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Shikoku

Premiered December 16 at 9/8C

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Full episode: Shikoku (54:51)

Shikoku: At a Glance

The Japanese island of Shikoku is the birthplace of the most revered figure in Japanese Buddhism, the monk and teacher Kobo-Daishi, who brought a populist form of Buddhism to Japan from China in the 9th century. For hundreds of years, a 750-mile pilgrimage route has circled this mountainous island, connecting 88 separate temples and shrines that claim connection to Daishi, also known as the Great Master. Each leg of the journey represents a stage of the path to nirvana: awakening, austerity and discipline, enlightenment, and nirvana.

Religion:Buddhism
Earliest pilgrimage on record:1600s; The first guidebook was written in 1687
Frequency:Year round
Duration:About 45 days on foot
Annual participants:200,000
Geographical size:750-mile pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku
Following in the footsteps of:Buddhist monk Kobo-Daishi
Support provided by: Learn more

Explore a Map of Shikoku

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Use the Google maps controls to explore the 88 temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage.


Begin the Journey


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Temples 1-23

Awaken to the wonders of the island of Shikoku.

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Temples 24-39

Practice austerity and discipline while enjoying the kindness of strangers.


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Temples 1-23

Many pilgrims begin their journey at Temple 1. Upon arrival at each temple, each pilgrim performs a set of rituals: first bowing at the temple gate, then washing his or her hand and mouth, and finally, announcing his or her arrival to Kobo-Daishi by ringing the temple's bell. Once inside, pilgrims say "sutras" or prayers, light candles and incense, and deposit a slip of paper bearing each pilgrim's name.

Bruce Feiler's Notes from the Field

Shikoku NFTF Henro

The Henro

Not sure what to wear for your pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku? A shop inside Temple 1 provides clothing and supplies for Shikoku's pilgrims, known as henro. Learn about the significance of each piece of the henro garb.

Explore Temple 1

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Use the Google maps controls to take a look around Temple 1.

"There are times when we start wondering, why are we even doing this, is it worth it?"

—Jenn Tsai, pilgrim to Shikoku



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Temples 24-39

By this point in the journey, many pilgrims may have tired from the lengthy trek. But while the journey may be tough on the mind and the legs, it need not be tough on the stomach. Food can be purchased at convenience stores at many points along the journey, but many pilgrims receive sustenance through a local tradition called "osettai." Traditionally reserved for monks, local residents now offer food, drink, and sometimes even money to all pilgrims. It's a way for islanders to give and receive blessings from the pilgrimage.

"I've always been living in the future... I hope this journey will teach me to live more in the present."

—Steve Williams, pilgrim to Shikoku


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Temples 40-65

Find enlightenment in the journey and practices of the pilgrimage.

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Temples 66-88

Achieve nirvana in the last leg the trek around Shikoku.


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Temples 40-65

Before Kobo-Daishi, Buddhism was an elite religion in Japan, focused mostly on the enlightenment of its highest officials. Kobo-Daishi wondered why everyone couldn't have the same chance at enlightenment. The Great Master, as he is often called, is venerated across Japan as the man who made Buddhism accessible to the masses.

Bruce Feiler's Notes from the Field

Shikoku NFTF Buddhism

Buddhism

Take a closer look at one of the fastest growing religions in the world, Buddhism, and the man who made it accessible to the masses to better understand the meaning that henro find in the pilgrimage to Shikoku.

Explore the roads of Shikoku

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Use the Google maps controls to experience what it's like to walk along roads around the island of Shikoku.

"What we went through on this trip will serve as a standard for setting our perspective on how we should deal with things, how we can step back and take a look at the bigger picture."

—Alex Fu, pilgrim to Shikoku



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Temples 66-88

The final leg of the journey is also a beginning of sorts. Temple 75, also known as the "birthplace temple," is where Buddhists believe Kobo-Daishi was born.

Explore Temple 75

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Use the Google maps controls to explore the courtyard of the Temple 75, the "birthplace temple."

Bruce Feiler's Notes from the Field

Shikoku NFTL Abalone

Abalone

Celebrate the completion of the pilgrimage with a local delicacy, served near the cave where Kobo-Daishi attained enlightenment.

