Henro: the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage

There is in Japan a pilgrimage route around the island of Shikoku, connecting 88 temples belonging almost all to the Shingon Buddhist school. The pilgrims (henro) walk around the island of Shikoku on 1130 km, in general clockwise, 1400 km if one holds account of the additional temples. They let stamp  their notebook in each of the 88 temples before returning to the temple number 1.

The term "Henro" 遍路 (へんろ) means as well the pilgrimage itself as the person who does it. The way is called Henromichi 遍路道 (へんろみち).

       sign  japon  


henro ma

 Chonta henro clickable map

This pilgrimage is quite comparable with the Way of St James in Europe, but it was born independently, well before Europeans and St Francis Xavier accosts in Japan. The distance, the stages, the stamps, the marking, the inns and of course the friendship between pilgrims are identical, although the religious goals are at the beginning different. The frequentation underwent the same phenomenon of revival as in Europe in the 10 last years.

The pilgrimage of
Shikoku follows the traces of Kûkai: the legend wants that Kûkai walked this pilgrimage in 805, which seems not easily reconcilable with his biography. However, the way passes by places where he lived.

Kûkai(空海 くうかい) (= Koubou Daishi 弘法大師  こうぼうだいし)


Kûkai (whose posthumous Buddhist name is Koubou Daishi) (774 - 835) is a Buddhist monk, founder of Shingon Buddhism. He is considered in Japan a great saint, a well-read man who inspired Japanese civilization, a poet and a large organizer, creator of popular schools. He would have created the hiragana syllabary to write Japanese. He founded the Holy City of Koyasan and directed the Tô-ji temple in Kyoto, always centres of Shingon.

He was born in
Shikoku (Zentsuji) in 774, as Saeki no Mao (佐伯 真魚). He made studies in Kyoto, and then moved towards Buddhism. He had one period of wandering ascetic, inter alias in the caves of the Cape Muroto in Shikoku, where he took the name of Kûkai, then left for China in Ch' ang-an to study at the time of an embassy (at the same time as Saichou, founder of Tendai). He learned there Sanskrit and esoteric Buddhism  Mi Tsung, from Vajrayana "diamond vehicle", that Tibetan Buddhism developed later.

He returned to
Japan, and founded the Shingon School. Contrary to the other schools, he affirmed that one could "Become Buddha in this life with this body". In 815, he founded Koyasan 高野山 こうやさん, the Holy City of Shingon on the peninsula of Kii in the south of Osaka, and in 832 took charge of  Tô-ji in Kyoto.

His tomb is in the Oku No In
 奥の院 おくのいん temple in Koyasan. The faithful ones think that it is there always in meditation. Million of Japanese came to put their tomb close to him, along a one mile road under hundreds of year old cryptomeres . It is a much attended place of pilgrimage, seat of the Shingon school.

He received 100 years after the posthumous title of Koubou Daishi (Daishi = Great Master, Koubou = Transmitter of the Law). Employed alone, the term Daishi (great Master) in
Japan refers generally to Kûkai.

The pilgrimage of the 88 temples of Shikoku can start in Koyasan, but is often finished there, by a last visit to Kûkai (behind the Okunoin Touroudou temple), and a last stamp of Oku No in.


Okunoin oku  koya2 Noukyoujo

At the end of the alley is the Toroudou  灯籠堂 Lanterns Hall. At the back of the building is the KoubouDaishi mausoleum (Kouboudaishi Gobyou 弘法大師御廟). Visit also the crypt (scepter and ~50000 buddhas).

Map of Koyasan (pdf) sur www.shukubo.jp

Koyasan en français (site Fredasie) (photos)

White posts show the graveyards (墓所) of big families or famous men
Japanese website: famous men and mausoleum

Japanese Buddhism


For the monotheist religions, the world was created by God and thus has a goal to reach. All the History of the humanity aims only towards this goal. The western atheists transformed it into "progress", but the principle stays.
A Christian pilgrimage thus is a walking towards a final goal: we go to Compostela or to
Lourdes, the goal (and we return by plane in 2 hours!).
The oriental do not see the world on the road towards a brilliant future, but cycles which start again to infinity: the pilgrimage of
Shikoku thus makes a circle which returns to its beginning just to restart).
The Indian religions invented
- the notion of individual soul, God's drop in man ("Tat tvam asi = you are It"), taken by Greek and Christians.
- reincarnations according to acts in the previous lives, an idea taken by the Buddhism.
The idea of reincarnation which New Age finds nice (we live again, fine!) it is a disaster for the Hindus and the Buddhists (we return to suffering, to the " outside darkness " as we would say).

For the original Buddhism, the notions of creation, soul or gods are not significant (it is the spirit which is reincarnated), and we still wonder if it is  a philosophy or a religion. Some spoke of a religion of the atheists or about simple techniques of meditation (as often the Zen in West).
It looks for a solution to the problem of the life of man in the existing universe. His purpose is to go out of the cycle of reincarnations undergone by the man because of its ignorance and of its acts. The suffering comes from the desire: if we get rid of desire, we can arrive at the illumination, reach the nirvana (total liberation of the suffering and absolute truth) and become an awaken Buddha. A boddhisattva puts off the moment of the total awakening to remain to help the people. There is a worship for the Buddhas or boddisattvas, but they are in original Buddhism not considered as gods, rather as saints or angels who can help to progress. The "deity" is a representation of a quality. We don't worship a Buddhist statue, we just come to see that quality it represents (virtue, goodness, compassion,...) and seek the assistance of this "deity" to achieve this quality.

