Feature: Walking Pilgrims

The henro (pilgrim on the 88 Temple walk) is one of the most distinctive sights of any trip to Shikoku. They're everywhere you go, striding along busy city highways, cresting hills in remote mountain valleys – solitary figures in white, trudging purposefully through heat haze and downpour alike on their way from temple to temple. Who are these people and what drives them to make a journey of more than 1400km on foot?

Although the backgrounds and motives of the henro may differ widely, they all follow in the legendary footsteps of Kōbō Daishi, the monk who attained enlightenment on Shikoku, established Shingon Buddhism in Japan and made significant contributions to Japanese culture. Whether or not it is true that Kōbō Daishi actually founded or visited all 88 sacred sites, the idea behind making the 88 Temple Circuit is to do so accompanied by the spirit of Kōbō Daishi himself – hence the inscription on pilgrims' backpacks and other paraphernalia: 同行二人 (dōgyō ninin), meaning 'two people on the same journey'.

Regardless of motivation of each henro, the pattern and routine of life on the road is very similar for everyone who undertakes the trail. The dress is uniform, too: hakue (white garments) to signify sincerity of purpose and purity of mind; the sugegasa (straw hat) that has protected pilgrims against sun and rain since time immemorial; and the kongōzue (colourful staff). The routine at each temple is mostly the same, too: a bang on the bell and a chant of the Heart Sutra at the Daishi-dō (one of the two main buildings in each temple compound), before filing off to the nōkyō-jo (desk), where the pilgrims' book is inscribed with beautiful characters detailing the name of the temple and the date of the pilgrimage.

If you're eager to become an aruki henro (walking pilgrim), you'll need to budget 40 to 60 days (allowing for an average distance of 25km a day) to complete the circuit. To plan your pilgrimage, the website www.shikokuhenrotrail.com and the guidebook Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide (Buyodo Publishing) are both excellent English-language resources. The book, plus all the henro gear you'll need for your walk, can be purchased at Temple One: Ryōzen-ji. For brilliant background reading on the pilgrimage, get a copy of Japanese Pilgrimage, by Oliver Statler, and for ideas on innovative sleeping spots, download Craig McLachlan's Tales of a Summer Henro.

Travellers who don't have the time or inclination to attempt the whole thing can get a taste of what it's all about by following one of the henro-for-a-day minicircuits. Aside from walking the first few temples at Naruto, cities with concentrations of temples within easy reach of each other include Matsuyama, Temples 46 through 53, and Zentsūji, in Kagawa Prefecture.

If you're keen to do the pilgrimage, but walking doesn't appeal, take into account that most pilgrims these days travel around the 88 Temples on tour buses, in taxis or cars, on motorbikes or bicycles. It's making an effort that counts!