Two of Eighty-Eight | My First Temples on the Shikoku Henro

A Buddhist statue near Tairyu-ji along the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage

Ever since first learning of the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage’s existence many moons ago, my heart has been yearning to embark on this journey. This epic experience comprises a circuit of eighty-eight temples that are strewn across Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four major islands. Spanning over 1,200 kilometers in total, the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage route requires one to two months to complete the passage on foot. Not for the faint of heart, this arduous trek is one thing that I hope to tackle in its entirety at a later point in my life. Given the length of the popular pilgrimage though, I’ll likely need to either crowdfund it or collaborate with a sponsor.

Anyway, while it only amounted to metaphorically dipping my toes into the water, I recently had an opportunity to visit two of the eighty-eight temples on the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage. The objective of this week-long outing across much of western Japan was to explore several of the regions that will be hosting events for the 10th installment of the World Masters Games. Originally slated to be held in 2021, this competition has been rescheduled for the following year due to everyone’s favorite, the coronavirus. If you’re planning to be in Japan for the World Masters Games and itching to get active, I’ve included some sporty options in the “Other Attractions” section of this piece.

By the way, for those not already in the know, understand that the World Masters Games are a popular international competition that takes place every four years. One of the largest celebrations of its kind, the World Masters Games are open to any athlete over the age of 30 years. To date, over 170,000 eager participants have competed in various categories of athletic events. Assuming that matters don’t take a turn for the worse with the pandemic, the upcoming 10th installment of the World Masters Games will be taking place in Tokushima as well as several other prefectures.

How to Get There

Donny Kimball gazes out over a valley in rural Tokushima Prefecture from a viewpoint near Tairyu-ji

The small section of the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage I experienced was located within the confines of Tokushima Prefecture. Before I cover the two temples I visited though, let me first explain a bit about the logistics. Simply stated, unlike the cities of Osaka and Kyoto, this area of Japan is somewhat of a challenge to navigate for overseas tourists. While there are indeed options for public transportation, the Japanese countryside is always easier to access via your own set of wheels. Without this freedom, your mobility will be severely limited when compared to those opting to secure a rental car.

When considering travel options, booking a domestic flight is by far the easiest method for reaching Tokushima Prefecture. Those hailing from Tokyo can hop a quick flight directly from Tokyo International Airport (a.k.a. Haneda Airport). However, those arriving in Japan via Kansai International Airport will need to first make their way to Osaka International Airport (a.k.a. Itami Airport) on the other side of Osaka. From here, travelers can catch a domestic flight to Tokushima Airport. Alternatively, individuals utilizing Kansai International Airport can also elect to take a two-and-a-half hour limousine bus ride to Tokushima Station.

Regardless of how you get to Tokushima, you’ll want to rent a car as soon as you arrive. Should this not be feasible, you’ll need to resort to the sparse public transportation offerings. Given departures are rather infrequent in this area of Japan, you’ll need to be mindful of the bus and train timetables. For reference, I’ll include advice for accessing the following attractions via the limited options that are on the table. While not what one could call convenient, they can indeed get you to your destination.

What to See at Tairyu-ji

A statue of the Buddhist monk Kukai (Kobo Daishi) near Tairyu-ji in Tokushima Prefecture

Of the eighty-eight sites comprising the sacred Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage, the first post I visited was Tairyu-ji. This sprawling Buddhist temple complex is the 21st sanctuary on the circuit. The compound is found atop a mountain that’s over 500 meters-tall and is considered to be a Nansho or “difficult to reach temple.” In the days of yesteryear, pilgrims would need to ascend this peak on foot but these days the Tairyu-ji Ropeway thankfully makes the journey a breeze. While experienced hikers can, and do, choose to make the climb, many pilgrims opt for the convenience afforded by the Tairyu-ji Ropeway.

Historically speaking, Tairyu-ji is a temple that boasts considerable significance. While all eighty-eight sites claim a connection to Kukai, the founder of the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage, only Tairyu-ji holds actual evidence. According to historical documentation, at the age of 15, the eminent monk spent 50 days in the vicinity reciting mantra in a vain attempt to reach enlightenment. Though Kukai was unsuccessful, he was later ordered by Emperor Kanmu to erect a temple at the site. In homage to his asceticism, Kukai enshrined the Bodhisattva whose mantra he had previously chanted.

After founding Tairyu-ji, Kukai would again go on to engage in meditation. This time, it is said Kukai maintained his meditative state for one-hundred days. If we are to take a local legend at face value, a massive green dragon watched over Kukai throughout the entire duration. What’s more, this myth serves as the basis for Tairyu-ji’s moniker which essentially means “Grand Dragon Temple.” Keep this tale in the back of your mind as you’ll encounter homages to this narrative all over the signage of Tairyu-ji.

While Tairyu-ji’s grounds are indeed impressive with their towering cedar trees, one standout for me was the pathway leading to the next temple. From this location, you can experience what it would be like to walk a short section of the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage. Moreover, if you head about 10 minutes down the path, you’ll encounter the impressive overlook pictured above. Supposedly, this is where Kukai originally sat while meditating during his childhood years. In addition to the statue of the young monk, you’ll also be greeted by some truly impressive vistas. Just be careful not to slip as the terrain in this area is pretty treacherous.

