The pilgrimage is a very old religious practice in Japan. One can say the practice Is somewhat centered around the mountains where many who are followers of Buddhism and the ancient Shinto religion believe the gods of their religions dwell and, in fact, some of the mountains are considered holy places. 

There are pilgrimages throughout the country ranging from a relatively short distance and including a single temple up to nearly a thousand mile and stooping at around one hundred temples. Without question the best known and most sacred pilgrimage is the 88 Temple Pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku which takes 40 to 60 days to visit the 88 temples on the approximately 1000-mile pilgrimage route around the perimeter of the island. 

Probably the most popular single-temple pilgrimage is to a temple atop Mount Koya, itself considered a sacred place. One pilgrimage in the Kansai Region centered around Kyoto includes several temples in Kyoto and one temple in Stillwater’s sister city of Kameoka. It’s called the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage and the route from the first temple to the 33rd temple is about 600 miles long through seven prefectures. There seems to be several versions as to how and when the pilgrimage started but it most likely started around 1,100 AD. The principal image at the 33 temples is Kannon, a Japanese name for the Buddhist Deity of Mercy. 

It’s interesting that most who walk the pilgrimage route go first to the Shinto shrine at Ise Shima before going to Seiganto-ji, the closest of the 33 temples and is therefore designated as “Temple 1” for the pilgrimage. It’s traditional for pilgrims to wear white clothing and a conical straw hat and to carry a walking stick. 

The proper way for pilgrims to record their progress is to have a monk or staff member at each temple stamp the pilgrim’s prayer book with a red calligraphy stamp put the temple number and name and the name of the Kannon image for the temple, however, today many ask that the stamp be made on a wall scroll which the pilgrim will take home and use for decorative purposes or put the stamp on their white coat which the pilgrim intends to be cremated in. There are three temples in Wakayama Prefecture, four in Osaka, four in Nara, eleven in Kyoto including the one in Kameoka, six in Shiga, four in Hyogo and one in Gifu Prefecture. 

Three or four of the temples in Kyoto Prefecture are well known major tourist attractions or even UNESCO World Heritage sites, however most are relatively small, very ordinary temples. On most English language tourist maps of Kyoto there are lists of places of interest to tourists including hotels, museums, theaters, castles, imperial palaces, temples, shrines, hospitals and other places. On my map is a list of 51 major Buddhist temples and several pilgrimage temples are not included sort of suggesting they are of less interest to tourists, none-the-less, they are of significant interest to those who practice the Buddhist religion. My interest is primarily the beautiful gardens at many of the temples so those are where I have usually visited.

Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.

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