Shikoku 88 Temples

by Alicia Wszelaki

Countless Exchanges


1200 km (more like 1400 km if you count a lot of wrong turns and extra steps), 46 days, 4 prefectures, one typhoon, numerous blisters, human interactions and unforgettable discoveries; walking around Japan’s fourth largest island of Shikoku on a visit to 88 temples was a once in a lifetime experience that I can’t wait to repeat.


In my six-month preparation for the pilgrimage there were many things that I learned to expect: sore feet, fatigue, getting lost, sleeping in unknown places, among many others. What I didn’t expect was what I came to call exchanges, brief interactions with people of every age. My exchanges helped make a stranger like me feel connected to an island and its people.


My initial exchange (although I did not know to call it that then) occurred on my first day at Temple one, Ryōzenji. My research had told me that this was the temple to gather my henro supplies; sedge hat (sugegasa), white henro jacket (Oizuru), Walking stick (Kongō Tsue), Temple stamp book (Nōkyōchō), name slips (Osame Fuda), candles, and to carry it all in, my Fuda-basami or bag. Eager and excited, I proceeded to nervously sit on a bench for over an hour.


Scared? Not really. Unsure of what to do? Yes. A little intimidated. Definitely. Eventually I built up my courage and gathered my things. My destination, the main Hondo. I must have looked like a lost child in a shopping mall when I heard the faint voice of an older lady repeating something. I turned around and there she stood, about 65 years old, wearing a purple shirt, carrying a cane and motioning for me to climb down the stairs to her. I did as asked, a little confused. “What did she want?  

me and my Temple Sensei at Ryozenji, Temple One           Had I   done something wrong?” After some more  gesturing from her I began to understand that she wanted to help me and guide me through the temple procedure. She took me to the front gate and told me where to bow, with her slow limping pace we walked to the main Hondo again and she showed me where to put my offering. Soon we were lighting candles and burning incense, bowing, and reciting The Heart Sutra (Hannya Shingyō). Together we went to the temple office where I received my beautiful temple stamp. The awkwardness that I first felt with her melted away. When we were finished with my lessons I bought her a coffee from the vending machine and she gave me a pear. We sat on a temple bench together, not communicating well with words but understanding each other through our actions and smiles. The two hours since we had met seemed more like a few minutes. Before we said our good byes, I asked to have my photo taken with her. We said thank you many times and eventually parted. I walked away headed for Temple No. 2 with a smile and lucky feeling to have started my walk so auspiciously. From that day forward I spoke of her many times and began to lovingly refer to her as my temple sensei.


Without her instruction and kindness, without our exchange, my pilgrimage, my journey would have been a very different one. Because of her help I had completed my first temple successfully. I had 87 temples to go and I often wondered...would I ever see my temple sensei again?



#131 Parkway Vol.25 No.1 January-March 2010




1200キロ(道を間違えて余計に歩いた距離も入れれば、1400キロ)、46日、4県、台風、何度もできる水疱、人との関わり、忘れられない発見 ー 日本で4番目に大きい島、四国を歩いて88の霊場を回ったのは、一生に一度とも言える経験であり、それでもすぐにまた挑戦したいと思う経験です。 




私の最初の交流(その時そう呼ぶとは思ってもいませんでしたが)は、最初の日、一番札所の霊山寺で起きました。下調べでは、ここが遍路用品一式を手に入れる寺でした:すげ笠、白衣、金剛杖、 御朱印長、納札、ろうそく、そしてこれらすべてを入れる札ばさみ。熱い思いと興奮で、ベンチまで行って、緊張して座ること1時間以上。


怖い?そういうわけでもない。何をしたらいいか分からない?そう、少し気後れしてる。絶対に。なんとか勇気をだして、遍路用品を手に入れました。私の目的地は本堂。すると何か繰り返し言っている高齢の女性のかすかな声が聞こえます。この時、私はショッピングモールで迷子になった子供のように見えていたに違いありません。振り返ると、紫のシャツを着た65歳ぐらいの女の人が杖を持って立っていて、階段を下りてこっちにおいで、というような合図をしていました。少し戸惑いながらも、私は言われた通りにしました。 「何がしたいんだろう?何か間違ったことをしたのだろうか?」さらにジェスチャーは続き、寺の参拝手順を教えてくれようとしているのが分かってきました。彼女は私を正門に連れて行き、一礼する場所を教えてくれます。ゆっくりと足を引きずる彼女のペースに合わせながら、本堂に再び行き、お供えを置く場所を教わりました。それから、ろうそくに火をつけ、線香をたき、礼拝をして、般若心経を唱えました。





