Day 06 in Ise… Japanese Pilgrimages

About 8 years ago I was part of a program that retraced Matsuo Bashō’s 松尾芭蕉 (1644-1694) Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道. Many western scholars refer to Bashō’s journey as a type of pilgrimage. What I had read about Bashō’s pilgrimage gave me the impression that Japanese pilgrimages were circular (starting and ending in the same place) whereas western/ European pilgrimages were linear (a start point differing from the end point). However, participating in the Ise and Japan Study Program has changed my understanding of Japanese pilgrimages.

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Bashō’s counterclockwise pilgrimage route.

As for western pilgrimages, consider the Canterbury pilgrimage, the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage, or even the Hajj (which is not western or European obviously but I feel as though Christianity and Islam share enough history for their respective pilgrimages to be similar). The Canterbury pilgrimage, made famous by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, begins in London’s Southwark and ends in Canterbury. The Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage begins at various starting points in Europe that all lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James the Great are buried. Similarly, the Hajj has various starting points all which end in Mecca. Each of these pilgrimages follows a linear route.

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The Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury.

Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi

Bashō’s pilgrimage route was circular, following a counterclockwise path. His route starts in Tokyo then proceeds north along Japan’s east coast towards Sendai, then traverses Honshū to present day Yamagata/Akita, and back south down to Ogaki, just outside of Nagoya. The Shikoku Junrei 四国巡礼 starts in Tokushima, Shikoku and follows a clockwise route ending in Kagawa.

I thought that these pilgrimages were indicative of all Japanese pilgrimage traditions, but this is wrong. Take for example the pilgrimage to Ise Jingū. Since the Jingū was originally only for the tennō 天皇 (emperor) exclusively to make pilgrimages, it began wherever the tennō was (generally in the areas of Nara and Kyoto) and ended at Ise Jingū–a linear route. In the Edō period 江戸時代 (1600-1868), pilgrimages to Ise Jingū were open up to everyone. Pilgrimage starting points were thus established any place where people could gather in groups and make the journey. One such gathering spot is located in Osaka at Tamatsuri Inari Jinja 玉造稲荷神社 and follows a linear route to Ise.

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Linear Pilgrimage Route from Tamatsuri Inari Jinja to Ise Jingū

Since checking out more information on Japanese pilgrimages, I have found quite a lot of linear pilgrimage routes, especially into mountain regions (i.e. the base of the mountain, to the top, and back). I’ve learned that in Japan there are a variety of pilgrimage routes through out the country and that they vary in either linear or circular layouts.


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