I had been to Shikoku twice, but I had never walked its famous pilgrimage trail, nor visited any of the 88 temples along the way. In January, I went on a short trip to Kamiyama. Since the Shikoku Pilgrimage went through this town, I decided to hike one section of it. Although mostly on the coast, a few sections went inland. Looking at the map, I could see that the Kamiyama section was the deepest inland the trail ever went; so deep that I wouldn’t be able to see the ocean. I knew that more than half of the pilgrimage was on paved roads. However, the section between temples 11 and 12, just before Kamiyama, followed a hiking trail through forested mountains. The walking distance between them was about 13 kilometers, perfect for a one-day hike.
My enthusiasm wasn’t dampened after reading that this was one of the toughest parts of the pilgrimage due to its many ups and downs. Apparently, a lot of pilgrims give up on this section, known as “henro-korogashi”, an ominous phrase meaning “knocking down pilgrims”. However, since my purpose was to hike, I was looking forward to breaking a sweat on the trail, especially since I would be able to relax at the Kamiyama hot spring afterwards. I was concerned about the weather, since it was supposed to rain during my visit. However, on the day of my hike, the forecast was cloudy with some sun in the morning. I had brought all my waterproof gear, and although I didn’t mind a punishing trail, I preferred doing it in dry conditions. I kept my fingers crossed that the forecast would be accurate.
Hiking the Shikoku Pilgrimage Trail 四国遍路
Blue skies at the start of the hike
Since it was my first time to hike the Shikoku pilgrimage, I decided to do some reading beforehand. I learned that it connected places visited by Kobo Daishi (774–835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. The pilgrimage itself only became popular during the Edo era, 1000 years later. Nowadays, the Shikoku Pilgrimage, or “Shikoku Henro” (“henro” is the Japanese word for pilgrim) is 1200 km long, passes by 88 temples, and takes one to two months to complete on foot. Although he’s one of the most famous historical figures from Shikoku, I had never heard of Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai in his lifetime, but I had heard of the temple town of Koya-san, which he founded in 819. Some people believe he’s still alive on Mt Koya, in a state of meditative consciousness awaiting the appearance of the future Buddha. He also is said to have invented the Hiragana and Katakana writing systems, two things I am very familiar with.
Statue of Kobo Daishi between temples 11 and 12
It’s important to note that it’s not necessary to be a Buddhist to appreciate the trail. It’s also a way to find yourself, and immerse yourself in nature. Pilgrims usually wear a pilgrim’s outfit consisting of a conical hat, white vest, and a wooden staff. Anyone walking the trail is free to dress this way, the same way one wears a yukata or a jimbe to a fireworks festival. However, I felt more comfortable in my hiking clothes, including a cap, backpack and sturdy hiking boots.
Statue of a pilgrim dressed in his pilgrim outfit
I had an acquaintance living in Kamiyama Town, and after telling him that I planned to hike the Shikoku Pilgrimage between temples 11 and 12, he offered to pick me up at Tokushima station, and drop me off at temple 11, officially known as Fujii-dera Temple (藤井寺) . I gladly accepted his offer, since the temple was nearly one hour on foot from Kamojima station (about 30 minutes by train from Tokushima station). I wasn’t afraid of some extra walking, but I wanted to save my energy for the trials ahead. At 9h30, we reached the small parking area below the temple and above a wide valley. At the entrance gate was an illustrated signboard showing the different landmarks along the trail, before and after Fujii-dera. It included distances and walking times, of great interest to pilgrims (and hikers). Since I hadn’t been able to get my hands on a paper map, I studied it religiously.
The main hall of Fujii-dera, built in 1860
The temple’s name includes the character for the Wisteria flower, and beautiful blue Wisteria can be seen inside the temple grounds every year in May. Unfortunately there weren’t any colours in the middle of January. It is said that it was founded by Kobo Daishi in the ninth century. It was converted into a Zen temple during the Edo period, and is one of the three Zen temples along the pilgrimage (the other 85 remained Shingon). As is often the case, the wooden buildings burned down several times throughout history, and the present ones date from the 19th century. However, a statue carved by Kobo Daishi survived each time, and is said to offer protection from disaster. Behind the temple were 88 small statues representing the 88 temples along the pilgrimage (I was in a hurry to immerse myself in nature, so I missed it).
