A trail around the Kannoji temple is known as the “time-saving” Kabutoyama pilgrimage route with 88 check-in spots. (Chihiro Ozaki)

NISHINOMIYA, Hyogo Prefecture--Walking an ancient pilgrimage route such as the famous 1,460-km journey in the island of Shikoku may seem a pipe dream for many, but one little-known alternative can be completed in under two hours.

The scaled-down trail, located around a temple on a hillside of Mount Kabutoyama, is like a miniature Shikoku pilgrimage and can serve as a “shortcut” to the same spiritual benefits.

The so-called Kabutoyama pilgrimage route stretches about 2 km, only 1/560th of the Shikoku route, but the same number of holy spots--88--are crammed into it.

The route was apparently established in the grounds of the Kannoji in 1798 by the 62nd-generation chief priest who brought back sand and stone statues from each of the 88 temples on the pilgrimage route in Shikoku.

“I heard the idea was conceived for commoners to let them experience what it was like to go on a pilgrimage, which was a lofty dream for them,” said Eijun Morita, 43, the 81st-generation chief priest.

The trail’s starting point is a stone pillar bearing the inscription of “Awa no Kuni Dai Ichiban” (No. 1 spot of Awa Province), which is accessible with a short walk from a bus stop in front of the prefectural Kabutoyama Forest Park. The spots numbered from 2 through 12 stand alongside the bus route. With each next check-in point always visible from the previous one, all 11 spots can be visited in under 10 minutes.

Next comes a stone staircase that leads down to the 13th spot, with a walk alongside agricultural fields leading to a mountain trail dotted with bamboo offertory boxes numbered up to 26.

The pilgrimage route carries on from there, keeping visitors entertained with its cultural and natural landscapes. Some holy spots have more distinct characteristics than others, such as the 34th point known for a large stone standing behind the Buddhist deities, and the 60th landmark, which boasts a beautiful mountain view. The chirping of birds and tolling of bells can also often be heard.

It takes about an hour to get to the 60th check-in spot while taking pictures along the way. Visitors may expect an easy final stretch after the gentle route up to that point, but they are in for a surprise, because the holy spots are placed at wider intervals and the route gets rougher from there on.

After the 87th spot, the pilgrimage route double backs to lead to the 88th and final one, which is located near Kannoji’s main hall. The last hurdle, a 100-step stone staircase, lies ahead.

The whole trip can take around an hour and 50 minutes, with a kind-faced Buddhist statue with a red cap sitting at the last spot as if to welcome pilgrims.

There are several miniature pilgrimage routes across the country, but the Kabutoyama route was among the first, and it is characterized by its moderate distance that can be easily covered in a day.

“If it is simplified too much, it would fail to give the feeling of experience. I assume it wasn’t built on a flatland on purpose,” Morita said.

A civic group founded to explore the history of Nishinomiya conducted research on the 88 spots on the Kabutoyama route from 2006 to 2009 to compile a report.

“Once, we saw aprons of the stone Buddhist statues replaced with new ones while we were repeatedly visiting the route, so we got a strong sense that they are treasured now as much as ever,” said Sanae Kawakami, 49, a member of the civic group.

Kawakami’s sense is certainly accurate, as the many names of people who made donations when the route was established engraved on the pedestals and stone pillars attest. It seems that the time-saving pilgrimage route has survived through the centuries thanks to people’s faith, a very considerate temple and their conservation.