Visit Tokushima - Traverse History and Ancient Traditions Along the Shikoku Pilgrimage

A region tinged in blues, Tokushima has cobalt rivers that nurture its land and azure whirlpools that agitate its sea. Even the fingers of its artisans are blue from the prized indigo fabrics they produce! Tokushima is also where pilgrims from all over Japan went (and still go) in search of spiritual enrichment, traversing the region along one of Japan’s most ancient pilgrimage routes, the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Follow us through our journey to uncover a sacred and hidden side of Japan in Tokushima. Together, let’s explore its temples and crafts, flavors and people. By the end, hopefully you’ll feel an even deeper connection to Japan!

*This article was sponsored by the East Tokushima Tourism Authority.

Henro - A Spiritual Journey Into the Heart of Japan

When we arrived at Tokushima, we were greeted by blue skies and gentle sunshine - welcome signs that the journey we were about to embark on would be amazing and full of wonders. Our itinerary was crafted by the local experts at the East Tokushima Tourism Authority to allow us to experience the best of the region and its long history, all the while creating meaningful connections with the locals and their culture. Guiding us through our adventure was the Tokushima born-and-raised Yuuki Bando, a true Shikoku Pilgrimage expert.

Her family home is located along the Henro, which means that the Shikoku Pilgrimage has been a part of her life since her childhood. Her grandmother had completed the pilgrimage multiple times, and she herself has visited all the temples - a total of 88 temples spread along 1,200 kilometers - three times! 

As we walked from temple #1 to #6, through quaint neighborhoods reminiscent of past Japan, wild groves of bamboo, and golden fields, Bando’s stories entwined legends and history, local knowledge and tips. At the center of her narration was an illustrious figure, Kukai, the monk and scholar who, centuries ago during the Heian period (794 - 1185), traveled to China to learn about Buddhism and brought those teachings back, founding one of Japan’s major Buddhist schools, the Shingon Sect. Kukai also ventured on a journey across Shikoku, Tokushima included, where he trained at various temples and other places.

Replicating his steps, whether it be to seek enlightenment, enjoy the natural beauty of Tokushima at a slower pace, or immerse yourself in a life-changing experience, is what is known as the Shikoku Pilgrimage today.

Monzen Ichibangai - Don the Attire of an Ancient Japanese Pilgrim

Their shoulders mantled in white, their heads covered in straw, their fingers tight around the sacred walking stick. Every committed pilgrim starts their journey by abandoning their mundane clothes in favor of the “official” attire, and so did we. 

Not only does the pilgrim outfit help you set your mind for the trip ahead, but it’s easily recognizable, guaranteeing the support of those you might encounter along the way. It also has symbolic value - white is the color worn by the deceased for Japanese funerals, and by donning this specific dress, the pilgrims prepare themselves for a metaphoric journey to the “Pure Land,” the Buddhist paradise.

Watching over the pilgrims is the “kongozue,” the sacred walking stick, which is believed to be a manifestation of Kukai himself. “Dogyo ninin" or “Two people on the same path” is what's written in “kanji” characters on the upper part of the stick, symbolizing the essence of the Shikoku Pilgrimage: a spiritual adventure you face with the support of Kukai.

This and the rest of the pilgrim gear can be rented or bought at Monzen Ichibangai. You can also buy a special type of “goshuincho” stamp book called “nokyocho” to collect the official stamps from each temple as proof of your progress in the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Beautifully covered in traditional Japanese patterns, these books make for amazing tokens of your experience that you can leaf through once back home. Masters of the Henro even use them as testament of their knowledge, as you need 4 stamps from each of the 88 temples to be officially recognized as one!

Temple #1: Ryozenji - The Door to the Shikoku Pilgrimage

“First you bow, and only then, you can enter the temple,” explained Bando. She unveiled facts about the Shikoku Pilgrimage throughout the day, making us appreciate the subtle beauty of every step and gesture. With our heads down, we walked over to the massive, ornate gate and entered the first temple of the pilgrimage, Ryozenji. Founded in the Nara period (710 - 794), with its serene scenery - a gorgeous pond flickering with “koi” carps, Japanese pine trees arching over the pathway, and wafts of incense flowing up into the air - Ryozenji truly prepared our spirits for the journey ahead.

