Japan: Henro Shikoku

The Shikoku Pilgrimage (四国遍路 Shikoku Henro) is a multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi) on the island of Shikoku, Japan. A popular and distinctive feature of the island's cultural landscape, and with a long history, large numbers of pilgrims (known as henro) still undertake the journey for a variety of ascetic and spiritual reasons. In addition to the 88 main temples of the pilgrimage, there are over 20 bangai temples not considered part of the official 88. (Source: Everipedia)
If you also want to experience such optical highlights, you have to include the 20 side temples in your route.
I have only known about this journey for a couple of years, but I've been looking for it all my life. A pilgrimage with 1,200 years of history and over 1,200 kilometres around the island of Shikoku in the land of the Rising Sun. Up to 108 Buddhist temples await the "Henro"; the pilgrim, the beloved. At first, dressed in white and uncertainty, I asked my mind for a higher meaning but gradually got the answer from my heart. This is not a trip you can be prepared for; one can only let go and surrender to experience it fully. You will only come to yourself if you let yourself  be free. Shikoku is a place to find the nature of your own being. It is unpredictable. "Ohenro" is a rare privilege and opportunity to touch your own "Buddha mind". Here you are a believer or a fool who will soon convert. You will also be an ambassador of your soul and be helped by all the energies around you. You will never walk alone anymore, because Kōbō Daishi, the founder, father, friend and helper will always be with you. You will be called "Ohenro San" throughout the way and people will recognize and praise you and will bring you goods and gifts from their open hearts. Soon you will not only be supported by your own power, but you will also be part of the whole cosmos of this spiritual land. It will remain part of you in the future because never before have you been closer to yourself.

