I have always wanted to visit Japan and go hiking there, so when I first heard about the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, I was intrigued. A journey like this is not so different from an Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
The pilgrimage is approximately 1,600 km long and circumambulates the island of Shikoku, the smallest and least populated of the 4 main islands that make up modern Japan. Most pilgrims walk the route in a clockwise direction which can take from 2 to 3 months to complete.
The 88 temple pilgrimage traces the route that a monk named Kukai walked in his youth during a period of asceticism and search for truth. Kukai (born in 774), is credited founding the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism and for creating kana, the phonetic script that forms the basis of Hirigana and Katakana. This latter innovation opened up the creation and consumption of literature to common people throughout Japan who did not have time for the memorization of the 3000+ symbols that make up the symbol based Kanji.
Some of the temples on the pilgrimage route are very difficult to reach and require hiking through rugged mountains and to remote villages. Of the 88 templates, 46 have their own lodges for pilgrims. There are also youth hostels near most of the templates. It is also customary for local villagers to invite pilgrims, who wear traditional white clothing, to stay in their homes – a Japanese form of Trail Magic.
Each pilgrim carries a signature book, called a nokyo-cho. This is a special book in which one collects the seals of each temple visited and signatures of their priests. In addition, pilgrims bring name cards, color coded by the number of pilgrimages that they have completed, that are hung from the temple walls and ceilings to commemorate their visit.
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