Although it is not mandatory to visit it first, many choose Ryozenji as the starting point of their journey, following the numerical order. The temple, as well as Monzen Ichibangai, are conveniently located a 10-minute walk from Bando Station, but the tour organizers reserved a private bus for us departing from Tokushima Station so that we could truly relax with no time constraints and focus on enjoying the walk and resting when needed.

Pilgrims usually purify themselves at the “chozuya,” the water basin, by washing their hands and mouth, ring the giant bell next to it as a sign of their presence, and light candles and incense in front of the Main Hall before finally heading to the Daishido Hall to visit the statue of Kukai.

Our guide opened her pilgrim bag and revealed the contents to us: boxes of both candles and incense ready to be lit, adding to the heavenly fragrance that filled the temple grounds. A booklet containing a collection of sutras also emerged from the white satchel, which we used to memorize a few simple sentences that we later chanted all together. Apparently these, as well as pouches filled with coins for the temple stamps, are some of the objects that expert pilgrims like to bring with them to make their trip easier.

Over the brazier, the Main Hall shined golden. The glow from the lanterns, enhanced by the dim light, almost created the illusion that they were extending down the hall in endless rows, disappearing into the shadows.

Hidden at the center of the hall was a majestic dragon painted on the ceiling. We spent a couple of minutes there, enveloped by the echoing chants of other pilgrims, just admiring that mystical sight.

Temple #2: Gokurakuji - Granting the Wishes of Pilgrims

As we walked the one kilometer that separates Ryozenji Temple from Gokurakuji Temple, we couldn’t help but notice how well the residential houses were woven into the trail, lining its path and physically giving you the impression of having become part of it.

“Hospitality is rooted in the local community,” Bando confirmed. Locals like to support the pilgrims by offering free sweets, drinks, sometimes even lodging. And, by encouraging them with words of good luck and some light conversation, locals make sure pilgrims have the necessary energy to continue their arduous journey.

Right as we thought about how lucky we were to have our own local guide caring for us, the bright red figure of Gokurakuji’s gate sprouted at the end of the road. Also founded in the Nara period, Gokurakuji has lush gardens filled with a multitude of different plants that are said to resemble the Pure Land and a towering ancient cedar, said to have been planted by Kukai himself. The sacred tree is about 1,200 years old and is said to grant those who touch it many benefits, from safety of the household to health and longevity.

Gokurakuji’s Main Hall stands over a set of 44 stone steps, framed by the vegetation. Here, pilgrims can partake in the temple’s unique tradition of picking “Omokaru Jizo” up. The “jizo” statue is said to make your wishes come true if it feels light when lifted. We prayed to safely complete the pilgrimage and lifted the statue. It didn't feel particularly heavy, meaning Omokaru Jizo was on our side. If you visit, definitely test your luck for yourself!

Temple #3: Konsenji - Enjoy Picturesque Autumn Colors at the “Temple of the Golden Spring”

We hopped back on the private bus to head to temple #3, Konseji. We really appreciated having this option for certain sections of the trail as it meant we didn’t have to rush from one temple to another.

When the bus stopped, Konsenji appeared cocooned in autumn colors, with its crimson gate, bright red pagoda, traditional Japanese garden, and wooden halls all veiled in shades of red, orange, and yellow. Admiring nature and the temple so closely interwoven into that picture-perfect scene really took our breath away, making exploring its grounds a feast for the eye!

Konsenji was visited by Kukai around the year 810 when, according to legend, he struck the ground with his staff to relieve a drought, causing a stream of water to emerge. Thereafter, it’s been known as Konsenji, the “Temple of the Golden Spring.”

The spacious temple offers a lot to see, starting from the red and white hexagonal Kannon Hall, dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and the wooden Daishi Hall where pilgrims can visit a statue of Kukai seated amidst golden decorations. Standing right between the two is a smaller, unassuming building. Don’t skip it as it houses the well from which the temple takes its name!

