Six Days in Shikoku: Zentsuji to Saijo

The photo shows a five-level wooden pagoda, with a bright blue sky behind it, and treen branches in the foreground on the upper-right side and center-left side of the photo.

Just one stop away from JR Kotohira is JR Zentsuji, and about a twenty minute walk away from JR Zentsuji station is Zentsuji itself. Zentsuji is the largest and most famous of the 88 Temples of Shikoku, for it is where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was born and raised, and it is the first Shingon Buddhist temple ever established in Japan.

The map shows the location of Zentsuji and Saijo City.

The map shows the location of Zentsuji and Saijo City.

My guidebook says that, if you’re only going to visit one of the 88 Temples of Shikoku, you should try to make that one temple Zentsuji.


It’s certainly on a bigger scale than the other of the 88 Temples of Shikoku I visited, in fact, it is the biggest temple in Shikoku (though it is on a smaller scale than Konpira-san, which I had visited earlier in the day).


One of the sights of Zentsuji is the wooden pagoda, shown in the photo above.


There is a little dark tunnel which visitors can pass through in exchange for a small fee. Since I had a similar experience in Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, I decided to pass the experience here.


There is an arcade with illustrations of the life of Kobo Daishi.


Since I don’t actually know much about the life of Kobo Daishi, I didn’t recognize the episodes of his life in the pictures.


I wonder, is the picture above showing Kobo Daishi meditating in the cave at Muroto Cape (in Shikoku) and achieving enlightenment? Even I know about that incident in the life of Kobo Daishi.


I admit, I am not sure what the purpose of most of these structures are.


I know that there is a tree in the temple which supposedly was around when Kobo Daishi was a boy. Is it the tree in the photo above? I don’t remember.


After visiting Zentsuji, I returned to JR Zentsuji station, and rode trains all the way to Saijo, thus leaving Kagawa Prefecture a second time and entering Ehime prefecture. Since I didn’t take any photos on the trains, all of the photos in this post are from Zentsuji.


‘Iyo’, of course, is the old name for Ehime prefecture, and was one of the ‘four countries’ (‘Shikoku’ means ‘four countries’ in Japanese). The train station in Saijo city is ‘Iyo-Saijo’, following the tradition of Shikoku train stations putting the old domain names (Sanuki, Awa, Iyo, Tosa) in train station names.


After hearing about how sparse public transportation is in Shikoku, and travelling in Hokkaido and Tohoku, I was expecting lots of inconvenience. (Note … everything you hear about Japan being so public-transit friendly, and trains always being on time, and how fast Japenese trains are, etc. … does not apply to Hokkaido and Tohoku, though to be fair Hokkaido and Tohoku have much better public transit networks than parts of the United States with similar population density). Thus, I was pleasantly surprised that the trains from Zentsuji to Saijo were 1) not late or cancelled 2) the local trains ran about once an hour 3) I only had to make two transfers, and the wait time between transfers wasn’t more than 30 minutes. You can’t appreciate how convenient this is unless you’ve travelled extensively by public transit in regions where trains/buses only run once every three hours, and they might be delayed/cancelled, and transfers can take 2+ hours.


Of course, I should point out that I only travelled in northern Shikoku, which is where the vast majority of the population, and thus public transit services, are. I strongly suspect that public transit in southern Shikoku is no more convenient than public transit in eastern Hokkaido.


In any case, I got to spend a bit less than three hours riding trains, which suited me just fine. I appreciated spending hours riding trains in Japan since they allowed me to rest, read, do travel planning, look out the window, etc. While I was walking from the temple back to JR Zentsuji station, I picked up some snacks as well as a cold, fruit-flavored alcoholic beverage. I discovered that the cold, cheap, fruit-flavored sugary alcoholic drinks found in convenience stores all over Japan are a great thing to drink on trains – I didn’t want to be the least bit impaired by alcohol when I was doing something active like a hike or visiting an important cultural place, but I felt that a long train ride was the perfect place to dull my senses a little and enjoy the buzz. I looked out the window, though I don’t remember what I saw. I also wrote in my diary about my one-day tour of the temples in Tokushima prefecture.


