Japan City Guides: Shodoshima Pilgrimage
Shodoshima Pilgrimage 小豆島
Shodoshima, the second largest island in the Seto Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku, is home to a traditional pilgrimage that is not so well known as many are but is surprisingly intriguing and offers some incredible views and sights for those willing to venture off the increasingly overcrowded main tourist trails.
Pilgrimages in Japan
There are hundreds of pilgrimages across Japan ranging in size from just a few kilometers to some spanning more than a thousand kilometers. Pilgrimages in Japan fall into two general categories, the first being a pilgrimage to one specific site, the kind of pilgrimage that are fairly common among many religions and cultures around the world.
In Japan these were more prevalent historically, with perhaps the mass pilgrimages to Ise in the Edo Period being the most well known, but pilgrimage to Konpirasan on Shikoku was also very popular in earlier times and the series of pilgrimage routes leading to the Kumano shrines in Wakayama have become very popular in recent times thanks to their registration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The other type of pilgrimage, and one that seems unique to Japan, is the circuit pilgrimage wherein a series of sites are visited in sequence ending up back at the starting point. These pilgrimages tend to fall into two categories, either 33 sites connected to the Buddhist deity Kannon, known as the Goddess of Mercy, or 88 sites connected to Kobo Daishi, the patriarch who founded Shingon Buddhism in the 9th century.
Versions of this pilgrimage have proliferated and there are literally dozens and dozens of them ranging in length all the way down to circuits of 33 statues within a single temple's grounds.
The origin of the other kind of pilgrimage, the 88 temple pilgrimage, is on Shikoku where it is known as O-henro. This is quite possibly the most well-known pilgrimage in Japan and gaining in popularity especially among foreign visitors.
Copies of the 88 temple pilgrimage have also sprung up all over Japan, also in a variety of lengths. Often there will be 20 "extra" temples added to bring the total up to 108, a meaningful number in Buddhism.
The pilgrimage on Shodoshima is of the 88 temple variety, but unlike many of the copies of the Shikoku Henro that have that been established around the country, this one has strong connections with Kobo Daishi.
He was born and spent time just across the water in Shikoku, and Shodoshima would have been a stopping off point from there to the capital. While on the island he sought out sacred spots of the island to engage in ascetic practices, and it is these places that form the core of the pilgrimage.
The full pilgrimage route on Shodoshima is between 150 to 160 kilometers in length, depending on the course chosen, and circles the island completely as well as venturing into the mountains at several sections.
Some of the way is through small towns and fishing villages but much of it is along the scenic coast or in the rugged mountains with fantastic views over the island and the Inland Sea.
The route passes by every single major tourist attraction on the island as well as many more less visited places of interest. There are no grand or spectacular temples such as you would find in Kyoto, though a handful are quite nice, one has a pagoda, several have nice gardens, and a few have impressive trees including the biggest Juniper in Japan.
Many of the 88 sites, in fact, are not even "proper" temples but rather small wayside chapels maintained by locals and housed in rudimentary buildings, but what the pilgrimage does have, and what makes it somewhat unique, are a series of temples built into mountain caves.
Shodoshima is not a big island, but it is rugged, with lots of exposed rock, cliffs, and rock formations. Mountain ascetics used to spend time in these caves and reputedly so did Kobo Daishi. In some there is a modern building facade fronting the cave, and in a couple small shrines are built within the cave, but they are almost all high up in the mountains and involve a walk from the car park.
Many pilgrims do the Shodoshima Pilgrimage as a practice before attempting the more grueling Shikoku O-henro, and if you choose to do it you will undoubtedly come across other pilgrims, but almost certainly they will all be Japanese, as this pilgrimage is little known among foreigners.
There is no requisite to being a Buddhist to follow the pilgrimage. If you are interested then the first thing to do is some preparation. Unfortunately there is very little information available in English, and not a lot even in Japanese.
There is a Pilgrimage Centre near Tonosho Port that has maps and information and runs a decent website (in Japanese).
6134-2 Nishihonmachi-ko, Shodo-gun, Tonosho-cho, Kagawa 761-4100
Tel: 0879 62 0227
There is also a good book with maps and photos, though again only in Japanese, and is based on driving the pilgrimage.
The absolute best way to do the pilgrimage is on foot, the way it was traditionally done. I walked it in eight days though others suggest 10. It could be done faster if you are young and do it at the time of year when the days are longer, but in my opinion rushing kind of misses the purpose.
There is really only one busy road on the island, along the southern, most populated section, and the route does follow this road occasionally, but compared to the Shikoku Pilgrimage the roads are much, much, quieter and a lot of the route is along footpaths that are easy to follow and well maintained, being well trod by pilgrims.
In many cases the footpath is the much shorter and easier route than by road. Some people do the pilgrimage by bicycle, though there is a lot of ups and downs. On my third and fourth day I kept bumping into a young man who was doing it by mamachari.
Quite a few people do the pilgrimage by rental car, and most books and maps will show the best route by private vehicle including where to park. It is possible to do the pilgrimage by bus and taxi. Most temples are very close to bus stops, though many bus routes are infrequent, and some judicious planning would be necessary. The island's bus company have one day or two day passes which can be economical.
The climate of Shodoshima is very mild, so the pilgrimage can be undertaken any time of the year, though summers are very humid and in winter the days are very short. Spring and autumn are when most pilgrims can be found.
Many pilgrims will be wearing pilgrim attire, white clothes, conical hat, wooden staff, etc. A staff or hiking pole is obviously needed to help with the walking, but the other accoutrements are not necessary, though I highly recommend the white pilgrim jacket which will make you easily recognizable as a pilgrim and as such you will be offered much assistance.
Where to stay while doing the pilgrimage is a little problematical. There are plenty of accommodation options on the island, resort hotels, business hotels, ryokan, minshuku, a youth hostel, and several camp sites, but they will all need booking in advance.
One convenient option is to base yourself in a couple of different places and use the bus to get to and from your day's start and end points, or, at many of the hotels and guest houses they will pick you up and drop you off with prior arrangement.
The situation with food is also one where planning is needed. There simply are not that many eating places away from the main centers, and even supermarkets are not that plentiful. Both do exist of course, but you can't count on finding one. If you are staying in accommodation that provides meals, they can often provide packed lunches, otherwise it's a case of stocking up when you are near a shop or convenience store.
While not a major destination for foreign tourists, Shodoshima does get quite a few visiting Kankakei Gorge, one of the Three Most Beautiful Gorges in Japan, or some of the other main tourist sites, and like many of the less visited places in Japan you will find friendly and helpful people, but if you want to see a Japan that few visitors get to see the Shodoshima Pilgrimage is a wonderful opportunity that will repay the effort needed to do it.
Articles on my own experience of the pilgrimage will be linked below, and I can possibly answer some questions. If you wish to contact me please use our contact form.