"I'm sore in my hips and knees and my feet. I was slashed by the wind and brushed by the rain and slapped with tree branches... it's been magnificent and I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

—Marianne Dresser, pilgrim to Shikoku


"It's a journey of learning about faith and what faith means to me."

—Steve Williams, pilgrim to Shikoku


Meet the Pilgrims


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Marianne Dresser

Benicia, CA
Pilgrim to Shikoku

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John Osaki

Portland, OR
Pilgrim to Shikoku


Marianne Dresser

Hometown: Benicia, CA
Occupation: Book editor
Age: 56


Q. Why did you decide to go on the pilgrimage to Shikoku?

A. I first read of the 88-temple pilgrimage many years ago in Oliver Statler's Japanese Pilgrimage, and have long wanted to participate in it. I have been a Buddhist practitioner for over two decades, and met my first Buddhist teacher in Japan. I have done self-directed pilgrimage travel in other parts of Asia, so it seemed a natural fit, especially combined with my love of hiking.


Q. What did you do to prepare for the journey?

A. I am a regular hiker/backpacker, so no special fitness program was needed to prepare for the hiking. But because the pilgrimage had special significance for me in regard to the recent and tragic loss of my teacher, I prepared a photograph of him and a set of prayers/dedications to offer alongside chanting the Heart Sutra at each temple. For me, the pilgrimage was an extended period of walking meditation and devotional practice, and an opportunity to express my deep gratitude to my dear teacher.


Q. What was the most memorable moment during your trek around the island? Most surprising? Hardest?

A. The following two encounters with fellow pilgrims—Japanese henro I met while hiking—may illustrate these questions. I hiked alongside a middle-age lady for awhile and we exchanged bemused comments (me in my rudimentary Japanese) about the weather—hard rain that turned to snow flurries. She soon pulled ahead of me and disappeared on the trail through the forest. Her cheerful spirit and stamina impressed me greatly. And I met a nice gentleman at the summit of Nyotai-san, the mountain between Temples 87 and 88, where we shared lunch while he told me the story of the mountain. This was on one of the hardest sections of trail, called henro-korogashi ("where henro fall down"). This gentleman was 80 years old, ill with cancer, yet he made this difficult hike weekly "for health." The spirit and resilience of the Japanese people is something I greatly admire, and these encounters put in perspective my own relatively minor travails.


Q. How do you feel about your experience now that you've returned?

A. After the Shikoku tour I had planned to visit my Zen teacher, whom I hadn't seen in many years, at his temple in Yamanashi Prefecture on Honshu. But he perished in the devastating events of March 2011 (earthquake/tsunami). So I dedicated my pilgrimage efforts to him, carried his picture and offered prayers at each temple in his honor. I also dedicated to the memory of my dear canine companion of 16 years who passed away just before I left for this trip. These acts of remembrance and honoring made the journey especially meaningful for me.


Q. Would you go again to Shikoku? Would you go on a different pilgrimage?

A. I already have plans to return to Shikoku in November 2015 to hike different parts of the route to 30 or so more temples, ones not visited on my 2013 trip.


Q. What would you tell someone who was thinking about going on a pilgrimage to Shikoku?

A. The Shikoku pilgrimage is open to anyone and no special connection to Buddhism or Japanese culture is required, so for many Westerners it is perhaps mostly just an interesting hiking trip in a beautiful part of Japan that is "off the beaten path." But being a Buddhist practitioner with a strong spiritual connection to Japan invested this journey with great richness and depth for me. It is wonderful that Japan's cultural traditions are so open to all, and its tradition of hospitality is unparalleled, but I would say that it is well worth the effort for would-be henro to delve into some of the deeper spiritual and cultural aspects of such a journey.


Q. Anything else you want to share with us?

A. The act of making a pilgrimage, however undertaken—even if just "for fun" or as cultural tourism—is transformative. By walking the way, you embody the Way.



