Holy Strollers

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2003

Shikoku's popular pilgrimages bridge the gap between Buddhism and tourism. But can the rest of the moribund tourism industry succeed in selling the spiritual?

by Tony McNicol

THE DOMESTIC JAPANESE TOURISM industry might be experiencing some turbulence at the moment, but one particular sector is soaring smoothly. The famous Shikoku island pilgrimage is only one of hundreds of sacred routes on the archipelago. According to the Shikoku Holy Places Association, an estimated 150,000 tourists completed the island's 88-temple pilgrimage in 2002, up 50,000 from just five years ago. Is this the portent of a new passion for religious tourism in Japan?

Kinki Nihon Tourism has a section in its brochure called kokoro no tabi (journeys of the heart). Its tours follow ancient pilgrimage routes to temples and shrines across Japan. The tour company, one of Japan's largest, seems to have a found a ray of heavenly (and potentially profitable) light breaking through the dark clouds of the economy.

"Regular tourists just go to a place
and see things. But these trips
aren't like that. They are about coming
into contact with Buddhism"

According to Eiko Sato, a spokeswoman for the company, customers who buy "journeys of the heart" tours are seeking a unique experience. "There is a very clear goal to their trips. Regular tourists just go to a place and see lots of things. But these trips aren't like that. They are about coming into contact with Buddhism."

The company's shortest and cheapest packages are day trips from Tokyo, while the longest is the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage. According to Sato, most customers tend towards the silver-haired end of the Japanese population, probably because younger people with jobs and families can't take the time off. Customers on the popular Shikoku tours are mostly in their 70s and 80s, although trips from Tokyo to temples and shrines in the suburbs attract younger pilgrims. The 11-day Shikoku trips are an important money maker for the company. Last year alone, Kinki Nihon Tourist sold nearly 5,000 JPY425,000 Shikoku pilgrimage tours.

On busy spring and autumn days in Shikoku (high season for the pilgrimage), Zentsu-ji temple's courtyards bustle with white-robed pilgrims. Holy place number 75 on the Shikoku pilgrimage, the temple is one of the island's busiest and biggest. Like many of the 88, Zentsu-ji provides accommodation and food for pilgrims. The temple says that around 1,600 of the 150,000 pilgrims that pass through its grounds yearly pay the JPY5,775 fee to stay a night at the temple.

Virtually all of the pilgrims will pay JPY500 at the temple office for a priest to stamp souvenir scrolls or books with a crimson seal and inscribe the brush-written temple name. With 88 temples to visit in 10 or 12 days, pilgrims have to hustle. There's rarely much time to do more than perform the prescribed prayers and pay for the stamps.

Close to the Zentsu-ji is the birthplace of the pilgrimage's founder, the monk Kukai -- better know as Daishi Kobo. In addition to founding the 88-temple pilgrimage, this charismatic polymath taught Buddhism, built dams and reportedly invented kana. The teaching he introduced developed into the modern Shingon sect, a branch of the religion with some of the flavor of Thai and Tibetan Buddhism. The pilgrimage traces the route that Kukai is believed to have walked on a solitary journey towards enlightenment. There are countless folk tales and special sites in Shikoku and other parts of Japan associated with the priest, one of the most popular saints in Japanese Buddhism. Most devotees carry a staff bearing the words "we two walk together," a proxy for the first pilgrim.

Koichi Osada is a Waseda university sociologist and a member of a research group involved in a 10-year project on the pilgrimage. He says that the skyrocketing number of pilgrims is partly due to improvements in the island's transport system. There are now three bridges linking Shikoku to the mainland. The last of them -- the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the world's longest suspension bridge -- was constructed five years ago, making day trips from Osaka possible and creating a boon for the city's tour companies. Likewise, intensive Tokyo-funded road construction programs in Shikoku (though often attacked as unnecessary and environmentally destructive) have made the 88 temples more accessible.

"One reason why the numbers of Shikoku pilgrims [has increased] is that people always wanted to go, but for whatever reason couldn't. Now it has become easy," says Osada.

