Pilgrimage Route Tours in Japan

A Spiritual and Cultural Journey

Japan, a country steeped in history and spirituality, offers numerous pilgrimage routes that attract both the devout and the curious. These ancient paths, winding through scenic landscapes and connecting sacred sites, provide a unique way to experience Japan's rich cultural heritage and natural beauty. This article explores some of the most significant pilgrimage route tours in Japan, offering insights into their historical significance, spiritual relevance, and the experiences they offer to modern travellers.

The Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage

The Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage is perhaps the most famous of Japan's pilgrimage routes. This circular path spans approximately 1,200 kilometres and covers 88 official temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kūkai (Kobo Daishi), who founded Shingon Buddhism in the 9th century. The pilgrimage is traditionally completed on foot, although modern pilgrims also use cars and public transport. The journey takes participants through the island of Shikoku's four prefectures: Tokushima, Kochi, Ehime, and Kagawa, offering a deep dive into Japan's spiritual practices, stunning landscapes, and warm hospitality from locals known as 'ojisan' and 'obasan' who support the pilgrims.

The Kumano Kodo

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that crisscross the Kii Peninsula, leading to the sacred site of Kumano Sanzan (the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano). Unlike the more singular route of the Shikoku pilgrimage, the Kumano Kodo consists of several trails, including the popular Nakahechi and Kohechi routes. These paths have been travelled for over a thousand years by all levels of society, including retired emperors and aristocrats. The Kumano Kodo is renowned not only for its spiritual significance but also for its natural beauty, passing through the verdant forests, mountainous terrain, and offering breathtaking vistas along the way.

The Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage

The Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage is one of Japan's oldest and most revered pilgrimage circuits, dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Covering 33 Buddhist temples across the Kansai region, this pilgrimage route has been undertaken for over a thousand years. The journey spans several prefectures, including Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, and Nara, allowing pilgrims and tourists alike to explore some of Japan’s most historic and culturally rich areas. Each temple on the route houses a unique statue of Kannon, providing a distinct focus for meditation and prayer at each stop.

Planning Your Pilgrimage

For those interested in embarking on a pilgrimage in Japan, several tour operators and local organisations offer guided tours, which can include accommodations, meal plans, and transportation options. For the more adventurous, independent travel is also a rewarding way to experience these sacred paths, offering flexibility and a personal connection to the journey.

What to Expect

Pilgrimage route tours in Japan are not just spiritual journeys but also physical and cultural ones. Travellers should prepare for long walks, often in hilly or mountainous terrain, and be ready to experience all types of weather. It's also a chance to engage with local customs and traditions, sample regional cuisine, and, perhaps most importantly, reflect on one’s personal journey.