It was at simultaneously the most solitary and the most companionate trip of my life. Walking the vast fields and climbing the steep trails of Shikoku, I hear little but my own footsteps. But I’m not alone: I’m tracing the paths of pilgrims.
I meet them, too. Old and young, Japanese and foreign, Shikoku’s pilgrims (henro) pass by in their traditional white robes, nodding in hello or exchanging a friendly “ganbatte” as they go.
There are 88 temples along Shikoku’s famous henro pilgrimage route, and it stretches along about 1,200 kilometers. The exact religious origins of the henro are hazy – there are varying legends involving Buddhist priests – but it’s not the beginning that’s important. Like the henro itself, the importance lies in the middle, in the hundreds of years of pilgrims who have walked the trail and those who continue to do so today.
Traditionally, the henro is a religious journey focused on spiritual and personal growth. The route is broken into four sections, aligned with Shikoku’s four prefectures. Each section embodies a different stage in the journey: awakening (temples 1-23), ascetic training (temples 24-39), enlightenment (temples 40-65) and nirvana (temples 66-88).
Henro walk for different reasons. My first night, I check in to the Sen guesthouse and sit in the common room, each chair packed, and the room is alive with told stories and traded tips.
There’s the man looking to gain better perspective after a bad breakup. The recent high school graduate taking a leap year to travel. The couple who first made the walk after one of them was diagnosed with cancer and given just months to live. That was years ago, and they’ve made the walk every year since.
“There’s something about these long walks; they’re healing,” Ian Fraser tells me. He’s just finished the henro route in 47 days. “When you’re hiking alone, sometimes your worst enemy is yourself, and your mind. But in the end, you learn to remind yourself, ‘I’m basically a good person.’”
Fraser, an Australian, is one of thousands of foreigners who travel to Japan to complete the henro trail. He’s not Buddhist, but he found the 88 temples to be spiritual in themselves: they’re “an intersection of humans and nature,” he says.
As I make my way along the trail in Ehime Prefecture the next day, I understand what Fraser meant. Walking for hours on end spurs your idle mind until you’re racing down rabbit trails, analyzing, speculating, until – you feel at peace in the shadows of centuries-old temples.
I think of Fraser’s words: “You’re basically a good person.”
And, as you walk, you meet henro. We pass each other on the trails, smile, chat a bit. Later, when we meet again at the same temple, it’s like seeing an old friend again, we’re so excited to be reunited. We talk some more before moving on, maybe to see each other again. Maybe not.
“As you walk, you learn that you can survive without other people,” Fraser says. “That you’re stronger than your thought. You see beauty every day. The walk is very difficult, but you overcome it. It’s very life-affirming.”
Walking as Henro
It takes an average of 40 days to complete the henro trail. Some pilgrims stay in guesthouses; some, like Fraser, stay in tents. Traditionally, the trail was completed on foot, but today, not all henro do so. Some use buses or trains to travel from temple to temple.
Not everyone completes the entire trail, either. If you’re pressed for time, you can start somewhere along the route and visit three to four temples per day to get a taste for the pilgrimage.
Traditionally, henro wear white robes, a colored scarf, and a conical straw hat while carrying a walking stick. These are available to purchase in stores around Shikoku, but are most commonly found near the start of the trail. Not all henro wear the traditional dress, so this is optional.
Your entire trip doesn’t have to be spent in the wilderness; many henro visit cities along the way.
In Ehime Prefecture, you’ll find Matsuyama, the largest city on the island of Shikoku. There, you can take a soak in Dōgo Onsen, one of the oldest in Japan with a history dating back over 1,000 years. This three-story onsen is usually crowded, and in the evenings, residents and visitors of Matsuyama stroll through the streets in yukata on their way to or from the onsen.
Afterword, grab a meal at Dōgo no Machiya, a restaurant specializing in burgers with a serene, tucked-away dining room with panoramic views of a garden. Try the jakoten burger, made with a fish sausage that’s a local specialty, and sip some local umeshu or locally brewed beer as you take in the view.
Stay at the Sen Guesthouse, a henro favorite run by an international couple: Matt, from the U.S., and Nori, from the small town of Kagawa. Upon check in, the couple will tell you in English or Japanese everything you need to know about the area, from restaurant recommendations to descriptions of the nearby temples. Sen has a homelike feel, and travelers flock to its rooftop terrace for sunset drinks or lounge around its common areas, swapping travel stories.