In Japan some pilgrimages involve a grand tour of almost a hundred temples. Others take only a few minutes' walk.
Pilgrimages in Japan usually combine a serious religious intention with a readiness to enjoy the journey as an excursion of recreational value. This has been true at least since the eighteenth century, when pilgrimage became popular as one of the reasons for which ordinary people could get permission to travel. Since then it has usually been difficult to distinguish between the touristic and the religious aspects of pilgrimage. Or rather, we should say that it is inappropriate to try. Leisure travel has often simply been combined with religious travel, with the more or less integrated purpose of maximizing individual and family welfare. It is therefore small wonder that nowadays even the rather serious long-distance Buddhist pilgrimages are performed with the help of a comfortable coach and pre-booked hotel accommodation.
In general two types of pilgrimage may be distinguished in Japan. One is what may be called "single-site" pilgrimage, that is, a religious journey, for special reasons, to one specific holy place. This is not different in principle from pilgrimage the world over. The second is only complete when a number of sites of equal importance have been visited. In a strict sense this type of pilgrimage appears to be special to Japan.
Single-site pilgrimages in Japan are important in several religions. Historically significant was the pilgrimage to Ise Jingu, the great Shinto shrine to the sun-goddess Amaterasu. In the eighteenth century this was immensely popular and became something of a mass movement. Today the visitors to Ise Jingu are again very numerous, though they are relatively restrained, being satisfied with a short prayer and a commemorative photograph. The journey itself is not difficult, though it is a little complicated from major centres such as Tokyo or Osaka. Other major Shinto shrines draw their own special public. Izumo is one of several shrines where prayers for a good marriage are thought to be specially effective.
Dawn on Mount Ontake
In some cases there is a kind of division of labour according to region. Inari-sama, a divinity of commerce, is visited at the Fushimi Inari Shrine near Kyoto by residents of western Japan and at Kasama Inari Shrine, north of Tokyo, by those living on the eastern Kanto Plain. Since visits to these shrines nevertheless involve considerable journeys they may be regarded as pilgrimages in a general sense. After all, it is usually possible to say prayers to Inari-sama much nearer to home, as many business areas or even individual businesses have their own shrine to this Shinto god or kami. Pilgrimage is the deliberate traversing of a route to a sacred place which lies outside one's normal habitat.
Buddhism in Japan is organized in several different strands or denominations, and in most cases it is the historic head temple which provides the natural focus for pilgrimage. Some of these temples are relatively difficult to reach. The centre of Shingon Buddhism, for example, was purposely set up by its founder Kukai on remote Mount Koya. Nowadays the neighbourhood can be reached by rail or road and there is a cable car to master the difficult ascent to the top.
Other Buddhist denominations have centres in urban areas. Shin Buddhist believers, for example, flow regularly to the two great temples in Kyoto, namely Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji, which are both within walking distance of the railway station. Visits to these temples are not meant to be arduous. Rather they are understood as an act of loyal devotion and gratitude, for the believers rely on the saving power of Amida Buddha rather than on any merit of their own.
Another famous centre of Buddhist pilgrimage, an extensive temple area known as Zenkoji, is jointly cared for by two Buddhist traditions, the Tendai and the Jodo (Pure Land) denominations. Situated high up at Nagano City, the temple draws thousands of visitors every year. Regardless of affiliation, many of them descend into the dark space beneath the main hall to circumambulate the huge base of the Buddhist statue up above. Feeling their way around the central pillars with their outstretched right hands, they experience the total darkness of death before being symbolically reborn when they finally emerge into the light of day.
Some of the historic pilgrim sites of Japan are extremely mysterious and escape denominational definition. A fine example of this is Mount Ontake in Nagano Prefecture, a lightly active volcano which tops 3,000 metres above sea level. The local bus service stops well short of the main part of the mountain, which is not served by any mechanical transport at all.
Rearing up past the tree-line into the clouds, the mountain itself is regarded as a kami, and may therefore be worshipped "from afar", that is, from a small shrine near the bottom. However, many groups of religious believers prefer to make the arduous climb to the top, where a Shinto-style shrine is perched. This climb consists of a scramble up a barely made up pathway, much of which is simply a stream of irregular stones.
The horizontal distance is 3,000 metres, but over this distance the pilgrim makes a steep ascent of one thousand metres. A popular approach is to climb up in the afternoon or evening, stay overnight in a rough hostel and worship the rising sun at crack of dawn. Many of the pilgrims wear white clothing which is similar to that worn on Buddhist pilgrim routes. Those who climb Mount Ontake generally share the idea that the arduousness of the climb, which is undertaken by many people of quite advanced age, will create merit and empower the rest of one's life in a positive way.
