Clearly pilgrims from all walks of life embark on their journey around Shikoku for an ever-changing variety of reasons. However, it’s also clear that the pilgrimage is part of ancient ascetic and shamanistic practices in Japan.
Carmen Blacker addresses the issue briefly in her book The Catalpa Bow when she writes:
“There remain two more subsidiary ascetic disciplines to be described, both of ancient origin and both still practiced today. At first glance they seem oddly contradictory.
The first is known as komori, and means seclusion, preferably in the darkness of a cave, in a temple or shrine or in a room of one’s house specially prepared and purified. The second consists of a continuous walking pilgrimage from one sacred place to another, usually along a route which describes a circle…
…Sometimes the route followed by the ascetic is not a haphazard one from one mountain to another but describes a circle round one particular mountain. In the kaihogyō exercise of the ascetic branch of the Tendai sect, the disciple follows a circular route ‘round the peak’ of Mt Hiei. At Iwayayama to the north of Kyoto the ascetic may circumambulate the mountain, pausing at eighty-eight places on the way to recite invocations to Fudō, Kannon or Amida. At Inariyama at Fushimi a similar circumambulation may be made round the holy peak. On a larger scale the prescribed circle may cover hundreds of miles. The route through the Eighty-eight Places, much tramped by ascetic pilgrims, circumscribes the entire island of Shikoku (98, 100-101).”
Blacker goes on the list Mokujiki Shōnin, Enkū, and Bashō as examples of artist-holy wanderers in Japanese history.
Citation: Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.