Walking the Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage (Part 1) - Plan, plan, plan!

Are you a planner? Or a no-planner?

Some people like to "wing it" when they travel. They book a ticket and turn up, deciding what to do once they arrive.

Me, I like to have things planned out. Especially when the trip involves a week of solo walking in Japan!

I've always wanted to do a long-distance walk in Japan. And the Shikoku 88 pilgrimage is Japan's most famous pilgrimage trail.

My original plan was to walk the trail when I lived in Japan. I hoped to squeeze it in before returning to the UK in 2014, but that never quite happened. I figured maybe I'd go back and do it someday though.

The Shikoku 88 pilgrimage (known in Japanese as 四国八十八ヶ所巡り Shikoku hachijuu hakkasho meguri) is a 1200km (750 mile) walking route around the southern island of Shikoku. It's an ancient Buddhist pilgrimage trail, taking in 88 temples.

Shikoku ↓

Image source:wikipedia

Many of the temples are connected to Kōbō Daishi, 8th-century Buddhist monk and the founder of Shingon Buddhism.

It's said that Kōbō Daishi spent time on Shikoku in training, and that those who walk the pilgrimage are therefore walking in his footsteps.

↓ Kōbō Daishi, also known as Kūkai

Image source: wikipedia

I'd never even been to Shikoku, let alone walked around it. But late last year I decided 2018 would be the year that I start the Shikoku pilgrimage.

Spring seemed like the perfect time - we have two weeks off from class at Easter. I decided to spend one week walking, with a few days on either side catching up with old friends.

One week doesn't get you very far into a 750-mile pilgrimage, but I calculated I could at least walk the first 21 temples (even at a fairly leisurely pace).

My planned route from temples 1 to 21 ↓ 

Image source: Nippon.com

There's a lot of information about the pilgrimage online, but I wasn't sure I'd have internet access while I was actually in Japan, so the first thing I did was buy a guidebook.

Well actually, I bought three.

First, this マップル (mappuru) travel magazine. This was fun to read, picture-heavy, and got me excited about the trip. But it wasn't specific enough to help me work out how long I could walk for or where to stay.

Next, and determined to use a Japanese-language guidebook, I ordered this route guide. This had great maps, and details about the temples, but not much else.

What I was hoping for was maps and travel information. And eventually I found it, Goldilocks-style, in the third place I looked.

The Shikoku 88 Route Guide is a pocket-sized guidebook with detailed maps, information about each temple, and lots of useful before-you-go tips. Perfect!

↓ It even contains this guide to temple etiquette, and a romaji version of the hannya shingyou (Heart Sutra)

↓ Detailed bilingual maps and temple info

Unfortunately for me (I really wanted to use a Japanese guidebook!), it's in English. But if you don't read Japanese, obviously that's really useful.

Armed with information, I set about making a plan. As I would be going by myself, I wanted to book all my accommodation in advance.

I planned to walk between 10 and 15 miles a day. (Compared to most pilgrims, that's pretty easy going). Using the guidebook, a lot of google, and a bit of guessing, I worked out where I wanted to stay.

I booked some of my accommodation online, but some places didn't have websites, so I called them. With the time difference, this meant making phone calls at 6am UK time.

(Talking on the phone in Japanese at 6am is not my favourite activity, but it needed to be done.)

To my surprise, some accommodation was already booked up four months in advance! That made me a bit nervous. Conversely, other places said they didn't take bookings in advance, and asked me to call back closer to the time.

Soon, I had a long and extremely detailed word document full of crossed out and rewritten accommodation names, distances between temples, and even possible places to get lunch. I had a plan.

Coming up in part 2: A Perfect Day in Japan!