Aqulier - Locally-Sourced Vegetables for the Hungry Pilgrims

A couple of kilometers south from Gokurakuji Temple is Aqulier, a cozy restaurant beloved by the locals that attracts people of all ages with its relaxing wooden interiors and healthy meals. The restaurant directly sources its ingredients from Tokushima farmers, serving extra fresh and colorful combinations of the region’s produce.

It was lunchtime when we visited, and the trip had made us ravenous! We had a taste of Tokushima’s most genuine flavors by dipping the local vegetablesーboth fresh and pickledーinto garlic sauce, savoring the delicate tomato potage soup, and finally, slurping up the generous portion of garlic pasta garnished with shrimps and vegetables. The entire meal was filling enough to give us energy for the rest of the trek!

Temple #4: Dainichiji - Through Bamboo Forests to a Serene Temple

After lunch, we resumed our journey and got back on the bus to the beginning of trail leading to temple #4. This was our favorite as well as the longest amongst the sections of the Henro we walked that day, and yet just a fraction of the entire pilgrimage. It takes around six weeks to complete the entire Shikoku Pilgrimage! “It took even more in the past, even up to three to four months, as roads were not as good,” added our guide.

Initially, the pilgrims were mainly other monks, but as the faith in Kukai grew, people from all over Japan began to visit. As the shogunate highly regulated traveling around the country, partaking in the pilgrimage was one of the only few ways to travel during the Edo period (1603 - 1868). This is also probably when the tradition of temple stamps originated: with guards having to check the legitimacy of travelers and pilgrims having to show proof of visitation at each temple.

Aiming to reach temple #4 before sunset, we walked through bamboo tunnels, dark domes of wild vegetation, and unpaved roads bordering fields and forests, feeling a bit like those ancient travelers. Although centuries have passed, we still shared the same journey and the same purpose.

The Shikoku Pilgrimage was so popular that it had appeared in Edo-period guidebooks which documented the 88 temples, what pilgrims did, and how they dressed. We smiled at the similarities, imagining Edo-period people going around with guidebooks, exactly as we did that day, and getting excited at these very sights and places.

As the light of the sun setting down started tinging the panorama in gold, making the wooded mountains in the distance glow, we reached Danichiji Temple.

Temple #4 had the most impressive of all the gates we walked through that day. Marked by a giant rock engraved with the name of the temple, Dainichi’s approach was lined with stone lanterns leading to a bright red gate, all beautifully framed by a backdrop of autumnal vegetation that kept our eyes on the scenery as we drew near. The two-story gate also functions as a bell tower and is coated in “bengara nuri,” a type of traditional Japanese reddish-brown pigment.

Dainichiji owes its name to Kukai as the temple was where he carved a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai, the highest-ranked Buddha in Shingon Buddhism. Today, the temple also houses numerous statues of Kannon which were donated by fellow pilgrims in 1790.

Temple #6: Onsenzan Anrakuji - Stay at the Oldest Pilgrim Lodging on the Shikoku Pilgrimage

Our day concluded at Anrakuji where we stayed for the night. The temple was one of the places where we most felt we were truly retracing the steps of the pilgrims who preceded us.

Anrakuji Temple was the first to build a “shukubo” pilgrim lodging among the 88 temples. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 - 1600), there were no accommodations for pilgrims, so Iemasa Hachisuka, lord of the Tokushima Domain designated Anrakuji as an "ekiroji,” a temple providing lodging, meals, and protection to travelers.

Serving pilgrims for the past 400 years, the old shukubo also boasts a public bath which uses water that is said to be discovered by Kukai himself in the Heian period and is the very reason why the temple was built in this specific location. As the area was closely associated with Yakushi Nyorai, a Buddha who saves people from illness, the hot spring water was believed to be effective in curing illnesses and has been used since its discovery to relieve the fatigue of those who stopped by the temple.

The shukubo offers simple but comfortable traditional rooms with “tatami” straw mat flooring, such as the one we stayed at, as well as more premium options.

