A Path to Ascetic Training and Worship
In truth, it is not certain how the pilgrimage began.
Some say that Kukai started it, while others say that it began when his disciples and local people followed his journey around Shikoku.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage appears in literature in Kukai’s Sango Shiiki written in 797, as well as the 12th-century books Konjaku Monogatari and Ryojin Hisho.
At that time, Shikoku was referred to as “Hechi” meaning a remote land. During this period, monks who were engaged in spiritual training and monks who practiced the Shugendo tradition wandered the island practicing severe austerities to develop magical and spiritual powers. It is possible to say that both ocean worshippers and mountain worshippers crossed over to Shikoku in search of places specifically set aside for their religious practices.
The concept of the number eighty-eight had not yet been established, and they were simply searching for the countless remote areas found on Shikoku where they could practice their austerities.
As the next step, the key characters in the Shikoku Henro, meaning Shikoku Pilgrimage, first appeared in the document Daigojibunsho in 1280.
Also, there were the Koya Hijiri, wandering missionaries from Mt. Koya, a sacred place of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, who were active in the 12th to 15th centuries. These monks went round Shikoku collecting donations to take back to Mt. Koya and it is thought that their efforts were a major contribution to the growing belief in Kobo Daishi and the formation of the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Famines were frequent at this time and social conditions were terrible, with many of the poor dying from starvation. In these circumstances, the people clung to religion.
A Pilgrimage Open to Common People
It is thought that a fixed pilgrimage to 88 sacred places and the name Shikoku Henro (Shikoku Pilgrimage) were established sometime around the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century.
First, Chozen’s travel book Shikoku Henro Nikki (1653), and then Shinnen’s (thought to be a Koya Hijiri) pilgrimage guidebook Shikoku Henro Michishirube (1687) were published and as the first books in Japanese history intended for the general public, became bestsellers.
Eventually, it came to the point where even Kabuki and Joruri took up the subject of the pilgrimage and it came to permeate all of society, including the common people.
As Japan maintained a stable society, public stability, economic growth, security, the maintenance of roadside facilities, and means of transportation were all established. From this point, affluent tourists started coming to do the pilgrimage.
On the other hand, those who had left their hometown because of fatal diseases or crimes also headed to Shikoku in search of the culture of “osettai,” the pilgrimage’s most unique feature. When local people along the course give pilgrims gifts such as food, this is called “osettai.”
An Authentic Experience
Since the mid-19th century, the status of the pilgrimage has risen and fallen with changes in government, economic growth, and several wars.
Today, some people travel by car or bus, while others enjoy walking without much emphasis on religion, or go to the temples at random. The methods, means of transportation, and reasons for making the pilgrimage are truly varied, but there are always people doing the walking pilgrimage.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a journey through the varied nature of Shikoku and a chance to meet locals and pilgrims from all over the country. Recently, with the popularity of adventure tourism, people seeking authentic experiences are visiting Shikoku.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage continues to change and evolve.