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Trekking the Shikoku henro, Japan’s oldest pilgrimage route

Shikoku henro
A journey through the Shikoku henro

Financial Times writer Barney Jopson went on the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, a route founded and dedicated to commemorate the original 750-mile trek of Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi. Also known as Kūkai, Daishi returned from studying in China in the late 7th century AD to help import Buddhism in Japan. Jopson biked the route but given the age of many of the participants, most prefer to travel by bus while others walk.

“There are no definitive counts but each year between 80,000 and 140,000 pilgrims — known as o-henro — are estimated to travel at least part of the route. According to one survey, around 60 per cent of them are over the age of 60. The vast majority speed around on air-conditioned bus tours but a hardy band of 2,000-5,000 are estimated to do it on foot, usually completing the circuit in 40-50 days.”

The Japanese are more spiritual than religious. Taking the Shikoku henro route is an act of collective healing– coping with the death of loved ones, past failures, or nagging health problems. Some of the 88 temples serve a specific purpose.

“Certain temples specialise in blessings for getting pregnant, passing an exam or resolving eye problems. Some offer protection for people at unlucky ages: 42 for men and 33 for women. “If you’ve got 100 people, you’ll find 100 reasons for doing the pilgrimage.”

Nature nurtures. God(s) and spirituality help relieve stress. The Shikoku henro sounds fascinating, a mindfulness adventure, social experience, and digital detox wrapped into one.

A journey along Japan’s oldest pilgrimage route

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By Wells Baum

Wells Baum is a daily blogger who writes about Life & Arts. He's also the author of and four books.