The Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku
is generally made clockwise
. However Shingon
priests make a counterclockwise circuit.
Some temples are comparatively accessible. But many of them are located in or atop mountains or in remote villages, as Kukai (Kobo Daishi) chose such places for his ascetic practices. Until only about 20 years ago, some temples were really hard to reach, though nowadays newly-built roads and ropeways have made them less forbidding.
The henro, the most authentic pilgrims go on foot all the way, spending about two months, because walking is closest to following in the Daishi's footsteps.
Some young people go by bicycle or motorbike. Some family groups drive their cars, while others hire a taxi. Still others ride the nearest trains, buses and ropeways to the temples on their own (20 days or more are required). Nowadays however most people join the conducted bus tours.
People usually go in sportswear or everyday clothes, in sneakers and sun visors. But not a few wear the formal costumes of Shikoku Pilgrims -- the sedge hat, the wooden staff, the white suit and pouches, all bearing the motto written in calligraphy “Dogyo Ninin” meaning "We two, traveling together" or the mantra “Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo” meaning "I put trust in the Daishi, the Universal Adamantine Illuminator.”
Of all the equipment, the most important is the staff. It is not just for practical use when one hikes along rugged paths in the mountains, but is regarded as symbolic of Kobo Daishi himself. So pilgrims always treat it with utmost care and reverence. In former days the same staff became one's grave post if one died on the way, as was often the case in those days when everyone had to walk all the way. That is why the top of the staff is designed like a Buddhist grave post. In fact, the white suit itself was and still is nothing but death garments.
If the temple has a bell a bell tower, one is expected to strike the bell announcing one's arrival to the temple divinities and Kobo Daishi. The multi-storied pagodas are derived from Buddha's tombs containing holy pieces of his bones. At each temple one should visit at least two halls -- the main hall housing the honshi or principal image and the Daishi-do Hall dedicated to the Daishi. One may drop a coin into the grate-covered offering boxes placed in front of the halls. Pilgrims offer their osamefuda paper name card at each hall. White osamefuda are used by those on their first to ninth pilgrimage, red for the tenth to nineteenth, silver for the twentieth to twenty-ninth and gold for the thirtieth and more.
Most pilgrims go to an office called Nokyo-sho in or around the main hall to have the temple's signature inscribed in fine calligraphy and its vermilion seal stamped in their album or scroll or on their white jacket. In this area there are maps showing how to get to the nearest temples.
Accommodations are adequate in or around the temples (4,000 yen or so a night with two meals). Of the 88 temples, 46 have their own lodges for pilgrims. For the pilgrimage season of the spring, reservations at least a week in advance are necessary; at other times one is expected to call on the previous day. There are also minshuku, Kokumin Shukusha, Youth Hostels or pilgrims' inns available near almost all the 88 temples.
In former days begging was an important part of the Shikoku Pilgrimage as ascetic practice. Even the rich of high rank had to beg from time to time. That tradition did enable even the penniless to make a pilgrimage, living on donations or what is called o-settai from local people.
There was a custom of zengon-yado or giving a pilgrim free bed and board. In the evening a child of the house was sent out to the nearest temple to pick up one or two pilgrims to take in that night. All the host expected from them was a piece of osamefuda name card, for he was doing it for Kobo Daishi himself. Some still practice this today.