Japan: The way to my soul

I still remember that very first moment when I heard about this pilgrimage. I knew that I had to go to Japan to continue my existence. I made a promise to my soul to walk this trail. Even my darkest fears were not  powerful enough to dim feelings of change. It was doubt and joy of equal measure that erupted in me. Everything that occurred during the journey seemed to be planned thoughtfully by a higher power and with only the best intentions regarding my well-being. This sense of faith sent me deeper into myself than ever before. Being conscious of all those circumstances me and Kōbō marched together from now on, and I had one mentor more who cared for me. I had learned to trust, to offer and to devote my life to this process. I am he and he is me, that's the only way we mutually can be. I made the vow not to rest until I had gone the entire way to my soul. I went beyond everything imaginable to step outside my being to be able to see myself from another perspective. I was not only sustained by my will, but I also was buoyed by the beauty of the mountains, the spirit and the people who pulled me to my goal. Now looking back on the miraculous embodiments which have been given to me, I will happily stay in the state of Nirvana until the call of the soul is audible again.
Each temple is unique, as well as Kongofuku-ji (金剛福 寺) with the number 38 which marks the end of the longest stage between two temples with more than 80km.
In most of the temples, one can find not only various Buddha statues but also a sculpture of Kōbō Daishi and the temple bell which has to be rung at the beginning of each visit.
 Often, the sacred sites and shrines of the temples are artistically and pompously decorated, but unfortunately often not as open and accessible as those shown in this picture.
Not only the 88 main and 20 side temples are present during the pilgrimage, but you also pass many other sanctuaries and shrines.
In each temple, there is the main hall for the respective Buddhas of this temple and always a Daishi hall in honour of Kūkai, the father of the pilgrimage.
The 88 main and 20 secondary temples (Bangai) function as physical hideaways and psychic sanctuaries for every pilgrim. You will be doing right bowing in front of each gate, rinsing your hands, and ringing the bell; light incense, pray, donate some coins and recite the sutras at each temple hall. You will be primarily create (mental) space for you and others. Here you can coincide Kōbō with its densest appearance; here you discreetly ask for care, guidance and dry weather. At the temples, you don't only get a stamp in your booklet; calligraphic masters are delighted to draw the temples' unique signature into your precious collection. It is important to see the temples not only as way stations but to take your time and discover all the hidden gems. Only in that way do you truly get to connect with yourself.
At each temple, you can get the stamp and unique calligraphy in the Nōkyōsho (stamp office)  for $ 3
As a pilgrim on Shikoku, you're walking in white dresses which represent the purity of mind but also the constant presence of death because ultimately we all walk with it every day.
In processions, you can see how deeply the religious practice or the general spirituality is interwoven in the otherwise so industrialized Japanese culture.
Many Japanese pilgrims only have time and money to commit to the pilgrimage when they retire, and often form groups that travel by bus from temple to temple.
This is the only image from Kōya-san, the holy site on the neighbouring island of Honshu, where Kōbō Daishi still watches over us and meditates.
You won't meet numerous pilgrims on your way, each connection is precious and essential. Greet every heart and spirit with the smile of your genuine essence and respond with gratitude for the gifts which have been brought to you. Accept everything as it is offered; carry it with you and it will be with you forever. Being the true guardians of traditions and legends which weave around you and the way, people are also donating you goods and food. Communication with the locals is mostly non-verbal, but this does not decrease its significance because true expression and real intention always do come from within.
I spent almost every night in various huts along the way, not always as idyllic as this on a river bank.
Some locals follow the tradition of Osettai (donating gifts) by building quaint pilgrim accommodations.
 Japanese food is varied and pure, it's sensationally healthy and delicious and never makes you feel uncomfortable.
Along the way, there are even such free luxury accommodations as in this sanctuary, where you can sleep on futons and tatami mats.
I have been sleeping in this barrack for two nights and have survived the raging typhoon. Fortunately, the plastic windows have stood up, there was no door.
Regardless of your comfort level, let go of any conditions and familiar ideas; try new things instead and reach to the limits. Only then will you learn lifes' teachings, only then will you discover the true version of your soul to grow and prosper. Be it food or accommodation, be it weather or other annoyances, take everything as it comes and don't complain. Let everything go as a grain of sand in a rushing spray. My experience was that I usually slept outside or in temples, huts, even toilets. I settled down wherever I could and felt very content and deeply inspired by the sympathy of humanity and my own bliss.
Sensational forest sections can be especially enjoyed after long asphalted periods of thirst and from time to time you can refresh and cool off in the water.
The path leads along local people and their lives, through beautiful countryside, mountains and valleys.
You can not only encounter frogs, snakes and giant worms in the forest but also often holy figures.
Dozens of tunnels wind their way through the mountains for well over 20km, you basically walk underground for almost an entire day.
Mostly you walk on asphalt on small, little-used roads and rarely meet other pilgrims.
It takes quite a time to walk the entire pilgrimage, but it all depends on how long you would like it to be. You don't have to walk it entirely, nor complete it in one piece. You can bathe your body and tired calves in many hot springs along the way and you can hike through the four prefectures in any desirable direction. This virtuous island (Shikoku) will make you happy with all sorts of knowledge and can enchant your heart. You will gently awaken and through following ascetic training reach the enlightenment before you get liberated into a state of nirvana, finally detached from time and space. You will mainly walk on asphalt and highly appreciate any nature path when it occurs. You will sweat a lot while climbing and descending all the steep mountains and will be wandering through long tunnels, past wild coastal stretches and tropical forests.
Many types and shapes of mostly red arrows point the way from temple to temple clockwise around the island.
Hundreds of thousands of Nephila Clavata or Jorō Gumo (prostitute spiders) hang around the island creating incredible network structures.
The Nōkyōchō made of special paper provides space for the stamps and unique calligraphies of the temples and is treasured and preserved by the pilgrims.
Osamefuda Name Slides with your country, the date, your wish … and your name.
Completion! On my last big climb to temple 88, I challenged myself for the last time and was presented with this indescribable panorama.
What makes this two-month walkabout the most significant journey of my life? It has brought me to the next stage of my life. I have tried many different ways before without any success. It was a demanding and sometimes exhausting trek, totally inspirational, magical. Every single experience shaped my perception of the greater purpose; the many enlightenments wrapped my soul in bliss. I learned to be grateful for what is, to accept what has been and to pray for the things which might come. I did not only follow the red arrows around the island but my intuition and universal signs which have guided me countless times. Nowhere else have I seen so many spiders, have invested so much money in calligraphy and wrote one wish again and again on little paper sheets. The one request that did not leave my side was the finally fulfilled wish of the way to my soul.

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