Customs and Rituals

Does Shinto tradition include ritual pilgrimage?

Pilgrimages of various kinds have long been important to Japanese in connection with both Buddhism and Shinto. Sacred natural objects and shrines are of course the most common goals of Shinto pilgrims, but people do not always make neat distinctions between Buddhist and Shinto sacred sites. What is most significant is that the place has been hallowed by some event or person of great influence in Japanese history, or by natural qualities that betoken beauty and perfection. A distinctive aspect of Japanese pilgrimage is the formation of pilgrimage circuits (junpai) that encompass multiple stops at sacred groves, mountains, caves, waterfalls, shrines or temples, in all imaginable combinations. Most common are circuits of either thirty-three or eighty-eight sites set up in relatively recent times by railway and other transportation companies. In medieval times there was even talk of “thousand-shrine pilgrimages” (senja mairi), with multiple visits motivated by desire for greater spiritual merit. Some pilgrims undertake their journeys as acts of asceticism or spiritual discipline, but most seem to regard pilgrimage as an opportunity for reflection and spiritual renewal. A type of pilgrimage to Shinto’s most sacred site, the Ise shrine, has come to be known as the “blessing visit” (okage-mairi). Another popular pilgrimage circuit leaves by rail from Osaka and takes in sites associated with the “seven gods of good luck,” including both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Over four hundred traditional pilgrimage routes still attract Japanese Buddhist and Shinto devotees.


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