Shikoku 88, The Reforestation of a Cultural Ecosystem

Jonathan Linkus (MAUD) and Jonathan Scelsa (MAUD)

Project Overview

The rich and delicate ecosystems on Shikoku, Japan are now a fleeting refuge whose biodiversity is at a critical breaking-point. The Shikoku Henro, as a ribbon of serial events and sites, produces both sustainable synergies as well as negative externalities. It is in this pilgrimage linking Shikoku’s 88 Sacred Places that we might discover how a cultural network has the agency to both integrate or impair conservation objectives across large territories.

Project Information


The Shikoku Henro, an 88-temple pilgrimage that circumambulates the smallest of Japan’s major islands, is the most well known pilgrimage in Japan and has maintained an enduring and devout following for centuries. Formed between the 12th and 17th centuries by ascetics who journeyed to the island in search of sites connected with the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kūkai, the route has maintained Shikoku as a place in the Japanese psyche as an intensely natural and mountainous place, physically and phenomenologically removed from the continuity and urbanization of Honshu. In a society where humans and fauna are intertwined through folklore and spirituality, the pilgrimage route embodies the relationship between religious reverence and the interaction with natural settings — specifically the forest. This is essential amidst a culture where humans and fauna are intertwined through folklore and ancient spiritual creed.

An examination of the Shikoku Pilgrimage evinces its negative impacts on biodiversity in adjacent forests, yet it also opens speculation on the potential to cultivate new synergies between the conservation of landscape and cultural ecosystems. Direct negative externalities include henro transportation noise, landscaping debris, erosive disturbances, and plantation monocultures, all of which impair the habitat quality of the forest edge. Despite this, the temple route also serves as a conservation measure by reinforcing this boundary and creating an active interface between the forest of the island and its confronting urbanism. The temples themselves form discrete knots of reforestation making them operationally systemic by their amalgamation along the route – affecting a larger territory according to a predictable pattern.


Forested Edge as Cultural Corridor, Tokushima-Ken

Running along the base of the Awa valley, the pilgrimage route exhibits an ability to stitch the boundary between the forest escarpment and dispersed development in the alluvial plain. Additional cultural and religious sites adhere to the route between temple stops, activating and acknowledging the forest edge.

At Ryozen-ji, a cool forest grove is crafted amidst commercial strips and a busy highway serving henro at this first temple. Devotees and curious visitors are drawn off the route into a preserved grove at, Oasahiko-Jinja, a typical condition found at many temples. Astro-turf gardens and polluted bus parking lots belie the experience of such contained forests. The second and third temples differ in that they borrow from adjacent natural forests. Human engagement of the ecosystem, both culturally important and ecologically detrimental is found inside the forest around shaded cemeteries.

Through this zone, the pilgrimage route itself is an intensive collection of Shinto hondon, bangai temples, gravesites, and informal micro-farming – most of which are embedded on the forest-side of the trail. Large institutional campuses are also aligned on this corridor. These intense uses generate primarily noise, debris, and erosive edge disturbances which impair the habitat quality of this forest edge; however, the route imparts a measure of conservation as it sharply delineates this boundary.

Preserved and Preceptual Patches: Tokushima-Ken

Zenjibu-ji and Sekkei-ji temples are both found within the metropolitan area of Kochi; yet, each temple is nested within forest patches that consistently occupy or abut steeper topography and higher ground than their urban surroundings

Patch fragmentation by utility easements and single-family housing compromises these groves as potential habitat. The most significant pressure on habitat is the massive clear-cutting within these forest groves for the expansion of cemeteries that have no ecological value. New construction within these neighborhoods indicates that speculative development has a greater impact on regional ecology. The cultural ecosystem is likewise impinged, as homeowners have requested that ceremonial bells not be rung at temple 33.

Here, the pilgrimage route disappears into suburban fabric between temple stops and is not accompanied by businesses serving the henro. However, spiritual practice is nested within the experience of a pastoral realm by perceptually suspending the urban context on a momentary but repeating basis. Accordingly, the forest groves themselves have currency as objects – constituting religious architecture within the city.

Culturally Curating the Matrix: Ehime-Ken

Deep in the forested mountains of Ehime prefecture, Daiho-ji and Iwaya-ji insert cultural activity into a sparsely developed habitat matrix. The cultural significance of the forest here has yielded broader policy overlays which offer some habitat protection. In 1968, the territory surrounding the Daiho-ji was established as a Designated Scenic Area and a mountain summit within was conserved in honor of the famed poet Basho. Likewise, Iwaya-ji is Alterations are prohibited as enforced by the Kogen Town Board of Education.