The spacious premium rooms on the second floor face the temple’s gorgeous traditional garden and feature an elegant Japanese-style space with curated details such as decorative elements inspired by Tokushima’s famed indigo fabrics.

Dinner and breakfast can also be included in the stay plan. Expect to be spoiled with a variety of traditional dishes such as “tempura” and ”sobagome jiru” (buckwheat soup), a Tokushima delicacy that is a local variation on the classic miso soup.

Amidst the splendid traditional garden is one of the temple’s treasures, the Tahoto Pagoda.  Usually, pagodas in Japan are not open to the public and their interiors remain a mystery to most, but with this tour we got special permission to enter Anrakuji’s Tahoto Pagoda and explore its magnificent interior. When the head priest opened its doors for us, we remained silent for a moment, overwhelmed by the unexpected beauty that was awaiting inside.

The interior of the pagoda is dedicated to Gochi Nyorai (the Five Wisdom Buddhas) and is richly decorated with colorful Buddhist sculptures and paintings that narrate episodes from Kukai’s life. The base around the pagoda is filled with sand from the 88 temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage so that visitors can tour them in one go by circling the outside of the pagoda.

Our stay also included the Otsutome, a ceremony dedicated to the souls of those long gone that brought us to the deepest part of the temple: a room where a secret stream flows in the darkness and a sacred fire burns wooden wishing plaques to deliver wishes to the gods.

Performed in this exact way only at Anrakuji, the ceremony was curated in every detail by the head priest himself. We wrote the names of our ancestors down on paper slips and tied them around small tree branches to guide our prayers to them. The branches were then positioned in front of the stream, stuck in buckets filled with soil. There, we lit some candles to illuminate their souls. Watching the trembling flames flow away was a mystical sight we will never forget!

Aizome Indigo Dyeing - Experience Tokushima’s Blue Treasure at the Aizumicho Historical Museum “Ai-no-Yakata”

Tokushima’s history is not only interwoven with the Shikoku Pilgrimage, but also with “sukumo” or “indigo dye” which has had a prominent status throughout Japanese history. We had the opportunity to learn about this craft at the Aizumicho Historical Museum “Ai-no-Yakata” (the House of Indigo).

“Blue indigo was a gift from the blue waters of the Yoshino River,” explained the lecturer who guided us through the museum. In the past, as typhoons often came just before the rice harvesting period, Tokushima wasn't suitable for rice farming.

Instead, the locals put their focus on growing indigo as it could be grown and harvested before the typhoon season. Although it was normally difficult to cultivate, the floods resulting from the typhoons made its continuous cultivation possible by turning over and bringing new fertile soil.

It’s not clear when they started cultivating indigo, but records show that it seems to have already been produced and traded as early as the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573). Thanks to the increased use of cotton, which is particularly easy to dye with indigo, as well as the promotion and protection of the indigo business by the Hachisuka feudal lords (the same who promoted the establishment of pilgrim lodging along the Henro), the production volume of Tokushima indigo increased between the Edo and Meiji period (1868–1912), making up more than half of Japan’s production volume.

The Tokushima merchants involved in the indigo distribution had monopoly over the market, bringing great fortune to the Tokushima Domain. Normally, prices of goods would have been decided at the markets in Osaka or Tokyo, but Tokushima indigo was so important that prices were directly decided in Tokushima and merchants from other regions had to come to Tokushima to buy it.

Among these great merchants was the Okumura family. Ai-no-Yakata stands on the premises of the family’s former residence and was established in 1989, when the 11th head of the Okumura family donated the buildingsーsome dating back to 1808ーto Aizumi Town.

Today, the museum helps preserve the tradition of Tokushima’s indigo by letting visitors immerse themselves in the blue layers of its history and learn about the production process through the tools used in indigo cultivation and processing of the leaves. The museum also displays indigo-dyed products such as kimono and materials related to the distribution of indigo and management of the indigo trade. We had fun going through the different exhibits, using the interactive AR explanations in English, and trying the famed craft for ourselves.

