A pilgrim's journey around the island of Shikoku is a symbolic representation of a person's journey through life, hence the saying「人生即遍路」– "Life is a pilgrimage." For many pilgrims, walking alone is the only way to fully comprehend the meaning of the pilgrimage. Just as we experience life in our own idiosyncratic ways, each pilgrim's pace is unique. Some walk the pilgrimage on a deadline, others may have quit their obligations and responsibilities, and so are able to just go wtih the flow. Some will only visit the 88 temples, while others are on a mission to visit all the additional bangai temples as well. Some will go at a consistent pace, while others choose to bolt ahead, rest for a day, then take off again. Typically, pilgrims walk about 20-40km per day, and take about 30-60 days to complete the full pilgrimage.
I was only able to "feel" my own pace about a week into the pilgrimage. As I started paying close attention to time and the distances I've walked, my body was able to naturally tell me approximately how long I've walked and how much time has passed without looking at maps or my wristwatch. My body was most comfortable walking about 4.5km per hour, but if I needed to rush for the last two hours of walking, I could walk 6km per hour and would need a break after that. I was also increasingly conscious of the consistent time spans after which my body will let me know that I needed rest, so that I was more able to estimate the distance I would be walking the next day. Overall, it was a great experience to feel in tune with my body and physical strength.
The important thing to keep in mind is that temple hours are 7am to 5pm. This means that however you plan your days, you should aim to arrive at the last temple by 5pm if possible. This is because most pilgrims will start walking early in the morning, about 5 to 6am, to take full advantage of the daylight. A moderate to full breakfast is recommended early in the morning to boost your body up with some energy. On average, pilgrims walk for the next 9-12 hours (with breaks in between of course). This schedule allows them to arrive at their place of lodging at around 3-5pm, right on time for a cozy bath and then a full dinner for their exhausted bodies.
It is normal to take some rest days during the pilgrimage. I met a pilgrim who would walk about 45-60km per day for a few days, then absolutely stop walking for a few days to make handwritten copies of the Heart Sutra, then repeat this process throughout the entire pilgrimage. Sometimes, you might just be forced to take a day or half off because of uncontrollable circumstances such as heavy rain, typhoons, or sickness. You can also take days off just because. I never regretted the day when I walked for just 4 hours in the morning and took a mini trip to Tebajima, a facinating little island off the coast in the southeast region.
Walking as a Pilgrim
Dressing as a henro (pilgrim) and interacting with the people in Shikoku is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. The Shikoku Pilgrimage plays a significant in the culture of Shikoku, and you will earn respect from strangers by virtue of your pilgrim status. People may treat you with the utmost courtesy or show you the way to your destination, groups of children may greet you respectfully or offer you small gifts of wishes, and others may provide you with small gifts or favors called o-settai (お接待). These gifts can come in the form of fruits, meals, car rides (although you can politely reject this if you are solely walking), or even money. Shown on the right are some osettai goodies offered by an unknown stranger, which I found at a pilgrim resting hut along the trail. Note that you should, if possible, give the offerer your name slip in exchange for the osettai as a gesture of gratitude.
The vast majority of pilgrims walk alone. Sometimes, you will encounter another pilgrim and the two of you will decide to walk together, but it is not unusual or impolite to split ways after a few hours or a few days. Walking alone is, for the most part, safe, especially on the peaceful island of Shikoku. Needless to say, you should still exercise common sense. I once arrived at a shrine while walking with two other pilgrims, which was our free lodging for the night. By the time we got there, there were already a few people planning to spend the night at the shrine. They were shokugyō henro (職業遍路), or "career pilgrims," which in essence means they are homeless. If it wasn't the case that I was travelling with two other pilgrims whom I've gotten acquainted to for the past two weeks, I would have moved on to find another place for the night. Women pilgrims are, albeit fewer in numbers compared to men, not uncommon. Although it is safe to walk the trails as a women, many of the locals strongly advise against women sleeping outdoors on their own. I adhered to this advice, and only slept outdoors if I was with a fellow pilgrim that I trusted.
Finding Your Way
Signs for Pilgrims
Throughout the pilgrimage route, you will occasionally find stone or wooden pillars on the side of the road or along the mountain trails, with the words "shikoku no michi (四国の道)" carved in. You will also see hundreds of handwritten / hand-carved signs and stickers, usually found in residential areas or along mountain trails. They are an indication that you are heading in the right direction. Typically, if a sticker is placed on the left or right of a pole, it is pointing you to the correct direction you should be heading to. If you see writings on them, read it carefully as they usually mark the direction of the next or last temple. A sign that reads henro michi (遍路道) simply means pilgrim trail.
Road signs to the temples are often provided to driving pilgrims, usually starting from a few kilometers away from the temples. Road signs for cities and attractions are also a great way to make sure you're heading in the right direction, or indicating prefecture borders. Since they are easy to spot and come with English translations, they can be useful to foreign pilgrims as well.
In addition, markings on the sides of road, usually highways, may indicate how far you are from a particular city or the distance you've covered between the markings. They are subtle and can be difficult to spot, but are very precise and accurate. I found them useful sometimes to pace myself and make sure I arrive at the temples before closing.
The locals in Shikoku and various organizations have put in enormous efforts to build and maintain rest areas along the path for pilgrims. The "Henro-koya Project" was initiated by a group of individuals in 2001 that builds and maintains pilgrim huts along the trail, marked by numbers in the chronological order of when the huts are built. Hut no. 55 was completed in March 2016. Others are made by various kind-hearted individuals or families. Either way, you will typically see the words pilgrim (へんろ, 遍路) in Japanese if they are built specifically for pilgrims. These areas provide shade from the sun and places to sit and rest. For pilgrims travelling on a budget, these can be great spot to spread your sleeping bag and spend the night. However, mosquitoes can become a problem even if you have mosquito coils and spray – they become absolutely ferocious after the rainy season in early July. It may be wiser to use a mosquito face net in addition or bring a tent.