Until the twentieth century, the only way to do the pilgrimage was by foot, but as Japan modernized and developed increasingly efficient transport systems, the options for pilgrims broadened.
There is no stipulated rule that says that pilgrims should walk, and Shikoku pilgrims have always made use of whatever means could enable them to make the pilgrimage in the ways they wished.
Pilgrimage, as a practice associated with temporarily leaving one's home and traveling to specific places associated with core notions in one's religious faith, is a recurrent feature of religions across the globe. The word itself derives from the Latin peregrinus - a stranger, someone on a journey, a traveler, or a temporary resident - something that fitted with the Christian ideal of people as merely temporary dwellers on earth prior to entering heaven. Although pilgrimage is thus a Western term associated originally with Christianity, in essence it indicates a state of transience and movement toward an ideal. It is a theme that runs through most, if not all, religions. The concepts of pilgrimage - leaving one's home temporarily and making a break with everyday routines to visit places associated with core themes, holy figures, and events connected with the religious tradition one adheres to in order to enhance one's standing and spiritual awareness - are a recurrent feature. Embedded also in such concepts of pilgrimage is the idea that through going to and being in such places, one may encounter at close quarters the presence of holy powers believed to be present there.
Buddhism and Pilgrimage
Such themes can be readily seen in the Buddhist tradition, which has been especially conducive to the concept of pilgrimage because of its focus on the notion of life as a journey toward higher goals and because of its emphasis on transience. The Buddha was the first Buddhist pilgrim, and his life story is one of pilgrimage, in which he leaves home to travel in search of the truth. Indeed, key places associated with his life and significant turning points in Buddhist history - his birthplace at Lumbini in Nepal; his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya; his "turning of the wheel" in Sarnath, which heralded the start of Buddhism as a transmitted religious tradition; and his death at Kushinagar - provided the model for the earliest Buddhist pilgrimages
In visiting such places, early Buddhist pilgrims not only walked in the Buddha's footsteps, thereby metaphorically treading the same path to enlightenment while being in his presence, but did so alongside fellow pilgrims walking the same path and hence experienced a sense of community.
As Buddhism spread across Asia, it also created new places of pilgrimage in every region that Buddhism permeated - from sacred mountain sites in Tibet to places such as the Shwe Dagon Temple in the Burmese capital of Rangoon, which according to popular belief houses relics of the Buddha's hair, and the Temple of Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, which also houses a reputed relic of the Buddha.
In such places, it was believed, pilgrims could thus "meet" the holy figure at the center of their religion and acquire his spiritual grace. Pilgrimages were seen as a means of acquiring merit that could enable people to overcome bad karma and ensure better rebirths for themselves and their kin. In Japan, for example, it is widely believed that performing the Shikoku pilgrimage - a circuit around Japan's fourth-largest island that takes in eighty-eight temples along a fourteen-hundred-kilometer route - will bring the pilgrim special spiritual merit that can either help the pilgrim attain entry into the Buddhist Pure Land at death or be transferred to one's deceased kin to facilitate their journey to the next realm.
Pilgrimages serve as a means through which ordinary people can enter the world, even if temporarily, of the religious specialist. This is a recurrent feature of pilgrimages worldwide. The Catholic pilgrims who go to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Spain carry a pilgrim's staff, dress in clothing that marks them as itinerant monks, and identify themselves with Saint James, the apostle whose relics are rumored to be in Santiago and who is the focus of the pilgrim's devotion. Likewise in Buddhism, pilgrimage offers ordinary devotees - for whom the monastic ideal of renouncing the family and everyday world is too extreme a step - a means through which they can become like a monk temporarily, leaving home and stepping outside their everyday lives to enter the transient world of travel and prayer.
