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The Shikoku Pilgrimage: Practical Tips and Anecdotes by Oliver Dunskus

Oliver Dunskus is a German national who spends most of his year being a marketing manager. However, he has an atypical hobby: spending a few weeks each year walking the most famous pilgrimage of Japan, on Shikoku island. Noticing the lack of practical guidebooks for western pilgrims, he wrote and released the first Shikoku pilgrimage guidebook in German. Then, in January 2021, he released a new book in English, “The 88 Temples of Shikoku: A Guide for the Walking Pilgrim.

Read on to discover the challenges of walking more than 1,000 kilometers, unique anecdotes involving the locals, how Oliver wrote his guide, and what each trip offers him on a personal level.

What is the Shikoku Pilgrimage?

Could you explain what the Shikoku Pilgrimage is for our readers who may not be familiar with it?

Shikoku is the fourth island of Japan, and is located south of Kobe. It takes about two hours by ship to get there. It is about 200 kilometers wide and 100 kilometers long. There is a pilgrimage path of 1,200 kilometers, mostly around the island’s coasts. Along the path, you go to 88 famous temples that the famous Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi is believed to have visited. There, you can conduct a couple of rituals if you wish to do so. It is nothing too complicated: you wash your hand, ring the temple bell, you go to the main temple, you go to the pilgrimage temple, you pray, and then you get a stamp and a calligraphy.

If you wish, you can also visit 20 extra temples, and beyond that, Shikoku has an infinite number of other sacred places. After you have visited the last temple, you go back to temple number one, and then you have completed the circle.

A pilgrimage is meant to be a combination of a trip you do and a trip into yourself.

But actually, there are no strict rules for the pilgrimage. You can start from any temple you want. You can do the pilgrimage several times, in small pieces, as many Japanese people do. You can use transportation instead of walking. You can do it backwards. Everything is up to you.

After you finish the pilgrimage, you can get a certificate of completion if this is important to you. However, for me, this is a little superficial. A pilgrimage is meant to be a combination of a trip you do and a trip into yourself, as you are usually walking alone. Also, I have found out that the activity of walking, watching where you put your feet, prevents you from thinking of other things too intensively. You are always brought back to the “here and now” At best, I think of where I will find some food and drinks and where I am going to sleep. Today, as we allow ourselves to be chased by computers and Excel tables, it feels wonderful to be in nature and have simple targets for the day.

Compared to the Camino de Santiago, the scenery is more diverse, and you have more chances to have spontaneous interactions with the local people. And, of course, the temples are marvelous works of architecture and handicraft.

Notebook pages decorated with calligraphies and red stamps
Oliver’s pilgrim notebook in which he collects the temples’ stamps and calligraphies.

When did you hear about the Shikoku Pilgrimage for the first time?

When my parents retired, then went to live in the South of France. When he was 60, my father started to hike in Spain several times a year and he became really passionate about it. I thought he was hiking, but he explained to me that he was on a pilgrimage, even though he was not religious. He did it for 20 years and he loved it so much I decided to join him before it was too late. I walked the path from Sevilla to Santiago with him for two weeks and loved it so much I walked it with him four times on several other caminos.

I had lived in Japan as a teenager, but at that time (in the 1970’s) I had no interest in the traditional culture at the time. I preferred McDonald’s over sushi! When I grew older, I wanted to go back to Japan to discover the things I had left aside. That is when my father told me there was a pilgrimage in Shikoku, which would allow me to discover the countryside and the historical Japan.

The first time, in 2016, I was too insecure to start from scratch that I only stayed for two weeks and visited a few temples. I returned back later. I have been to Shikoku five times, but have only completed the pilgrimage two times. I do not have enough time to go for two months every time.

Now I like to do the pilgrimage gyaku uchi, which is walking the path backwards, for the simple reason that you meet more people. If you walk clockwise, you are always with the same people, but if you walk counterclockwise, most of the people come to you. When I see another foreigner, I like to stop and have a chat with them. And often, it is people I know or who know me from the Facebook group I am administrating.

Western pilgrims are resting on the side of the road
Meeting other pilgrims along the way.

Where did you find the information to plan your first trip?

There are a couple of books in German, but like in English, most books are people relating their personal experience of the pilgrimage, these are usually not practical guidebooks. They mostly write about how they felt and give a little bit of information. That is how I found that there was no guidebook in German or English telling how the path looks and feels. Some guides tell you about the 88 temples, but not what is in between the temples.