Improved roads have encouraged bus tours and drivers from the mainland. All the same, more roads and bridges haven't helped the rest of the domestic tourism industry much. According to the Japanese Tourism Association, the total number of domestic sightseeing trips has declined 5 percent since 1996. Japanese have been shunning domestic travel and heading overseas. Critics of Japanese government policy towards tourism, like the writer Alex Kerr, hardly find that a surprise. "Tourism [in Japan] has been a conspicuous failure," Kerr writes. "It was repressed in the belief that jobs in these areas detracted from real value-producing jobs on the factory floor."

In his most recent book Dogs and Demons, Kerr deplores the government's funding of rural road-building and construction. He argues that what the author Alan Booth called "state sponsored vandalism" hardly makes the countryside more attractive to tourists. In any case, the government's belated realization that service industries (and tourism in particular) matter has yet to show in domestic tourism figures.

Other factors may be involved in the popularity of the Shikoku pilgrimage and religious tourism in general. Osada's group surveyed pilgrims in Shikoku and asked what had motivated them to set out on the trip. "We found big differences across the generations in people's reasons for making the pilgrimage. Young people were worried about personal relations; 30- to 50-somethings had worries connected with their workplace; for those over 60, health was the biggest worry."

He suggests that a "health boom" in Japan could be a factor. Most pilgrims are in their 50s and 60s or above. Traditionally, men and women in Japan suffering from serious illness have set out on the pilgrimage to pray for recovery. Exercise and hope has often worked wonders.

Eiko Sato at Kinki Nihon Tourism recognizes a trend towards more active holidays for the elderly. "Recently, hiking and mountain walking holidays have become very popular," she says. "People are thinking about their health a lot."

"Recently, hiking and mountain
walking holidays have become
very popular. People are thinking
about their health a lot."

Some gluttons for punishment are even eschewing cars, buses and taxis to travel the 1200 kilometer Shikoku pilgrimage the original way. Osada estimates the footsore few at around 1 percent of the total, maybe 1,000 to 2,000 people each year. Shikoku residents report that the number of walkers has been steadily increasing for years.

Most travelers will stay at hotels and temples along the route during the 40 days; others stay in free accommodation provided for pilgrims, or sleep in makeshift beds in parks, train stations or under temple eaves. Although much of the route has been buried under busy highways, the "Pilgrim-path Preservation Society" is active in preserving and marking the surviving mountain paths. Tateki Miyazaki, the founder of the group, estimates that the society's maps and guide books have sold 35,000 copies through their five editions.

The pilgrimage is becoming increasingly commercialized. Pilgrims have a choice of coach, minibus or taxi tours. Most purchase an assortment of religious paraphernalia that no well-dressed, well-equipped devotee can do without: a conical bamboo hat (JPY1,000), pilgrim's satchel (JPY2,000), pilgrim's jacket (JPY3,000), pilgrim's hand bell (JPY3,000) and more.

Other pilgrimage sites in Japan also feature a cozy relationship between commerce and religion. The approach to Senso-ji temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district is through a temple-owned shopping mall. Senso-ji is one of the temples on the Bando pilgrimage, dedicated to the Buddhist god Kannon. It is made up of 33 holy sites sprinkled throughout the Kanto area and is a popular Tokyo day trip. Shops in the long, narrow and noisy mall sell everything from samurai wigs to happi-coats for your dog to golden maneki-neko. Stallholders all pay rent to the temple. The rice cracker shops and textile stores have been established in the temple grounds since before World War II.

The Asakusa district surrounding the temple is a bit rough around the edges, and is supposedly home to some of Tokyo's more disreputable business enterprises. Also, it's a good place to find red lanterns for your bar, cooking knives or plastic food for your restaurant window. Inside the temple proper, young couples, tour groups and the occasional sharp-suited, punch-permed type jostle for space at the altar, which is almost always crowded: A priest in the temple says they can get maybe 10 tour groups or 1,000 pilgrims a day during the pilgrimage season.