Great views along the first part
From the start, the path climbed steadily, slowly winding up the mountain side. Close to the temple, there were many reminders of the spiritual aspect of this journey: statuettes and mini-shrines could be seen on both sides of the path. The stone railing on the left was covered in green spongy moss. Small signs saying “henro-michi” (へんろ道) meaning “pilgrimage trail”, were periodically attached to tree branches, preventing all but the most absent-minded of pilgrims from straying from the path.
Helpful signs showing the way
At exactly 10 o’clock, I reached the first viewpoint after crossing a small road. I could see the valley created by the Yoshino River, the second largest river in Shikoku (194 km), and one of the 3 great rivers of Japan. Beyond was a range of low mountains stretching East to West across Tokushima Prefecture. It seemed like an excellent spot for a late breakfast. A man in full pilgrim attire walked by. His pace was so slow that I thought I could easily overtake him later on, but I never saw him again, as if he had vanished into thin air.
Great view of the Yoshino river basin
After setting off again, I soon reached a rest spot with another view and a small sheltered sitting area. Looking up, I could see large patches of blue sky, but the sun was still lurking behind the clouds. Here and there, attached to tree branches, were short Buddhist sayings. I didn’t stop to decipher them but I imagined that they were meant to encourage the weary traveler. The trail was covered in a layer of dead leaves, and alternated steep and gently sloped sections. This year’s winter was relatively mild throughout Japan, and so I felt lucky not to have any snow on the trail.
A typical section of the hike
I eventually reached a pleasant flat section. Initially I thought I had reached the pass, but I was only moving around the side of the mountain into the fold of a deep valley. Around this time, the sun finally came out. I had seen no one else apart from the phantom pilgrim from earlier. The noises from the valley below had become muffled. This was probably the most enjoyable section of the hike, and the tough ups and downs that lay ahead were, for now, completely forgotten.
A pleasant stroll in the sun
At the end of the valley the path started to climb steeply again. A few minutes later, I reached Chodo-an (長戸庵), a tiny Buddhist temple surrounded by trees at the top of the ridge. It was just past 11 o’clock and I was 3.2 km from Fujii-dera. According to the legend, Kobo Daishi was taking a break here, when an old man came by with pain in his leg. Kobo Daishi healed the pain by chanting a Buddhist mantra. Afterwards, the old man built the temple as a token of thanks. The characters in the temple’s name stand for “long” and “entrance”, and it’s said that the name refers to a place to take a break and recover. However, I wasn’t feeling tired yet, so I decided to push on.
Chodo-an, a tiny temple at the first stop on the trail
The path now followed a mostly flat forested ridge, with some short up and down sections. There were occasional glimpses of the mountains on the Kamiyama side. The sun had retreated behind the clouds; it felt cold, and a bit lonely. I suddenly emerged from the trees, and had an outstanding view of the Yoshino river valley. A sheltered bench beckoned me to sit down for an early lunch, but I wasn’t hungry yet. The path turned south, away from the Yoshino valley, and towards the Kamiyama area, and I soon re-entered the forest. There were frequent signs, including the distance and walking time to the next small temple on the way. I never had to wonder where I was, and the lack of a map didn’t seem to be a disadvantage after all.
View from just after Chodo-an, from an altitude of 500m
After reaching an elevation of 600 meters, the path descended quickly, and I soon arrived at another, larger, Buddhist temple called Ryusui-an (柳水庵), 6.6km from my starting point. The first two characters meant “willow” and “water”. When Kobo Daishi arrived here, he wanted to drink some water but there was none. So he used a mantra on a willow branch, which led him to an underground spring. Nowadays, the spring is called “yanagi no mizu”, meaning the willow’s water. I had my own supply of water, so I had a good long drink from my water bottle and moved on.
Trail just before the descent to Ryusui-an
I finally came across another person as I was walking past the temple buildings. I asked him if he was hiking the trail, or maybe a monk looking after the temple. He replied that he was doing some sightseeing, and pointed at his car, parked on a road behind. I had arrived at the first of the escape routes along the trail. I had been walking for two hours and a half, and was halfway to temple 12. There was a small rest house a few minutes away on a bend on the road, but I still wasn’t tired or hungry, so I crossed the road and continued along what was now a wide forest road.