Shikoku and the Nature of Pilgrimage
The Shikoku pilgrimage (henro in Japanese) serves as a striking example of such themes. Its origins are linked to the figure of Kobo Daishi. Kobo Daishi (meaning "the great teacher who spread the law of Buddhism") is the name posthumously awarded by the Japanese emperor to Kukai (774-835), founder of the Japanese Shingon Buddhist tradition, who was born in Shikoku and is one of the most revered figures in Japanese Buddhist history. In the centuries after Kukai's death, a cult of veneration developed around the image of Kobo Daishi that depicted him as a wandering pilgrim and mendicant wearing Buddhist robes and a monk's hat and carrying a begging bowl and a pilgrim's staff. In such legends he is said to travel through Japan (but especially Shikoku, the island of his birth) seeking alms, dispensing miracles, saving the sick (especially those who give him alms), and punishing the wicked (notably those who do not give alms). Visits from the early eleventh century onward by Shingon monks to places associated with his early life in Shikoku helped create a pilgrimage cult around him, and eventually a pilgrimage developed that took in eighty-eight temples and involved a complete circuit of the island. A popular legend developed that Kobo Daishi had actually created the pilgrimage and that he constantly walked it disguised as a pilgrim. In popular belief, he guards every pilgrim, who may if lucky meet him on the route. Miraculous stories about how pilgrims were saved or cured of illnesses by meetings with him became common in the pilgrim community. Even today it is not uncommon to hear such rumors and tales of miracles circulating among pilgrims. Pilgrims identify with him through their clothing and accoutrements, from their pilgrim staffs to their pilgrims' shrouds, which are usually inscribed with the ideograms for dogyo ninin (two pilgrims together) to signify that they travel together with Kobo Daishi.
The legend that Kobo Daishi is constantly walking the pilgrimage has also given rise to a custom known as settai, according to which local people give alms to pilgrims to help them on their way. While such almsgiving was based on the belief that any pilgrim might be Kobo Daishi, and that in giving alms one shares in the merit of the pilgrimage, it is also founded in a genuine local sense that it is important to support pilgrims. Even in the present day, many pilgrims, especially those who go by foot, report repeated cases of local generosity and help as they travel.
The first textual records of the pilgrimage in Shikoku date to the mid-seventeenth century. While they do not explain why there were eighty-eight temples on the route, the figure is generally associated with ideas about the number of worldly passions that hinder the path to enlightenment and the idea that by undergoing the pilgrimage, one can escape from such hindrances.
While the earliest pilgrims were mostly mendicants, records show that by the late seventeenth century, ordinary people were beginning to make the pilgrimage. Many of them were initially from Shikoku itself, but pilgrims gradually came from all over Japan.
Until the twentieth century, the only way to do the pilgrimage was by foot, but as Japan modernized and developed increasingly efficient transport systems, the options for pilgrims broadened.
There is no stipulated rule that says that pilgrims should walk, and Shikoku pilgrims have always made use of whatever means could enable them to make the pilgrimage in the ways they wished. This again is a common theme in pilgrimages worldwide. British medieval pilgrims traveling to Santiago would usually go by boat from England to northern Spain, thereby eradicating the need to walk long distances. The advent of air services has made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca increasingly accessible and swift for participants.
In Shikoku, the most significant factor in transport terms has been the development of organized bus pilgrimage tours, which started in the 1950s and are now the most common way of doing the pilgrimage. Such tours, along with better roads and lodging facilities, have made the pilgrimage accessible to older and less mobile people. Whereas in earlier times the journey was hazardous and beyond the reach of most people, in the modern day it has become within the remit of the wider public. Nowadays, too, many do the pilgrimage in stages, something that is common among those who want to walk but cannot get enough time off work to do so in one go; thus, they may return to Shikoku time and again to pick up the route where they left off the last time. However one travels, the essence of the pilgrimage remains the same - visiting all eighty-eight temples in the company of and following the path created in legend by Kobo Daishi. Whether on foot, by bus or car, or by some combination of these means, the pilgrimage is time-consuming: it takes about six weeks by foot or ten to twelve days by bus or car.
Indeed, in many ways the pilgrimage may be more arduous for those on buses. When my wife and I walked the pilgrimage in 1984, it took six weeks and was a massive physical challenge - but we could go at our own pace and rest when we wished. When I later did the pilgrimage by bus as part of my research, the pilgrims got up very early every day. We visited several temples each day and were constantly on the move. The time spent driving between temples involved endless chanting of prayers and invocations. Everyone talked late into the night. So I found the bus pilgrimage more exhausting than going on foot.
Those who go by bus tend to pray more than those who walk. Recent studies show that many foot pilgrims these days do the circuit as a "challenge" and as a means of "finding themselves" and that they rarely mention Kobo Daishi in their narratives, even as they continue to be driven by spiritual motivations. For many modern foot pilgrims, indeed, the route has become less a matter of faith centered on a Buddhist holy figure than a challenging long-distance hiking trail by which to test themselves. Often such pilgrims focus their journeys so much on the pilgrimage path that they spend little time and pray only briefly at the temples. By contrast, those who travel by bus tend to spend a far longer time praying at the temples and also engage in numerous ritual invocations to Kobo Daishi while they are on their buses.
