I recently read Making Pilgrimages: Meaning And Practice in Shikoku by Ian Reader, which is about Buddhist pilgrimage (specifically the 88-Temples pilgrimage) on the island of Shikoku. One of the observations he makes is that pilgrims who travel by motor vehicle (buses, cars, etc.) generally focus on the temples, whereas pilgrims who travel by foot generally focus on the journey.
I doubt I am ever going to return to Shikoku in my life, but the mode of pilgrimage which I am much more interested in is the walking kind, not the bus kind. However, as I said in one of my posts about my mini-pilgrimage, if I had lots of time to explore a rural area, I would probably choose a rural area other than the 88 Temples pilgrimage. Based on what little I saw, most of the 88 Temples pilgrimage consists of areas which have been built-up so much that, on the surface, they are indistinguishable from much of rural Japan (and as a pilgrim, I doubt I would get enough below the surface to learn about, say, local village traditions) and is not particularly scenic. Making Pilgrimages: Meaning And Practice in Shikoku also claims that, even though much of the media about the pilgrimage focuses on a serene trek through “nature”, only about 10% of the route could be considered scenic nowadays.
And before I went to Shikoku, I figured the pilgrimage would be more about the journey than the temples. It’s pretty clear from my own travel style that I care a lot about the ‘journey’ aspect of travel.
Then, on my own mini-pilgrimage, even though I insisted on walking the entire (short) route so because I felt that would be a more meaningful experience for myself, I ended up focusing on the temples. It certainly helped that I was not exhausted and the temples were close to each other.
Really, without the cultural/folk/religious traditions of the pilgrimage which, nowadays, are most readily accessed at the temples, what would be the point of walking in a circle around Shikoku instead of, say, Taiwan? Walking in a circle around Taiwan, I suspect, would have much better scenery. (And yes, walking by foot around Taiwan in a circle is becoming increasingly popular, though it is a pilgrimage inspired by patriotism rather than religion – though Ian Reader notes that some pilgrims on the 88 Temples circuit may also be motivated by patriotism rather than religion). And considering my own life history, walking in a circuit around Taiwan would probably also be more meaningful to me personally than walking in a circuit around Shikoku.
I was also struck by the comment from a temple priest, reported by Ian Reader, that doing the pilgrimage by bus was preferable to doing it on foot, since the bus pilgrims focus more on prayer and understanding the spiritual aspects, rather than always being in a hurry to walk to the next temple.
My point is that, due to my own circumstances, I was atypical of walking pilgrims in that the temples were the greatest point of interest to me, and I was atypical of the pilgrims who would focus on the temples in that I travelled between them on foot. Of course, the fact that I only did it for one day and only visited five temples also makes me atypical as well.