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From temple to temple in Shikoku, on the way to Japan’s oldest pilgrimage

Each year, on the smallest of the four big Japanese islands, thousands of pilgrims join in a long and painful loop of 1,100 km, the 88 Buddhist temples of a course initiated in the 9th century. A compendium of culture and civilization.

The Kojiki, oldest known text in Japan (712), a thick canvas of myths and legends on the origin of the archipelago, recounts the breathtaking adventures of the Shinto deities, the kamis. We learn in particular how two rascal kamis generate an island with a body decked out in four faces. Shi: four, koku: country. Here are served lovers of Japanese etymology. The four legendary regions, Awa, Tosa, Iyo and Sanuki, have officially become prefectures with different names, but the old surnames remain in use among a population always quick to summon the gods.

To the east, Awa, where faith awakens (23 temples)

With only 11 days to complete the loop of the 88 temples, the henros must hurry up. Christophe Migeon

A swarm of pilgrims in hat, the type to digest half a dozen temples during the day, escapes from a bus in front of the Fuji-dera. The white chasubles stamped with the ideograms “my action spreads the faith of the Buddha” are scattered around the ablution basin of temple n ° 11. Mouths and hands are carefully rinsed, the incense sticks are lit, the gong vibrates with all its bronze, the faithful, mostly elderly, gather hands joined in front of the temple to meditate under the guidance of their sendatsu, a veteran of the circuit who bravely fulfills the functions of spiritual guide, accompanist, storyteller and second-hand nanny. After a few chants carried out with downcast heads, the group returns to the bus with a few cracking joints. It is with only 11 days to complete the loop of the 88 temples, we must not relax.

The statue of Kukai armed with his bell staff contemplates the stampede with his brazen eye. Kobo Daishi – Great Saint – as he is also called, is the founding father of the Shingon Buddhist school and the initiator, of the hachijuhakkasho, the route of the 88 sacred places. Almost 12 centuries ago, this fine scholar went around the island in order to pacify the still wild mountains and to spread the Buddhist faith. Since then, thousands of faithful break with their daily lives each year, extricate themselves for a moment from the heavy social hierarchy to follow in his footsteps and try to gain some merit by this great circumambulation.

Some thirsty for the spiritual go so far as to break the ban and devote their lives to turning from temple to temple. Christophe Migeon

Some thirsty for the spiritual go so far as to break the ban and devote their lives to turning from temple to temple. However, the route of the 88 temples does not really sin out of rigor: it has neither beginning nor end, it is only a gyration. Even though the temples are aptly numbered from 1 to 88, there is no need to visit them in order or start with the first. The henros – this is how the pilgrims are called – go around alone or in groups, on foot, by bike, by car or by bus, they can also, if they wish, do only one end . A pilgrimage to the good franquette …

Past the temple of Tairyo-ji – n ° 21 for mathematicians – the path suddenly plunges into the heart of a bamboo wood. Above heads, the tall foliage is agitated, battered by the wind, against an exceptionally blue sky background. The long, tight and frail stems give the impression of being nothing more than a modest insect making its way under the fine grasses of our countryside in June. At the slightest gust of wind, it agitates and trembles in the creaking of old rigging. Nature is teeming with signs: fucks, strips of paper with the pilgrim’s contact details, tied in the green of the trees, the henro ishi, these stone bollards made to guide the pilgrim, which slumber under the moss along the path, and then all these little crossroads Buddhas, accomplices and benevolent, the jizos, decked out in incongruous children’s bibs. Sitting under the bushes and thorns, time and lichens ate pieces of their faces.

To the south, Tosa, the harsh land of asceticism (16 temples)

The Tosa region is the wildest and most remote part of the circuit. Christophe Migeon

After the temple n ° 23, the pilgrim enters the Tosa, a region which unfortunately suffers from a poor reputation. Too bad, because even if it has few temples, at least a third of the course takes place there. This is the wildest and most remote part of the circuit. Tosa has long been described as a country haunted by demons, populated by rapiose and inconvenient peasants who are reluctant to open the heavy doors of their farms to offer shelter or practice. settai, this amiable tradition of offering to the pilgrim.

But we must be wary of reputations, starting with the dirtiest. It is because for centuries the province has been a rebel. From the 16th century, it rebelled against the new Tokugawa shogunate. In the 19th century, during the Meiji revolution, the inhabitants, decidedly hostile to change, were the fiercest opponents of opening up to foreign countries. Last but not least, the region, very attached to the Shintoist tradition, has always shown itself resistant to Buddhism, this dubious religion that came from China and other countries that cannot be named. This is the root of the problem!