Interesting statuette seen along the trail
From this point, I saw fewer signposts and religious symbols along the way. The forest road went straight through the forest, and it soon joined up with another forest road. While I was trying to figure out whether I had to go left or right, I noticed that the hiking path had reappeared on the other side, marked by a small sign. I started to climb up the side of the mountain through a dark forest of tall cedar trees. Above, I could see some rocky cliffs, and I was hoping the path wouldn’t take me there. Just after 1pm, I reached a staircase at the top of which was a statue of Kobo Daishi.
The statue of Kobo Daishi at the top of the staircase
I was amazed to see a massive thirty-meter high cedar tree, called “Souchi-no-ipponsugi” (左右内の一本杉) or “ipponsugi” for short. Although at the base it was just one tree, it quickly formed several trunks that spread out in all directions, and could be better appreciated by walking past and seeing it from the other side. At 745 meters, this was the highest point of the section between temples 11 and 12. There was a bench, so I finally sat down for a quick lunch. According to the legend, Kobo Daishi took a nap using the roots of the tree as a pillow, and as he slept he saw the Buddha in his dreams. Although I felt tired from the steep climb, it was really cold, so I thought it would be better to skip the post-lunch nap, and hurry along my way.
The many branches of Ipponsugi
The path down was less steep than on the way up, so I started to run down. I wasn’t behind schedule, but it was an excellent way to warm myself up. I soon popped out of the forest into a cultivated area near a small village. There was a wide view of a valley to the north, at the end of which was Kamiyama Town. However, before I could get there, I needed to climb one more mountain.
In the distance, my final destination, Kamiyama
I noticed a house with a pointed metallic roof, like a pyramid, just outside the pyramid. Afterwards, I found out that it was a protective aluminium cover and underneath was a thatched roof, also known as “kayabuki”. In the past the roof was uncovered and exposed to the elements, but as the number of roof-thatchers dwindled, it became very difficult and expensive to repair these types of roofs, so these metal tops were introduced.
A short detour through a village
I was now walking along a road, but I picked up the hiking trail again shortly after crossing bridge over a rushing river. The final climb took me from the bottom of the valley up to a temple on the side of Mt Shosan. At 700m, it was the second highest temple on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. The path was steep and a bit rocky at times. At 3pm I reached the temple parking lot, where I was rewarded with a good view, looking back across the valley at the ridge with the spreading cedar tree.
Final approach to Shosan-ji Temple
I walked another ten minutes along a wide flat gravel path round the side of the mountain to reach the main temple area, at the top of a staircase and past the entrance gate. I observed many interesting-looking statues along the way and within Shosan-ji, but my limited knowledge of Buddhism meant that I couldn’t really appreciate their significance. Within the temple grounds, there were many tall cedar trees; apparently, some of them were over 500 years old.
Mischievous child behind the purification basin
Shosan Temple was founded over a thousand years ago, and its name can be translated as “Burnt Mountain”. According to the legend, a dragon used to live there occasionally setting the mountain on fire, till Kobo Daishi came along and imprisoned it in a cave. I found out afterwards that there was a trail leading to this cave, which then continued to the top of the mountain (938m). Since I completely missed it, I have a burning desire to return and complete this part of the hike.
The main temple building at Shosan-ji
Since it was still early afternoon, I decided to walk down, adding a couple of kilometers to the hike. The main road descended through a series of switchbacks, but the trail went straight, and cut across it several times. Just before 4pm, I reached the small Buddhist temple of Joshin-an (杖杉庵). The legend associated with this place is more heart-wrenching than the previous ones. Emon Saburo was once the richest man in Shikoku. One day, he chased a pilgrim away from his house. Unbeknownst to him, the pilgrim was Kobo Daishi. After Emon’s eight sons all fell sick and died, he realised his terrible mistake. He walked the Shikoku pilgrimage 20 times looking for Kobo Daishi to ask for forgiveness. In the end he collapsed with exhaustion. However, he was visited by Kobo Daishi before he died and was forgiven. The statue next to the temple shows this last scene, and one can’t help but feel a bit moved after knowing the story.
Cheeky monkey stealing offerings
This last temple on my pilgrimage hike was also my rendez-vous point with my Kamiyama acquaintance, and he turned up with his car just a few minutes later. I was looking forward to getting to my hotel at Kamiyama Onsen and enjoying a relaxing hot spring bath, to wash away the weariness of the pilgrim’s trail. The path hadn’t knocked me down but my muscles felt knocked about!
The road goes on…