Despite their natural surroundings, the temple grounds are highly curated to maximize the picturesque and the sublime.   Undergrowth along the approach to Iwaya-ji is selectively managed by temple volunteers.   The habitat on these grounds is not fragmented but endures the disturbance effects of construction noise, debris storage piles, and the active human presence in vendor stalls along the footpaths. Nonetheless, local shop owners say they’ve witnessed raccoon dogs, bats, flying-squirrels, rabbits, wild boar, black bears, and monkeys.

The trail between these temples is the most rural segment of the pilgrimage and is officially recognized as an protected Important Asset by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (enforced by the Kogen Board of Education). The forest here was replanted centuries ago as a cedar grove, but has flourished with a healthy understory and a variety of species; government signage expounds upon the “splendor” of this “botanical preserve”.   Frequent Shinto, Buddhist, and burial sites are positioned opportunistically to compose a religious experience out of this natural context.

The Connecting the Dissociated Node: Kagawa-Ken

Nagao-ji is among the few examples that are not physically associated with any forest nor cultivated garden – a decidedly urban compound. The more intensely developed axis of Nagaonishi is perpendicular to the directionality of the pilgrimage, indicating that there is no relationship between urban form and the route. Both of these facts point to a potential to dissociation between the temple as a node on a heavily forested cultural route and the temple as a localized cultural asset.

Because of the religious significance of nature within the Buddhist tradition, and because temples 85 and 88 in either direction are deep within forest environments, Nagao-ji a moment where the pilgrimage as a singular cultural system can compress experiences and project them upon temple visitors as a collective memory or signification of the forests.


The popular image of white-clad henro seeking enlightenment through lush wilderness is far from the often busy and urban reality of the pilgrimage as a modern economic and touristic force. Most of the temple grounds are replanted as monoculture groves. Accordingly, they are also compromised as habitat for fauna, a problem only exacerbated by the edge effects of temple activities and the development of communities serving the pilgrimage route.

The pilgrimage itself was established in the 19th century. It can then be concluded that act of Osettai and the economic influence of pilgrims visiting from throughout Japan did not occur until the last 200 years, which coincides with the inception of Shikoku’s progressive urbanization around 1800. Local residents who operate shops at the very rural Iwaya-Ji temple explain that the town of Iwaya is approximately 150 years old, indicating that expanding access and economic activity coming with pilgrims seeded development in the nearby canyon. This can be understood of one example where the pilgrimage has spurred the fragmentation of habitat along a highway.


These discrete knots of reforestation around waypoints become operationally systemic by their amalgamation along the route – affecting a larger territory according to a predictable pattern.  As a cultural vector the route ties various urban and rural conditions together while the planting, curation, and use of the forest in various forms culturally lodges the preservation of boundary habitat into the collective awareness on Shikoku.

That such “terrestrial networks” as highways, or the Shikoku pilgrimage, suggest the planning of integrated urban and landscape processes on a large scale is cited by theorist Keller Easterling in the writings and proposals of Benton MacKaye (Easterling 12). In 1921, McKaye envisioned his Appalaichan Trail as a “supertrail” which “remagnetized and recentered development in the territory through which it passed, remotely affecting areas some distance from the spine” (Easterling, 28). This organizational ability would be aligned with the narrative potential of the trail where “a carefully placed vantage point and a simple set of narratives that manipulated [. . .] the cultural persuasions that influenced its perception (Easterling 40). Here, the jurisdictional inclusivity of a geographically large and self-funding line manifests a unique opportunity to build a large scale system; the pilgrimage becomes the synergistic mediator between urban form, social fabric, and the changing landscape on which they are built.


The linear connection of these 88 sacred sites on this southern Japanese island, illustrates how a cultural a vector has the potential to act as a forest conservation device, appropriating the natural landscape, and offering a novel methodology for planning the urban growth that binds the peri-urban condition to the city and the rural. The route offers latent potential for opportunities both at and between the nodal conditions that would both further enhance the route mechanics and the conservation methodology. This establishes the concept that a cultural figure, such as a pilgrimage route, can be a strategic planning device that operates beyond the scale of the city or regional territory in order to give form and the sense of the gestalt at an inter-regional scale.


Easterling, Keller. Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways, and Houses in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.

Ohashi, Yasunobu. “History and Developement in Shikoku.” Personal interview. 22 July 2010.

Statler, Oliver. Japanese Pilgrimage. New York: Morrow, 1983.

Reader, Ian. Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2005.