History of the Shikoku Pilgrimage

Kūkai and the Shikoku Pilgrimage

The Shikoku Pilgrimage is the oldest and most popular pilgrimage in Japan. Although the establishment of the Shikoku Pilgrimage is widely accredited to Kūkai, its development and popularity originate from the collective efforts of various historical figures. In fact, documents show that Kūkai has only ever travelled to a few mountains on the island where some of the temples are located. Contrary to popular belief, Kūkai did not build all 88 temples which form the pilgrimage today. He has never circled around the island nor performed the first pilgrimage. Nonetheless, Kūkai's contributions to the prosperity of Shingon Buddhism in Japan and the development of the pilgrimage are of great historical significance, making him the central and most important figure of the pilgrimage.

Statute of Kukai Kūkai (空海), also known as Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師), 774-835, is a Buddhist monk born in Shikoku, and who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. His greatest achievement is probably the invention of the kana that is still used in the Japanese language to this day. Around the age of 22, Kūkai developed a strong interest in Buddhist studies, but did not join any particular school of Buddhism. Thereafter, he returned to Shikoku in search of isolated, undisturbed mountain areas to chant the mantra of the Bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha (Kokuzō). These mountains include Mount Ishizuchi in Ehime Prefecture and a large rock at Tairyu-ji, the 21st temple of the pilgrimage. Some believe that he attained enlightenment at a cave in Muroto, Kochi Prefecture. Subsequently, he changed his name to Kūkai, meaning "sky and sea."

In 804, he participating in a government-sponsored diplomatic expedition to China to learn more about the Mahavairocana Tantra. He brought back a large number of objects and texts, which were esoteric in character and introduced a new form of Buddhism different from what was being practiced in Japan at the time. In 812, Kūkai was acknowledged as the master of esoteric Buddhism in Japan. In 816, Emperor Saga accepted Kūkai's request to establish a mountain retreat at Mount Kōya. Kūkai spent his final years there, and occasionally returned to Shikoku, but the project was not fully realized until after Kūkai's death in 835. According to lengend, Kūkai buried himself alive while entering into a deep state of meditation. It is said that he then entered into an eternal samadhi, and is still alive on Mount Kōya, awaiting the appearance of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Today, Kūkai lives on as a prominent figure and forefather of Shingon Buddhist, a major school of Buddhism in Japan.

Emon Saburō

Statute of Emon Saburo and Kukai A famous legend related to Kūkai and the Shikoku Pilgrimage is that of Emon Saburō (衛門三郎), the weathiest man in Shikoku, who lived in the Ukaana area of Iyo Province (now Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture). One day, a wandering monk visited the home of Emon, begging for food. Emon turned him away, but the monk returned the next day. This time, Emon greeted him by throwing into his begging bowl a chunk of human filth. The monk continued to return for eight consecutive days. Each time, Emon chased him away. On the eighth day, Emon lashed out his rage by attacking the monk with a cudgel, knocking his begging bowl to the ground. The bowl was splintered into eight pieces. The monk never returned. For the following eight days, Emon's eight sons died one after the other. Upon this tragedy, Emon began his journey around the island of Shikoku, in search for the monk, Kūkai, to beg for his forgiveness.

During the span of about four years, Emon circled the island twenty times, each time missing Kūkai by a hair since he was always behind him. Emon then decided to travel in reverse order, increasing his chances of encountering Kūkai head on instead of trailing behind him. On the side of a steep mountain, Emon's health began to fail. During this time of desperation, Kūkai appeared, and forgave Emon for his sins. When asked if he had a final wish, Emon asked that he be born as the Lord of his province, so that he can do good to the people there and atone for his sins. Kūkai proceeded to crave the word "Emon Saburo reborn" on a piece of stone, and placed it in the palm of the dying man. Nine months later, as expected, a baby was born to the wife of the Lord of Iyo. For years, the baby's fist remained clenched, until a priest was summoned. When the child's palm was revealed, a stone with the words "Emon Saburo reborn" appeared. Today, Emon's grave still sits between Temple 11 and 12, where he fell. The stone that appeared from the baby's fist resides at Temple 51, and the name of the temple is called Ishite-ji (石手寺), or stone hand temple. Near Temple 46, there are eight burial mounds, which is said to be the grave of his eight sons.

Mount Kōya

Koyasan Kūkai's body was enshrined on Mount Kōya (高野山), located in Wakayama Prefecture to the south of Osaka. It is the world headquarters of the Kōyasan Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. After Emperor Daigo granted Kūkai with the honorific title "Kōbō Daishi," visits to his tomb have proliferated. The first pilgrims were hijiri, wandering ascetics, who travelled from Mount Kōya to pay visits to sacred places on the island. Today, Mount Kōya remains a sacred place where pilgrims visit either before or after undertaking their pilgrimage in Shikoku. Konpon Daitō (根本大塔), a masssive pagoda at the top of Mount Kōya, is the center of mandala in Japan.

The Pilgrimage Today

The temples and the pilgrimage itself did not resemble its current shape until centuries after Kūkai's death. Before Kūkai's time, a few of the temples existed as national temples (国分寺) on the island. Other temples were build around Kūkai's personal life, such as his family home, the site of his enlightenment, and other places where he performed ascetic practices. At one point after Kūkai's death, there were at least 165 temples on the island, with 135 of them claiming Kōbō Daishi as their founder. During the beginnings of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, temples on the island mainly worshipped the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, not Kōbō Daishi. Temples have since been added and removed from the pilgrimage route. Fourthteen of the current 88 temples changed their locations in the mid-sixteenth century.

Pilgrim stamp from Mount Koya The popularity of the pilgrimage continued to growing throughout the centures, but came to a major halt after World War II when Japan suffered a massive economic blow. As the economy revived in the 50's and 60's, infrastructure along the pilgrimage was repaired and improved. As individuals and businesses become to prosper, a bus company in Ehime Prefecture introduced the idea of doing the pilgrimage by bus. The henro bus tour was a huge success, and until today is still the most popular approach to completing the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Although walking the pilgrimage has its own charm and allure, those who are not able to do that, either for health or practical reasons, find the bus tour an amicable alternative. A great variety of bus companies work with the temples and inns to offer packaged tours to pilgrims.

At each temple, a pilgrim receives a stamp (nōkyō) in the form of calligraphy art handwritten in a stamp book (nōkyōchō), along with 2 stamps on the sides. This practice originated from a policy called tochi kinbaku (土地緊縛) in the Edo period (1603-1868), which regulated and restricted the movements of ordinary people. Pilgrims were required to obtain travel permits and follow main paths, and thus the nōkyō-chō served as a proof of passage. The osamefuda (納め札), on the other hand, is said to be related to the legend of Emon Saburō. These are name slips that pilgrims leave in each temple, and, similar to the stamp, it serves as proof that they have visited the temple. It is believed that when Emon was chasing after Kūkai, because he would miss him by just a little at every stop, he nailed his name slips on the walls inside temple grounds so that Kūkai might see them when he came back around.