I arrived at Iyo-Saijo station a little before sunset. I didn’t have any reservation for a place to sleep for the night, but that turned out to be not a problem – there are a number of inexpensive business hotels clustered around Iyo-Saijo station. I walked around, and then went inside the hotel with the lowest advertised price (I think it was about 3,000 yen per night). Nobody was inside, but there was a phone number. I called the number, and about ten minutes later, a middle-aged Japanese woman walked in to give me a room key and accept my payment. I think I was the only person, guest or staff, in the hotel building that night. There seemed to be something off about the room – as in the furniture didn’t really fit in the space or something – but since it was clean, and everything worked in the bathroom, and the bed was fine, I definitely got my money’s worth.

Why spend a night in Saijo city? Because I wanted to go to Ishizuchi-san, and to get an early start, I had to take the first bus leaving Saijo City in the morning. Ishizuchi-san will be featured in my next post.


Six Days in Shikoku: Jizoji, the Fifth Temple

The photo is filtered so it only shows black, white, grey, and green.  There is a tall gingok tree on the left side in the foreground, there is a grassy lawn below, and behind is a wide, wooden temple structure

The very last temple on my mini-pilgrimage was Temple 5, Jizoji.

The map shows that this temple is not so far from the previous temple, but getting back to the nearest train station is a bit of a walk.  From the Itano train station, I returned to Tokushima City by train.

I felt that each temple I had visited had it’s own vibe, so I was wondering if Temple 5 would finally feel like a repeat.


Well, Temple 5 feels different too. It felt like the biggest, grandest, yet quietest temple, possibly. There was hardly anybody there.


I played with the color filter on my camera.


There is a hall with a famous collection of 500 arhat statues, but I didn’t want to pay the entrance fee, so I didn’t see it.


Even though each temple has its own vibe, there are certain features all Shingon Buddhist temples have in common – like the purple flags. If I bothered to learn more about Shingon Buddhism, I would probably learn what the specific features are and how to identify them, but in my ignorance, I only get a sense that ‘yeah, this looks familiar’.


I was originally skeptical that I could be interested in all 88 temples – I figured the value of the pilgrimage would lie in the journey, not actually experiencing the temples themselves. I still think that visiting 88 temples might be overkill for me. However, these temples actually are neat places, and they have more variety than I expected. Maybe I could become fascinated by Shingon Buddhist temples if I immersed myself in that type of study.


As you can see in the map at the top of this post, though the (downhill) walk to this temple was pretty easy, the nearest train station was a bit of a walk away.

A very tall, old ginko tree almost completely blocks the view of the temple building behind

The road to the train station did have some convenience stores where I could get some food. Alas, the road’s scenery was very uninspiring. It didn’t help that it started to rain while I was walking to Itano train station.


But I didn’t get too wet, and I did get on a train back to Tokushima City. I was very surprised to hear Mandarin on a train go through rural Shikoku. It turns out the Mandarin speakers are a group of young Chinese men who are studying at a university in Tokushima City.

One of the great things about the 88 Temples pilgrimage is that it is very flexible and customizable. In my case, I only wanted to participate for one day, and I wanted to do it entirely on foot between the temples, so I picked a pilgrimage itinerary which could be done that way.

Even in English, there are a lot of descriptions/memoirs of the full pilgrimage available. Don Weiss’ pilgrimage memoir is available online – you can read his description of his journey through the first five temples here. The section of Lisa Dempster’s memoir Neon Pilgrim which covers the first five temples is also available online. Though I thing I have the physical ability and skills to do this pilgrimage, I lack the motivation. Reading Don Weiss’ and Lisa Dempster’s memoirs did help me better understand why people do undertake this pilgrimage.

The next day, I headed into one of the three hidden regions of Japan, the Iya Valley.


