The most important pilgrimage route in Japan
is the Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku (Shikoku Hachijuhachi Kasho Meguri).
This is a trip to each of the 88 temples connected with Kukai (Kobo Daishi) on the island of Shikoku. If done in the traditional manner, it entails walking some 1400 km around the circumference of the island and usually takes somewhere between 50 and 60 days to complete. The pilgrimage is walked in a clockwise direction and each of the 88 temples, plus 20 other temples which are also considered important, are visited in turn.
The temples are spread around the circumference of the island. In some areas, especially in and around the larger cities, the temples are very close together and you can visit several temples a day. In other areas the temples are much more spread out and it can take three days or so to travel by foot from one to the other.
Of the eighty-eight main temples, sixty-one are located in the mountains and twenty-seven are on the plain near the coast. Of the mountain temples, twenty-five are located at or near the top of their mountain with the highest situated at an elevation of over 900 metres.
Of course, not all of the temples, statues, and so on that are attributed to Kobo Daishi were actually built by him. Much of the historical evidence proves otherwise. Likewise many of the legendary deeds attributed to him were, in fact, performed by other people. But what is known with certainty is that Kobo Daishi was born here, returned here after leaving the university, walked many of these trails, visited many of these temples, and spent many years of his life on this island. Those pilgrims (henro) who follow the route feel his presence while they walk. As the mantra for the pilgrimage says, "Dogyo Ninin" (We Two, Traveling Together).
The trip traditionally starts with a visit to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum at the monastery he founded on Mount Koya in the province of Wakayama on the main island of Honshu. After asking for his guidance and help, you descend the mountain and take a boat to Shikoku, landing in the town of Tokushima on the eastern side of the island.
From there, the island is walked in a clockwise direction visiting each temple in turn, starting in Tokushima Prefecture and then continuing through Kochi Prefecture, Ehime Prefecture, and Kagawa Prefecture before finally returning to temple one where it all began. With the exception of a few excursions inland, the walk follows the coast around the island.
Throughout his life Kukai followed the example of such hijiri (wandering ascetics) as En no Gyoja and Gyogi and continued both of their practices of pilgrimage and mountain practice. Therefore, by the time he died, Kukai had become the model for a new generation of hijiri and had established the continued practice of these two traditions.
After Kukai died, it was natural for wanderers to begin making the trek to Mt. Koya in order to visit his mausoleum. And once this also became an established practice, it wasn't long before they started making a pilgrimage to Shikoku to visit the sites that were important in his lifetime.
These sites included Zentsuji where Kukai was born, the mountain peak at what is now Temple 12 (Shosanji) where he performed Buddhist rites and austerities, and Cape Muroto where he meditated and, some say, awakened.
Soon these pilgrims started to include in their wanderings the other already well established short pilgrimages found on Shikoku.
For example, there already existed a short pilgrimage around the temples that are now numbered one through ten. Likewise, a pilgrimage already existed not just to Zentsuji, where Kukai was born, but to other temples in the area and to the mountain peaks around the province. These smaller pilgrimages were incorporated into the larger pilgrimage that was taking shape as more and more people came to Shikoku after visiting Mt. Koya.
However, even though more and more hijiri were coming to the island, it wasn't until Japan's internal wars came to an end and the peace of the Edo era settled in that the pilgrimage took the shape that it still maintains today.
The pilgrimage, by the beginning of the Edo or Tokugawa era (1603-1868), had been evolving and growing for over nine-hundred years. The first records of its existence in any form similar to today's, however, don't appear until a few guidebooks were written in the 1680s.
The first such book is attributed to a priest named Yuben Shinnen (d. 1691). Records seem to indicate that he spent his life wandering the island of Shikoku, walking the pilgrimage, and aiding other pilgrims (henro) by setting up sign posts and building henro lodges around the southern part of the island. In 1687 he wrote a small guidebook for the pilgrimage, the Shikoku Henro Michishirube. In 1689, he enlisted the aid of a scholar and fellow Koya Hijiri named Jakuhon to write the Shikoku Henro Reijôki, a more comprehensive guidebook dedicated to the pilgrimage. In this book, the temples are in roughly the same order as they are today and it remained the standard guidebook throughout the Tokugawa era. Copies of this guidebook are still extant. In 1689 Shinnen also wrote a book containing a collection of the various miracle stories he had heard from other henro, all attributed to Kobo Daishi, and of the merits and benefits of walking the pilgrimage (Shikoku Henro Kudokuki).
As with all theories of all things historical, no one will ever be absolutely certain why the pilgrimage includes eighty-eight temples. When Jakuhon wrote his guidebook at the end of the 17th century he claimed he knew of no clear reasons for it. But, over the intervening years, several theories have developed.
The first theory is that this corresponds to the number of delusions (bonno) in people and the world. By visiting each of the eighty-eight temples, you eliminate one of these delusions at each temple. By walking the pilgrimage, you obtain absolution and by the time you finish the pilgrimage you have cleansed yourself.
The second theory says that the number eighty-eight is the sum of the unlucky ages (yakudoshi) of men, women, and children. Japanese folk belief states that there are a number of ages that are particularly unlucky for people. When one reaches one of these special years, certain special religious practices need to be performed to guard against bad luck and other potential misfortunes. Of the several unlucky ages, though, the most dangerous are 42 for men, 33 for women, and 13 for children of both sexes. The total of these ages is 88. Hence, as the theory goes, this is an especially unlucky number.
Other explanations have been offered. The number eighty-eight represents a multiple of eight, the number of great sacred Buddhist sites in India. The three characters used to write the number eighty-eight, when combined, make the character used to write the word for rice. And, a historical pilgrimage route in Kumano consisted of visits to eighty-eight sacred sites and early pilgrims to Shikoku were influenced by this.
Which theory is correct? None of them, probably. Maybe eight-eight temples turned out to be all that someone could comfortably visit in the spring months when most of the people (then farmers) were free to walk the pilgrimage. So, people found a way to justify that number. No one will ever know the real reason and, in the end, it doesn't matter. There are eighty-eight temples. One hundred and eight, if you visit the twenty unnumbered bangai temples as well. Visit them all, for whatever reason, and you will experience something of a Japan that transcends any historical period but still lives in your footsteps.