Buddhist pilgrimage, or holy hiking as I call it, has been around for thousands of years in Japan. There are over 100 pilgrimages in Japan and the Japanese are known to go out on weekends and do pilgrimages the way westerners tackle hiking or climbing trails. Although most Japanese pilgrims are retired people, with time on their hands, pilgrimaging is experiencing a bit of a revival in Japan. Young people are discovering the fun of taking off a few weeks from life just to go walking.
Even though most of Japan’s pilgrimages are Buddhist, anyone can be a pilgrim, no matter what religion, Pilgrimaging is a great way to discover the heart and soul of Japan. You will meet friendly people along the way who will appreciate your going out of your way to see their shrines and temples. Pilgrimage routes range from temple to temple pilgrimages that may take 6 weeks to complete (such as the 1,000km Kobo Daishi 88-temple pilgrimage in Shikoku) to small local pilgrimages of just a few kilometers, where pilgrims hike from small stone shrine to small stone shrine (see photo). These smaller pilgrimages can be done in just a day or two.
There are two main types of pilgrimages: the Kobo Daishi 88-temple Pilgrimage, based on the 88 places where the wandering priest Kobo Daishi found enlightenment in the 9th century and the Kannon 33-temple pilgrimage based on the 33 manifestations of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy and established in the 11th century. The most famous Kannon pilgrimage is the Saigoku route in Kansai. Most pilgrimages, even the smaller local ones, are copies of these two larger ones.
Pilgrimages can easily fit into any itinerary as there are no hard and fast rules on pilgrimaging. You don’t have to do an entire pilgrimage to completion, nor is it necessary to start at temple No. 1. Japanese people tend to do various parts of different pilgrimages over weekends or holidays, slowly progressing through a certain route over the years. You may find that just going to a few temples on a certain route is enough to give you the idea of what it’s all about.
For more information on pilgrimaging, check out these sites:
The Traveler’s Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages by Ed Readicker-Henderson.
Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com