*** BONUS ***

After I returned to North America, I watched a public broadcasting show, Sacred Journeys: Shikoku with my mom. They didn’t cover all 88 temples in the one-hour show, but they did feature Temple 1, Ryozenji, as well a temple I visited on a different day, Zentsuji (which I will describe in a future post). The show featured a few pilgrims from California/Oregon.

For me, the main value of the show was nostalgia – ‘oh yeah, I remember travelling around rural Japan’ and pointing to my mom ‘hey, I’ve been there’. I also commented on the pilgrims’ hiking plans. My mom’s reaction? She says that people who can afford to do the pilgrimage, in terms of time and economics, are privileged, that it’s possible to do this because Japan is such a safe country (note: I now know enough about Japan that I can no longer make statements like ‘Japan is such a safe country’ without adding qualifiers). Overall, she seemed to think that going on this pilgrimage is some kind of luxury. I think this sentiment reflects on my mom’s way of thinking more than it reflects on the content of the TV show.

Six Days in Shikoku: Dainichiji, the Fourth Temple


It took me over an hour to get from Temple 3 to Temple 4 – it was a much longer distance than the distance between any of the previous temples (then again, considering that Temple 37 is an 87-kilometer walk away from Temple 38, the 4.9 kilometers between Temple 3 and 4 is nothing.

You can see how far Temple 3 (Point C) is from Temple 4 (Point D) on this map

You can see how far Temple 3 (Point C) is from Temple 4 (Point D) on this map

There were times when I thought I was lost because it was taking so long to get to Temple 4, and I wasn’t sure about some of the signs, and some of the paths … didn’t quite look like they were stomped on by tons of pilgrims (then again, the majority of pilgrims these days don’t travel by foot).

A little temple gate, with a straw sandal over 6 feet (two meters) long on each side of the entrance

In the middle, I ran into a little temple, which is not one of *the* 88 temples, but has some kind of affiliation with the 88 temples, and for some reason is decorated with giant straw sandals. I bet the bus pilgrims don’t come through here.

A closeup of the gate with the straw sandals.  On the other side of the entrance, we can see some well-trimmed green bushes in the distance

You might be wondering why I am only sharing photos of the temple and not places between the temples. To be honest, I thought the countryside between the temples were uninteresting.

See, by the time I had been to Shikoku, I had travelled through rural Kansai, and rural Nansei Shoto (all of the islands south of Kyushu – I’ve I’ve written a little about it), and a couple spots in rural Kyushu, and the rural Sanin region, and rural Hokkaido (I’ve written some posts about rural Hokkaido), and rural Tohoku, and rural Chubu … and yeah, I had seen a lot of Japanese countryside, and basically the only thing in this corner of Shikoku which stood out to me was the temples themselves and the pilgrims. I had seen everything else before.


Walking was okay – I could think my thoughts while I was walking, and I did satisfy my curiosity about what this specific part of Shikoku was like (after all, this was my first taste of rural Shikoku). I’m sure that, say, walking through the really rugged and sparsely populated parts of Kochi Prefecture is a different experience.

There is a two level gate to a wall compound, with a hillside covered with bamboo forest in the background

The gate of Temple 4, Dainichiji

Finally, I reached a road where I saw a henro on a motorcycle zooming on his way, and soon enough, I was at the temple. As you can see in the map at the top of this post, it’s a bit removed from the more settled area and is tucked into the hills.


The fact that it is in the hills and is a bit secluded definitely gives it a different vibe than the other temples I visited as a one-day pilgrim.

The next post will present the final temple of my mini-pilgrimage.


Six Days in Shikoku: The Third Temple, Konsenji


The third temple in my henro-for-a-day pilgrimage was Konsenji.


Between Temple 2 and 3, I took one of the ‘henro michi’ – little paths maintained especially for walking henro (pilgrims). The little pathway actually brought me to the side of the temple, rather than the front entrance.

