Henro Michi

I’ve just devoured Lisa Dempster’s book Neon Pilgrim about her 88 temple pilgrimage around the Japanese island of Shikoku. She’s a depressed and overweight Australian lady who walks the henro michi, a 1,200 kilometre pilgrim trail around Shikoku in the hope of regaining her health and confidence.

The rugged Eastern coast of Shikoku

Today many Japanese follow the path of Kobo Daishi, the monk who introduced Shingon Buddhism to Japanese, by bus or car, stopping at each temple along the way. But Dempster walked almost the entire journey. Her book describes her struggles along the way, the tradition of settai, gifts to the pilgrims, and observations of Shikoku.

Whilst I’m not sure I would wish to forgo as many comfortable beds as she, sleeping on benches, under the stars or toilet blocks more often than not, the thought of walking through Japan is quite seductive and definitely on my list of things to do there.

Many of Shikoku’s temples are located in the mountains

There are so many elements that could make long walks in Japan so enticing. Away from the busiest roads there is peace, walking on winding stone paths under tall cypress pines. A land of so many little surprises, discoveries. Hot noodles in broth, a steaming bath, sleeping on a futon with the scent of tatami mat straw in the air.

Walking is the best way to experience the world, to engage all your senses.

I would definitely not like to do it in summer though. Her descriptions of the heat and humidity recalled my own experiences last year in Hagi. And that was only a few hours long!

I believe that there are many trails in Japan. Some have immense historical significance, such as the old Tokaido road, the main path between Kyoto and Edo, traversed by lords and traders. The Magome to Tsumago hike is definitely on my list.

But Shikoku, it definitely holds attractions. The least well known, internationally, of Japan’s four major islands, it is a region I fell in love with back in 2008. Last year’s loop around the island only reinforced my feelings.

Just as I must catch the local trains, yes, I must walk too.

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