Indigo Dye Workshop - Create Your Own Indigo Souvenir

Ai-no-Yakata also offers “aizome“ indigo dyeing workshops where we got to create our own indigo handkerchieves. Depending on how you tie the cloth and dye it, each handkerchief turns out slightly different from the other, so it will really be a one-of-a-kind memorabilia!

During the workshop, we got to imagine ourselves as one of Tokushima’s skillful indigo artisans, our hands immersed in the blue dye, crafting memorable moments and even more memorable souvenirs.

We picked our favorite design from the four different types available and followed the instructions of the expert staff, learning how to prepare the handkerchief by tying it with rubber bands or wooden sticks, depending on the chosen design, before starting the actual dyeing process. The dyeing process is usually repeated multiple times so that the cloth is soaked in indigo. When washed, the handkerchief - which appeared a greenish blue at first - revealed its real colors: rich shades of blue so mesmerizing that we could easily tell just why Tokushima's indigo was so popular!

A Banquet Worthy of Meiji-Period Merchants - Savor Tokushima’s Delicacies from the Past With a Side of Awa Odori Dance

The day at Ai-no-Yakata concluded with a sumptuous banquet. We were guided into a traditional tatami room where a very special meal was awaiting for us!

Merchants such as the Okumuras used to host opulent parties for their guests. One of the Meiji-period menus was found, deciphered by a historian, and recreated by a local chef for visitors of Ai-no-Yakata to enjoy. The appreciation we felt for the dedication everyone put into bringing this valuable piece of Tokushima’s history back to light grew with every dish, each more exquisite than the other.

We particularly loved the “namasu,” red sea bream seasoned in vinegar with spinach, seaweed, and yuzu peel, which was incredibly refreshing. We also still can’t forget about the “choko,” a small plate of mashed tofu salad and Japanese persimmons that harmoniously mixed the sweetness from the fruit with the delicate, slightly savory tofu.

It was a rare chance to taste the exact same dishes wealthy merchant families used to celebrate with centuries ago. Once again, Tokushima allowed us to get glimpses of Japan’s fascinating past and retrace the roots of Japanese culture!

Our lunch was made even more special by the presence of Aho Ren, one of Japan’s most famous “Awa Odori” dance groups.

Awa Odori has 400 years of history and originates from Tokushima. There are different theories on its origins, but it seems to be related both to Iemasa Hachisuka and the indigo merchants. When the construction of Tokushima Castle was completed, the locals celebrated with dances that might have been the forerunners of modern Awa Odori. Later, with the rise of indigo merchants who, by traveling to different regions of Japan, became the bearers of cultural exchange and financial supporters for the development of the performing arts, Awa Odori became more and more luxurious as the years passed.

Between August 12 and 15, Tokushima’s largest Awa Odori takes place in Tokushima City with around 100,000 dancers from different “ren,” dance groups, performing along the streets of the city and drawing in an average of 1 million visitors every year.

With the event being so popular, having Aho Ren dancing exclusively for us after lunch was the cherry on top of the amazing time we had at Ai-no-Yakata! Established in 1948, the dance group is one of the most appreciated in Japan and, from the very start, filled the room with their powerful moves and exciting traditional music. The performance ended with us joining the dance and learning some simple Awa Odori steps. What a way to feel the connection to Japan’s deep culture!

Explore Tokushima and Connect With Deep Japan

Whether you follow the steps of Henro pilgrims, Tokushima’s indigo merchants, or Awa Odori dancers, when visiting Tokushima, you’ll find yourself filled with a deep sense of connection to Japan’s ancient traditions and culture. East Tokushima Tourism Authority is planning to make this amazing tour that we went on available for overseas visitors soon! If you want to explore another side of Japan and create meaningful connections with the locals and their culture, don’t miss the opportunity to experience Tokushima for yourself through it!

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Shikoku Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Stefania Sabia
Born and raised in Italy, Stefania spent some of her teen years in Ireland. Today, Stefania lives in Tokyo and she likes to explore traditional Japan, hidden spots, and anything with retro aesthetics. Since childhood, she has always admired Japanese culture, and after coming to Japan, she made it her mission to explore the country and showcase its beauty on Instagram.
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