NHK World: Chichibu Pilgrimage

If you’re planning a trip to Japan and would like to get more out of your trip than the predictable Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka – Tokyo route, make sure to check out the Journeys in Japan TV series made by NHK World for ideas.

The two episodes I highlighted below go into Chichibu and the 34 Kannon Temple Pilgrimage around Chichibu, recommended viewing if you’re interested in travels in Japan!


Chichibu: A Springtime Pilgrimage

Chichibu: An Autumn Pilgrimage

Our Taiyo-ji Temple book at Taiyo-ji Temple

In the spring of 2013 we visited Taiyō-ji for a temple stay (shukubo) and loved it, we visited again in the winter of 2014-2015 and confirmed that Taiyō-ji does give the best shukubo in Japan. After those visits I had collected quite a number of photos and compiled that into a book and we sent a copy to the temple. Last week, friends of us visited the temple, and behold, our book was there and well read.

I am very happy that the book was well received by the monk of Taiyō-ji and all the visitors. We had not asked our friends to check on the book, suddenly we were happily surprised with photos of it on Facebook. 🙂

A 100-temple Kannon pilgrimage

The 33 temples of the Bandō Sanjūsankasho (“The Bando 33 Kannon Pilgrimage”) form together with the 33 temples of the Saigoku pilgrimage and the 34 temples of the Chichibu Kannon temple pilgrimage, a 100-temple Kannon pilgrimage.
Now free Android apps for all three of these pilgrimages are available from the Android store.

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Of the three pilgrimages, at a mere length of 100 km, the Chichibu 34 Kannon pilgrimage is best suited for the tourist who can only dedicate a limited amount of time and would like to walk the pilgrimage. And as Chichibu is, undeservedly, still largely undiscovered by the majority of the tourists, you have a chance to enjoy a lovely area of Japan that is less than an hour from Tokyo by train.
See also here.

The Chichibu Pilgrimage App for Android

The pages describing my experience of walking the Chichibu 34 Kannon temple pilgrimage on this blog remain popular and this makes me happy as that means that a lot of people are looking to get more out of their trips to Japan, decided to get out of the big cities and get a taste of the real Japan. I’m therefore happy to announce that I’ve written a free Android App that works as the perfect travel assistant specific for the Chichibu 34 Kannon Temples pilgrimage.

The Henro App is based on my own experience walking the pilgrimage and it is what I would have liked to have with me when I was doing the pilgrimage. Some of the temples are difficult to find. Even though there are some signs and stone markers guiding the pilgrim, especially in the Yokoze area, I found myself walking with both the books in my hand constantly looking at hand-drawn maps that were put together a long time ago and not always accurate or reading descriptions that were a bit confusing at times. I really felt like I wanted to have all the details of a temple and up-to-date maps easily accessible on my phone or tablet and even have the possibility to use GPS to indicate your current location or use for navigation to a temple.
Well, here it is is, a perfect pilgrim’s assistant and I have packed it with loads of details about other tourist attractions in Chichibu as well; so even if you don’t use it to do the pilgrimage, you’ll get plenty out of it when you visit Chichibu and it comes at a price you cannot beat. Available now in both English and Japanese (日本語版). 🙂
Check out the video on YouTube to see what to expect.

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Copying sutra at Taiyo-ji temple

As part of a temple stay (shukubo) at Taiyo-ji temple, you get the chance to copy sutra. No calligraphy experience or knowledge of kanji is required (I know, I’m really bad at calligraphy and being left-handed doesn’t help either as all the stroke directions of a kanji are defined by right-handed people — I push the brush where they would pull it and v.v.) 🙂 The habit of hand copying sutra is considered a merit and is a devotional practice.
The monk speaks English and Taiyo-ji temple is very accommodating for tourists from everywhere wanting to get the shukubo experience.

Zazen at Taiyo-ji temple

We visited Taiyo-ji temple in Chichibu for our second temple stay (shukubo) there a few days ago and my wife took this video of me doing zazen in the very beautiful zazen hall of the temple. The unique experience of this remote, mountain top temple makes me feel one with nature and at peace.
The monk speaks English and Taiyo-ji temple is very accommodating for tourists from everywhere wanting to get the shukubo experience.

