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Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Follow the pilgrims' road to where past and present meet


By ANNE PEPPER

When the warm spring winds riding the Kuroshio (Black Current) reach Shikoku, the island is at its best for visitors. Shikoku in the spring attracts both tourists and pilgrims. The pilgrims come to visit some or all of the island's 88 temples dedicated to Kobo Daishi, who introduced Shingon Buddhism into Japan 1,200 years ago.

Pilgrims have been visiting Shikoku for over a millennium. Tourists are a more recent phenomenon. Shikoku was off the beaten tourist track until 1988, when completion of the Seto Ohashi Bridge made it possible to reach the island by train, bus and car. Shikoku is now linked with the mainland in three different places, but many areas of this large, rugged island still remain relatively unchanged.

Sights awaiting those who take the time to explore beyond the major cities include thatched farmhouses, secluded fishing villages and towns with streets still lined with traditional architecture. Add to these visual treats a wealth of folk craft and some relaxing hot springs, and you may conclude that circling the entire island, as the pilgrims do, isn't such a bad idea.

These days, most pilgrims no longer do the temple circuit on foot. Tour buses are the preferred means of getting around, which cuts a six- to eight-week trek down to a 12-day ride. If you want to do some or all of the Shikoku pilgrimages, several books are available in English to help you find your way.

A popular destination for both pilgrims and tourists is a mountaintop shrine, Kotohira-gu. Kompira-san, as it is still generally called, looked upon as a protector of seafarers, and drew worshipers from up and down the Inland Sea.

The bustling town of Kotohira sits at the bottom of a long flight of stairs (785 steps) that leads up to the shrine. Kotohira is a monzenmachi, a town that grew up outside the temple gate to serve the needs of pilgrims. Monzen-machi are always lively places, filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, inns and entertainment. In the Edo Period, day-trippers were rare. Travel was strenuous and expensive; one might undertake such a pilgrimage only once in a lifetime. Having finally arrived at the destination, no one was in a hurry to leave.

Kotohira boasts a grand kabuki theater, built in 1835 with the finest technology available. Audiences were dazzled by the revolving stage. This theater, the Kanamaru-za, has been restored to its former glory, and the highlight of the spring season on Shikoku is a performance given by some of the biggest names in the kabuki world. This year's performance runs April 9-23, but unfortunately tickets are already sold out.

Still, April is a wonderful time to visit Kotohira. Colorful banners fly outside the theater and the festive atmosphere is memorable. There's always the chance someone might have a ticket to sell, or that you can join a tour of the theater when it's not being used. (The secret of the revolving stage is a complicated system of wooden gears, plus several strong men underneath, putting their shoulders to the mechanism.)

Another event that will draw people to Shikoku this spring is Japan Flora 2000, an international gardening exhibition held on Awaji Island, lying between Hyogo Prefecture and Shikoku, and connected to both by bridges.

A double treat awaits expo-goers who decide to continue on to Shikoku. First, they get to cross the Onaruto Bridge, which looks down on Japan's most famous whirlpools. Once on Shikoku, they get to enjoy one of Japan's most famous gardens in full springtime splendor: Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu, formerly the private estate of the local daimyo.

Another springtime treat on Shikoku is the cherry trees growing on the grounds of the island's several castles. The huge castle in Kochi City is a major attraction, and every Sunday Shikoku's largest outdoor street market is held in its shadow, along Otesuji-dori.

To get the most out of a trip to Shikoku, do as the Edo Period travelers did, and allow yourself plenty of time to experience the pleasures of Japan's fourth-largest island.



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