The Kannon Pilgrimage – The Buddhist Pilgrimage on Tokyo’s Doorstep
You don’t have to go far to experience the ancient, living practice of Kannon Pilgrimage. One of Japan’s three major Kannon pilgrimages is just eighty minutes by train from Tokyo!
Hop on a Red Arrow Limited Express train at Ikebukuro station and be transported back in time to the Japanese countryside and an ancient Buddhist pilgrimage that offers secret temples, caves, waterfalls and hikes through pristine forests.
The Chichibu 34 Kannon Pilgrimage was officially recognized in the 12th century when it joined with the Kanto and Kansai pilgrimages to create a National 100 Kannon Pilgrimage, but the oldest temple is said to date back as far as the 8th century. The mountains around Chichibu have been considered sacred for millennia, and one of the temples is in a cave where prehistoric tools and bones were discovered.
Because of its proximity to Edo (Tokyo), the Chichibu Pilgrimage became very popular during the sixteenth century. It continued to grow in popularity because of the unusual number of miracles attributed to its temples.
It continues to attract tens of thousands of Pilgrims every year. Oddly, and luckily for you, Chichibu receives almost no foreign visitors. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if you spent a week in Chichibu and never saw another foreigner.
Chichibu’s temples are sprinkled throughout the sacred mountains and valley of Chichibu in a 100-kilometer circuit. With a combination of hiking and taking buses to temples nestled in caves, beside waterfalls, hidden in bamboo groves, and on the tops of mountains you can complete the Chichibu 34 Kannon Pilgrimage in about four days.
There is a good range of accommodations in Chichibu from Ryokan, to Western style hotels, to hostels, and even Airbnb rentals. The countryside is beautiful and there is a “Shukubo” (temple stay) at the top of a nearby mountain, and a wonderful little riverside town.
If you are brave enough to drive in Japan, you can rent a car right by the station. Otherwise you can walk and take taxis and local buses.
If you just want to make a day trip to see some of the more spectacular temples, you can book one here. You can see lots of photos of the pilgrimage on Instagram @pilgrimage_japan.
When you get to Chichibu you can get a map of the pilgrimage at the Chichibu tourism office just to the right as you exit the station. It’s in Japanese, but will give you an idea of where the temples are, (many are downtown and easily accessible by foot), and is useful to show taxi and bus drivers. There are only two guidebooks in English and you will probably be given one at one of the temples as a gift. If one isn’t immediately offered, you can ask for a copy.
If you plan to complete the entire pilgrimage, you should definitely buy a “Nyoko-cho”. This is an embroidered book for collecting each temple’s special calligraphy and red stamp in. A completed Nyoko-cho is a wonderful souvenir. Many Japanese Buddhists are buried with their completed Nyoko-cho.
If you are only planning to see some temples and shrines during your time in Japan, you can buy a “Goshuin-cho”. This is a similar book, but can be filled with stamps from any Buddhist temples and even Shinto Shrines. These are not specific to any one pilgrimage or tradition.
Finally, if you are interested in doing the pilgrimage, but feel overwhelmed by the planning, you are free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have lived in Chichibu for nine years, my husband is the assistant to the head monk of the pilgrimage and I would be happy to help you in any way that I can.