The pilgrimage, founded in the 14th century, is in commemoration of the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect, Kobo Daishi, (AD774 to AD835). Nowadays, there is a renewal of interest in it among middle-class Japanese seeking a spiritual regeneration unavailable in their ordinary, hard-working lives.
Walking at the rate of 25kms a day, the journey requires at least 60 days to be set aside, encircles the island and takes the pilgrim along sections of jagged rocky coastline, through farmlands, villages and cities and deep into the steep and densely forested mountains of the interior. The journey is punctuated by 88 Shingon Buddhist temples numbered in sequence clockwise, each on a site originally founded by Kobo Daishi.
Many Japanese pilgrims (foreigners are very rare) now travel by coach or car. Ironically, only the rich or retired have the time to walk. I planned to spend three weeks following the pilgrimage route on foot, not necessarily visiting the temples consecutively but, where possible, using temple lodgings for overnight accommodation.
Shops around Ryozen-ji supply essential equipment for the pilgrim, or henro as they are called on Shikoku. My primary requirements were a kongo- tsue - a 5ft-long wooden staff, a symbol of Kobo Daishi himself (carrying one marks out a traveller as a henro) - and an illustrated map book of the route. I resisted buying the standard white henro tunic: white is the colour of death in Japan and, traditionally, once a pilgrim passes through the gate of his or her first temple, the tunic demonstrates a commitment to finish the pilgrimage - even at the risk of death.
I climbed the steps leading to Ryozen-ji's main shrine (the hondo), threw some Yen coins into the offertory box, lit a candle, offered sticks of incense, gonged the kishiwade (bell) and clapped three times to attract the attention of the gods and, I hoped, their favour, then set off feeling rather Moses-like with my staff.
I planned to start walking from temple 23, Yakuo-ji (the Temple of Medicine King), near Mugi Station, in the Tosa province. From there I would be in striking distance of Cape Muroto on the Pacific coast, from where the Tosa coastline sweeps in a crescent of sandy bays all the way to Asbizuri Cape, Shikoku's most southerly point.
The train from Bando to Mugi passed through a landscape common to Shikoku. Steep, high mountains, densely forested to their summits, fringed a coastal plain of flooded rice fields dotted with sleek, white egrets. Busy highways bypassed small low-rise towns and villages of grey and red-tiled roofs and, in the distance, always in view, a wave-battered coastline was patrolled by sea eagles, birds of prey happy, it seemed, to scavenge among tide- borne detritus.
The days quickly settled into a regular routine. Wherever I stayed, breakfast was served at 6am. This was invariably based on boiled rice, miso soup with tofu, pickles and seaweed. I started walking by 7am and tried to arrive at a temple by 5pm. If a temple lodging was unavailable I booked into a minshuku (a Japanese home providing dinner, bed and breakfast). I would then hurry to the accommodation bath area and wash and rinse before soaking in a tub of scalding water, emerging just in time for dinner at 6pm. In a minshuku this would be vegetarian plus fish, usually raw, while in temple lodgings they provided shojin ryori, Buddhist temple vegetarian food, traditionally prepared from local, seasonal ingredients. Beer or sake were available even in temple accommodation.
The walking itself was not routine. The terrain, the landscape, the success or otherwise of my route finding, the distances between temples, the weather (hot and sunny or hot and wet) changed from day to day. The heat and considerable road walking proved physically demanding and hard on the feet.
Two encouraging factors, however, did remain constant. The friendliness and bemusement of Japanese people at seeing a gaijin henro (non-Japanese pilgrim) along the way, and the spiritual and cultural richness of the temples I visited. Konomine-ji (the Temple of God Summit), temple 27, set in the mountains above the village of Yasuda on the Tosa coast, might be used as an example of the latter.
I approached Konomine-ji in early morning by a narrow winding road that climbed through biwa (an apricot-like fruit) orchards and rice fields terraced into a hillside forest of mixed cedar, pine, maple and bamboo. The entrance to the temple was guarded by a fierce, sword-wielding deity. Inside the gate a statue of Kobo Daishi, unexpectedly wearing white cotton socks on his feet, stood firmly, legs astride.
