What to Bring on the Shikoku Pilgrimage
There are many ways to complete the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Some walk, in line with pilgrimage tradition. Others go by bicycle, car/motorcycle, or bus tour. No matter your mode of transportation, there are some universal items should bring along as part of their journey.
- Pilgrim attire (optional)
- Stamp book (“nokyōchō,” 納経帳)
- Name slips (“osamefuda,” 納め札)
- A copy of the Heart SutraThe Heart Sutra is the most widely-known and circulated sutra in East Asian Buddhism. It is customary (but not mandatory) for pilgrims to chant the Heart Sutra twice at every temple they visit, once at the main hall and once at the Daishi hall. Many of the temples along the Shikoku Pilgrimage sell copies of them.
- Other pilgrim regalia, like incense, rosary beads, or candles (optional)
Guides and Maps
- A few pens or pencils
- Shikoku Pilgrimage Route Guide (especially for walking/bicycle pilgrims)These well-respected guidebooks contain an abundance of information about the pilgrimage, along with detailed maps and points of interest. The maps detail the 88 main temples, bekkaku/bangai temples, Mt. Ishizuchi, Mt. Kōya, as well as lodging, restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, rest areas, public bathrooms, and more.
The above website delivers only within Japan, but you can purchase the English version of the most popular route guide on Amazon. Guides are also available for purchase at the following temples: 1, 6, 10, 21, 24, 26, 37, 40, 51, 54, and 75.
- Smart phone
- Extra camera battery and SD cards
- Laptop (optional)Walking and bicycle pilgrims may find carrying their laptop too heavy, or dislike the risk of water damage. One should also consider whether they want to bring “the world” of their technology with them... many love the pilgrimage for the chance it brings to detach and immerse oneself in an old-world way of being.
- Pocket WIFI (optional)
- Photocopies of passport
- Credit cards
- Cash/ATM cardJapan is known for being a largely cash-based society. This is doubly true in Shikoku, where you will be hard-pressed to find vendors that accepts credit cards outside of business hotels in the larger cities. On this pilgrimage, cash is king.
- Driver’s liscense/international license
- Travel insurance card
- Train card (IC card)
- Chapstick/lip balm
- Basic first aid kit
- Tools and products to treat blisters (especially for walking pilgrims)Almost every walking pilgrim develops blisters during the pilgrimage, especially during their first week or two. An ideal blister treatment kit includes a needle, adhesive tape, and bandaids. Read about dealing with blisters here.
- Sun-blocking hat
- Reusable water bottle or hydration bladder (walking pilgrims)
Whatever a walking pilgrim brings with them will be on their back for one to two months. It is crucial that they carry only the bare necessities. A typical superpower that a long trekker will develop is a hypersensitivy to lugged weight - it is not uncommon for walking pilgrims to mail home unused books, clothes, electronics, and more in their first or second week.
- BackpackHiking backpacks come in all kinds of sizes. Most pilgrims carry one that holds 30-60 liters of gear. Be sure that you invest in a proper trekking backpack with lots of pouches; not only will you need the extra storage, but ergonomic straps are a must-have.Auran
For size comparison: my backpack (shown above) was 32L. The one next to it was 60L (with a sleeping mat underneath).
- Backpack rain cover
- Pilgrim hiking staff (“kongōtsue,” 金剛杖)
- Small headlampA headlamp can be a life-saver in case you find yourself late to arrive to your lodging while the sun is already setting. Some sections of the pilgrimage route are deep in the countryside or mountains (and inasmuch are not well lit).
- Small, compact towel
Your clothing should be machine-washable. Plain light clothing is ideal for the hot and sunny days as it reflects more sunlight. If possible, avoid wearing flashy colors to minimize the chance that you attract suzumebachi, known colloquially as “murder hornets”.
- Pants/trousers (2 pairs)
- Cotton shirts (3)During warmer months, T-shirts are most common, but tanktops are also great, and will free you of visible pit stains. Many pilgrims also opt to protect their shoulders and arms with the traditional white pilgrim jacket (“hakui,” 白衣)
- For women: Bras (3)Auran
Wear sports bras if they’re more comfortable for you. I went with these cotton-made wireless bras from Muji, which I found to be lighter and less tight around the ribs than sports bras. If you bring wired bras, consider also carrying wash nets to avoid washing machine mishaps.
