Ep. 044: Traipsing Japan's West Country Circuit

Visiting the 33 Temples of Kansai's Kannon Pilgrimage

The 88-Temple Pilgrimage on Japan's Shikoku Island is world famous, and (like Spain's Camino de Santiago) walked by an increasing number of foreigners. But Japan has other pilgrimages, too, covering large areas, and often dedicated to a Buddha or Bodhisattva--particularly Kannon (Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. I have done three major Kannon pilgrimages, and one minor one, each composed of 33 (or in one case, 34) temples. Let's take a look at the Saigoku or "West Country" pilgrimage in this episode of

TEMPLE TALES!

Map adapted from Wikipedia Japan

Called in Japanese the Saigoku Sanjusan Kasho or "33 places (sacred to Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) in the Saigoku (or Kansai) region," this route is almost never traveled as an actual route at all. (It would total perhaps 600 miles, depending on how one did it.)

Rather, people visit the temples in clusters--as I did in six separate trips from my home in Tokyo. Perhaps Kansai is more familiar to people than the more ancient name Saigoku; either way, it is the area of western Japan centering on Kyoto (or, these days, Osaka). The pilgrimage runs through seven of Japan's 47 prefectures: Wakayama (with 3 temples); Osaka (4); Nara (4 + 1 bangai); Kyoto (11 + 1 bangai); Shiga (6); Hyogo (4 + 1 bangai); and Gifu (1). A bangai (meaning "outside of the numbering") is an "extra" temple added on to the main list and considered a "must-see" for pilgrims for one reason or another.


"History"

The further back we go, the more "history" is overtaken by legend. In the case of the Saigoku pilgrimage, we reach back into the mists of time to the year 718 when a monk named Tokudo became sick. He descended into hell, where Emma-O (the Sanskrit Yama), King of Hell, said that the number of denizens in his realm was growing a bit too fast, but if Tokudo would establish 33 places sacred to Kannon, those who traveled the route could avoid hellfire. Emma gave Tokudo 33 seals to verify the visits (the origin of the custom of having one's pilgrim book stamped today). But people being skeptical and all, no one believed poor old Tokudo, who ended up just burying the seals before he died.

"Emperor Kazan, who was tricked into abdicating, on his way to the temple where he will become a Buddhist monk – woodblock print by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839–1892)." (Image and caption from Wikipedia)

Fast-forward two-and-a-half centuries or so to the 980s, when Emperor Kazan retired and became a monk named Nyukaku. It was his good fortune (they say) to dig up the seals that Tokudo had buried and, with his retired-Imperial influence, finally got the pilgrimage off the ground (though this story seems a little iffy, as some of the temples on the route hadn't been founded yet!) Kazan is also (even more incredibly) credited with the founding of the Bando circuit centered on Tokyo--a transparent effort by those upstart eastern barbarians to ride on the retired Emperor's robe-tails.

Anyway, history says the Saigoku route was more likely to have been founded around 1100; the Bando route came a century later. Hundreds of shorter routes dedicated to Kannon followed.

Kannon, of course, is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, called Guanyin in Chinese and Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit. Each of the 33 temples on the circuit--as well as the three bangai--is dedicated to Kannon, with a figure of him/her (it's complicated) on the main altar.


The Route

Seiganto-ji, Temple #1 on the Saigoku Pilgrimage (Note Nachi Falls in the background, Japan's highest waterfall)

The route starts in Wakayama Prefecture at Nachi [Temple #1], site of Japan's highest waterfall; wanders through the mountains [where Temples 2 and 3 are found] and into urban Osaka Prefecture [home to Temples 4 and 5]; then into Nara Prefecture [hosting Temples 6 through 9], one of Japan's most ancient capitals and site of the Great Buddha; on to Kyoto Prefecture [where we find Temples 10 and 11] and Shiga Prefecture [Temples 12 through 14], together considered the center of Japanese cultural life for centuries; back through super-important Kyoto again [Temples 15 to 21] and Osaka [22 and 23] and on out to rural Hyogo Prefecture [to widely separated Temples 24 through 27]; into remote northern Kyoto Prefecture [Temples 28 and 29, which we've talked about before] and Shiga again [30 through 32], including an island in the center of Biwa-ko, Japan's largest freshwater lake; and finally to a single mountaintop temple in Gifu Prefecture [Temple 33].


My Approach

As I mentioned, I visited the temples and their bangais in clusters. Since Kyoto--the pilgrimage's center--is some 280 miles from Tokyo, where I lived, I had to plan my campaigns somewhat carefully, minimizing the number of pricey 2-1/2 hour plus trips on the shinkansen ("bullet train"). Once I tried a local--not so much for the savings as for the experience (you can see much more when things aren't whizzing past the window at 175 miles an hour!), but around 10 hours of that pretty much cured me of the desire to do it again. Another wrong move: I once took the 8-1/2 hour night bus, which has specially-designed seats and blankets to allow for a comfortable sleep. When I woke up in the morning and saw the bleary glares of my fellow-passengers--who had been kept up all night by my prodigious SNORES--I crossed that off my to-do-again list, too.

Here then, year by year, are the trips I took and the goals I achieved.