In the evening, at ryokan, the traditional inn, a summer camp atmosphere makes the paper partitions resonate, the tatami mats vibrate. Christophe Migeon

The next temple, the Konomine-ji (No. 27) is a nansho, as we used to call temples with perilous access conditions. The climb that now takes a paved road is no longer anything very formidable, but is nonetheless steep. Crammed into minibuses, little old ladies with lilies and roses cheer us on and applaud us as if we were finishing up the Tourmalet. Stealthy moments of glory. Within the temple grounds, a Yamabushi leads a group of 18 pilgrims, drumming, screaming in a conch shell. The Yamabushi, literally “those who hide in the mountain”, are hermits adepts of a certain asceticism spiced with rifle rituals, like splashing under a cascade of icy water for hours or reciting sutras suspended by the feet from the top of the mountain. a cliff. So many healthy and strengthening activities that allow access to higher spheres of knowledge.

In the evening, at ryokan, the traditional inn, a summer camp atmosphere makes the paper partitions resonate, the tatami mats vibrate. Quivering laughter and rustic exclamations punctuate the vigil of around thirty henros obviously delighted to be done with the prayers of the day. The baths are stormed, the corridors are crowded with men and women in yukata, towel on the arm and soap in hand, and then it is the great ballet of slippers dragged on the rice straw in the corridors, the long heartbreaking complaint of tatami mats martyred by the herd of slippers.

In the west, Iyo or the enlightenment of the disciple (26 temples)

The “hanami” celebrates the return of spring and the explosion of cherry blossoms. Christophe Migeon

When it reaches the northwest of the island, the henro knows that the hard part is done. Wisdom is now within reach. Hundreds of long red and blue banners snort along the path up to Iwaya-ji Temple (# 45). Each bears the name of its donor with the wish he made. Besides the conventional and interested “May my business be successful”, “Prosperity for my business” or “Success for my business”, there are some more touching invocations like “Peace in the world”, “May I be cured of my illness” as well as a poignant “I want to survive!” “

30 km away as the crow flies, the town of Matsuyama celebrates Hanami, the festival of the return of spring and the explosion of cherry blossoms. It is the time of popular picnics under the red, pink and white blooms, the opportunity not to indulge in the joys of botany, but rather to slack off a few beer throats in the company of his family or his friends. friends. In the parks, groups of merry men gather on the rental tatami mats, grill the sausages on barbecues delivered with their already glowing embers. Pale-skinned women of archduchesses of the Austrian court clink glasses loudly with crimson-cheeked boys in a festive and country atmosphere that would not have failed to inspire Bruegel the Elder.

The northeast: Sanuki or the inaccessible Nirvana (23 temples)

“The bell is silent, the scent of flowers remains, here is the evening” Christophe Migeon

Sanuki, now Kagawa prefecture, reveals itself to the exhausted pilgrim, who has reached the end of the cycle, as the place of completion. It is towards the south of the province, about twenty kilometers from the coast, that the Okubo-ji is located, the temple n ° 88 which is not for all that the last stage since it remains to be reached. temple # 1, yozen-ji in Asa to complete the loop. The petals of the cherry blossoms decide to cast off the sails. The ground appears to be covered with snow. In the numb temples, streaks of smoke are dying in the great bronze incense burners.

“The bell is silent, the scent of flowers remains, here is the evening”. Basho, great haiku master, knew how to capture the essence of things and beings in a few chiseled words. Like a haiku, the path of the 88 temples, by turns light and serious, comical and solemn, gives the humble Western pilgrim a glimpse of Japanese complexity, a few pieces of a civilization that escapes any attempt at classification or simplification. . In the absence of Nirvana, this is always the case.

Like a haiku, the path of the 88 temples, by turns light and serious, comical and solemn, gives the humble Western pilgrim a glimpse of Japanese complexity. Christophe Migeon

Practical information

Rejoindre Shikoku

ANA, the 1st Japanese airline and classified as a 5-star company, serves Tokyo Haneda every day from Paris from 610 TTC round trip. Then flight Tokyo – Matsuyama (1h20) from around 200 round trip. Phone. : 0805 54 24 67, www.ana.fr or by train from Tokyo: 4h45mn by Shinkansen Nozomi to reach Takamatsu station.

When to go

In Shikoku, spring is less rainy than the rest of the year and experiences pleasant temperatures. It is also the cherry blossom season (between March 20 and April 10 for the region). Autumn is also an excellent time to discover the island, then adorned with gold and rust thanks to its many maple trees.

Where to stay

Iya Onsen. This hotel property overlooks the entire Iya Valley in the Shikoku Mountains. A funicular takes you 170 meters below to picturesque and soothing rotenburo, hot outdoor baths. From 340 €.

Setouchi Retreat Aonagi. Perched on top of a hill near Matsuyama, a confidential retreat of eight prestigious suites with 8-meter-high floor-to-ceiling windows open to the sky and nature. A minimalist luxury setting designed by the great architect Tadao Ando for an extraordinary experience. From € 930.

With a tour operator

Adventure lands, specialist in walking travel, offers a 16-day tour to be carried out individually using a roadbook. The itinerary is a summary of the pilgrimage, passing through the most interesting landscapes and the most majestic temples. “Shikoku, 88 temple pilgrimage trails” from € 4,650 per person for a base of 2 people.

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