Known in Japanese as Shikoku Junrei, The Shikoku pilgrimage is daunting—I certainly haven’t done the whole thing. Circling all the way around Japan’s most underrated island, and stringing together 88 temples with its 1,200 km length, it can take several weeks or even months to complete.
That’s the bad news. The good news? You don’t have to walk the entirety of Shikoku’s pilgrimage trail to get a feel for its beauty and magic.
Regardless of whether you plan to hunker down for a month in Japan (or longer) and complete the Shikoku trail, or simply stop at hot spots as you travel through the cities and countryside of Shikoku, you’ll find all the information you’re looking for below.
When to Do the Shikoku Pilgrimage
In general, the best time to visit Shikoku is between the months of March-May and October-December. These periods include, not-coincidentally, Japan’s cherry blossom and autumn color seasons, but you don’t have to visit Shikoku for hanami or koyo in order to appreciate the island’s unique beauty, on or off the trail.
Indeed, it’s not so much the beauty, but the comfort of the Shikoku weather during these months that makes them ideal for hiking. You can also theoretically hike in Shikoku during the winter—it doesn’t snow very much here—though I prefer hiking during slightly warmer times of the year. A heavy coat will weigh you down!
Points of Interest Along the Shikoku Pilgrimage Trail
Located just outside the city of Tokushima (where most Shikoku tours, on or off the pilgrimage route, begin), Ryozen-ji is the first temple of the Shikoku pilgrimage. It’s important to note that while even a complete journey needn’t start at this temple, which was founded in the eighth century, you don’t need to come all the way back here in order to finish the pilgrimage.
Chikurin-ji is among the easiest of the Shikoku pilgrimage temples to reach for non-pilgrims, with temple #31 of the trail being located just a few minutes from the city center of Kochi. Additionally, its grounds are sprawling and its pagoda is very attractive, to say nothing of the awesome city view on offer from the adjacent Kochi Prefectural Botanical Gardens.
I last visited Ishite-ji, which sits just outside the center of Matsuyama city, when I was enjoying the Shikoku cherry blossoms last April. Which is not to say the grounds of this temple, #51 on the trail, are packed full of sakura trees—quite the contrary. Still, it’s a tranquil and beautiful excursion and sits just a stone’s throw from Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest public bath houses in Japan.
Temple #75 of the Shikoku pilgrimage, Kagawa prefecture’s Zentsu-ji is notable for having been established in the early ninth century by Zentsu Saeki, the father of Kukai. Sound familiar? Kukai is the Buddhist monk who founded the sacred settlement and cemetery atop Mt. Koya, which I’ve written quite extensively about.
Although Okubo-ji is technically the last temple on the pilgrimage, you won’t be ending your Shikoku itinerary here, at least not if you want to complete the trail. To be sure, although it’s customary to drop your walking stick here (if you carry one), you’ll actually have to loop back around to Ryozen-ji, as I mentioned earlier.
Can Only Henro Walk the Shikoku Pilgrimage?
Walking the Shikoku pilgrimage is technically a religious ritual, one done by o-henro-san (often abbreviated simply to “henro”), who are generally adherents to the esoteric Buddhism popularized by Kukai. (Incidentally, many henro visit Mt. Koya prior to completing the Shikoku trail.)
Of course, many ordinary hikers walk portions of the pilgrimage; conversely, you can wear henro attire even if you know nothing about Buddhism. Typical items, which you can procure in any major city of Shikoku, include the byakue coat, wagesa scarf, sugegasa hat and kongotsue walking stick.
Where to Stay Along the Shikoku Pilgrimage
As I’ve noted in several other places on this site, Shikoku hotels like Daiwa Roynet Hotel Takamatsu and Hotel MYSTAYS Matsuyama leave something to be desired—this will be relevant to you if you pop into different temples along the trail from the island’s major cities. The good news is that many simple minshuku exist along the trail, so if you’re hiking part of all of the pilgrimage route, you can sleep in these properties for around ¥5,000-6,000 per night.
Note that while camping in Shikoku (and Japan) is possible basically anywhere, there are some particular hazards that accompany traveling in Shikoku. The island can be perilously wet (and hot!) during the Japanese summer months; there are also many pit vipers in its lush forests, and while the noise of hiking henro generally scares them off, it’s not difficult to imagine one slithering into your tent.
Plan the Rest of Your Shikoku Trip
I stan hard for Shikoku in general, and not just the Shikoku pilgrimage. From exploring original-keep Japanese castles in Kochi and Matsuyama, to the old bath houses and ravine-shrouded ryokan in Dogo Onsen and the Iya Valley, Shikoku (as I said earlier) is the most underrated of Japan’s main islands.
I’ve created a Shikoku itinerary you can consult if you’re looking for things to do in Shikoku, on or off the trail, or are seeking practical advice on how to plan your trip to the island. Or, you can commission a custom Japan itinerary, and let me sweat the details of your Shikoku trip—you just sweat while you hike!
The Bottom Line
Whether you walk the whole Shikoku pilgrimage or simply visit notable temples as half-day trips from the island’s cities, it’s easy to get a feel for this magical route that snakes along for more than 1,200 km. Don a traditional byakue robe and proceed onward like a true henro, or simply stomp in (politely, of course) like you would anywhere else you were hiking in Japan. Optionally, visit Mt. Koya and the Kumano Kodo before or after your Shikoku adventure and to bookend your trip with the legend of Kukai.