I didn't even seen the main gate until I was on my way out of the temple

I didn’t even seen the main gate until I was on my way out of the temple

And of course, there was a bus tour group.




This temple has a few interesting little odds and ends.


For example, do you see that stone beneath a shelter beneath the bright-orange pagoda?


You probably don’t, so I’ll offer a close-up.

Beneath a little wooden shelter, there is a large stone behind a short little fence.

This is the ‘Benkei’ stone, which was supposedly lifted by Benkei when he was passing through here with his buddy master Yoshitsune in order to show off his strength.

I’m sure I missed a lot of the history, folklore, symbolism, etc. of these temples. If I were attempting the pilgrimage for more than a day I’d definitely want to read at least one of the books about the history/lore of the pilgrimage.


What I did not miss, however, is the lovely synergy of nature and temple architecture.

On the bottom left part of the picture we see a small building shaped like an octagon, with a roof slanted in eight directions.  On the right side, in the foreground, we see the lovely orange leaves of a tree.

The phot shows a pond with various water plants and rocky islets, and little bonsai pine trees at the edge of the pond.  There are some pink flowers visible on the right side in the background

And of course, there are always the henro.


I met this bicycle henro, who was kind enough to pose for a picture. I hear that doing the pilgrimage by bicycle takes about two weeks.


Three temples down, two temples to go (or actually, three temples to go … I explain in the next post).


Six Days in Shikoku: The Second Temple, Gokurakuji


After visiting Temple 1, the natural thing to do was to walk to Temple 2. It only took me about twenty minutes on foot.

The map shows that Gokurakuji is very close to Ryozenji

The first thing I saw at Gokurakuji was this gate.

The photo shows a traditional, two story Japanese gate which is mostly covered with orange paint, with white paint in the upper center

The gate of Gokurakuji

What else is in Gokurakuji?

There is a flat, white area, with a set of rocks assymetrically set around it, and small green plants at the edge.

There’s some kind of traditional Japanese garden.


There’s this shrine.

There are a bunch of mounted Buddha statues, with little green plants growing at the base, and green trees visible in the background

There are these statues.


There’s this group of henro which came off the bus.

The photo shows a tree which is way taller than any of the buildings

There’s this cedar tree which was supposedly planted by Kobo Daishi himself.

We see the trunk of the tree, which has a thich rope tied around it, and a second, slender rope which is a twist of red and white colors.  The base of the tree is covered with green moss.

Praying while touching the tree is supposed to be good for you.


I was concerned that all of the temples would look like carbon copies. Well, they don’t. I liked this temple too, though I didn’t tarry there as long as I did at Ryozenji. My next destination was Temple 3, Konsenji.


Six Days in Shikoku: The First of the 88 Temples, Ryozenji

The photo shows a chamber with a ceiling full of lit up lanterns.  In the foreground at the top are a series of papers hanging down with Japanese kanji on them.  In the room there are various small statues, candles, and places to burn incense.  Two people are inside the chamber.

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.

This photo shows a mannequin dressed as a henro - straw hat, walking stick, white clothes with orange thingy tied around the neck and drooping over the chest, with a set of prayer beads in one hand

The traditional attire for a henro (pilgrim)

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).

I went from downtown Tokushima City to Bando station by train to start my mini-pilgrimage.

I went from downtown Tokushima City to Bando station by train to start my mini-pilgrimage.

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.

The photo shows part of the wooden gate to the temple, centering on a wooden statue of one of the Buddhist demon guardian kings

And of course, it was the first place I got a look at henro culture.

The photo shows a walking stick, a straw hat, and a backpack left on the ground

It looks like someone dropped their henro equipment

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.

On the far side of the pond, we see a large group of people in white clothes, and behind them is a temple building

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.

In the background is a three-story pagoda building.  In the lower right, there is a man wearing a blue shirt, with a walking stick and a straw hat on the ground beside him

If I remember correctly (and if my Japanese was good enough), this guy is one of the ones who plans to do the whole pilgrimage on foot.

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.