A pilgrim resting on the steps at Kiyomizudera temple
Since being introduced through China and Korea, in the sixth century (Asuka Period) and seventh century onwards (Nara period) Japanese Buddhism has flourished. Rulers and warlords alike have built many beautiful temples both for the imperial household and for the common man.
The concept of pilgrimage itself was preached by Lord Buddha to his followers. He advised his followers to visit the eight holy places (see previous page) for inspiration and guidance after he has achieved nirvana.
Similar concept of pilgrimages handed down to Japanese Buddhist monks as the religion flourished in Japan starting from the sixth century. Initially these pilgrimages were devised by religious monks and scholars and they usually contain a number of temples that the pilgrims need to cover as part of a Pilgrimage.
Because of the abundance of Temples and Shrines in Japan, eighth
century onwards over two hundred such pilgrimage routes have been
devised. Some of them cover just Temples, some cover both Temples and Shrines. Some of them span multiple prefectures but some of the pilgrimages may be
confined to a city (like the Kyoto City temple circuit, called Rakuyo33
Junrei). These pilgrimages are also generate
huge tourism business for tour bus operators and the city and Prefecture tourism departments. The revenue generated by the temples
and shrines themselves is used to maintain the premises, pay for the priests and other temple employees.
These pilgrimages are called "Junrei" or "Henro" in Japanese language.
Based on my readings and research about these Pilgrimages in Japan, I broadly categorize them into three major categories:
1) Shikoku Temple Pilgrimage: Shikoku pilgrimage
is one of the oldest in Japan and it covers 88 temples and four prefectures in Shikoku region. This pilgrimage was said to have been devised by the Buddhist Monk Kobo Daishi Kukai.
used to be done only by old couples and retired people but now it is done by younger people, who like to combine the spiritual solace with the sense of adventure.
2) Kannon Pilgrimages:
Buddhists have always believed in the reincarnation of Kannon (Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara) in
various forms to help and save people from their daily sufferings. One
of the most accepted and popular belief is that Bodhisattva can reincarnate in 33
forms, so during the Heian era, a very popular pilgrimage route called "Saikoku Junrei" or "Saikoku Henro"
was formed. This pilgrimage route covered mostly Kansai (Kinki) region in
western Japan. This pilgrimage route also called the Western
This pilgrimage was so popular during the Heian and later periods, that a
second route covering 33 Kannon temples was formed in the Kanto region
covering Eastern Japan. This pilgrimage is called "Bando Pilgrimage (Junrei or Henro)"
Later on additional 34 Kannon temples were added to the western and
eastern pilgrimages. These 34 Kannon temples are located in the Chichibu area in the Saitama Prefecture in the Kanto region and is called Chichibu Kannon Pilgrimage
These three circuits together cover the 100 Kannon temples in Japan and by far the most popular pilgrimage circuits in Japan.
3) Kumano Koodo or Kumano Ancient Road:
This pilgrimage road is designated as a UNESCO World heritage site. This pilgrimage refers to a route or a road that covers three sacred sites of the Ancient Japan, along the Kii mountain range (Kii Peninsula):
a) Temples and Shrines of Nachi Katsuura in Wakayama Prefecture
b) Temples and Shrines Mt. Koya or Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture
c) Temples and Shrines of Mt. Yoshime in Nara Prefecture
More information about the Kumano Kodo please visit the Kumano Ancient Road Pilgrimage page.
Japanese usually go on these pilgrimages, to celebrate various important occasions in their lives, such as marriage, new job, birth of a child etc. A pilgrimage like Shikoku Junrei is usually done by retired couples, as mentioned above, although it visited by younger people also.
Most pilgrimages (like the
Saikoku and Bando routes) require strict adherence to the order of visitation. Some routes do not require such order. Devoted pilgrims also follow certain spiritual and ethical rules such as vegetarianism during the entirety of their pilgrimage.
In this web site, I intend to cover both temples that are part of various pilgrimage routes and temples that are not part of pilgrimage routes but listed as temples of historic value (in Japan they are called "Important National Cultural Assets") and excellent tourist attractions. A good example is Shinsoji (Naritasan) temple in Narita area, near Tokyo. It is a beautiful temple to visit with great historical/cultural importance but not part of any major pilgrimage route.
As mentioned above, a temple pilgrimage in Japan has it's own set procedures and tradition associated with it.
How do you go about doing a temple pilgrimage in Japan?