Some stretches on the path lack good signposts, because the maintenance of the paths is mainly taken care of by local associations, and in some places there are not enough people who can take care of them. I thought foreigners needed a guidebook that did not relate the local myths too deeply, but that would be more practical. For example, letting people know that the path between temples 11 and 12 is tough, and how they should be mentally and physically prepared for this.

The Benefits of the Pilgrimage

There is this principle that the Japanese call ‘dogyo-ninin,’ which means you are never alone on the path and that Kobo Daishi is always with you, as a guard or as a guide.

In your book, you recommend walking about 20 kilometers a day, which is about five hours of walking, in order to leave time for breaks and contemplation. You mention it as a way to “escape the daily pressure of life and find your personal flow.” What has the pilgrimage brought you on a personal or spiritual level?

Everybody is looking for something different on the pilgrimage, however, in the end, it is more or less the same thing. People want to find inner peace.

I was very curious about culture, the temples, and Buddhism. I was also interested in architecture because the temples were usually built without nails, which is fascinating. There is so much to see on the way, it is a waste to rush into the path to collect all the stamps like a medal collector. Walking 20 kilometers a day means you walk for five hours, and you have the rest of the time to look around and slow down.

Something funny for me is that even though I am not a very spiritual person, after a couple of days, I start an inner dialogue with Kobo Daishi.

There is this principle that the Japanese call “dogyo-ninin,” which means you are never alone on the path and that Kobo Daishi is always with you, as a guard or as a guide. Once I asked him for sunny weather for the following days and it worked! But I soon realized a cold, northern wind was blowing. I took it as Kobo Daishi’s way of telling me, “Do not think you can order whatever you want.” [laughs]

A bridge leading to a temple

Do you find yourself changed after each pilgrimage?

Yes. After each pilgrimage, you realize how little you need to be satisfied. You go back to the basic human needs: not being cold, sleeping when you are tired, eating when you are hungry, being able to go to the toilet. You realize you can shape your life in an easier way than you always did. From one trip to another, my luggage became lighter. Also, people tell me I smile a lot after these trips.

I found it funny how you first advise the reader on what to NOT take with them, before giving a list of essential items to bring.

That is the funny thing about the backpack: on one hand, you want to take everything you might need, but on the other hand, it becomes a burden! The best way is to reduce your needs so you need less luggage. I usually have seven kilos of luggage, which is the maximum I find comfortable to carry. I saw Japanese pilgrims who had only four kilos! They only have one set of clothes that they wash every day. 

Challenges and Encounters Along the Way

Have you ever considered giving up the pilgrimage while you were on the way?

There are a couple of moments when I felt very tired, but I always found it too fascinating to give up. And 70% of the time, you can jump on a bus or a train.

There is one trip during which I decided to buy a bicycle in Kochi, and I cycled 1,000 kilometers. I had completely underestimated the climbs, as, of course, Japan is a very steep country! And on a mamachari [a Japanese city bicycle], if it is more than a 7% climb, you must push.

I was cold, I was hungry, I was tired, and I started to cry. I really felt as if I was being tested.

During this trip, I went from temples 42 to 43 in which there is a very long climb. At the time, I did not have the Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide, which is a fantastic map. I just had a general map of Shikoku. I thought my climb would be over once I get to a tunnel on a mountain peak. I was under time pressure because it was half past four and the temples usually close at five.

I climbed up and it started to rain, and there was northern wind. It was November. I eventually got to the tunnel. It was still steep inside, and I soon realized there was not one tunnel, but nine tunnels! That was not clearly visible on the map. And since tunnels act like funnels, in each tunnel, the wind became stronger. I was cold, I was hungry, I was tired, and I started to cry. I really felt as if I was being tested.

I was able to get back on the bike and arrived at the temple at ten past five. The temple was still open. An elderly nun was sitting there in the office as if she had been waiting for me, and there was a homeless man warming up too. I apologized for being late and the nun told me to take my time. She closed after I left. I realized all the pressure I had put on myself had been completely unnecessary, and too much focused on getting my stamp. It was the closest to giving up that I ever got.

I would like to say that I have been very lucky with my feet. Many people give up because they get blisters that keep reappearing. These are usually people who walk more than 20 kilometers a day.

A road along the coast on a sunny day

One of the customers had tattoos and part of a finger missing: he was a yakuza! He noticed me and said, ‘Mr. Pilgrim, come drink with me!’

In your book, you mention interacting with local people as being the most interesting part of the pilgrimage. What is your most memorable experience with the locals?

When you encounter people on your pilgrimage, you give them osamefuda, strips of paper that you give along the way to show your grattitude On a hot day, I was having a dialogue with Kobo Daishi and asked him if he could ask one of the cars to stop and take me along.

