“When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm is all about.”
~Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
It takes about 45 days to walk the 1,200-kilometer Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage on Japan’s Shikoku Island. The route is comprised of 88 temples and other sacred sites where revered Buddhist monk Kūkai – posthumously called Kōbō Daishi – is believed to have trained during the 9th century. The experience is said to honor pilgrims with blessings and religious merit.
But what makes this pilgrimage a little different from similar journeys is that this one is circular. Temples are laid out in a ring along the perimeter of the island, and rather than starting in one place and ending somewhere else, pilgrims end where they began.
“Despite its remoteness, or possibly because of it, Shikoku has inspired countless journeys for over 1,200 years. The pilgrim’s path traverses the island’s jagged peaks, coastal fishing villages, small cities, and farming hamlets.”
~Todd Wassel, Walking in Circles: Finding Happiness in Lost Japan
The Regent Explorer was docked in the city of Kōchi, home to Chikurin-ji Temple, Number 31 on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. Herb and I had signed on to visit the temple as well as the adjoining Makino Botanical Garden. A few years ago, we had spent a day in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, watching pilgrims return to the Cathedral from the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. I thought it would be interesting to see another pilgrimage site in another part of the world – people from different backgrounds walking on differently-shaped pathways, and yet sharing a similar desire for spiritual or personal growth.
Chikurin-ji Temple sits atop a sacred mountain called Mount Godaisan that looks out over the city. It’s about a 15-minute drive from the port, over a landscape that quickly changes from an urban to a rural feel. At the entrance, we climbed a large flight of stone steps and found ourselves in a rustic, wooded setting.
The temple is regarded as a scholarly institution, with scrolls and Buddhist statues housed in its Treasure Hall. Buildings and statues are scattered throughout the complex, blending in with the natural environment. I found it to be the moodiest temple of our visit – moss-covered, sepia-toned and in harmony with what I imagined it must have looked like when it was founded in 724.
But the most captivating sight at Chikurin-ji Temple is its five-story brilliant red pagoda, whose gracefully angled roof lines soar above the trees. We climbed another series of stone steps to reach its base to get a closer look. Designed in the style of the early Kamakura Period, from 1185 to 1333, the pagoda was built from cypress wood in 1980. It it said to lean slightly to the south because wind from that direction dried out the wood, causing it to shrink.
Makino Botanical Garden
Back at the temple entrance, we headed across the parking lot to a pathway leading to Makino Botanical Garden. I was immediately taken with the quiet of the setting. Although we had barely stepped inside the gate, there was a sense of peacefulness, and the air was unusually clean and clear.
The garden honors Kōchi native and “Father of Japanese Botany” Dr. Tomitaro Makino. Spread out over 20 acres along Mount Godaisan, it features more than 3,000 plant species – from rare exotic flowers to wild endemic varieties discovered by Dr. Makino – as well as a conservatory, museum and plant research center.
Known as a passionate field botanist, Dr. Makino collected more than 400,000 botanical specimens and named over 1,500 new varieties. In 1936, he published Makino Book of Botany, in which he describes 6,000 species, 1,000 of which he discovered. Four years later, after his term as lecturer at Tokyo University ended, he published Makino’s Illustrated Flora of Japan, a reference work that is still used as an encyclopedic text.
The Botanical Garden was established in 1958, a year after Makino’s death, at the place where he had once claimed, “If we were to create a botanical garden, Mount Godaisan would be an excellent choice.” It’s a beautiful spot to spend some time, with a hilly terrain that includes winding pathways, water features, views overlooking the city and, of course, all those flowers.
The real star of the gardens is the conservatory, a charming glass-encased tropical environment that showcases domestic and international plants as well as tropical flowers and trees. Laid out around a waterfall, an interior pond and several levels of ramps and staircases, it’s one of those places that transports you to another world and offers the proverbial feast for the senses.
Makino Botanical Garden Museum
Although the signage in the Botanical Garden Museum is in Japanese, the exhibits and beautiful botanical illustrations offer insight into Dr. Makino’s life and work. In one room, his botanical drawings are framed and displayed as if they were hanging in an art gallery. In another, a life-sized diorama-like exhibit shows Dr. Makino at work in his library. The message resounds so clearly that this was a man who loved his work, thrived on what he studied and gave so much back to the people of Japan.
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As we headed back to the parking lot, I took one last glance at Temple 31 on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. I had hoped we’d see a pilgrim or two– known as a henro – walking along the path. I’d looked forward to spotting their traditional conical hats and white clothing. And I wanted to hear the sound of bells jingling from their walking sticks.
But sadly, no one had made the trek that morning.
I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. There are, after all, 87 other temples on the pilgrimage.