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
Nachikatsuura, Wakayama Hard
2 Kimii-dera
Wakayama City, Wakayama Normal
3 Kokawa-dera
Kinokawa, Wakayama Hard
Izumi, Osaka Very Hard
5 Fujii-dera
Fujiidera, Osaka Normal
Takatori, Nara Hard
Asuka, Nara Hard
Bangai Hokki-in
Sakurai, Nara Normal
8 Hase-dera
Sakurai, Nara Normal
Nara, Nara Easy
10 Mimuroto-ji
Uji, Kyoto Easy
11 Daigo-ji
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
12 Shoho-ji (Iwama-dera)
Otsu, Shiga Very Hard
Otsu, Shiga Normal
Kyoto, Kyoto Normal
Kyoto, Kyoto Normal
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
18 Choho-ji
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
19 Gyogan-ji
Kyoto, Kyoto Easy
Kyoto, Kyoto Hard
21 Anao-ji
Kameoka, KyotoHard
22 Soji-ji
Ibaraki, Osaka Easy
23 Katsuo-ji
Minoo, Osaka Hard
24 Nakayama-dera
Takarazuka, Hyogo Easy
BangaiKazanin Bodai-ji
Sanda, Hyogo Hard
Kato, Hyogo Very Hard
26 Ichijo-ji
Kasai, Hyogo Hard
27 Engyo-ji
Himeiji, Hyogo Hard
28 Nariai-ji
Miyazu, Kyoto Hard
29 Matsunoo-dera
Maizuru, Kyoto Very Hard
Nagahama, Shiga Hard
Omihachiman, Shiga Hard
Omihachiman, Shiga Hard
33 Kegon-ji
Ibigawa, GifuHard


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