After finishing her morning cup of coffee, Amy Chavez laces up a pair of lime green and gray running shoes to begin her morning jog. She pushes open the back door of her seaside home and steps onto the Shiraishi Buddhist pilgrimage route, a 400-year-old sacred trail that wraps around Shiraishi Island in western Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.

On this warm September day, she has agreed to guide me around parts of the trail to show me life outside of Japan’s dense cities. While Chavez knows the 5-mile trail like her own backyard, it has been slowly going to seed—a relic of a time long passed.

Shiraishi Island’s pilgrimage route is a miniature replica of the Shikoku 88, one of Japan’s most revered pilgrimages. The route stretches 1,200 kilometers (746 miles), connecting 88 temples, shrines, and other sacred sites on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Both the Shiraishi and Shikoku routes trace the footsteps of Kukai (Kobo-Daishi, 774–835), founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism, whose statue has been placed in several spots along the route to guide pilgrims. In the past, Japanese followers usually walked the Shikoku 88 upon retirement or when they were able to take time off. Walking the pilgrimage can take six weeks or more, but in recent years, bus tours that cover the route in only a few days are a far more common way to complete it. The much smaller Shiraishi pilgrimage, on the other hand, allows visitors to finish the 88-temple circuit on foot in one or two days.  

Photo by Trevor Williams
Photo by Trevor Williams

While the Shikoku pilgrimage has gained some popularity among tourists thanks to books and a few recent television reports, the Shiraishi pilgrimage has not enjoyed the same luck. Parts of the trail remain walkable, but large stretches are in dire need of repair.

Many towns throughout Japan have been impacted by depopulation in the countryside and the gradual decline of jobs like fishing and farming. Japan’s island communities are often hit the hardest. The population of Shiraishi declines every year: currently it numbers a little over 500, compared to about 700 residents 10 years ago and 900 residents 20 years ago.

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