Temple 32: Hosho-ji

This will be a series of occasional blog posts going into a few more details of the Chichibu 34 Kannon Temples pilgrimage that I walked in October/November 2013.

One of the most impressive temples of the pilgrimage is Temple 32, Hosho-ji. The much photographed Kannon hall is located next to a cave, very picturesque, but there is also a path that will lead you to another kannon statue and a nice view.

When waiting for the stamp, the monk pointed us to a set of stone  ‘footsteps,’ standing on the footsteps ,you could just make out a kannon statue on the top of the rock. It takes about an hour to visit and the path involves a bit of climbing and holding onto iron chains and railings for dear life. There were signs up there in kanji which I, unfortunately, couldn’t read but after a while I made it up to one of the statues.

I would have liked to explore the other directions but with my wife and friend waiting below, I chose to climb down again.

Chichibu 34 Kannon temples pilgrimage, day 4

Fuji Neopan Acros 100 at EI 100, developed in HC-110 dilution E for 7 minutes. Agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds.

Above: Kannon hall at Temple #32

With only four temples left on my itinerary after a long third day, I was getting a bit into trouble as I was running out of time. Normally the last four temples take 2 days to visit with trips by infrequent buses or by taxi but I had only one day left of my vacation before I had to start to make my way to Narita to catch the plane back to Europe.  Luckily, our friend could take a day out of her busy schedule and drive us to the last of the temples. Kannon-sama immediately rewarded her with the most perfect autumn day and beautiful autumn colours in the mountains around Chichibu.

Fuji Neopan Acros 100 at EI 100, developed in HC-110 dilution E for 7 minutes. Agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds.

Above: Kannon hall at Temple #31

My route this day was: Temple #32 U+2192.svg Temple #31 U+2192.svg Temple #33 U+2192.svg Temple #34.

There is a reason these are the last of the temples on the pilgrimage: These are the most beautiful of the pilgrimage and they are a reward for the effort of the whole pilgrimage.

The wooden Kannon hall at Temple #32 is half built into the rock and has an awesome veranda.  I climbed all the way to the top of the mountain ridge where a Kannon statue is placed, quite an adventure to reach this statue as you had to pull yourself up for the rock face with help of old iron chains and faded steps people had hacked out in the rock ages ago.
Coming down from the temple, we ran into a little old lady who was collecting ginkgo nuts, I described the encounter here.

The sanctum of Temple #31 came as a reward after climbing the 200 odd steps to reach it. The location with the rock and the waterfall was fabulous.

Reaching Temple #34 felt like an ending and the monk was very kind and interested. We sort of celebrated a bit, taking photos of me with my now completed nokyocho (納経帳) and he threw in a few good luck charms for free for good measure. Maybe the Japanese pilgrims are a bit more solemn but it felt great having completed the task I set for myself.
Afterwards we went to Mangan-no-yu, the nearby onsen, to relax and recover.

I felt really great for having completed the pilgrimage, but it felt a bit awkward for having taken the car for the last four temples, but then again, the description suggest buses or taxis for these temples which comes down to the same thing. The whole experience was very rewarding mainly because it finally, after all these years of visiting Japan, brought me into contact with so many Japanese people. All thanks to the kind people of Chichibu.

It has now become clear to me: we, as tourists, spend way too much time in the large cities and then we all visit the same famous shrines or temples and we think we visited Japan.  Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka – Hiroshima – Tokyo is the standard itinerary and if we are adventurous, we throw in Takayama as well or join the large crowds at the temples in Nara.
Having lived in Holland, France, the UK and Sweden, I think I know the romantic image people have of Japan and why so many return slightly disappointed and convinced their image of Japan was just a pipe dream. People should break out of the mould and visit the Japanese countryside; that’s where the true Japan is to be found! That’s where Japan still exists!