Despite the arduous nature of the pilgrimage, many people do it time and again. A recurrent theme in the narrative accounts of pilgrims not just in Shikoku but from many sacred sites around the world is that they find it hard to return home after their journeys and they often find themselves wanting to prolong the experience of being a transient pilgrim. Pilgrims have often spoken to me of how the pilgrimage is "addictive," and people in Shikoku have even used the term Shikoku byo (Shikoku illness) to refer to such feelings.
Such notions of "illness" or "addiction" are found widely in pilgrimage. Many who go to Santiago de Compostela say that they want to do the pilgrimage again, and they often join Santiago pilgrimage confraternities and/or online pilgrimage discussion boards when they get home so they can continue to meet fellow pilgrims and talk about their experiences. Some even return to Spain to work as volunteers in pilgrim hostels on the route in order to maintain a link with the pilgrimage. Studies of many other pilgrimages - such as to Lourdes, in France, and Walsingham, a popular pilgrimage shrine in England - indicate that coming back again and again is a common practice. Yet even within the context of repeated and "lifelong" pilgrimages, Shikoku is particularly striking. Shinnen, an ascetic who produced the first guidebooks and collection of miracle tales about the pilgrimage at the end of the seventeenth century, walked the pilgrimage at least twenty times. He died and is buried on the route. Since his time, many pilgrims have done similarly, including Nakatsuka Mohei, who initially did the pilgrimage in 1865 after his family forbade him to marry the girl he desired. He then walked Shikoku almost continuously for the next sixty-six years, until he died in 1922 on his 282nd circuit. I have met several "permanent pilgrims," from a man who pushed his rather sparse worldly belongings in a handcart and had been on the pilgrimage, he told me, for nineteen unbroken years to a couple who had left home and, having walked the pilgrimage, then built a small hut in the grounds of one of the temples and took up residence there to a man whom I interviewed in 1991, who had done 110 circuits. He first walked the pilgrimage in 1927 and did it regularly thereafter until he got too old to walk. In retirement he became a pilgrimage guide, spending sixty days a year on the road guiding pilgrims and doing five or six circuits each year by bus.
Symbolic Structure and Meanings
Symbolically, in following in the path of Kobo Daishi, pilgrims enact the notion of pilgrimage as a journey to enlightenment; simultaneously, the pilgrimage is a journey in the realms of death. The white pilgrim's shirt is a death shroud. The traditional pilgrim's hat bears a poem about transience that is traditionally inscribed on coffins, and hence the hat represents the pilgrim's coffin. The staff bears a funeral inscription and represents the pilgrim's gravestone. As such the pilgrim is accoutred for, and symbolically walks in, the realm of death and is temporarily "dead to the everyday world." When pilgrims died on the route (as happened often in premodern times), they would be buried along the pilgrimage route with their staff serving as their gravestone. Those who returned from the pilgrimage were symbolically reborn - again a recurrent theme found in pilgrimage in general.
This association with death has strongly resonated with pilgrims over the ages, and many are motivated by popular beliefs about how doing the pilgrimage can ensure better rebirths or salvation at death. When I traveled with a group of senior citizens from Osaka on a pilgrimage tour some years back, one woman informed me that her husband had recently died and she was doing the pilgrimage as a memorial to help his soul journey to the next realm. Another woman on the same bus said she was doing it to improve her karma so that she would make a similar journey after death. People may also take signs of their deceased kin with them as they travel, so that the dead also symbolically perform the pilgrimage and gain merit thereby. I have met pilgrims carrying photos or even urns containing the ashes of the dead with them.
Pilgrims frequently have more-worldly wishes as well. In earlier times before modern medicine took hold, many pilgrims came to Shikoku because they were sick and seeking a miraculous cure; or, failing that, they were fired with the belief that if they died on the pilgrimage, their salvation would be assured. With modern medicine, the need for pilgrims to seek such cures has disappeared, but many continue to use the pilgrimage as a means of making requests for all manner of spiritual help and worldly benefits, by beseeching Kobo Daishi to grant them happiness and safety and to help them or their children or grandchildren to gain educational success or prosperity. Many see the pilgrimage as a means of participating in a traditional Japanese cultural custom, through which they can find their roots and reawaken a sense of cultural strength while visiting parts of Japan that have remained relatively unspoiled compared with the major cities. In such contexts, the rise of bus tours has been a striking feature. Many of these are now advertised as cultural tours, often incorporating local sights and restaurants as well as temples and pilgrimage places, in ways that seemingly downplay matters of faith while emphasizing the scenic delights of the island and drawing attention to images of tradition through beautiful photographs of pilgrims dressed in traditional clothing set against rural backdrops. Such images, too, have been widely projected in numerous television documentaries, films, and books, including guidebooks (many of them produced in conjunction with the pilgrimage temples), and seek to promote the pilgrimage as a way of gaining insights into the cultural history and traditions of Japan.