- Underwear (3 pairs)
- Socks (3 pairs)Normal socks (ankle-length or above ankle) are fine, but consider wearing Japan’s own amazing five-toed socks (look for 五本指靴下 or 五本指ソックス). They take a little longer to put on since each toe gets its own pocket, but for outdoor activities that require extensive walking, 5-toed socks eliminate friction between the skin of your toes and can save you from potential blisters.
- Jacket/appropriate outerwear for the seasonEven during warm summer months, a light jacket is still recommended for the cool nights, on rainy days, or at high elevations. If you are committed to traveling light, consider buying a jacket specifically made for hiking or trekking, or lightweight down jackets that can be compacted into travel-friendly pouches.
- Rain jacket/ponchoAuran
Invest in a breathable rain jacket. I made the grave mistake of buying a regular poncho from the ¥100 store in Japan, and began sweating profusely minutes after putting it on. For those on a tight budget, Temple 1 offers a sturdy plastic raincoat for about ¥2,000. If you will be wearing the pilgrim hat (sugegasa), make sure it also comes with a plastic cover for the rain.
- Bandana (“hachimaki,” 鉢巻)For pilgrims planning to wear the traditional hat (“sugegasa,” 菅笠), you’ll need a bandana underneath. These are also great for keeping sweat from dripping down your face. They take up so little space that it’s worthwhile to bring two or more.
- Boots/trekking shoesNate
If the Shikoku Pilgrimage is your first time embarking on a long trek, be sure to buy your boots from a specialty store (like REI), preferably one which understands strenuous hikes. I ended up having to mail my heavy boots back home since my feet swelled about a size and a half within the first week of my journey.
Because so much of the path is paved and ankle-deep flooding is quite common, I ended up buying specialty sandals that I’d wear on the flat parts of the walk.
- Natural RepellentsThese natural oils can be applied directly to the skin:
- Mint oil (ハッカ油)
- Citronella oil (シトロネラ油)
- Lavender oil (ラベンダー油)
- Lemon eucalyptus oil (レモンユーカリ精油)
For my trip, I diluted mint oil with water in a little spray bottle. It was gentle but effective.
- Chemical RepellentsAlmost all chemical repellents contain pyrethroid (ピレスロイド). While generally safe to use, it can cause adverse reactions in some people, especially for those with respiratory problems.
The most common ingredient in chemical repellents is deet (ディート). Be aware that products labeled “natural” may actually contain parabens (パラベン).
- Mosquito coils (蚊取り線香 or 渦巻香)Coils are by far the most common insect repellant one will come across on their pilgrimage. Using them is easy: light up the end of the coil like incense and contain it in a metal enclosure (pictured below). Mosquito coils can hang on your backpack when walking through the wilderness, and do a great job of repelling. Just don’t forget to bring a lighter.
- Liquid mosquito repellants (alternative to coils)Liquid repellents either run on batteries or must to be plugged into a power source. Liquid pesticide is poured inside the device, which generates a repellant without any smoke or smell. A popular brand in Japan is Earth No Mat (アースノーマット), which comes with batteries and lasts 90 days (8 hours per day).
They can be a worthwhile purchase if you will be sleeping outdoors or in areas where you’re likely to get bitten.
- Mosquito netNets are recommended if sleeping outdoors. There are ones that cover the entire body, and ones that only wrap around the face.
Going on a cycling tour in Shikoku can be a life-changing experience. Shikoku generally has great road infrastructure, and during the long stretches in Kochi it can feel like a Tour de Shikoku. But there are also mountainous paths that lead to many of the pilgrimage’s temples - a bicycle pilgrim must prepare and pack for both.
- Panniers/bike bags (20- or 40-liter)
- Trunk bag
- Handlebar bag (optional)
- Saddle bag (optional)
- Rain covers and large ziplock bags
- Bike lock
- Blinking taillight
- Handlebar or helmet mirror
- Straps/bungee cords
- Chamois/anti-chafe cream
- Bicycle helmet
- Cycling jersey
- Padded bike shorts or tights
- Windbreaker or rain jacket
- Rain jacket and other rainwear
- Arm and leg warmers (if going during colder seasons)
- Bandana, skull cap, or sweat band
- Cycling gloves
- Cycling socks
- Bike shoes
- Post-ride change of clothes (2)
- Patch kit
- Spare tubes
- Bike pump
- Tire levers
- Bicycle multi-tool (one including Allen wrenches)
- Spare spokes (optional)
- Spoke wrench (optional)
- Post-ride change of clothes (2)