History of the Shikoku Pilgrimage and Kukai

Kukai and the Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage

The Shikoku Pilgrimage (四国遍路) is one of the oldest, most popular, and most revered pilgrimages in Japan. It is a ~1,100km (684 mile) long trail to 88 Buddhist temples around the island of Shikoku. Every year, pilgrims from around the world conduct this journey by foot, bicycle, motorcycle, car, or bus. No matter their mode of transportation, they are known as “henro” (遍路) or “o-henro-san” (お遍路さん) (the honorific version).

The Shikoku Pilgrimage was started roughly ~1,200 years ago. Although its establishment is often attributed to a man named Kūkai, its development and popularity originate from the collective efforts of several historical figures. In fact, documents show that Kūkai only ever traveled to a few mountains on the island where some of the temples are located.

Statute of KukaiContrary to popular belief, Kūkai did not build all 88 temples which form the pilgrimage today. He never circled the island, nor did he perform the first pilgrimage. Nonetheless, Kūkai’s contributions to the prosperity of Shingon Buddhism in Japan and the development of the pilgrimage are of great historical significance, making him the central and most important figure of the Shikoku 88.

Kūkai (空海) (also known as Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師), 774-835), was a Buddhist monk and scholar. He was born in Shikoku and founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. Kōbō Daishi’s greatest achievement is probably the invention of kana (仮), which is still used in the Japanese language to this day as hiragana (平仮名) and katakana (片仮名).

Around the age of 22, Kūkai developed a strong interest in Buddhist studies, but did not join any particular school of Buddhism. Thereafter, he returned to Shikoku in search of isolated, undisturbed mountain areas to chant the mantra of the Bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha (Kokuzō). These mountains include Mount Ishizuchi in Ehime Prefecture and a large rock at Tairyu-ji, the 21st temple of the pilgrimage. Some believe that Kūkai attained enlightenment at a cave in Muroto, Kochi Prefecture. Subsequently, he changed his name to Kūkai, meaning ‘sky and sea.’

In 804, Kōbō Daishi participated in a government-sponsored diplomatic expedition to China to learn more about the Mahavairocana Tantra. He brought back a large number of esoteric objects and texts, and introduced a new form of Buddhism different from what was practiced in Japan at the time.

In 812, Kūkai was acknowledged as the “master of esoteric Buddhism” in Japan. In 816, Emperor Saga accepted Kūkai’s request to establish a mountain retreat at Mount Kōya. Kūkai spent his final years there, and occasionally returned to Shikoku, but his project was not completed until after his death in 835. According to legend, Kūkai buried himself alive while in a deep state of meditation. It is said that he then entered into an eternal samadhi, and is still alive on Mount Kōya, awaiting the appearance of Maitreya, the future Buddha.

Today, Kūkai lives on as a prominent figure and forefather of Shingon Buddhist, a major school of Buddhism in Japan.

Emon Saburō

Statute of Emon Saburo and KukaiOne legend related to Kūkai and the Shikoku Pilgrimage is that of Emon Saburō (衛門三郎), the wealthiest man in Shikoku, who lived in the Ukaana area of Iyo Province (now Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture). It goes roughly like this:

One day, a wandering monk visited the home of Emon, begging for food. Emon turned him away, but the monk returned the next day. This time, Emon greeted him by throwing into his begging bowl a chunk of human filth. The monk continued to return for eight consecutive days. Each time, Emon chased him away. On the eighth day, Emon lashed out his rage by attacking the monk with a cudgel, knocking his begging bowl to the ground.

The bowl was splintered into eight pieces, and the monk never returned. For the following eight days, Emon’s eight sons died one after the other. After suffering his losses, Emon began a journey around the island of Shikoku in search for the monk Kūkai, to beg for his forgiveness.

During a span of about four years, Emon circled the island twenty times, each time missing Kūkai by a hair (he was always just a bit behind him). Emon then decided to travel in reverse order, increasing his odds of encountering Kūkai head-on instead of trailing him.

On the side of a steep mountain, Emon’s health began to fail and he became desparate. At long last, Kūkai appeared, and forgave Emon for his sins. When asked if he had a final wish, Emon requested to be born as the Lord of his province, so that he could do good for the people there and atone for his sins. Kūkai carved the words ”Emon Saburo reborn” on a piece of stone, and placed it in the palm of the dying man.

Nine months later, a baby was born to the wife of the Lord of Iyo. For years, the baby’s fist remained clenched, until a priest was summoned. When the child’s palm was revealed, a stone with the words “Emon Saburo reborn” appeared. Today, Emon’s grave sits between Temple 11 and Temple 12, where he eventually died. According to legend, the stone that appeared from the baby’s fist resides at Temple 51, called Ishite-ji (石手寺) (which means “stone hand temple”). Near Temple 46, there are eight burial mounds, which are said to be the graves of his eight sons.

Mount Kōya

KoyasanKūkai’s body was enshrined on Mount Kōya (高野山), located in Wakayama Prefecture (to the south of Osaka). It is the world headquarters of the Kōyasan Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. After Emperor Daigo granted Kūkai the honorific title “Kōbō Daishi,” visits to his tomb have proliferated.

The first Shikoku pilgrims were called “hijiri (聖),” meaning ‘wandering ascetics.’ They traveled from Mount Kōya to pay visits to sacred places on Shikoku. Today, Mount Kōya remains a sacred place where Shikoku 88 pilgrims often visit either before or after undertaking their pilgrimage.

The Pilgrimage Today

The temples and the pilgrimage itself did not resemble their current form until centuries after Kūkai’s death. Before Kūkai’s time, just a few existed as national temples (国分寺) on the island. Others were built near sites from Kūkai’s personal life, such as his family home, the site of his enlightenment, and other places where he performed ascetic practices.

At one point after Kūkai’s death, there were at least 165 temples on the island, with 135 of them claiming Kōbō Daishi as their founder. During the beginnings of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, temples on the island mainly worshiped the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – not Kōbō Daishi. Temples have since been added and removed from the pilgrimage route. Fourteen of the current 88 temples changed their locations in the mid-sixteenth century.

The popularity of the Shikoku pilgrimage grew throughout the centuries, but came to a major halt after World War II (given Japan’s massive economic blows). As the economy revived in the 1950s to 1960s, infrastructure along the pilgrimage was repaired and improved.

One man in particular – named Tateki Miyazaki (宮崎建樹, 1935-2010) – took it upon himself to clear many of the overgrown paths and modernize routes with the red signs that pilgrims rely on to this day. He was the author of one of the most well-known pilgrimage route guides – “Walking Henro’s Bible” (歩き遍路のバイブル). Miyazaki endowed the rights to his guide to Naoyuki Matsushita (松下直行), who publishes the Shikoku 88 Route Guide in several languages and editions.

As Shikoku’s individuals and businesses began to prosper from the pilgrimage, a bus company in Ehime Prefecture introduced the idea of doing Shikoku 88 bus tours. The “henro buses” were a huge success, and grew to become the most popular medium for doing the pilgrimage. They remains so to this day.

Many walking pilgrims are inclined to look down on bus pilgrims – they should not. Although walking the pilgrimage has an undeniable old world allure, those who cannot walk – either for health or practical reasons – still find the bus tour a meaningful experience. To embody the true pilgrim spirit is to accept that everyone goes about their journey in their own way, and to be glad that others can go at all.

Pilgrim stamp from Mount KoyaA great variety of bus companies work with the temples and inns to offer packaged tours to pilgrims. If you are walking, expect to occasionally see bus pilgrims queued up at the temple office or chanting en masse.