Five minutes later, a car stopped. The window rolled down, and the guy inside gave me a very special osamefuda made of silk. These are used by people who have finished the pilgrimage over a hundred times, and act as lucky charms. But at the time, I did not know that. He gave me the piece of silk and went away. All I wanted was to be taken in his air-conditioned car! It was only at night that I learned what it was and hoped it would give me good luck. 

Two days later, I was perfectly comfortable in a lonely place with not much traffic. Suddenly, a car stopped, and a friendly young lady took me along for nine kilometers. I thought it was funny I did not get a ride when I needed it but got it when I did not need it.

Colorful strips of silk with kanji written on them
Some silk osamefuda

The locals have a very positive attitude towards the pilgrims. Pilgrims are usually dressed in white, so they are easy to spot. People might give you drinks, or some oranges. Sometimes they even give you money.

Once I went to a small izakaya to have dinner after my pilgrimage day. There was a customer who was leading the conversation. He had tattoos and part of a finger missing: he probably was a yakuza [a member of the Japanese mafia]! He was drunk and making a big show. He noticed me and said, “Mr. Pilgrim, come drink with me!” He ordered me sake and food, paid everything for me, and left. You never know what kind of encounters you are going to make!

The main hall of a Buddhist temple seen from the outside

Traveling Responsibly

You encourage the readers to avoid using free accommodation and stay in local establishments to support the local economy. You mention the fact that the area is aging and suffers from depopulation.

Yes. Traditionally, the pilgrims in the 17th century were people who had left their homes to do the pilgrimage. They often ran out of money on the way, and were usually poor. They were something between pilgrims and homeless. Local people did not always like the pilgrims. The temples had places for nightly prayers that they often did not use, and would let some pilgrims stay there when they had pity on them. It was for people in need.

There used to be a misunderstanding among foreign pilgrims that the pilgrimage in Shikoku was great because you could sleep in the temples free of charge. At first, I made myself a list of budget places to stay, which included such temples and free huts supported by local groups. I shared my list and a Japanese friend called me to tell me temples did not appreciate this information to be too widely known. The temples want to make their own choice of who to offer it to—to people who seem to need it. It is not a place to come and say, “Hey, where is the place to sleep?” So, I changed my list and left the temples providing paid places, and the free huts for pilgrims. On the other hand, some temples are usually allowing pilgrims to stay free of charge. But in my opinion it should not be part of the plan.

A small wooden hut
A hut for pilgrims to stay

I also realized Shikoku was poorer than the rest of Japan, and that it was becoming depopulated. I see a lot of deserted shopping streets and a lot of empty houses. There are also a lot of elderly people closing their guesthouses.

On the other hand, the Western pilgrims are usually privileged people. They have the money to travel to Japan, to not work, and just walk around. When asking other people, “What about students on a budget?”, I was told, “Then they should do properly as far as their money takes them.” People often think that Japan is an expensive country, but the hostels in Shikoku are not expensive at all. I rarely pay more than 3,500 yen (around 30€) for my stay.

What major cultural common points and differences between Germany and Japan did you notice while walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage?

There is a reason why, in my opinion, the Germans and the Japanese like each other. My theory is that in both countries, people suffered from the land. Japan is volcanic, there are earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, and there are not a lot of places to do agriculture. Germany, on the opposite of France, was not a very fertile country. If people did not keep enough crops for next spring, they would starve and die. In both countries, if you did not manage your life very well, you would starve or die from the cold. This makes you develop a kind of discipline.

German culture was also heavily influenced by the Prussians, who were poor but had a strong military. Japan has a strong sense of hierarchy inherited from the shogunate.

What Germany does not have is the Japanese style of being friendly, of putting yourself back and being modest. Germans are very straightforward and sometimes noisy. Japanese are gourmet people; they have a very fine palate. Germans also like good food, but this part of their culture only developed during the last 30 years.

In Shikoku, the people are very straightforward. They are not embarrassed that they do not speak English: they just talk to you in Japanese, they do not care!

In Tokyo, people are very formalistic in the way they deal with each other, which is typical of cultures that had very powerful central monarchies. For example, you have etiquette in France, Spain, or England. In Germany, we do not have this because we were spread across too many different smaller kingdoms, and that is why Germans do not behave so well compared to other countries [laughs].

So, in Japan, you have a lot of etiquette, but when you arrive in Shikoku, the people are very straightforward. They are not embarrassed that they do not speak English: they just talk to you in Japanese, they do not care! They are very natural and that is very refreshing.

Writing the Shikoku Pilgrimage Guidebook

A stack of Oliver's guidebook

Why did you decide to be the first to write a Shikoku Pilgrimage book in German?