In Shikoku, for all the recent commercialization of the pilgrimage, there has always been a strong tradition of charity towards pilgrims. It is an unusual custom, says David Moreton of Tokushima Bunri University, an expert on charitable giving in Japan. "I have never heard of charitable giving traditions as strong anywhere else in Japan."

Moreton says that during the Edo period pilgrims had to rely on o-settai (gifts from Shikoku locals) to survive; everything from free boat rides and lodging to gifts of straw sandals and haircuts. And contemporary pilgrims, particularly the walkers, are still likely to be given small gifts of food or money.

Those walking on a shoestring budget are still very much reliant on forms of o-settai which haven't changed much since the Edo era. Students sleeping outside under the eaves of temples are sometimes hosted by local people in accommodation that is often little more than a tatami room, a futon and place to get water. Many of the free services are offered by Shikoku residents who can't walk the pilgrimage themselves but want to give o-settai instead.

It's tempting to see a link between
the graying of Japanese society
and the profit potentials for
religious tourism

One group that has traditionally taken advantage of the generosity of Shikoku locals is Japan's homeless population. Faced with the choice between life camped out under blue plastic canvas in a Tokyo or Osaka park, or being treated as a permanent pilgrim and Shikoku "holy man," a number of homeless have understandably opted for the latter. According to a recent government survey, only 14 of Japan's 25,000 homeless people live in Tokushima prefecture, where the pilgrimage begins and ends. It seems likely that the real figure is much higher. Some long-term pilgrims travel endlessly around the island with a pilgrim's conical hat strapped to the handlebars of their heavily laden bicycles. Those offering hospitality don't seem to bother trying to distinguish the down-and-outs from the world-renouncing perpetual pilgrims -- even if they could.

Osada believes that changes in modern Japanese society may also account for the increasing numbers of pilgrims, particularly walkers. "There are lots of retired people and young people [among the pilgrims], two periods when people face crucial moments in their life. Young people are about to enter society, retired people are trying to decide what to do with their lives after finishing work." The pilgrimage has become a modern rite of passage. "People want to take a step away from their everyday existence and take a second look at their lives."

Osada says that the old rites of passage in Japan have largely disappeared. Once upon a time, retired people in Japan could expect to be given a position of responsibility in a local temple or shrine. Now new retirees are left looking around wondering what to do with their time and money. Coming-of-age ceremonies that have traditionally marked young people's entry into society have lost much of their meaning. In recent years, local dignitaries on the podium at such ceremonies have had to shout over drunken heckling from their newly enfranchised young voters.

Many of the young people walking the pilgrimage are recent university graduates taking time out to think about their future in Japan's shaky labor market. Some young people have even more serious problems functioning in Japanese society. This September a Tokyo NGO will take a group of hikikomori, socially withdrawn and homebound Japanese children, on a 60-day "slow walk" along the pilgrimage route. It will be a way of reintroducing them to society.

Not all pilgrimages in Japan have seen increases in visitor numbers. The Ise pilgrimage, perhaps the most famous, has seen its visitor numbers slowly decline. Despite being the home of Shinto and the family shrine of the Imperial family, numbers have dropped half a million, or more than 10 percent, in the last decade.

For tourism, as for many of Japan's service industries, demographic changes will be critical. It's tempting to see a link between the graying of Japanese society and the profit potentials for religious tourism. In 2002, 18.5 percent of Japan's 127 million people were over the age of 65. Most pilgrimage tour customers are elderly, and with Japan's silver population set to skyrocket, business and profits are likely to spike.

Pilgrims on the Shikoku tour carry name-slips they can hand out in thanks for gifts. Many of them return to walk the pilgrimage again (some annually), and the slips come in different colors: white for zero to three times, green for four times or more, red for six or more, silver for 25-plus and gold for 50-plus. People who have made the journey 100 times or more carry special brocade slips. Shopkeepers along the route sometimes pin the precious silver, gold and brocade slips to the wall for luck. The folks selling domestic tourism in Japan should take heed: The Shikoku pilgrimage itself may be the industry's lucky charm. @

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