Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, Japan’s Oldest Pilgrimage

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, Kanzeon Bosatsu or commonly known Kannon Bosatsu [観音菩薩]. 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.

Fujiidera’s Juichimen Senju Kanzeon Bosatsu (replica)
Seigantoji’s Nyoirin Kanzeon Bosatsu (replica)
Matsuodera’s Bato Kazanzeon Bosatsu (replica)

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.

 

 

Temples of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage

NumberTemple NameLocationAccessibility
1 Seiganto-ji
[青岸渡寺]
Nachikatsuura, Wakayama Hard
2 Kimii-dera
[紀三井寺]
Wakayama City, Wakayama Normal
3 Kokawa-dera
[粉河寺]
Kinokawa, Wakayama Normal
4Sefuku-ji
[施福寺]
Izumi, Osaka Very Hard
5 Fujii-dera
[葛井寺]
Fujiidera, Osaka Normal
6Tsubosaka-dera
[壷阪寺]
Takatori, Nara Hard
7Oka-dera
[岡寺]
Asuka, Nara Hard
Bangai Hokki-in
[発起院]
Sakurai, Nara Normal
8 Hase-dera
[長谷寺]
Sakurai, Nara Normal
9Kofuku-ji
[興福寺]
Nara, Nara Easy
10 Mimuroto-ji
[三室戸寺]
Uji, Kyoto Easy
11 Daigo-ji
[醍醐寺]
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
12 Shoho-ji (Iwama-dera)
[正法寺]
Otsu, Shiga Very Hard
13Ishiyama-dera
[石山寺]
Otsu, Shiga Normal
14Mii-dera
[三井寺]
Kyoto, Kyoto Normal
BangaiGankei-ji
[元慶寺]
Kyoto, Kyoto Normal
15Kannon-ji
[今熊野観音寺]
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
16Kiyomizu-dera
[清水寺]
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
17Rokuharamitsu-ji
[六波羅蜜寺]
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
18 Choho-ji
[頂法寺]
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
19 Gyogan-ji
[行願寺]
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
20Yoshimine-dera
[善峯寺]
Kyoto, Kyoto Hard
21 Anao-ji
[穴太寺]
Kameoka, KyotoHard
22 Soji-ji
[総持寺]
Ibaraki, Osaka Easy
23 Katsuo-ji
[勝尾寺]
Minoo, Osaka Hard
24 Nakayama-dera
[中山寺]
Takarazuka, Hyogo Easy
BangaiKazanin Bodai-ji
[花山院菩提寺]
Sanda, Hyogo Hard
25Kiyomizu-dera
[清水寺]
Kato, Hyogo Very Hard
26 Ichijo-ji
[一乗寺]
Kasai, Hyogo Hard
27 Engyo-ji
[圓教寺]
Himeiji, Hyogo Hard
28 Nariai-ji
[成相寺]
Miyazu, Kyoto Hard
29 Matsunoo-dera
[松尾寺]
Maizuru, Kyoto Very Hard
30Hogon-ji
[宝厳寺]
Nagahama, Shiga Hard
31Chomei-ji
[長命寺]
Omihachiman, Shiga Hard
32Kannonsho-ji
[観音正寺]
Omihachiman, Shiga Hard
33 Kegon-ji
[華厳寺]
Ibigawa, GifuHard

 

6 thoughts on “Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, Japan’s Oldest Pilgrimage

  • November 26, 2019 at 8:34 am
    Permalink

    Bonjour,
    Je désire faire le pèlerinage Saigoku Kannon à pied
    au printemps 2020. Y à t’il une carte et un guide ?
    Au temple N 1 trouve on le livre pour les tampons ? J’ai fait Shikoku en 2018 ,
    J’habite en France ,
    Salutations Jean Luc lesage

    Reply
    • November 26, 2019 at 9:03 pm
      Permalink

      Sorry, we don’t understand French…can you speak English or 日本語?

      Reply
    • January 30, 2020 at 10:15 am
      Permalink

      Hello, jean luc,

      We will be walking the entire Kumano Kodo and Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimages beginning in mid March. Perhaps we will meet you on the path!

      Best wishes,

      Jules and Tali Landsman
      Colorado, U.S.A

      Reply
  • December 20, 2019 at 12:01 pm
    Permalink

    My husband and I are planning to walk the whole Saigoku Pilgrimage.
    We will be starting on April 2020
    Do you know of anyone in modern times who walked the whole pilgrimage?
    Many thanks for your excellent site.
    Tali Landsman
    http://Www.talilandsman.com

    Reply
    • December 22, 2019 at 9:56 am
      Permalink

      I’m not sure how you guys are going to walk the whole pilgrimage as there is no set trail or anything like that. Not to mention some of the temples are a little tricky to get to on foot. 99% of people who go to temples along the Saigoku use cars and public transportation. People still complete the Saigoku Pilgrimage all the time, though most of them are older. It is not the norm for people to complete the whole thing in one go, which has long been the case.
      Good luck to you two and have an excellent adventure!

      Reply
  • March 11, 2020 at 9:27 pm
    Permalink

    I walked it a few years ago, but not in one trip. I did half a dozen trips of a week to ten days each time

    Reply

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