Ep. 059: On Foot around a Mountain Valley

Visiting the 34 Temples of Chichibu's Kannon Pilgrimage

In high summer in 2001, as Tokyo suffered through yet another heatwave, I escaped to the mountains of Saitama Prefecture to soothe both body and spirit while hiking an ancient 60-mile pilgrimage path. Trudge along with me in this Episode of

TEMPLE TALES!

The route, called in Japanese the Chichibu Sanjuyon Kasho, or the "34 places (sacred to Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) in the Chichibu region," is the shortest of the nation's three most important routes dedicated to Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The 34 temples on the Route bring those circuits up to a total of 100 temples (this one, plus the 33 of the Saigoku--see Episode 044--and the 33 of the Bando). Unlike those other two routes, however, which cover seven prefectures each, the Chichibu course is limited to a single municipality in a beautiful mountainous valley in Saitama Prefecture, to the west of Tokyo. Twenty-five of the 34 temples are in Chichibu City proper; six more are in the neighboring town of Yokoze, two in Obano, and one--the last, #34--in Minano.


Reflections on the Path

There's something incredibly fulfilling about walking a full circuit in five days, and getting out of "the city" was a bonus. As you'll see below, the walk took me through mostly small towns and over mountain passes, with little in the way of congestion or pollution to deal with. Most of the temples are older, having escaped the fires (and the bombing) of Tokyo, and the wars that once raged across the Saigoku pilgrimage's territory. It fed the soul.

Cover (l) and page for Temple 1 (r) of the Chichibu 34 Kannon Route

I also did something on this pilgrimage that I've never done on any other. In addition to buying the usual nokyocho or stamp book--an accordion-folded paper or string-tied pages between two covers, in which a volunteer at each temple places black ink calligraphy over red stamps--I decided to splurge and get a kakejiku, or hanging scroll, as well.

This is a work of art unto itself, with a mostly-hand-painted image of Kannon at the center, and a backing paper with boxes marking out the space for each temple. I was glad to pay the initial 22,000 yen for the scroll, plus 500 yen for each of the 34 signatures. (That's 39,000 yen--around $325--to save you the effort.) But I was shocked to discover afterward that it would be another 60,000--$500--or more to have the scroll properly mounted!

So I called my friend (and former student) Mariko to ask her advice, since I knew that she studied the painting of such scrolls. She contacted her teacher, then called me to tell me that her teacher knew an expert who could do it right for a decent price. So I turned the unmounted scroll over to Mariko in Tokyo in late August of that year, and picked it (or "her") up at Mariko's house in Mie Prefecture after my Tokaido-and-Shikoku journey ended in mid-November.

The mounted scroll. When purchased, the scroll came with the central image, and a backing paper marked with 34 squares; at each temple, the appropriate square was stamped and "signed." That backing paper was stripped off before the scroll was mounted on brocade, and hanging rods added at the top and bottom.

No picture can convey the heart-throbbing that one experiences when one stands in front of this thing of physical and spiritual splendor. I wrote at the time, "To think that for the rest of my life, wherever I am, I will have access to this beauty, without having to travel to a temple or museum, is an overwhelmingly enriching thought." She's still with me, here in the Philippines, and would be the first thing I would grab in case of a fire!


"History"

Shimpuku-ji, Temple #2 on the Chichibu Pilgrimage, has been heavily "decorated" with visitors' marks.

The Saigoku circuit is unquestionably the grand-daddy of them all, and the Bando is a none-too-distant second. Both of these occupy large areas, requiring quite a bit of time and expense to cover (even more so before the development of modern transportation). Pilgrimages of those sorts were essentially available only to the upper classes--or to monks and other vagrants.

And so, though numbers vary, it seems that by the end of the Edo Period (1868) over 200 smaller circuits--each still containing 33 temples, but more closely spaced than on the Saigoku and Bando--had developed throughout Japan, bringing religious exercise to the masses. (I have done a portion of one such all the way down in Kyushu, about as far away as you can get from Tokyo and still be in historic Japan.)