There are 2 forms of Buddhism:

- Hinayana (small vehicle) or Theravada, widespread in India, Ceylon, Thailand

    Only the monks can reach the Awakening, the others only a reduction in the suffering.

- Mahayana (large vehicle),
China, Japan
    All can reach the Awakening.    

   Vajrayana is part of Mahayana. Syncretism with the local religions (Shinto in Japan) thus more divinized way, with representations of Buddhas and boddhisattvas which are almost divinities (Dainichinyorai, Amida, Kannon, Fudomyou). 


Buddhism was introduced in Japan in the Nara era by prince Shotoku (574 -622), but developed especially around 800 with the introduction of the Mahayana schools: Tendai (school of Sutra of the lotus) by Saichô in 805 and Shingon by Kûkai in 806. Shingon came from the tantric way Vajrayana (way of diamond), from which the Tibetan lamaism was developed.

Thereafter, the other branches of the Mahayana were introduced in Japan:

- Pure Ground (Jôdo by Honen 1175, Jôsdoshin by Shinran 1284), centered on Amida, divinity living in the paradise of the West and on the boddhisattva of the compassion Avalokiteshvara,  changed in woman: Kannon. It is enough to repeat mantra Namu Amida Butsu to be saved in Jôdo, and even nothing to do in Jôdoshin. The school of Nichiren in 1253 only requires to repeat the title of Sutra of the Lotus Namu myoho renge kyo.


- Zen (1191) puts the emphasis on direct Awakening by meditation, Rinzai by Eisai (1191) especially based on the koans (enigmas) and Soto by Dogen (1227) especially based on the zazen (sitting meditation).

Shingon buddhism

You will find the basics of Shingon on the french Komyo-in website, shingon an Koyasan websites:

Komyo-in (french)    Komyo-in (english)  (a little different, look at both)


Koyasan shukubou

Pilgrims motivations

Fiona MacGregor wrote a thesis on pilgrims motivations.


Most of the henros (83 %) are going around by bus, car, taxi.
I'll speak here only of hikers (about 11%).

- Most are over 50, strangers are younger
- 18% women
- A lot walk only a few days
- 21% walk the way to the temples of Tokushima-ken (number 1 to 23) without to go farther, like most of Compostela pilgrims are only going from Le Puy to Conques in France
- 33% are going around in one time
- 1% ids going around the 88 temples + return at number1

Although Kûkai is the saint of Shingon, religion is varied:
- 33% Jôdo shin (Amida)
- 19% Shingon

- 17 % no religion (hiking)

Half of the strangers was "without religion", the rest christian or buddhist.

Richard Barber studied christian and non-christian pilgrimages, he classifies pilgrims in 3 groups:
- by religious devotion
- to "find a solution for a secular problem"
- from curiosity or "love of travel"

The motivations of the henro in MacGregor' study are, in order of frequency:
- Pilgrimage for ancestors, family or after a death
- Harmony with nature, health
- Faith or asceticism (= religious motive)
- Self discovery
- History and culture
- Curiosity, travel

Other paths of pilgrimage            

Kumano Kodo


Some years ago, I discovered the paths of pilgrimage while walking a part of Kumano Kodo to join small onsens over Kumano. They are accessible, but there is less accommodation than in Shikoku. Certain parts have only small places for camping or huts and thus ask for more preparation.

Kumano trails are rather related to Shinto, but they link Ise (Shinto main shrine), or Koyasan (center of Shingon Buddhism) to Kumano which was a place of syncretism between the two religions (shinbutsu shugo). Nowadays, it's more a hiking trail than a pilgrimage. Pilgrims in white cloth are a minority, you will meet most people hiking with mountain gear for 2 - 3 days or going back to seaside hotel every day.

Kumano Tanabe website

Kii peninsula paths

Kii peninsula paths 2

** A way " Sankeimichi Kohechi " goes from Kumano to Koyasan, a little steep, but in the middle of nowhere. 

** A way " Omine Okugakemichi " goes from Yoshino to Kumano, with passages at 2000 metres. It is a way known for the ascetic practices of the Shugen school. A part of 65 km in 4 days is described in Lonely Planet " Hiking in Japan ".

Lonely planet

** The main way " Kiji " is described by the author of Chonta Web which has once more anticipated us: the first part of its trip in Kinki is made on the main way which went from Kyoto to Kumano. A site with cards and heights. This way crosses the Nachi waterfalls.

Chonta web Kinki

** " Sankeimichi Iseji " Way goes from Ise to Kumano

of Ise

** Kumano Hongu english website

Kumano Hongu




Nearer for Europeans, pilgrimage to Compostela on the Way of St James is also an occasion to practice an active meditation. The increase of the number of pilgrims since a dozen year shows the need of a pilgrim to discover nature, or getting a deeper understanding of oneself, far from the excitement of the world and the consumer society.


The European are more familiar with the Christian religion, which is often theirs even if they might forgotten it, and go ahead into the pilgrimage, without the needing of preparation. Earth and architecture are still familiar to them and there is always a road which begins near home to go to Santiago.

Confraternity of St James (UK)

Amis de St Jacques (french)

Chemin de Compostelle (french)

Chemin de Compostelle 2 (french)

Ultreïa !