As I wash my hands at a basin before a large torii gate, I am reminded of how this small gesture has become so ingrained in my manners when visiting a Japanese shrine. It is very strange, since I don’t consider myself a particularly religious person following any specific devout path and surprisingly, such feelings are shared with a lot of Japanese people as well. Still, there is a great deal of spirituality in Japan, much of it displayed through pilgrimage routes dotted across the country.
Traditional religious pilgrimages are still undertaken today, albeit with the assistance of more modern means such as trains, buses and cars. One of the oldest pilgrimages in the world is the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, first walked by the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kukai, in 815. Those who walk the trail and pass by all 88 temples are said to be accompanied by the pilgrims who walked before them, in spirit.
Pilgrims are known as ohenro and have been visiting the 88 temples since Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, first walked the trail in 815. Anyone can walk the trail and become an ohenro regardless of gender, age or nationality, and the Shikoku Pilgrimage Trail still attracts thousands every year thanks to the popularity of Kukai, who is considered something of a legendary spiritual leader and is sometimes portrayed as a Buddhist superhero in children’s books. His impressive intellect and charismatic personality was what drew many to follow in his footsteps as well as visit various key locations of his life, such as the place of his birth and the temples he founded, hoping to gain some of Kukai’s spiritual understanding.
Not too far away, fusing Shintoism with Buddhism, is the Kumano Kodo Trail in Wakayama prefecture – not tied to the memory of a single person like the Shikoku Pilgrimage. The Kii Mountains through which it winds are said to be the birthplace of this religious harmony due to their spiritual energy, and the more nature-focused Shinto religion was first to settle in the region. They built shrines that gathered energy from the beautiful mountainous landscape, before Buddhist monks arrived soon after, building temples along the roads they shared with Shinto priests.
Not only Buddhism, but also Christianity found its place on the sacred trail, with the Kumano Kodo being the official partner of the Santiago De Compostela in Spain, granting people who walk both trails the status of Dual Pilgrim. It is this spirit of hospitality that lives on in the people of the Kii Peninsula and a belief that spiritual energy is created not only by the divine, but also by the people.
Japan is unique in that its two principal religions have shared locations of spiritual significance for hundreds of years through which pilgrims commune. Legends can turn a simple tree into a vessel for a Shinto deity and statues into protectors of the village, and these legends pass down ancient teachings and wisdom. One of the best things to do on a pilgrimage is observe and listen – not just to the people, but to the tales told by the rustling of the leaves and in the way the sunlight dances through the canopy. When walking the Kumano Kodo or the Shikoku 88, you are not only following the footsteps of someone great who came before you, but building a foundation for your own greatness.