Pilgrimage for the 21st century

by Donald Richie

EXPLORING KANTO: Weekend Pilgrimages from Tokyo, by Michael Plastow. New York: Weatherall, 1996, 262 pp., with color photos and maps, $19.95.

A long journey of exalted purpose is one of the dictionary definitions of pilgrimage. One makes such a demanding endeavor for personal or, if you will, spiritual purposes. One goes to Mecca or to Canterbury.

In Japan, one famously went to Shikoku, where the journey is long indeed, some 88 temples to visit, scattered over a route more than 1,000 km long.

You retraced the steps of Kobo Daishi and put up with some trials that he did not. These included, says one authority, the companionship of criminals, lepers and beggars, all of whom frequented this circuit.

Such is, of course, no longer the case, but then pilgrimages are today not nearly so common as they once were. Spiritual needs remain as great, but now there are presumed palliatives, among which I suppose we must include pachinko, karaoke and the game centers.

Nonetheless, there remain a number of pilgrim routes, and not all of them are as demanding as Shikoku’s. Michael Plastow has turned his attention to one of these and made an excellent presentation that somehow escaped my notice when it appeared four years ago and to which I want to call due attention.

This is the Bando Sanusansho, the 33 sites of Bando, the old name for much of the territory that is now the Kanto region. Like the Saigoku (Kansai) Sanjusansho, it is a circuit of Kannon temples. There are some 70 such circuits in Japan, Kannon being the popular figure that she is, and each has 33 temples because she is believed to have 33 distinct manifestations. Although the Bando circuit was originally male-only, women nonetheless prayed at many of the individual temples and these days most of the pilgrims, we are told, are women, middle-aged or older, “setting out on pilgrimage when relieved of their everyday cares by retirement.”

And, indeed, it is difficult to fit a pilgrimage into the schedules of contemporary life. It used to take 40 days on foot, and it nowadays still takes 12 days using public transport, though individual bicycles and motorbikes have shortened this time.

There are still steep climbs (the walks are “graded” for difficulty — anything with three stars needs a fairly major effort), though much of the course lies conveniently at sea level. And, in any event, as the author tells us, “The Bando pilgrimage has always combined religious fervor with elements of both masochism and tourism.”

Some of the temples on the course are famous and one has probably already visited them and not realized that one was on a pilgrimage. There is, for example, the Kamakura Hasedera, as well as the popular Sensoji, the “Asakusa Kannon.” The majority, however, are not often visited by the foreign traveler, deserving though they are.

One such is Shofukuji near Ashigahara on the Odakyu Line, which offers sensational views of Mount Fuji and a dip in the Yuhi waterfalls. Another is the cavelike Oyaji, in the suburbs of Utsunomiya. Yet another is Nagoji, near Tateyama in Chiba, that spectacularly houses the Gake no Kannon perched high above the bay. This last is also the final temple in the circuit if you do them in the proper order.

Doing them in the proper order, however, is no longer necessary. It has been decided, apparently, that the spiritual properties of the pilgrimage work in any direction. Since the 33 temples are scattered over a very large area, one is allowed to choose one’s own itinerary. Though the full course has the greatest benefit, one is allowed an a la carte portion as well.

This might save the purse as well as the feet. Each temple wants (though it does not demand) a fee for stamping your pilgrimage “hanko,” and to see the treasures sometimes requires an admission charge. There are also other incidental expenses, but in this the Bando circuit is no different from other pilgrim courses. All gods like money, but the Japanese gods are least hypocritical about it.

Any of the temples may thus be visited singly, which explains the subtitle of this informative book and offers what people in the business call hints to the traveler. Most places can be visited in a day and one can return to the comforts of Tokyo by nightfall.

Of course, if you want the full benefit (“the essence of a successful pilgrimage is to cast aside creature comforts and discover a better self”), you must do the whole thing.