Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, Japan’s Oldest Pilgrimage

Japan has a lot of temples, but not all temples are created equal. Temples have been part of Japan’s landscape for thousands of years and just as long as there have been temples, people have made pilgrimages to see them. Many outside of Japan assume that the most important pilgrimage one can take in Japan is the Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage. However, the Shikoku 88 is not the most sacred, historic, or even the most culturally significant pilgrimage in Japan. That honor belongs to the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.


What is Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage?

Saigoku Pilgrimage consists of 33 temples dotted mostly throughout the Kansai region. Though the temples’ religious sect vary, one thing in common: they all enshrine the Goddess of Mercy, Kannon Bosatsu [観音菩薩].

large golden 42 armed statue of Kannon Bosatsu

Kannon Bosatsu at Kimii-dera

Kannon Bosatsu can take any of 33 different forms in order to help people understand the teachings of Buddha. People believe any and all sins you committed in this world will vanish, if you visit all 33 of her temples. While there are many pilgrimages in Japan such as Shikoku or Bando pilgrimages, the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage is the oldest pilgrimage and is celebrating 1,300 years as of 2018.


The History of Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage

Supposedly, around 1,300 years ago the head monk of Hase-dera Temple, Tokudo [徳道], was trapped in a coma.

Hase-dera temple surrounded by autumn foliage

Hase-dera Temple

During his coma he claimed that he met Enma-ou, the king of hell, at the entrance of Meido. Enma-ou told Tokudo that the number of people going to hell had increased dramatically. However, if people can visit the 33 temples of Kannon Bosatsu, their sins will be reduced. Enma-ou then gave Tokudo the seals (today called shuin [朱印]) of all 33 temples and sent him back to the land of the living.

The First Pilgrimage

Though Tokudo tried to encourage people to go visit the 33 temples like Enma-ou instructed, sadly, few listened. Disheartened, Tokudo saved the seals he received from Enma-ou in Nakayama-dera Temple. It was only 70 years after Tokudo’s death that Emperor Kazan found these temple seals. Emperor Kazan took Tokudo’s beliefs to heart and went on the first Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage. At each temple he visited, he read poem, now known as a goeika [ご詠歌]. Today, when you visit any of the 33 temples and ask for the temple seal, you may choose to receive a copy of the goeika Kazan recited at that particular temple.

calligraphic goeka and shuin of Nakayama-dera

Goeka (left) and shuin (right) of Oka-dera Temple in Asuka, Japan

The Evolution of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage

For a long time, the Saigoku Kanno Pilgrimage was exclusive to the imperial family and the aristocracy. Then, in the Muromachi Period, regular people started taking the pilgrimage too. By the Edo Period, most people went to Ise Jingu before starting their pilgrimage to the Kannon temples. That’s why the closest temple to Ise, Seiganto-ji temple in Nachi, is the first temple in the Saigoku Pilgrimage.


What is a Bangai?

As you make your way through the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, you will come across three temples listed as bangai; what are those? A bangai is a temple associated with either Emperor Kazan or Tokudo i.e. either or them might have lived, died, or visited there. It is considered polite to visit those temple as part of the Saigoku Kannon, but they are outside of the 33 temples in the pilgrimage. 


Temples of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage

Number Temple Name Location Accessibility
1  Seiganto-ji
Nachikatsuura, Wakayama  3
2  Kimii-dera
Wakayama City, Wakayama  2
3  Kokawa-dera
 Kinokawa, Wakayama  2
4  Sefuku-ji
Izumi, Osaka  4
5  Fujii-dera
Fujiidera, Osaka  2
6 Tsubosaka-dera
Takatori, Nara  3
7  Oka-dera

Asuka, Nara  3
Bangai  Hokki-in
Sakurai, Nara  2
8  Hase-dera
Sakurai, Nara  2
9  Kofuku-ji
Nara, Nara  1
10  Mimuroto-ji
Uji, Kyoto  1
11  Daigo-ji
Kyoto, Kyoto  1
12  Shoho-ji (Iwama-dera)
Otsu, Shiga  4
13 Ishiyama-dera
Otsu, Shiga  2
14  Mii-dera
Kyoto, Kyoto  2
Bangai  Gankei-ji

Kyoto, Kyoto  2
15  Kannon-ji

Kyoto, Kyoto  1
16 Kiyomizu-dera
Kyoto, Kyoto  1
17 Rokuharamitsu-ji
Kyoto, Kyoto  1
18  Choho-ji
Kyoto, Kyoto  1
19  Gyogan-ji
Kyoto, Kyoto  1
20 Yoshimine-dera
Kyoto, Kyoto  3
21  Anao-ji
Kameoka, Kyoto  3
22  Soji-ji
Ibaraki, Osaka  1
23  Katsuo-ji
Minoo, Osaka  3
24  Nakayama-dera
Takarazuka, Hyogo  1
Bangai Kazanin Bodai-ji
Sanda, Hyogo  3
25 Kiyomizu-dera
Kato, Hyogo  4
26  Ichijo-ji
Kasai, Hyogo  3
27  Engyo-ji
Himeiji, Hyogo  3
28  Nariai-ji
Miyazu, Kyoto  3
29  Matsunoo-dera
Maizuru, Kyoto  4
30  Hogon-ji
Nagahama, Shiga  3
31  Chomei-ji
Omihachiman, Shiga  3
32  Kannonsho-ji
Omihachiman, Shiga  3
33  Kegon-ji
Ibigawa, Gifu  3

About Accessibility

Accessibility scale:
1= Inside a city, near a station/bus stop. Transportation to and from is frequent and reliable.

2= Within inner city limits. Requires a minimum 10 minute walk from station/bus stop. Transportation to and from is frequent and reliable. 

3=Near a small city/town. Requires a minimum 30 minute walk from station/bus stop. Transportation to and from is less frequent (once an hour or less).

4= Nearby remote city. Could require minimum 1 hour walk or more from station/ bus stop. Transportation to and from is limited (Several services a day or less). 

*Although each of the temples on the Saigoku Pilgrimage have a number, you do not have to visit them in any particular order.

This is a long pilgrimage, and you don’t have to finish it all at once. Whether you visit all of these temples or not, you have still made it to some of the most sacred temples in Japan! Steeped in history, culture, and spirituality you should consider adding at least one of these temples to your Japan “To Do” list! 

Coming next time,
Number 24 of the Saigoku Pilgrimage: Nakayama-dera Temple

The adventure continues…


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