As March begins and the weather warms day by day, Hashikura-ji Temple fills with people wearing white clothing and carrying walking sticks. These people are pilgrims, or Ohenro-san. Originally, “Ohenro-san” was a term only used for pilgrims visiting the 88 pilgrimage temples of Shikoku. However, nowadays, people who pilgrimage to other locations, such as the 20 sacred Bekkaku of Shikoku or pilgrim routes outside of Shikoku, are also called Ohenro-san. Lately, pilgrimages to sacred places have been booming.
About Making a Pilgrimage
In the old days, some faithful people believed that, in making a pilgrimage, their wishes would be granted and their suffering allayed. These pilgrims were intense, walking the entire way. Pilgrimages of the past were a strict, hard practice and quite lonely for pilgrims traveling on their own.
Nowadays, a variety of people with different motivations and methods make pilgrimages. Some people go on pilgrimage to enjoy tourism, others hope to come in contact with nature and meet people in Shikoku. Still others want to reflect on their lives after retirement or graduation from school. Some people want to meet and converse with other pilgrims, while still others embark on pilgrimage to get healthy.
Transportation methods for pilgrimage have also proliferated; some people travel by foot, others by bicycle, by car, or by bus. And there are various ways to make pilgrimages; one may travel to all of the sacred places at one time or break the trip up into sections. One may also visit the temples in reverse order. As you may imagine, pilgrimage used to be an aesthetic Buddhist practice. However, recently new styles of pilgrimage have arisen with diverse purposes.
The Charms of Pilgrimage
What attracts people to pilgrimage? I would guess that it is the joy of achieving something – an emotion that remains consistent throughout the years. Each pilgrim has their own purpose for pilgrimage, be it to meet people, memorialize a late loved one, or to train themselves. I may say that there is nothing more precious than the sense of accomplishment after attaining, through great effort, the goal that they had set.
Pilgrims also may be motivated by a fascination with travel. One can learn many new things when one steps away from one’s daily life. There are 88 temples and 20 Bekkaku holy places in Shikoku – these locations are large and small, in the city, at the top of mountains and near the seashore. Through pilgrimage, people can enjoy visiting and comparing them all.
Interaction with other people is also enjoyable. While making a pilgrimage with a group, pilgrims have enough time to really get to know each other. And when a pilgrim travels by themselves on foot, they have an opportunity to interact with other Ohenro-san and experience heart-warming hospitality for locals.
Another pleasure may be collecting stamps for a pilgrimage book (nyokyocho) or hanging scroll (kakejiku). Pilgrims often copy out Buddhist sutras (shakyo) before their pilgrimage to dedicate to the Buddha of each temple. In return, the temple stamps their pilgrimage book. In addition to stamps, pilgrims may collect original products from each temple, such as portraits or photographs of Buddhas, statues, or prayer beads (juzu).
Originally, pilgrimage had a strictly religious significance, but now it attracts many people with varying purposes. Some conservative believers feel uncomfortable with these changes. I, however, think that these changes are okay. Pilgrimage has become a special opportunity for people to visit temples. And the temples, in turn, welcome them.
There is an expression, “to take a nap at Koyasan.” When one takes a nap in the sacred area of Koyasan, one can attain spiritual awakening. This awakening happens unconsciously and is due to the peaceful atmosphere of monks chanting sutras, fresh air, and fragrance of incense. No matter what motivates each pilgrim, it is good that they come to the temples. The pilgrimage is an opportunity for people to feel the Buddha, witness the beauty of the temple buildings and sculptures, and meet priests and pilgrims. Their visit to the temple is just the beginning. This is the role that I think our temples can play.
Translated by Ehime SGG, Matsuyama branch