity.
This is a very enriching and often amusing experience, as the language barrier is hard to overcome. However, the families offering hospitality are generally very open-minded. It's an opportunity to get a good idea of what daily life is really like in the Japanese countryside, away from mass tourism.
The Henro pilgrimage, often considered a spiritual quest around the 88 temples of Shikoku, is in fact much more than just a religious journey in Japan. Although deeply rooted in Buddhist traditions, it offers everyone, practitioners or not, a unique opportunity to deeply connect with nature and immerse themselves in the serenity of the Japanese landscapes.
In walking, the pilgrim is invited to personal reflection, to meditate on life, its choices, and its path. It is an invitation to self-discovery, but also to open-mindedness towards other pilgrims met and the residents who often offer hospitality and support.
If I had to summarize it in one sentence, I would say that the Henro pilgrimage is a personal act that transcends religious and cultural barriers while allowing everyone to live a transformative experience of introspection and discovery.
In any case, walking the paths of this pilgrimage is a unique, personal, and enriching experience, whatever your motivating reason. Whether you contemplate it in its entirety or in stages spread over several years, you will keep an unforgettable, intense memory commensurate with the effort provided.
My equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. The indispensable accessory for walking hands-free and quickly accessing 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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