Finding Your Way in Shikoku

Walking Shikoku as a Pilgrim

A river with mountains in the background in ShikokuDressing as a henro (pilgrim) and interacting with the people of Shikoku is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. The Shikoku Pilgrimage plays a significant part in the culture of Shikoku, and it’s not uncommon for pilgrims to be shown respect by strangers.

The majority of “aruki henro” (walking pilgrims) walk alone. You will occasionally encounter another pilgrim on the route and the two of you will decide to walk together, but it is not unusual or impolite to split ways after a few hours or days.

Walking alone is, for the most part, safe – especially on the peaceful island of Shikoku. Needless to say, you should still exercise common sense.

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I once arrived at a shrine in the evening while walking with two other pilgrim friends. There we found a few fairly disheveled people who said they were planning to spend the night at the shrine. I learned that they were called shokugyō henro (職業遍路), or “career pilgrims,” which in essence means they are homeless. If I wasn’t traveling with two other pilgrim friends, I would not have stopped at the shrine.

Women pilgrims are not uncommon, albeit fewer in numbers compared to men. Although it is generally safe to walk the trails as a woman, Shikoku locals often strongly advise against women sleeping out or camping alone.

Pacing Yourself

A pilgrim’s journey around the island of Shikoku is said to be a symbolic representation of that person’s journey through life. There is even a saying –「人生即遍路」( “Life is a pilgrimage”). For many pilgrims, walking alone is the only way to fully comprehend the meaning of the pilgrimage. Just as we experience life in our own idiosyncratic ways, each pilgrim’s pace is unique.

「人生即遍路」– Life is a pilgrimageSome walk the pilgrimage with a deadline, while others may have set aside their obligations and responsibilities, and so are able to just go with the flow. Some will only visit the 88 temples, while others are on a mission to also visit all the bekkaku/bangai temples. Some will go at a consistent pace, while others choose to bolt ahead, rest for a day, then take off again.

Pilgrims typically walk between 20-40km per day, and usually take between 30-60 days to complete the full pilgrimage.

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When I first started my pilgrimage, I met a French guy who had come to Shikoku right after completing the Camino de Santiago. While my body was aching and blistering, he was already swole, and trotted along at a pace of more than 30km per day from the beginning.

Pilgrims walk at different paces. Many do the whole thing slowly. There is nothing wrong with taking your time, and you should try not to race others.

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As someone who is small-framed and was not accustomed to trekking, I was only able to realize my comfortable pace about a week into the pilgrimage. As I started paying close attention to time and the distances I’d walked, my body developed a natural clock – I was able to tell approximately how much time had passed without looking at maps or my wristwatch!

I found myself most comfortable walking about 4.5km per hour, but if I needed to rush for the last two hours of walking, I could walk 6km per hour (and would need a break afterward). I learned to better estimate how far I could go with a rest, which made planning itineraries easier. Overall, it was a great experience to feel truly in tune with my body and grow my physical strength.

When considering pace and making an itinerary, it is important to keep in mind that temple opening hours are from 7am to 5pm. This means that however you plan your days, you should aim to arrive at the last temple by 5pm.

Most pilgrims begin walking each day early in the morning, at about 5am to 6am, to take full advantage of daylight. A good breakfast is recommended to boost your stamina and become “genki”.

On average, pilgrims walk for 9-12 hours (with breaks in-between, of course). Most arrive at their place of lodging by 3-5pm, right in time for a cozy bath and a hearty dinner.

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It is normal to take rest days during the pilgrimage. I met a super fit pilgrim who would walk about 45-60km per day – basically a jog! – for a few days at a time. Afterward, he would stop walking altogether for a few days to handwrite copies of the Heart Sutra. He repeated this process throughout his entire pilgrimage.

Sometimes, pilgrims are forced to take a day or half day off due to uncontrollable circumstances like heavy rainfall, typhoons, exhaustion, or illness. You can also take days off ‘just because.’ I never regretted my off days – especially when I walked for just 4 hours in the morning before taking a mini trip to Tebajima (Teba Island), a gem just off the coast in the southeast region of Shikoku.

Choosing Your Routes

Different guidebooks and maps of the pilgrimage may have slightly differing routes, though they are 99% the same. They all present many alternative routes connecting the 88 main temples, and sometimes other temples as well. Some of the alternative routes will take you through busier parts of town, where you can stock up on food and supplies. Other routes are labeled historical or scenic, where pilgrims can take a detour to learn about the history of the pilgrimage or enjoy views of the ocean or mountains.

Most pilgrims plan their routes 1-3 days ahead and arrange their accommodations according to how far they will walk each day.

Note that some places of accommodation offer a ride from the closest pilgrim route. If you will need a ride, please let them know a day before so that they have time to arrange for it.

Using Signs

Signs for Pilgrims

Throughout the pilgrimage route, you’ll occasionally find stone or wooden pillars carved with the words “shikoku no michi (四国の道)”. You will also see hundreds of hand-written / hand-carved signs and stickers, usually found in residential areas or along mountain trails.

These signs are an indication that you’re heading in the right direction. Typically, if a sticker is placed on the left or right of a pole, it is pointing you in the direction you should head. If you see writing on them, read it carefully – it usually marks the direction of the next or last temple.

A sign that reads henro michi (遍路道) simply means pilgrim trail. It is good to acquaint yourself with the kanji for numbers and other common characters, like those for temple or bathroom.

Pilgrim Navigation Sign
Adorable Pilgrim Sticker
Signs along the pilgrim trail

Road Signs

Road signs to the temples are provided for driving pilgrims and general tourists. They usually begin showing up a few kilometers out from the temples. Road signs for cities and attractions are a great way to make sure you’re heading in the right direction, especially as you approach prefecture borders. Since they are easy to spot and come with English translations, they can be quite useful to foreign pilgrims.

Kilometer markings on the sides of roads, usually highways, indicate how far you are from a particular city (or the distance you’ve covered between the markings). They are subtle and can be difficult to spot, but are very precise and accurate. Pilgrims often find them useful when pacing themselves to ensure they arrive at a temple before closing time.

Rest Areas and Huts

Many locals in Shikoku and various organizations have dedicated themselves to building and maintaining rest areas along the pilgrim path. These structures, typically provided at no cost to the pilgrim and at great cost to the builders, are a grand form of osettai.

The “Henro-koya Project” was initiated by a group of individuals in 2001 that builds and maintains pilgrim huts along the trail, marked by numbers in the chronological order of when the huts were built. Others are maintained by various kind-hearted individuals or families. Either way, you will typically see the words pilgrim (へんろ, 遍路) in Japanese if they are built specifically for pilgrims.

Huts provide shade from the sun and places to sit and rest. In the past, huts were also used as a place for pilgrims to stay overnight. Nowadays, it’s complicated – read about sleeping in huts on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Road sign to a park in Fudakake
Road sign to Toyogahashi
Road signs