For more than a millennium, o-henrō (pilgrims) have walked clockwise around Shikoku in the footsteps of the great Buddhist saint Kōbō Daishi (774–835), who achieved enlightenment on the island of his birth. Known as the ‘88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku’, the 1400km journey is Japan’s best known pilgrimage and oldest tourist trail, though much has changed in recent centuries.
Before the publication of the first guidebook in 1685, pilgrims frequently disappeared forever in Shikoku’s rugged and mountainous interior. Before the advent of modern conveniences such as weather forecasts, mobile phones (cell phones) and convenience stores, pilgrims frequently fell ill and perished along the journey. Nowadays, hardship is not a factor as o-henrō buzz around the island in air-conditioned vehicles while giving little thought to the trials and tribulations of the past. In recent years, however, disenchantment with modern life has led to an increase in the number of Japanese who strike out on foot in search of meaning and self-realisation.
Like the rest of Japan, Shikoku is a land of contradictions – lightning-fast trains race alongside lumbering fishing boats while mountaintop shrines are lit up by walls of vending machines. More than other destinations, however, Shikoku is home to that elusive bit of lost Japan that seems virtually absent from the modern cityscape. Today, travellers can still hike age-old trails that bear the footprints of countless others who set out in that ever-elusive search for enlightenment.