John Osaki

Hometown: Portland, OR
Occupation: Tour operator
Age: 57


Q. Why did you decide to go on the pilgrimage to Shikoku?

A. I work in the travel and tourism industry and participated in an industry-sponsored familiarization tour ("fam" tour) of the island of Shikoku in December of 2011. Although I was aware of the Shikoku pilgrimage at that time, the "fam" tour gave me a personal encounter with the pilgrimage and consequently deepened my understanding of it. I stayed on Shikoku a few days following the "fam" tour to walk two segments of the pilgrimage route. I remember walking through a citrus plantation on the outskirts of Matsuyama where I ran into a farmer and his son working under the trees. The farmer asked what I was doing in his field. When he found out that I was trying to follow a section of the pilgrimage route, he hurried off into the trees and harvested two big oranges and presented them to me. That was my first experience with "osettai," the tradition of providing assistance to those on the pilgrimage. I was touched by the simple but generous offer and the spirit of community that was expressed by the gift. It was clear to me at that time that I wanted to return for a more in-depth experience of the pilgrimage. Since that first experience, I've returned three times to walk different portions of the Shikoku pilgrimage route.


Q. What did you do to prepare for your trip?

A. Since my job as a hiking tour leader keeps me outdoors and active for much of the time, I really didn't do much to prepare physically for the pilgrimage. I did, however, prepare myself by learning more about the history and traditions of the pilgrimage by reading. Oliver Statler's excellent book, Japanese Pilgrimage, was particularly enlightening.


Q. What was the most memorable moment during your trek around the island? Most surprising? Hardest?

A. I think the most memorable experiences I've had are those that involve the walks along the older portions of the path especially the parts that pass through the mountains, far from the roads and cities. For me, the experience of the pilgrimage is most profound when one is walking alone in the mountains. I remember hiking up a mountainside during an April snowfall on my way to Shosanji (Temple 12). Snowflakes drifted gently through the boughs of cedar trees; everything was blanketed in white. The mountain trail turned suddenly and unexpectedly into a long flight of stairs. I looked up and at the top of the stairs was a snow-covered statue of Kobo Daishi backed by the giant cedar tree known as "Ippon sugi." I stopped in my tracks. All was peaceful and silent; it was a magical moment.

Most surprising? How relatively few people one meets on what I consider to be the most beautiful portions of the pilgrimage route. On many mountain segments of the route, you can be thoroughly alone. Many folks seem to stick to the more easily traveled routes.

The hardest? Perhaps the 35 kilometer section I walked in a day between Temple 5 and 11. That was a lot of walking on sidewalks and pavement, and though it didn't involve much in the way of elevation gain and loss, pounding along on a hard surface all day can really take a lot out of you!


Q. How do you feel about your experience now that you've returned?

A. For me, being on Shikoku and participating in the pilgrimage provided a frame for understanding that all of life is a pilgrimage. It's easy to lose sight of that amidst the bustle of daily life "back home." When I'm home, I try to remember the peace and sense of simplicity that walking the pilgrimage instills.


Q. Would you go again to Shikoku? Would you go on a different pilgrimage?

A. I don't know if I would seek another pilgrimage. I know that Shikoku continues to call me, and I will be going back. I would like to undertake the entire pilgrimage with my wife and daughter if I can ever figure out a way to make that work.


Q. What would you tell someone who was thinking about going on a pilgrimage to Shikoku?

A. Find a pilgrimage, or define one for yourself, and then go forth and undertake it. You may not know it when you set out (and you will not know how) but the journey will transform you.


Q. Anything else you want to share with us?

A. I think a lot about my parents, both of whom recently passed away, whenever I walk the pilgrimage route. I also think a lot about my grandparents who came to America from Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century. I think about the long chain of events that led to me. I am grateful for all they have given me. I am their legacy and I dedicate my pilgrimage to them.


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Jenn Tsai

Portland, OR
Pilgrim to Shikoku

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Steve Williams

Hemet, CA
Pilgrim to Shikoku


Jenn Tsai

Hometown: Portland, OR
Occupation: Resident physician
Age: 29


Q. Why did you decide to go on the pilgrimage to Shikoku?

A. I have wanted to go for a long time. It appealed to me because of the challenge of walking the distance, and the idea of the spiritual journey where, while you go to feel connected to a tradition that others have done before, you learn something about yourself that you haven't known before.


