The #1 reason people travel to Shikoku is to experience one of the world’s great pilgrimage trails – the 1200 km trail around Shikoku visiting the 88 temples established/refurbished by Kobo Daishi, founder of Japanese Shingon Buddhism.
Since I only had about a week to spend in Shikoku, I obviously did not have time to walk 1200 kilometers to see all of the 88 temples. And if I did have the time/energy for such an undertaking, there are other treks which I would find more tempting (even in Japan, I think I’d rather spend that time hiking more of the hyakumeizan).
However, it would be a shame to be in Shikoku and not experience the 88 Temples at all, and it turns out that the first five temples are relatively close to each other and I could easily walk to all five in a day. Thus, I decided to be a henro (pilgrim) for just one day.
Traditionally, a pilgrim should start at Koyasan (which is not in Shikoku) to ask for Kobo Daishi’s assistance. I’d already been to Koyasan, and saw the building where Shingon Buddhists claim Kobo Daishi is meditating, even though I forgot to ask Kobo Daishi to help me travel in Shikoku while I was there. Oh well. Ryozenji is considered Temple #1 because it is the temple which is closest to Koyasan, and thus the most convenient starting point for pilgrims who are doing things the ‘proper’ way.
Once the train pulled out of Tokushima City, it got rural very fast. Shikoku doesn’t have expansive urban metropolises like the other major islands of Japan. The area around Bando station was very typical of small town Japan.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the temples. I had already seen enough temples in Japan to get Temple Fatigue. I was more interested in the walking part than seeing the temples.
I was pleasantly surprised by Ryozenji. It’s not a big temple, and it’s charming. It’s also … how can I say it? It’s not like temples built in an imperial city (*cough* Kyoto *cough*), which are trying to Be Sublimer Than That Temple Over There, or are tucked away and seems particularly humble compared to the temples aiming for sublimity.
It’s like an important temple in a rural area far from any megacity, probably because it actually is an important temple in a rural area far from any megacity. It doesn’t try to be particularly sublime or humble, it’s just there.
Also, it’s simply a pleasant place to be.
And of course, it was the first place I got a look at henro culture.
Most of the pilgrims nowadays travel with a bus tour. I hear that a bus tour of the 88 temples typically takes about four days.
Most of the people in these bus-pilgrimage-tours are older Japanese people.
However, I met a couple people who intend to complete the entire pilgrimage on foot at this temple.
I went to the place where pilgrims get their stamp (pilgrims can collect stamps from all of the temples they visit). They offered me a stamp too, but I told them I wasn’t collecting stamps.
And of course, there is a shop selling henro and all kinds of things someone starting their pilgrimage may want to buy.
I spent more time at Ryozenji than I expected, but eventually, I left and walked to Temple #2, Gokurakuji, which I’ll present in the next post.