I decided to write a book about what I was missing the first time. For example, I had no source telling me, “Be careful, between temples 11 and 12, there are no vending machines or places to buy food.”

First, I wrote a book in German because the only German book on the practical side of the pilgrimage was called “Wallfahrt zu Zweien” [Pilgrimage for Two], and it was written by a German (Alfred Bohner) who taught English in Matsuyama a hundred years ago. So, I wrote my book because there was not one. There were only experiences as books.

I thought I had to write a guidebook about every stage: is it long? is it steep? is it difficult? can you get lost? where can you sleep? and things like that.

Some people started to ask me for an English version of my book. I thought I should write another book in English altogether, something lighter because my German book weighs 400 grams. I limited myself to 200 pages and no more. I used the same structure for each temple: I wrote succinctly about the history of some temples without the myths. Also, I am not a Buddhist, so I am not competent to write about Buddhism. I wrote it in simple English so it could be understood by people from many countries. That is how “The 88 Temples of Shikoku” was born.

I am using a publishing company that allows you to self-publish from a PDF file that you upload. They can make one copy or a thousand copies of your book, as you wish. You get an ISBN number, and they can make a global distribution for you. And it is not very expensive.

Lately, people have been asking me to make the book in French, but my French is not good enough. If anyone is interested in translating it, I would be happy to share the money I make from it or even to sell its license as long as they credit me as the author. 

You use a four-star “fascination” rating for each temple. What criteria does this notation reflect?

That is a good question! I struggled because I wondered if I had the moral right to rate the temples. Pilgrims often have their favorite temples and it is often the same temples. Some really stand out for their extreme location, their beauty, or their charm. For a long time, I did not know how to call this rating, so I picked up this name that was purely emotional.

Take the time to sit and talk to the people who give you presents. Sometimes elderly people are sitting outside, waiting for the opportunity to invite a pilgrim to tea.

You remind the reader a couple of times that they should be careful of the time, because in Japan night comes early and fast. What are common mistakes made by European pilgrims?

At first, I did not understand why temples would all close at five, then I understood it gets dark at that time. They were actually closing early enough for the pilgrims to go to their stay before it gets dark.

If you are willing to take the most of the pilgrimage, the mistake most people make, and I did it too, is being too focused on getting to the next temple and handling it like a marathon. The objective is not to collect the stamps, it is the path itself, it is what you experience along the way. We live in a society in which we always try to optimize things: our finances, our career, even our creativity. One target would be to let go of that optimization and just walk.

A small statue represents two childish looking figure hugging together. They are covered by a red bib.
A jizo statue along the way

Take the time to look at the small sacred things on the way, such as tiny temples or jizo statues. Take the time to sit and talk to the people who give you presents. Sometimes elderly people are sitting outside, waiting for the opportunity to invite a pilgrim to tea.

Another mistake Westerners often make is being too attached to rules, such as only walking and not using anything with wheels. If necessary, take the bus! Allow yourself a nice detour, to one of the sightseeing places. There are no rules.

What would you recommend to someone who wants to try the pilgrimage but is afraid to do the whole trip?

I would recommend doing temples 80 to 88. Basically, you can stay in Takamatsu all the time. You go by train to the first of these temples, and then you hike to three temples a day, and go back to Takamatsu. It is a good way to dip your toe in the water first. The temples are very nice and beautifully located—some of them are on hilltops next to the sea.

Taking the Time to Walk

My talk with Oliver reminded me of a previous interview I had with Richard, a French restaurant owner who had decided to start taking the time for things. As Oliver stated, we live in an era where optimizing one’s time has become a core value. During the pandemic, there were many articles and tips on social media on how to make your stay-at-home time as productive as possible. On the other hand, every day, we are invited to lose time on social media who all compete to grab our attention.

After experiencing what it is like to be mindful of just eating a snack, I cannot help but wonder how it feels to only be concentrated on one’s daily pilgrimage segment for a few weeks. Reducing one’s needs. Forgetting all the needless worries. I have always been intrigued by the Shikoku Pilgrimage. I have a friend who does it little by little, when her schedule allows. But if I can, I would like to do it in one take. Dive completely into the experience. Who would I become after walking two months alone in Shikoku?

Here is the reference for Oliver’s book:

The 88 Temples of Shikoku – A Guide for the Walking Pilgrim by Oliver Dunskus,  220 Pages Paperback, ISBN-10 : 3752685018, ISBN-13 : 978-3752685015, available at major book websites or with the author – write to oliverdunskus(at)yahoo.de

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.