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1999

I visited these 11 temples in random order, starting with a minimal "Trip 1," when I stopped at Engyo-ji in Himeji, out in Hyogo Prefecture, in mid-November of 1999 on the way back from a teaching job in Hiroshima. A week later, on the long "Labor Thanksgiving Day" holiday weekend, I was back in Kansai, operating out of Kyoto. I covered a whopping 10 temples (nine numbered plus one bangai or "extra") in four days, in Shiga, Nara, and Uji, besides Kyoto proper.

The 1999 Temples:

Trip 1:

November 14th

  • Saigoku #27: Engyo-ji; Himeji, Hyogo

Trip 2:

November 20th

  • Saigoku #14: Mii-dera; Otsu, Shiga

  • Bangai near Saigoku #15: Gankei-ji; Kyoto, Kyoto

  • Saigoku #15: Imakumano Kannon-ji; Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto

  • Saigoku #17: Rokuharamitsu-ji; Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto

  • Saigoku #16: Kiyomizu-dera; Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto

November 21st

  • Saigoku #18: Choho-ji (Rokkaku-do); Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto

  • Saigoku #19: Gyogan-ji (Ko-do); Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto

November 22nd

  • Saigoku #9: Nan'endo (Kofuku-ji); Nara, Nara

November 23rd

  • Saigoku #10: Mimuroto-ji; Uji, Kyoto

  • Saigoku #11: Kami Daigo-ji; Fushimi-ku, Kyoto

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2000

I made Trips 3 and 4 in 2000. The third, to the area south of Kyoto (Wakayama, Nara, and Osaka Prefectures), took in the Ise Grand Shrine at the end of April, followed by seven temples (six numbered and one bangai) in the first days of May; this happened during the famed "Golden Week" holidays, and I included my first visit to the amazing Koya-san, to which I would return. The next trip of 2000 was in November, the same holiday weekend as my second 1999 trip, and covered four widely-spread temples in Wakayama and Shiga.

(Before and between these two trips in 2000 I worked on the Bando circuit on day trips around home in Tokyo.)

The 2000 Temples:

Trip 3:

May 2nd

  • Saigoku #2: Ki-mii-dera; Wakayama, Wakayama

  • Saigoku #3: Kokawa-dera; Kinokawa, Wakayama

May 3rd

  • Koya-san, Wakayama

May 4th

  • Saigoku #6: Minamihokke-ji (Tsubosaka-dera); Takatori, Nara

  • Saigoku #7: Oka-dera; Asuka, Nara

  • Saigoku #8: Hase-dera; Sakurai, Nara

  • Bangai near Saigoku #8: Hoki-in; Sakurai, Nara

May 5th

  • Saigoku #5: Fujii-dera; Fujiidera, Osaka

Trip 4:

November 23rd

  • Saigoku #1: Seiganto-ji; Nachikatsuura, Wakayama

November 24th

  • Saigoku #13: Ishiyama-dera; Otsu, Shiga

  • Saigoku #30: Hogon-ji; Nagahama, Shiga

  • Saigoku #31: Chomei-ji; Omihachiman, Shiga

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2001

I finished up the Saigoku circuit during two trips in January and the April/May Golden Week of 2001. The fifth trip took in seven far-flung temples in northern Kyoto Prefecture, then down to Hyogo, into Osaka, and out to Shiga and Gifu (all in three days!). The sixth and final trip of this pilgrimage also took in seven temples (six numbered and one bangai) in Kyoto, Osaka, and Hyogo--in only two days!

(I finished up the Bando circuit, and did the complete Chichibu circuit, later that same year, before setting off down the Tokaido and to the Shikoku circuit.)

The 2001 Temples:

Trip 5:

January 6

  • Saigoku #29: Matsunoo-dera; Maizuru, Kyoto

  • Saigoku #28: Nariai-ji; Miyazu, Kyoto

January 7

  • Saigoku #26: Ichijo-ji; Kasai, Hyogo

  • Saigoku #4: Sefuku-ji; Izumi, Osaka

January 8

  • Saigoku #12: Shoho-ji (Iwama-dera); Otsu, Shiga

  • Saigoku #32: Kannonsho-ji; Omihachiman, Shiga

  • Saigoku #33: Kegon-ji; Ibigawa, Gifu

Trip 6:

April 30

  • Saigoku #21: Anao-ji; Kameoka, Kyoto

  • Saigoku #20: Yoshimine-dera; Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto

  • Saigoku #22: Soji-ji; Ibaraki, Osaka

May 1

  • Saigoku #25: Kiyomizu-dera; Kato, Hyogo

  • Bangai between Saigoku #24 and #25: Bodai-ji; Sanda, Hyogo

  • Saigoku #24: Nakayama-dera; Takarazuka, Hyogo

  • Saigoku #23: Katsuo-ji; Minoh, Osaka


More from the Temple Guy

For more details of what I saw, where I went, and when I did it, see the page "A Pilgrim's Progress" on my site, The Temple Guy.

A complete list of the Saigoku temples in number order, with the bangais listed at the end (as well as an earlier version of this Newsletter) is available here, along with links to their locations on Google Maps, their names in kanji, (Sino-Japanese characters), and the dates I visited them.

Finally, you can find a full-on interactive map of the entire circuit in my MyMaps maps.

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And that would be about that. Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: In my quest to bring you the weirdest and wildest things I've seen and done, I thought it was time to visit the Hanging Temple of Golden Dragon Pass. It's gonna be a good one!