Getting to Tairyu-ji is much easier if you have a rental car but know that the temple can be reached via public transportation. To do so, hop on one of the buses bound for Kawaguchi from Tokushima Station. Thereafter, it’s a 15 minute walk to the Taiyu-ji Ropeway. Assuming that you aren’t hankering for a hard climb, you’ll want to take the lift to the top of the mountain to reach the temple complex. A roundtrip ticket will cost you a little over 2,000 yen but consider the fee well spent.

What to See at Yakuo-ji

A pagoda found on the temple complex of Tokushima Prefecture’s Yakuo-ji

My second stopover on the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage was Yakuo-ji. This temple sits in stark contrast to Tairyu-ji, as access does not require the use of a ropeway for visiting. Considered to be the 23rd temple on the circuit, Yakuo-ji can be found in the sleepy coastal town of Hiwasa. As can be seen in the background of the shot above, Yakuo-ji’s defining characteristic is its vermillion pagoda. Visible from many kilometers away, the pagoda’s unique features afford phenomenal views of the bay below. While the temple typically welcomes visitors, recent coronavirus concerns have resulted in temporary closures.

As hinted within the sanctum’s name, Yakuo-ji (lit. “medicine king temple”) is dedicated to the Buddha of healing, Yakushi Nyorai. According to legend, Kukai visited the temple when he was 42 years old, an age that is considered unlucky in Japan (more on that in a bit). In a bid to shed his ill fortune, the ever-important Buddhist monk carved a statue of Yakushi Nyorai which to this day is supposedly the principle image of worship at Yakuo-ji. Sadly, this sculpture is never on public display so you will not be able to admire Kukai’s reverent work.

Okay, let’s talk about this unlucky year theme and how it relates to Yakuo-ji. Generally speaking, in Japan the ages of 4, 25, 42, and 61 are considered the most unfortunate years for men; likewise, the ill fated years for women are thought to be the ages of 4, 19, 33, 37 and 61. Despite these notions, a handful of regional disagreements regarding these ages persists. In Japanese, these designated years are referred to as yakudoshi; folks concerned with their fates plan accordingly to prevent negative happenings.

While I don’t want to go too far down the proverbial rabbit hole here, know that the Japanese Yakudoshi superstition is a bit more complicated than it would first see. You see, these unlucky years were traditionally calculated based off of New Year’s Day and not one’s birthday. Because of this, the math can get a little fuzzy so be sure to double check your numbers. By the way, the years both before and after a Yakudoshi year are also considered to be rather unlucky too.

Anyway, at Yakuo-ji, you will find dual sets of stairs, one with 42 steps for the men and the other with 33 for the women. The final stretch to the main hall consists of 61 steps. Supposedly, those afflicted with yakudoshi malaise are advised to leave a coin on each stone step in an attempt to positively alter one’s fate for the better. To ensure favorable results, these actions should be performed while reciting the Yakushi mantra. If your age happens to follow during a yakudoshi year, perhaps you could consider giving this petition a try?

Luckily, for those without a rental car, Yakuo-ji is really easy to access. All you’ll need to do is head to Hiwasa Station via the Mugi Line (refer to the ever-helpful Jorudan or a similar service for schedules). From there, Yakuo-ji is located just a short walk away. En route to the temple, you’ll pass several ryokan, guest houses, souvenir vendors, and other such establishments. Just keep your eyes out for Yakuo-ji’s iconic pagoda that is entirely impossible to miss.

Other Nearby Attractions

Some boats in southern Tokushima Prefecture

While I am a total sucker for adventures such as the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage, I realize there are numerous amazing activities to experience in Tokushima Prefecture. Here you will discover a variety of options ranging from an active outdoor scene to impressive artistic ventures. During my fleeting two-day stint in Tokushima, I explored portions of the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage while also setting aside some time to enjoy the following activities:

  • Sea Kayaking
    If you head down to the southern extreme of Tokushima Prefecture to the island of Takegashima, you’ll find the Sea Nature Museum Marine Jam. In addition to exploring this facility and its exhibits, you can also rent a sea kayak and paddle around the small island. As seen above, the waters are surprisingly clear and make for an enjoyable family outing.
  • Indigo Dyeing
    I am a bit clumsy when it comes to engaging in the creative process however those who find themselves to be artistically inclined can try their hand at indigo dyeing. Just head on over to the family-operated In Between Blues workshop. Here, you can practice applying the traditional Japanese methods used for dyeing cloth. While not an activity I would typically choose for myself, the experience ended up being a lot of fun.
  • Hama Soy Sauce Brewery
    If you’re interested in seeing the traditional means by which soy sauce was made, you need to swing by the 120-year-old Hama Soy Sauce Brewery. Though comparatively small to what you might imagine, you can actually learn a lot of history in this modest, family-run facility. You’ll find it only a few minutes away from Tatsue Station.
  • Naruto Whirlpools
    Of course, no introduction of Tokushima Prefecture would be complete without mentioning the awe-inspiring Naruto Whirlpools. Sadly, I was only able to witness the whirlpools when passing over the Onaruto Bridge that connects Tokushima with Hyogo Prefecture’s island of Awaji. While my schedule rested in the hands of others during this trip, I’d highly encourage anyone to budget extra time to properly investigate these phenomena of nature.

Until next time travelers…

Subscribe to My Newsletter

Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

Articles: 306