Six things you didn’t expect to discover on a pilgrimage

Naturally, the Japanese have figured out a way to make their version of a spiritual Iron Man not only good for the soul, but one of the most memorable journeys you’ll ever make. Here are six things that will surprise and delight you on your Japanese pilgrimage:


The most awesome souvenir in the entire world

Pages of goshuin Japanese pilgrimage book with stamps from temples and shrines

It’s called a go-shuin and it’s a stamp collection. Not your grandpa’s old, yellowed postal relics – these are the magnificent hand-brushed pages you can collect at shrines and temples where you stop to check in, and they cost only a few hundred yen each.

Japanese pilgrimage books with stamps from temples and shrines
You can buy blank accordian-fold goshuin books at most shrines and temples (as well as shops like Tokyu Hands and Loft) and some places will even write your name on the front in katakana, to personalize it for you
Man at a temple making a page for goshuin Japanese pilgrimage book
Every time you stop at a new shrine or temple, for a few hundred yen, you can get a new page stamped and signed
Photo of page from goshuin Japanese pilgrimage book with numbered explanation for what it says
Each page usually includes: 1) the name of the shrine/temple 2) the date you visited 3) the word “worship” which means you actually visited and paid your respects 4) sayings or symbols particular to that shrine/temple. Some also include the name of the city or town it’s in. (This page happens to be the one from the famous Koyomizu-dera temple, in Kyoto)
Page of goshuin Japanese pilgrimage book with ink painting
As you can see, some are true handpainted works of art


Samurai-era graffiti is a Thing

Pilgrim graffiti at Ishiyama-dera temple
Pilgrims who traveled the Old Tokaido Road that connected Tokyo and Kyoto have been stopping at the venerable Ishiyama-dera temple since the 8th century. And, uh, tagging it with their names
Pilgrim graffiti at Ishiyama-dera temple
This paper graffiti has been left behind by pilgrims since the 1600s. The oldest type features the person’s last name, but more recently, stickers with only the person’s first name have become popular, perhaps because they can be bought off the rack instead of being custom made
Pilgrim graffiti at Yama-dera temple in Yamagata
Not even the holy mountaintop goal of Yamadera in Yamagata Prefecture is safe from being stickered, but how the heckin’ heck did they manage to get their names way up on those beams? Turns out, there’s a hack for that! Some pilgrims travel with what looks like a mild-mannered walking stick, but can secretly extend to become a graffiti tagger that’s several meters long


Staying overnight at a temple is one of the most insanely memorable Japanese things you’ll ever do

Most pilgrimage sites are remote, which means they’re set in some of the most breathtakingly scenic and unspoiled parts of the country. That also means they’ve been feeding and housing overnight guests for centuries. Staying in a temple is like being whisked back to Ye Olde Japan, in the best possible way

Entrance to Saikan shukubo at Haguro-san
This is the view out the entrance of Saikan, one of the temples on the Haguro-san pilgrimage. It’s tucked deep into the Yamagata mountains, and on the night I was there, rain whispered through the forest of ancient cedars that surround it all night long

Guests change into freshly ironed cotton yukatas to enjoy the communal bath, then eat a multi-course shōjin ryōri dinner and sleep in comfortable futons in tatami rooms like this, surrounded by a veranda that looks out into the treetops of the surrounding forest. If you think this sounds like a super-deluxe hot spring inn, you’ve figured out where they got the idea.

Tatami room at Saikan shukubo at Haguro-san
In busier seasons, this enormous room sleeps around twenty (with partitions between groups) but if you go there on the off-season, you might get to slumber in solitary splendor, like we did. Bathrooms are modern and clean, with plenty of toilets and sinks

But that’s not even the best part. Like traditional inns, shukudo (as pilgrimage temples are called) charge per person (not per room) because the overnight stay includes dinner and breakfast. (Hearing the price of staying at an onsen or ryōkan is what makes most people think twice about how keen they are to try it.) That’s why when I stayed at Saikan, I was utterly shocked to hear that it was…¥7000. For everything. I totally thought I’d heard wrong. Asked them to repeat it. That was, however, ten years ago, so I nipped over and checked the current Saikan overnight stay information. Sure enough, the price had gone up over the years. Now it’s a whopping ¥8800. (¥100 is approximately equal to $1.00 USD, so that works out to about $88.00 for the night, including dinner and breakfast. Which is: insanely reasonable.)