A Simple Path
ONE PREFECTURE DOWN, 3 to go. After spending almost two weeks walking through the beautiful and strenuous mountains of Shikoku’s Tokushima Prefecture, the road before me leveled as I reached the ocean. With my legs a little stronger, my feet a lot soarer, I entered my second prefecture, Kochi. If I had to choose one word to describe my physical and mental state at this point in my journey, the word would be awareness, of my body, my mind, my surroundings. Awareness of creating exchanges with other people, and overall existing on a simpler level. 
Prior to walking, I had thought and hoped that as I embarked on this journey I would gain tremendous insight into the world, myself, my past and my future. While I had some revelations on these topics, many of my thoughts became consumed with simpler questions. Where will I sleep tonight? What will I eat? Will I reach my goal for 
the day? With these thoughts running through my mind I slowly started to become more conscience of details that I might have normally ignored. Grass along the shore would make a soft bed. The apple and protein drink I carried in my backpack would suffice for dinner. No matter how sore my back was, I could push myself a little more. The comfortable bed at home and the many choices I had to eat for meals suddenly seemed complicated. As each morning passed, the simple questions repeated themselves, motivating me to continue walking. 
Entering the Kochi prefecture holds many challenges for the walking Henro. Including the first long distance walk between temples. 75.4 km!  A three-day journey. At this point most of the other henros I had met in Tokushima had concluded their walking and were returning to their families, jobs and “real” life. I was aware that I was by myself. 
The road from temple 23 to 24 holds few Henro huts and fewer Lawsons.  The vending machines I had become accustomed to visiting many times in the late summer heat, had vanished. I walked along the breathtaking coastline of Kochi embracing the wind, sea mist and long stretch of road. Late one afternoon grey clouds started to roll in. A typhoon was heading my way bringing with it this Henros biggest fear... rain. I had hoped that somehow I might escape rain on my pilgrimage, but soon enough I added a new simple question to my list: How will I stay dry? 
Weather challenges, long 3-day walks, and fewer interactions with other henro, Kochi gave me many inspirations and awarenesses. 
When my friends ask me what I did to fill my time while walking I never hesitate to tell them. I became simple and I became aware. Thank you prefecture number 2. 


#132  Parkway Vol.25 No.2  April-June 2010

After being on the henro road for 30 days I felt like I had finally found my groove. Over the span of a month I had walked 8 hours a day, every day. From quiet mountain ranges to congested cities. My legs grew stronger and my determination solid. I had visited 61 temples and was more than half way to my goal.  Every temple on the pilgrimage thus far proved unique.  Each one left an impression on me and I departed a little changed.
For me, the temples were places where I could rest and reflect, appreciate and pray. They were my goal. Leaving one and arriving at the next was my reward. But as days on the trail passed, I found myself not only looking forward to reaching each temple, but being enthralled by the things that happened in between the temples.  One of those in betweens was a beautiful exchange between strangers known as o-settai.
O-settai is the action of giving to pilgrims. For me there was hardly a day that went by when I didn’t receive some kind of o-settai;  juice, mikan, cookies, a towel, and even money. I received o-settai from local people, shop owners, from car and bus pilgrims and even from monks at temples. I remember learning that o-settai was a common occurrence in Shikoku and must never be refused.  For the giver of these gifts, there is a belief that they can gain merit by supporting henros. 
My o-settai patrons ranged from old ladies to young adults and even working professionals. With their small gifts each one gave me more then a tangible object, they gave me a memory. On my first day, even before I reached Temple 1, I met Kimiko Yoshida. She offered me to stay at her home for the evening. She cooked me a beautiful dinner, drew me a hot bath and gave me a comfortable futon for the evening.  We remain friends today. 
Early one morning on the way to Temple 22, two older ladies came out of their house to welcome me. They guided me towards their driveway where there was a table set with, rice balls, tea, miso soup and eggs. A few minutes later other henro joined the table. I learned from them that these ladies had been providing o-settai to henro for over 15 years!  They spent their own money and time preparing food and lunch boxes to those walking by their village house.  In addition to their food and company they provided information on the path ahead. 
A young man near Temple 37 chased after me.  Breathlessly he handed me 500 yen and a bottle of Pocari Sweat saying “Please take”.  I took his gift graciously, thankful for the cool drink in the hot afternoon. I will never forget the look on his face, his energy and his urgency. 
An older man on the way to temple 42 offered me a chair to rest and a pomegranate. For a short time we exchanged smiles, short conversations and
an impromptu game of as basketball.
In exchange for o-settai, I would give people my o-sama fuda, or name card. On it was written my name, age and hometown. People seemed as excited to receive my card, as I was their gift. 
The custom of o-settai provides a connection between henro and people who otherwise may have no reason to meet.  A connection that proves to be a pure exchange of kindness and gratitude.
I may not remember all the people that gave me gifts and they may not remember me, but for a short time, this beautiful ancient tradition gave strangers the chance to meet, exchange moments and share memories together. 


