“There are many ways to climb a mountain, but each path leads to the same peak.” I remember those words of the monk I’d met the day before—and that I should have heeded his advice to bring a walking stick.
Hiking Mt. Ishizuchi to Yokomine-ji (#60) is a test of the will, and of the hips, but it’s just one of 88. The Odyssean journey around the island of Shikoku and its 88-Temple Pilgrimage is an adventure, revealing the complexion and spirituality of the land of the gods. Wiping my brow, I gaze meditatively at the immaculate panorama before me. Sunrise, sunset, season to season, this sacred peak they call the “Stone Hammer” rewards the penance of the climb with peace and quiet you can feel nourishing your soul.
Pilgrims don white vests and, with staff in hand, retrace the steps of 9th Century Shingon Buddhist monk, Kobo Daishi, by visiting one, several or all the sites where Daishi committed to ascetic training. The 1,400 km route includes temples along the ocean shore as well as within city limits. 85% is paved road; 15% is natural trail. It is traditionally traversed on foot by those atoning for sins, praying for health and success or seeking enlightenment. An increasingly popular mode is by bicycle or motorcycle. No less pious, you can also take a bus or taxi.
The Shikoku Mannaka Sennen Monogatari provides a smooth ride through rustic mountains, high above emerald waters while dining on fresh local cuisine. Each stop offers unique experiences from crossing ancient vine bridges, to old-world farm-stays at thatch-roofed houses in secluded villages; or leisurely boat rides in the Oboke gorge, to rafting the whitewater rapids of Yoshino River.
Though the temples are numbered on maps, there is no order to follow. Zentsu-ji (#75) is Kobo Daishi’s birth place. Colossal camphor trees stand like guardians of this holy place. Incense perfumes the air. Prayer bells gently entreat us. The temple buildings and pagoda are massive, and the spacious grounds invite self-reflection. Chikurin-ji (#31) is known for its beauty. Moss-covered stone steps lead to an entrance that opens to gardens blooming pink in spring and turning crimson in fall. The temple enshrines Monju Bosatsu, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and is popular among students during final exams. Iwamoto-ji (#37) is a veritable gallery of 575 paintings affixed to the ceiling, displaying traditional images of Japan, from flowers to the Buddha and, curiously, Marilyn Monroe.
Legend has it that Daishi achieved enlightenment in a cave adjacent to Hotsumisaki-ji (#24.) The trail along Cape Muroto passes ancient buildings and statues. A cluster of rock is said to resemble the face of Daishi, and a nearby pond is reputed to cure eye ailments. Ryozen-ji (#1) is symbolic for being both the first and final stop of the circuit. It is home to Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, who offers fortune in love, work and health. Pass through large wooden gates, sit by the koi pond and waterfall, and contemplate auspicious beginnings. Anraku-ji (#6) features a hot spring and a shukubo, a temple guesthouse in which to stay overnight, receive meals and join the 6:00am Buddhist service.
The tapestry of Shikoku’s paths, interwoven between mountain and sea, frame inventive gastronomy. Kagawa is home to Japan’s olive production. Its olive-beef is the most exquisite brand of wagyu in Japan. Each morsel is a robust purse of juicy beef that defies prior wagyu experience or expectation. Not to be outdone, the chicken in Shikoku is clucking delicious! Firm and juicy beyond compare, Tokushima’s Awaodori chicken’s reddish meat is lean and chewy; Kagawa’s Honetsuki-dori, served bone-in, is crisp and aromatic; and Ehime’s Senzanki Fried Chicken kicks the Colonel back to Kentucky.
Kagawa is also renowned for the ubiquity of its udon. White-gloved Udon Taxi drivers whisk us to their favourite noodle shops. Soups, made with dried sardine bouillon, are ambrosial. Ehime is a citric blast of mikan (Japanese oranges.) Over twenty varieties are cultivated and even fed to livestock and fish. The resulting texture and essence of the beef, chicken and sashimi are prized for their refined quality.
The Shikoku pilgrimage is circular, meaning there is no beginning, no ending, only commitment and eternity. Reflecting on its simplicity and extraordinary nature, I recall the monk’s instruction that “Good posture leads to good breathing, which leads to good mind, spirit and energy,” and that we should all live more simply and organically. “Remember,” he implored me before setting off, “Breathe what you have learned.”
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.