Steeply rising stone steps led to the aged and weather-worn main temple buildings. Here white-clad henro, shrouded in the smoke of pine incense sticks, stood before the various shrines chanting Buddhist sutras. While I was there, standing in front of the hondo, a shoji screen in an adjacent building slid open and a woman appeared bearing a tray containing a cup of tea and a sweet, gelatin cake, green like the tea. She invited me to sit on the temple veranda, presented me with the tray and left. This gift was my first experience of ossetai - giving to henro.
From Cape Ashizuri the route headed north into the mountainous interior of Ehime prefecture. This proved to be the most enjoyable section for me and, in retrospect, one I would focus more upon. The mountain scenery is spectacular, the rivers clear, the air cooler than on the coastal plains and the roads narrow and quiet. After several days in this region my time was running out and I had to end my own mini-pilgrimage. I decided to finish at temple 60, Yokomine-ji (the Temple of Side Peak).
This is a particularly remote temple and, en route, I would have the opportunity to climb Ishizuchi-san (1,982m), the highest mountain on Shikoku and one of the seven most sacred mountains of Japan. The trail to the summit was steep and, in the Japanese manner, difficult sections were fixed with bamboo walkways; cliff face to one side, sheer drop to the other. Not for those with vertigo. Three quite sheer sections of rock face near the summit were helpfully fixed with usari, heavy metal climbing chains (a less demanding detour and descent is available).
At the very summit of the mountain sat a tiny Shinto shrine and slightly lower down, an ugly corrugated iron tea room. The tea was welcome. On the descent I met a party of Shinto pilgrims climbing up. Each bowed as I passed. The last of their number blew energetically on his conch shell horn and shouted loudly "Gokuro-sama (bless you)!"
From the base of Ishizuchi-san it was a short distance to the start of the path to Yokomine-ji. The trail climbed steeply in a series of S-bends through a dark, damp, centuries-old forest of cedar trees. The path was obviously rarely used and it had become a highway for frogs and small, cream-coloured, fresh-water crabs (a delicacy, I later learned, eaten after dipping in soya sauce and honey, and baking). Weather-worn statuary and abandoned wooden temple buildings, perhaps used in the past by hermits, started to appear as I reached the temple proper.
Tired but elated at finishing, I explored the temple grounds and offered incense at one of the shrines, contemplating, as I did, the fact that I had just enjoyed a life-changing experience.
WHEN TO GO
From April to May is the best season for travelling. The average daily temperature during this time is 20 degrees C with moderate rainfall about one day in three. The standard pilgrimage season is from mid-March to mid-June.
JAL offers the widest choice of non-stop flights from London to Japan. All are evening departures, which reduces the effect of jet lag at the other end. For Shikoku, the London to Nagoya flight is the most convenient. Return flights on Lufthansa via Frankfurt are currently available for pounds 418 plus pounds 25.30 tax from Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939). From Nagoya, take the Shinkansen (bullet) train to Okayama and then board a local express train to Takamatsu.
WHERE TO STAY
The author stayed at the Tokyo Hotel, Nagoya, which charges pounds 80 per night, including breakfast, and has a London sales office (tel: 0171-436 8464, fax: 0171-629 4654). The Takamatsu Grand Hotel, Takamatsu, Shikoku, (tel: 0081 878 515 757, fax: 0081 879 219 422) costs pounds 40 per night, including breakfast. Pilgrim accommodation is booked on arrival at a temple. Alternatively, nearby 'minshuku' charge pounds 30 per night for dinner, bed and breakfast.
Only take the absolute minimum that you feel you can manage with. Bear in mind that Japanese lodgings provide slippers and a yukata (kimono) for evening-wear both in and out of the lodging, and that items washed will dry overnight. The author took Jack Wolfskin, Orkney 40-litre rucksack, Brasher walking boots, two pairs of hiking socks and cotton under-socks, two sets of moisture-wicking underwear, lightweight cotton shorts, pants, short-sleeved and long-sleeved shirt, Polartec 100 fleece top, waterproof-shell Goretex jacket and pants, sun hat, toiletries, first-aid kit, suntan lotion, mosquito repellent and a compass.
Contact the Japanese National Tourist Office (JNTO), 20 Savile Row, London W1X 1AE (tel: 0171-734 9638, fax: 0171-734 4290).
David Scott's most recent publication is "Explorer Japan", AA Publishing, 1998. The Way of Zen, St Martin's Press, New York, is due to be published later this year.