Walking Japan’s ‘Henro Michi’ – the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage
René Horsthuis and Ben Engelbertink with Japanese pilgrim

Walking Japan’s ‘Henro Michi’ – the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage


This pilgrimage is not as well known as the Santiago de Compostela tour, but both have much in common. These pilgrimage tours both started around the 8th-9th century. You can go there by bus, cycling or walking. You can get blisters on both routes. On both routes you meet people with the same objective; they are routes of encounter.

My first acquaintance  with the Japanese Temple Tour, the Henro Michi on the island of Shikoku, happened during my journey from Enschede to Santiago, 16 years ago, when I met a Japanese, who told me that it is as easy (or difficult) for a Dutch person to walk in Japan as it is for a Japanese to walk in Spain. With the help of a Franciscan, who has been working in Japan for more than 50 years, I made my first tour some years back and since then I have become addicted / fascinated and have recently walked this pilgrimage tour for the fourth time, not on my own this time, but in the company of a cousin of mine, René Horsthuis, who has made the film about my life in Sarawak.

Here are two observations I would like to share.

First of all: what keeps us busy during such a walking pilgrimage of 40 days? Secondly, how am I a missionary on a Buddhist pilgrimage?

This pilgrimage actually carries a special theme for each of the four provinces on the island you traverse. For us, we spent the first ten days  thinking and talking about ‘becoming spiritually awake’; an awareness process of your own life. What is your stance in life? How do the words of the Buddha or of the Christ touch you?

Then followed a ten-day period to train yourself in detachment: can you say goodbye to things to which you are attached?

Can you come to enlightenment, the theme of the third province? What would that mean for you? I kept thinking about that beautiful saying: how nice to hear the neighing of a horse that has been relieved of its burdens.

In the fourth province was reflected , but spoke less, because of the difficulty of the terrain, about Nirvana or Heaven. What is that? Heaven on earth? A guiding principle for me was a Japanese wisdom  saying: “if you let the heart speak, then you are wise?” The master replies: “Not so! If one does not allow it to act in the body, one is not wise. “(Ishida Baigan)

Here and there I was asked how come a Christian was doing this Buddhist pilgrimage. That is  very difficult to explain  if you only have a few words of Japanese at your disposal, but with few words and many gestures I tried to say that by walking together Buddhists and Christians can come closer together. In plain language I would say that my missionary life consists of bringing people closer together, so also in dialogue with Buddhists.

I  enjoyed encountering great general approval on the way, but I was also aware of this small gesture of one single person. Moreover, it was also a revelation for me to know that the typical Buddhism of the island of Shikoku is based on the Sermon on the Mount, the eight Beatitudes  of Christ, found by Kobo Daishi, the founder of this Buddhism, in China when he studied Buddhism there.

When I hear that the trip to Santiago de Compostela is now ‘commercializing’, I can recommend future pilgrims to try this 88-temple tour, a spiritually uplifting experience. The mountains are high, the road of 1300 km. is long, but the scent of jasmine accompanies you at so many encounters along the way.

Ben Engelbertink mhm


Leave a Reply

Close Menu