Mt. Koya and the Shikoku Pilgrimage

Over the last few days we've traveled to numerous temples and museums and have begun to apply our academic instruction in art criticism and Buddhist studies to the places that we visit. Our guiding theme for these past days and the days to come is the Shikoku Pilgrimage. I want to first introduce the background of the pilgrimage so that one will better able to understand what we have been seeing and why it is important.

During our time at Mt. Koya we learned about Kōbō Daishi who was known in life as Kūkai, the founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism. Shingon, as opposed to Zen Buddhism, seeks enlightenment through sensory overload as opposed to the more minimal focus on sitting meditation (zazen). The Shingon temples that we have visited have had a myriad of Buddhist deities and ornaments in the main hall. This in conjunction to the chanting of mantras, the fire ceremony, and other aspects all encompass the theme that Shingon focuses on ritual to attain enlightenment. This ritualistic attitude overlaps with the memorializing of Kūkai's life and comes together in the Shikoku pilgrimage.

The Shikoku pilgrimage takes place on the smallest main island of Japan called Shikoku. Today the pilgrimage encompasses 88 temples (although one can visit more) which connect in a roughly 750 mile loop that circles the island. The pilgrimage traditionally has been viewed as a ritual and practice of moving meditation. It is believed that as one visits the temples Kūkai walks with you. It is even inscribed on a ceremonial hat, that two walk not one. On the the 12th we visited temple 75 and on the 13th we climbed Unpenji and visited temples 66-69.

Visiting a temple one must ritually clean one's hands. At temple 75 we went through the basics of bowing and cleansing. On the 13th we climbed Unpenji beautiful, but steep mountain. Near the end of the hike, snow began to fall and at the temple itself we had only a few hundred feet of visibility. At the temple there are statues of over 500 arhats which translate roughly to 'chosen ones to be enlightened'. After visiting the main hall and performing a ceremony to clean the hands, we examined the 500 arhats hoping to find a particular one to complete a challenge put forward by Dr. Kopf.

The day ended with a beautiful gondola ride down the mountain and setting off for out next pilgrimage: this time to Hiroshima. 

A view from the train during our travels