Q. What was the most memorable moment during your trek around the island? Most surprising? Hardest?

A. There were many memorable moments. In fact, the whole trail is made up of them. One of the most touching was the night I stayed at a minshuku/bed and breakfast inn which was run by a very kindly elderly lady. She was no longer officially running the hostel, but we had found the number from an older guide book, and she didn't turn us away. It was a lovely place with a beautiful view of the ocean. The next morning, we ate breakfast with another pilgrim who stayed there, then took a ferry across the bay. The scenes that we passed on the ferry in the early morning were breathtaking, simply inspiring.

The most surprising moment may have been the gathering with wild boar stew. As we were walking along, some farmers gathered around a campfire beckoned us over. This was in the middle of the afternoon. They were cooking a stew in an oil drum, and explained it was wild boar that they caught with nets in the mountains. As if that weren't surprising enough, they showed us two "pet" deer that they had caught in the mountains!

One of the hardest things to do on the trail was getting up every morning, especially after staying at a particularly comfortable lodge the night before. My feet would still be aching in the morning and it was so hard to get dressed, packed, and get back on the road.


Q. How do you feel about your experience now that you've returned?

A. It was an amazing experience. I don't have words to describe it. I'm so glad I went!


Q. Would you go again to Shikoku? Would you go on a different pilgrimage?

A. Yes, without hesitation. I haven't finished going to all 88 temples so I have to go back to finish it some day. I am not sure if I would go on other walking pilgrimages. I've lived in Japan before and really appreciate the culture, and I feel completely safe there. I don't know that I would have the same comfort level or cultural attachment to other pilgrimages.


Q. What would you tell someone who was thinking about going on a pilgrimage to Shikoku?

A. Just go. It's a one in a lifetime opportunity, and you will surely learn something new and have worthwhile, meaningful experiences. Before you go, do your research, and make sure you have comfortable walking shoes.



Steve Williams

Hometown: Hemet, CA
Occupation: Gunnery Sergeant with the US Marine Corps (retired) and Engineering Liaison for UAV aircraft
Age: 62


Q. Why did you decide to go on the pilgrimage to Shikoku?

A. I was stationed at Iwakuni, Japan several times for a total of seven years during the 1970s and 80s. Before I left in 1985, I would take my motorcycle around southern Japan and Shikoku. While in Shikoku I saw Japanese [people] walking with the straw hats and white coats and was curious about what they were doing. When I found out about the pilgrimage I decided someday I would try it. Many years later when I retired I was looking for something to do when I saw an NHK special about the pilgrimage. Right away I started training for my first trip.


Q. What was the most memorable moment during your trek around the island? Most surprising? Hardest?

A. The whole trip is magical so it is difficult to say which experience is the most memorable. There were so many! One of the most touching was on my first day I was at Temple 3. A wonderful older woman, bent with age, came over to me and pointed to my shoe. When I looked down I realized what she was trying to tell me. My shoe lace had become undone and she was worried I might trip and fall!

The most surprising part of the trip was living in the moment for the first time in my life. I had spent my whole life working to make a living as most of us do, raising a family, etcetera. But while on the trail the only concerns are where to eat, where to sleep, and how far you will walk today. No concerns about the outside world and its problems. Just waking up each morning, and wondering what new sights and experience the day will bring. And in the afternoon after a long and arduous walk, a well deserved rest and meal with another new day to look forward to.

The hardest part was leaving the trail! I wish I could just keep going but will go back again soon. The experience has definitely changed me and has shown me I am more capable of doing things than I had imagined at my age. Hopefully I can continue going as long as I'm physically able.


Q. Are you planning on going back to Shikoku? Would you go on a different pilgrimage?

A. I am planning on going back in March of 2015. I would also like to walk the Compostela De Santiago in Spain.


Q. What advice do you have for someone thinking about going to Shikoku?

A. I would only say do it! Don't wait. Even if you only have a week or so get started.


Q. Anything else you'd like to share about your experience?

A. I would just like to say to the people of Shikoku thank you for letting us participate in the henro experience and accepting us with your warmth and friendliness in our journey to the 88 temples.





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