The pilgrimage is long, 1200 kilometers long. For our American friends that is 750 miles. That is a long hike. If you were planning on walking the pilgrimage it will take you about six to eight weeks.
If you want to complete the pilgrimage in six weeks you will need to get up early every day and grind it out day after day to get to the end. At the end you will be deeply exhausted, have new leather for feet, and probably not remember much of the temples along the way. If you wrote a blog, a novel, a series of short stories, or an anthology of haiku, you would probably be just complaining about how much your feet hurt from walking on so much stone and asphalt. Not a great, “spiritual adventure”, if you ask me.
If you want to do it in eight weeks walking that will be a much healthier pace. You can see more, read more, understand more, and interact more. I would recommend this as the superior way to go. A pilgrimage is a journey, not a sprint. It is an importance chance for you to have time to think and breathe and reflect, not panic and gasp and freak out when any unhappy thing occurs on the way.
Now, the great thing is that you are not bound to WALK every step of the pilgrimage. No, you are free to go in other ways. You can walk some, ride a bus for some, take the train for some, rent a car for some, take a ropeway to the top of a mountain for some, or even ride a bicycle for some.
There may be pilgrimage “purists” who have their own opinions, but for the people of Shikoku, the Japanese who live here, they are glad to see you go in any way you like. I’ve lived here for many years and I have never ever heard something like:
“Oh Kenichirou, did you see that foreign pilgrim?”
“I did not Mayumi, what is it?”
“Well, they were taking the train while being a pilgrim!”
“Oh my goodness. That is terrible. Surely they have shamed themselves and their family for generations to come.”
“Indeed. Let’s report this to the nearest monks and local authorities so that they can be properly humiliated and mocked.”
1200 kilometers is a long long walk. But, and get this, you can also do it in pieces. Yes, and you can also do it in any order. Yes, also true. You could come to Shikoku for a couple of weeks and properly visit, say fifteen temples or so. That’s a good target because you can also enjoy other cultural, historical, natural, and culinary things here besides what is found on the pilgrimage. Then, you can come back a year or two later and do the next fifteen. A couple years after do another ten or so. After a few more visits you’ll get really close to finishing it.
And also, you will have a packed full-on Shikoku experience. You will not be a half-dead marathoner at the end of a race, lying on the moss looking wild-eyed up at the sky. “Did I make it? Did I cross the finish line?”
That person just goes back to their hotel in a daze, messy, confused, and resentful that they didn’t fine enlightenment on the path while they were dashing past it.
So, how long is the pilgrimage?
Really long. Take your time.
To do this pilgrimage, you need a travel plan, a travel agent for Japan. You need a pilgrimage itinerary and reservations. You need guides. You need time. You need to make a proper mental, physical, and economic investment to do it right. A pilgrimage in Japan is an incredible experience. It’ll change your life. Don’t make shortcuts on what you deserve.