#133  Parkway Vol.25 No.3  July- September 2010 

88 Temples: the beginning

It’s difficult to define where a circle starts and almost impossible to determine its end.


As I write the last entry about my experiences as a Henro on Skikoku’s 88 temples, I am reminded of the first time I heard about the pilgrimage. My friend Noriko and I had just finished lunch in Hiroshima and were looking out at the beautiful Seto Sea. Listening to her describe a centuries old pilgrimage encircling Japans fourth largest island, I thought to myself, “What type of person walks nonstop in a circle for  60 days?” Before I attempted to       Completion Certificate                           answer, I already knew, I was  that kind of person.


Almost 3 years from the date of that query, I stepped off a bus into an empty rest area in Tokushima, a 20 minute walk from Ryozenji or Temple 1. For the next 50 days I walked through lush mountains, congested cities, and sandy seashores. I dodged snakes, laughed with people, tested my directional abilities, learned why the employees at the store I bought my hiking boots praised Mole Skin, and best of all experienced existence on a simpler level.


The final prefecture of Shikoku’s 88 Temples Pilgrimage is Kagawa. This part of the journey is known as The Dōjō of Enlightenment. I agree. It is here that I visited one of my favorite temples: 66, Hovering Clouds Temple. Like most mountain temples the climb up was demanding but I knew that at the top awaited my reward -- breathtaking                 Almost to Temple 88

scenery and the hypnotic sounds of nature that I                               

had become so fond of. In this prefecture I was visited by my boyfriend Matt. We walked together the last 10 temples, returning to Ryozenji and then to Kyoto and Mt. Koya to give thanks. His visit was another reward.


To write about this part of the journey I find myself at a loss for words. Its feelings that I want to share but feelings are difficult to convey. Its been almost a year since my pilgrimage


and it seems as if the experience of being a Henro has not stopped. I have regular flashbacks of smiling and curious faces, indescribable scenery, amazing experiences, and yes, even blisters.


I’d like to thank Parkway readers for allowing me to share my journey with you. Being able to write about my time in Shikoku has strengthened its impact on me and I am grateful for the opportunity to have written about them. I’m especially thankful to Yasuko for asking me to write my story.


If you would like to view a short video about my experiences,        My favorite Henro, Matt          please visit  STUDIO RED DOT PODCAST or YouTube.  Thank

                                                   you to Mieko Yamada for her dedication to providing the best Japanese translation for the video. She captured my words perfectly. I hope you will enjoy watching.



During my walk, I met many other Henro. For some of them it was not their first circuit around the island. As they proudly showed me their pilgrim books with numerous temple stamps, I thought to myself, “What type of person does a pilgrimage like this more than once?” I think I know the answer.


#134 Parkway Vol.25 No.4  October-December 2010