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