The Saikoku 33 and the Shikoku 88
The second major type of pilgrimage in Japan is the "circulatory" type. This is based on the idea of visiting in sequence a series of, for example, thirty-three different temples. The number thirty-three arises because the compassionate bodhisattva Kannon-sama (the equivalent of Kuan Yin in Chinese and Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit) is said to have appeared in thirty-three different forms to bring salvation to living beings in different states of karma.
The most famous group of thirty-three temples dedicated to Kannon-sama is known as the Saikoku Thirty-three. These are quite widely spread out in western Japan and require anything up to two weeks to visit even using modern transport. This pilgrimage is almost a thousand years old and must have taken several weeks to cover on foot in days gone by.
Imitations of the Saikoku pilgrimage have been developed all over Japan. Well-known and popular since the Edo period (1600-1868) are the Bando pilgrimage, which is spread widely over the Kanto plain around Tokyo, and the Chichibu pilgrimage which is much more tightly arranged around the little city of Chichibu to the northwest of Tokyo. Chichibu has thirty-four temples to Kannon-sama, one more than usual, and this means that a keen pilgrim may link the Saikoku, Bando and Chichibu routes to complete a circuit of one hundred in all.
The other dominant pilgrimage of this second type is the Shikoku pilgrimage to eighty-eight temples, Shikoku being Japan's fourth largest island. At these temples the pilgrim first visits the main hall, which may be dedicated to any one of several different buddhas or bodhisattvas. A visit is then paid to a secondary hall of worship devoted to Kobo Daishi, as the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kukai, was posthumously named.
While the various regions of Japan are known for their famous mountains and special traditions, Shikoku is identified in people's minds with this very ancient pilgrimage. It takes about four weeks to complete visits to all the temples, using modern transport. Since this is arduous and costly, a number of much smaller imitations have been set up.
The message on the pilgrim's straw hat
Some require one day's gentle walking. Others require the circulation, usually clockwise, of a series of eighty-eight stones or buddha-images, each of which stands for one of the Shikoku temples. This can be done in a few minutes. Such miniatures are well understood, for the abbreviation of long and difficult practices has been an accepted principle of Japanese religion for centuries. While the famous Buddhist saints have often been known for their astonishing ascetic feats, nobody is expected to do more than they can manage.
In the Buddhist pilgrimages simple actions are performed at each temple and are usually of three kinds. First a slip of paper is deposited which bears the pilgrim's name, address and age, and states the prayers for which fulfilment is sought. Such petitions include "safety at home", "success in business" and "welfare of ancestors". Second, brief prayer, or recitation of a sutra - a piece of scripture - such as the Heart Sutra or the Kannon Sutra is offered. In Shingon Buddhism a mantra (shingon) - a holy name or word for inward meditation - directed towards the specific Buddha or bodishattva is often included here. Third, a temple attendant sitting patiently in a small office is requested to inscribe the pilgrim's commemorative book, scroll or shirt with red temple seals and fine calligraphy in black ink.
This completed memento, for which a small fee is paid at each temple, will ultimately be proof that the pilgrimage has been completed as a whole. It may be deposited at the last temple as a final act of donation. In the case of a pilgrim's shirt, an extra one bought for the purpose, it may also be given to a sick or very old relative in preparation for their deathbed. This dedication shows that the pilgrimage mirrors in life our ultimate passage through death, but in a manner which opens this up to a Buddhist meaning. Through pilgrimage, life comes to be understood as transitory, or as "empty", to use the word which occurs in the Heart Sutra itself.
Circulatory Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan is therefore full of different meanings. For some who go round it is little more than a healthy leisure activity with simple participation in some of the general forms of Japanese religion. Transactions at the temples involve the payment of relatively small sums of money in exchange for the expectation of benefits to oneself and one's family in this life. These are known literally as "this-worldly benefits" (genzeriyaku). For others the meaning is more transformational. Their experience is deepened as they reflect, during the journey, on family hopes and gratitude to ancestors, on the sequence of life and death of which they themselves are a part.
In Buddhist understanding the ups and downs of this life are put in a more relative perspective. If travelling from one place to another reflects the difficulties and efforts of life, the completion of the pilgrimage makes the passage through death seem possible. Paradoxically this message is carried in a four-line verse which appears on many a pilgrim's conical straw hat. It runs in translation:
Through ignorance the three worlds are a prison Through enlightenment the ten directions are empty Originally there is neither east nor west Where then shall be south and north?
In other words, the difficulty of finding the pathways to a multitude of goals is a transient matter indeed. The real goal is enlightenment, beyond all thoughts of the points of the compass. Of this the pilgrim's own hat is a constant reminder.
MICHAEL PYE, professor of religious studies at Marburg University (Germany), is a British specialist in Eastern Asian Buddhism and contemporary Japanese religions. Among his published works are The Macmillan Dictionary of Religion (Macmillan, London, 1993) and Emerging from Meditation (Duckworth, London, 1990).…