From what I can gather, the Chichibu circuit was originally just one among these many smaller routes. It was located not too far from the large population of Edo (Tokyo), and there was no checkpoint for outbound pilgrims (Edo-period travel required government permission, similar to a passport or visa, if one was going past certain boundaries). It was natural, then, that this particular course would rise to greater popularity than many of the others.

The pilgrimage probably originated not terribly long after the Bando, perhaps in the 13th century. However, sometime before 1536, some (as far as I know) unnamed genius hit upon a scheme: Let's add one more temple to the 33, he thought, making our little pilgrimage the "completion" of 100 temples for those who have already finished the two "majors."

It worked, at least on me! I have trod many paths in Japan, but the Chichibu is the only one I have completed more-or-less in order, and entirely on foot. (It is one of only two shorter Kannon pilgrimages I have completed; I have also done the Edo 33 in my "hometown" of Tokyo, but I did that in a terribly haphazard way--see here. The Kamakura route is still on my to-do list).


Map adapted from Wikipedia Japan

The Route

The pilgrimage begins just outside of "downtown" Chichibu (the city area had an estimated population of 63,358 in 2016, but the density is only 110 people to the square kilometer) and runs through some of the mountains on the east side of town [1-4]. It continues on into Yokoze Town (population 8,470 in 2016; density 172/km²) [5-10] before veering back into Chichibu proper [11-30], this time looping through the actual downtown and out into the southwestern hinterlands. (Number 30 is well apart from town, and some three-and-a-half miles from #29; things start to get pretty spread out from here.) The next two [31 and 32] are in the mountains of Ogano Town (pop. 11,987 in 2016; density 70/km²); #31 is nearly seven miles northwest of #30. The next one [33] is well outside of Chichibu proper, to the west; and the final temple [34] is in Minano Town, with 10,096 people in 2016 (density 158/km²). Incidentally, Tokyo's population density in 2018 was 2,662/km².


See Google Map "live" here

My Approach

The Chichibu area is a relatively brief (two-hour) train ride from my then-home on the other side of Tokyo, making it more practicable for me to sleep at home every night than to stay in hotels. And, as the entire pilgrimage is about 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, it can easily be walked in a few days.  That is exactly what I did; it is the only pilgrimage that I have walked in its entirety the "old-fashioned way" so far.  Why does Chichibu boast 34 temples instead of the usual 33?  Some say it was to "better" the bigger guys.  Others say that, with the one extra, the three pilgrimages together equal 100 temples, as I said before; indeed, they have come to be known collectively as The Nihon Hyakku Kannon--"the 100 places sacred to Kannon in Japan."

The dates and coverage (all in 2001) were:

  • Saturday, July 21: Temples #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

  • Monday, July 23: Temples #13, 15, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24

  • Saturday, July 28: Temples #25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30

  • Sunday, July 29: Temple #31

  • Monday, July 30: Temples #32, 33, 34

(I have absolutely no idea why I skipped Sunday the 22nd--dealing with blisters, maybe?)


More from the Temple Guy

A complete list of the Chichibu temples in number order, 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's about that. Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


QUESTIONS:

  1. Do you think adding a temple to the pilgrimage, making it 34 temples instead of "Guanyin's number" of 33, is a cheesy gimmick?

  2. Is it wrong for me to attach such importance to my scroll--a mere material possession? Does this violate the spirit of non-attachment?

  3. Do you think completing a pilgrimage end-to-end in one go, as I did this one and Shikoku, has more benefit than doing them piecemeal, as I did the Saigoku and Bando?

  • Subscribers: Although I have enabled comments for this post here on Substack, there's still a "Secret Group" on Facebook where your questions and comments can get more personal attention. If you're not already a member, let me know and we'll figure out how to loop you in! (Of course, if you don't use Facebook--sorry!) Oh, and Non-subscribers? Join the club!


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In the next episode: Let's pay a visit to the ruins of the Sinagua people of northern Arizona, builders of what may be the northernmost Mesoamerican-style ball court yet discovered.