Pilgrims get to try Japan’s best-kept foodie secret

Evening shojin ryori meal at Saikan shukubo at Haguro-san
This cuisine is called shōjin ryōri, or “temple food.” It can be strictly vegetarian, or include some fish (like this dinner at Saikan)

There are a few commercial shōjin ryōri restaurants in the big cities, but they’re few and far between, so your best chance of trying temple food is (no surprise) when you stay at a temple. Because they tend to be remote, they often grow their own organic produce. At one temple I stayed at, the head priest’s 90-year-old mother was still making the meals, including salads with tomatoes that were so fresh, they had dew on them from the garden.

Evening shojin ryori meal at shukubo at Koya-san
The dinner at Koya-san was strictly vegetarian, but more elaborate (and the temple cost about twice as much to stay there, because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and more heavily-traveled. Even so: it was crazy reasonable for the quality of the experience)


The most gorgeous hikes nobody ever heard of

There are a couple of famous pilgrimage routes. The most famous (and most-traveled) one, in Shikoku, requires several months of walking and stops at no fewer than 88 temples. But there are several in Yamagata that can be completed in a day, and they’re jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Torii gate in mist at Saikan shukubo at Haguro-san
This is the starting point from Saikan (where we stayed) for climbing the sacred mountain called Haguro-san
Red bridge on pilgrimage route at Haguro-san
Across this bridge are the first of the 2446 steps that lead (eventually) to the top of the mountain
Misty stone-paved trail through the cedar forest on pilgrimage route at Haguro-san
33 figures are carved into the steps along the way, and prosperity is promised to hikers who find them all. There are plenty of other spots where favors can be granted and wishes made as well
Sacred waterfall on pilgrimage route at Haguro-san
Like this shrine, dedicated to the kami-sama of the waterfall
Sacred thousand year old cedar tree on pilgrimage route at Haguro-san
Most of the trees in this old growth cedar forest are a mere 600 years old, but the Grandfather tree has notched up at least a thousand winters
Thousand year old five story wooden pagoda on pilgrimage route at Haguro-san
This five story pagoda is also a thousand years old

Haguro-san is one of the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa. One of the others is home to the temple known as Yamadera.

Jizo figures on climb to Yamadera in Yamagata
The path to this one is a thousand-step climb, up steep cliffs, through lush forest that bursts with the blooms of wild hydrangeas in June
Jizo figures and stones left by pilgrims on climb to Yamadera in Yamagata
Pilgrims leave stones to mark their passage near places with especially sacred collections of Jizo figures
The final stairs to Yamadera in Yamagata
If you make it to the venerable temple at the top, you’ll earn your pilgrimage points
The view from Yamadera in Yamagata
But one more short push will take you to a view that’s a reward in itself


There be shortcuts to enlightenment

Pilgrimage sites all have one thing in common: they require serious spiritual effort and days of commitment. Unless, of course, you know a shortcut.

Like the one at the Takahata Fudo-san temple in Tokyo.

Map of 88 Jizo pilgrimage hike at Takahata Fudo-san
Each of the 88 temples on the famous Shikoku pilgrimage contributed a stone Jizo figure to this circuit, and they’ve been placed along a hiking trail that circles the temple’s tallest hill. Stopping to make an offering at each of the Jizo statues equals a visit to that temple, allowing you to make the entire 1200-kilometer journey in just over an hour
One of the 88 Jizo figures on pilgrimage hike at Takahata Fudo-san
The Jizo figures all all different, each modeled on the abbot of that temple
Jizo figures on pilgrimage hike at Takahata Fudo-san
Signs next to each one describe the temple that contributed it
Rice offering left by pilgrim at Jizo figure on pilgrimage hike at Takahata Fudo-san
Rice or one-yen coins seem to be sufficient for gaining the 88 Jizo-sans’ blessings
Blooming hydrangeas on pilgrimage hike at Takahata Fudo-san
This shortcut to enlightenment is especially popular in June, when all the hydrangeas are blooming

But, believe it or not, that’s not the shortest path to enlightenment! There’s another one at Nishiarai Daishi temple, and you can do it even faster.

Jizo figures on pilgrimage shortcut at Nishiarai Daishi temple
These 72 Jizo figures are all conveniently located in a single roundabout
People walking around Jizo figures on pilgrimage shortcut at Nishiarai Daishi temple
Make an offering, circle them eight times, done.

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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