Pilgrimages and Tourism
The comforts of modern bus tours, the images mentioned above and projected in modern pilgrimage advertising, and the motives of some modern pilgrims - for whom pilgrimages such as Shikoku are a means of encountering Japanese cultural traditions and visiting parts of Japan they would not normally go to - should not, however, be seen as evidence of modern corruptions of the religious nature of pilgrimage. Pilgrims have always, as noted earlier, used whatever modes of travel are most convenient for them. In reality, pilgrimage, despite its symbolic associations with journeys of enlightenment and transience, has rarely just been an ascetic or even wholly religious practice. Rather, from early times, whether in Shikoku or elsewhere, pilgrimage has provided a means and a legitimation through which people have been able to get away from everyday routines and structures to see new places and gain experience outside their immediate home areas.
In feudal times pilgrimage was often the only way people could get permission to leave home even temporarily. In Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868), permits to travel were usually granted only for purposes of pilgrimage, so in a sense pilgrimage became the means whereby people could escape from their ordinary lives and experience the world beyond the confines of their villages. As such, it offered the opportunity to see new places and let off steam - and provided the scope for the earliest forms of tourism. Pilgrimage and tourism in such terms are inextricably linked. Ise, famed as a pilgrimage center because of its Shinto shrines, was famous in Tokugawa times as much for its entertainment quarters serving the needs of "devout" pilgrims as it was for the sites themselves. Similar themes surrounded most other pilgrimage areas. Shikoku, for example, could boast of Dogo Hot Springs and many other attractions where pilgrims could relax and enjoy themselves as they traveled. From early on, too, pilgrims could travel in organized groups and be guided around by those who catered for their every need. The pilgrimage guides of Ise were particularly efficient at organizing such tours and at scouring the country to drum up trade. Records of pilgrim lodges in Shikoku show that organized tours were not uncommon in earlier times. Those who organized and led such pilgrimage parties were known as sendatsu - a term that indicates someone who "stands at the head of and leads a group." The descendants of such figures can be seen today in the guise of the ubiquitous tour guides, who can be seen with their flags leading parties of Japanese tourists on guided tours in countless locations around the world.
In their development of a tourist dimension to pilgrimage, Japanese pilgrimage sites and routes are replicating themes found elsewhere in pilgrimage contexts. Indeed, it is fair to say that the roots of the tourist trade are grounded in pilgrimage. The first tourist offices and the first package tours are believed to have emerged in medieval Venice to cater to pilgrims seeking to get to the Christian Holy Land at a time when the overland route from Europe was deemed too dangerous because of Muslim incursions. As a result, pilgrims made their way to Venice, which at the time controlled the Mediterranean seaways, and from there they would pay an all-in-one sum to get passage, food, and a tour around the Holy Land and be brought back again. Because the pilgrim trade thus became so economically important to Venice, the authorities there set up tourist offices to help the pilgrims and to ensure that they did not get exploited by unscrupulous merchants who might ruin the city's reputation. While in Japan there is less evidence of such a regulatory dimension to the tourist/pilgrimage trade, there are distinct parallels with the organized tours mentioned above. In such contexts the modern bus tours of today can be seen not so much as departures from the earlier nature of pilgrimage as, in many ways, simply a modern continuation of them.
Of course, nowadays people do not have to find legitimations such as pilgrimage to justify traveling, and there are many enticing possibilities of travel and tourism to compete with pilgrimage. Yet the continued popularity of places such as Shikoku (which has seen a rise in pilgrim numbers in the first decade of this century) testifies to the enduring power and attraction that going on pilgrimage continues to have for many in the modern day and indicates that even in a modern, largely secular age, pilgrimage continues to resonate and be relevant and attractive to large numbers of people around the world.
Ian Reader is a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Upon obtaining his PhD on Japanese Buddhism in 1983, he moved to Japan and traveled extensively around the country. In 1984 he made the nine-hundred-mile Shikoku pilgrimage in forty days. After that he served in academic posts at universities in the United States and Europe. He is continuing his research on the study of religion, with a particular focus on Japan.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2012 issue of Dharma World.