Japanese Pilgrimage – An Introduction
“This is where one begins. On this mountaintop, at the holiest spot of this sprawling complex of temples, in the shadow of these towering cedars, one stands before the tomb of the saint whose life and legacy inspire the pilgrimage.” – From: Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler
Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of them at certain holy sites around Japan, wandering pilgrims dressed in long-sleeved white vests and pants, cone-shaped straw hats and carrying walking sticks. The attire sets them apart and signals their intent, they are not just wandering sightseers, they are on a pilgrimage. They aren’t monks, they are ordinary people from all walks of life who have felt a desire to walk the henro-michi or pilgrim trail. They are Ohenro or pilgrims. Each with a different reason for walking yet bound together by a common desire to walk the pilgrim trail.
The reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage are as different and unique as the people taking them. Most people undertake a pilgrimage as an act of prayer, seeking help or guidance from the deity at the holy site they are visiting. Although Japanese pilgrimages are basically religious by nature, you don’t have to be Buddhist or Shinto to participate in one. There are many people who undertake a pilgrimage in Japan for the experience alone. It can be a wonderful way to connect with and learn about the people and culture of Japan!
There are two basic types of pilgrimages in Japan; pilgrimages to a single holy site and pilgrimages that involve visiting many holy sites on a route. Some are located in towns, some at the top of mountains and some meander through forested countryside, beside rice fields, rivers and even congested cities.
You may have heard about the more arduous pilgrimages like the 88 temple pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku but, thinking about walking for over 50 days to complete it was too intimidating to even think about!
Don’t worry, there are many ways to complete a pilgrimage. In the days of old, people walked every kilometer to complete the journey that they had undertaken. As a matter of fact, that’s why the pilgrim’s vest and pants are white. White is a burial color in Japan. It is said that during ancient times, pilgrims wore white incase they died along the pilgrim trail. It saved whoever found them, the trouble of having to find proper burial clothing!
Nowadays it’s common to see Ohenro using only the long-sleeved white vest, sugegasa or cone shaped straw hat and carrying their walking stick. Jeans, Kakhi pants, skirts even shorts are all acceptable articles of clothing to be worn along with the traditional pilgrim’s garb.
There is also no rule that says you must complete an entire pilgrimage at once. Some people return again and again, starting where they left off, before finally completing their pilgrimage.
The modernization of Japan changed the way that pilgrimages can be completed. You can find any number of tours that will make completing such a journey accessible to just about anyone. Bus tours are a very popular way to go on pilgrimages that involve visiting several sites. The reality is that many people don’t have the time or physical condition it takes to complete the longer pilgrimage routes on foot or bicycle. Bus tours are very popular alternative. Many times you can get hotel / tour packages at very affordable rates. Finding one that suits your needs shouldn’t be too difficult as many companies have websites on the internet with English translation available.
You’ll probably meet many interesting people in your tour group and may even make life-long friends!
if you live in Japan and want to use your own vehicle, that’s also a possibility. Ferries that travel between the Japanese islands are really a convenient way to shorten your drive time and take your car along with you! (More on Ferry travel in another article!)
If you are physically able and looking for more of an adventure, then undertaking a pilgrimage on foot or by bicycle will give you a pilgrimage experience that just can’t be had by traveling with a tour. An intimate experience with the culture, land and people of Japan that you’ll never forget!
Stay tuned for more details about Japanese Pilgrimages!
The Oriental Caravan tour company from the UK that does English speaking “pilgrimage bus tours” in Japan.
Shikoku Tours Website