“Only foreigners walk, Japanese people take the bus,” a Japanese friend quips. Her well meant warning about the Shikoku Henro pilgrimage still rings in my ears. The circular route around Japan’s island of Shikoku is not only 1,200 years old, but also 1,200 kilometers long.
A reminder to mind your manners on the Henro! (Agnes Tandler).
Pilgrims walk between four and six weeks on average to complete the journey and visit the 88 temples dedicated to Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism. Now, due to the pandemic, the bus is not an option either. Where coaches would offload groups of gregarious pensioners, there is emptiness.
Instead, the average pilgrim now is a man in crisis. “Men who have lost their job, wife, family,” explains Kayoko Matsumoto. Matsumoto’s job description at the Hyakujushi Economic Research Institute in Takamatsu City is promoting the Henro pilgrimage and revitalizing Shikoku’s economy. This was not easy before the pandemic. “The Henro is long and it is expensive to undertake,” Matsumoto admits. Things are a lot worse now.
With no foreign tourists allowed into Japan for the last two years, it is mainly Japanese men undertaking the journey to seek redemption or reset their lives. “Even they are very few,” says Ayako Oyama from Bridge International, who organizes tours and guides visitors interested in the ancient pilgrimage.
Before the COVID-19 crisis about 500 foreigners and around 2.500 Japanese people used to complete the Henro on foot every year, she says. On top of that, the trail saw thousands of visitors.
Temple gate at temple 1, on the Henro (Agnes Tandler).
Now the path has gone quiet. The pilgrimage supply shop at Ryōzenji, temple number 1, is almost empty.
A Japanese gentleman in his late 60s spends a small fortune on his Henro attire. Dressing up for the occasion is really part of the experience. For most new pilgrims, the shop at temple number 1 is the first port of call. It sells everything a pilgrim needs: vests, pants, stoles, hats and pilgrim staffs, shoulder bags, books, folders, bells, prayer beads and rain covers.
In the olden days, death on the Henro was common. Exhaustion, …….