I contribute regularly to the different forums dedicated to travel to Japan, like the Japan Guide which has been around forever. Regularly you come across questions from people who have travelled to Japan before, visited the typical locations like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Takayama, Kanazawa, etc. and are struggling to take their upcoming trip to Japan to the next level and are scouting for suggestions.
I noticed that Japanese tourists in their own country and Japanese locals do a lot of activities, interesting things, that do not immediately occur to non-Japanese tourists and they hesitate to join in. Often there is no reason for not doing the same other than being unfamiliar with it. Bringing your trip to Japan to the next level means that you should really try to experience Japan as a Japanese tourist, in my opinion, therefore not staying on the outside of Japan and just looking in through the window, but instead enter and become Japanese.
Off the beaten tourist track
Assuming that you have visited Kyoto, Nara, etc. during previous visits, the first thing I would like to recommend to repeat visitors to Japan is not to automatically turn west from Tokyo and stay between Tokyo and Hiroshima but maybe explore Tohoku, Hokkaido, Shikoku or Kyushu, or cross Japan and travel along the Sea of Japan coast. Seek out the countryside and get out of the big cities for a while and do not automatically make it Takayama, so many more towns to choose from!
A visit to an onsen seems to be on everybody’s wishlist which really makes me happy, I love visiting onsen especially the rural ones in Tohoku. See here for some blog posts of remarkable onsen that I visited. A great way to enjoy an onsen is to stay at a ryokan but this is definitely not the only way to get a good soak. In onsen towns like Naruko Onsen, for example, you can buy a “Spring Tour” ticket that allows you to visit different onsen in the town. In the more isolated areas of Japan you can often find onsen that are not more than a shed with a box to put the fee in and the best water imaginable. These are the onsen I now prefer.
Often the foreign tourists seek out onsen with private baths to avoid getting nude in front of strangers. Ryokans do sometimes offer this option but frankly I would recommend to do as the Japanese do and just enjoy the soak, nobody is looking and you’ll have all the onsen to pick from, not just a few.
Japanese tourists will travel far to sample some special cuisine. If you have watched Japanese TV, you must have seen the many programmes about food and visits to little towns and exploring the local specialities there. By now you know that Japanese food is much more than sushi, make sure that you know the local specialities of the areas that you visit and dig up the best restaurants. A great way to sample the local food is to stay at a ryokan.
Surprisingly, it seems that breakfast at a ryokan sometimes is a problem for tourists being used to something sweet or light at that time of the day. Breakfast at a ryokan is often made up of fish, miso, pickles and rice and everybody eats the same unless there is a breakfast buffet; I can wholeheartedly recommend trying the Japanese breakfast.
If you’re in a bind finding a restaurant in a town you know little about, a safe option is an izakaya style restaurant where you can try your pick from an extensive menu.
All the tourists visit Buddhist temples and enjoy the architecture and the temple grounds, I’m sure, but at the bigger Buddhist temples it is common for people to join in with the morning ceremonies and only few tourists do this. We did this at Zenkō-ji in Nagano; it really is quite the experience. You do have to get up early but this is where jet-lag can really help you out. 🙂
If you’re flying home via Narita and decide to stay at the town of Narita for your last night in Japan (recommended!) you will stop at the big temple complex of Narita-san, no doubt. At Narita-san, every hour there is a Goma fire ritual held that lots of Japanese people join. You can enter too, you’ll be surprised how few of us tourists do but it is so worth it.
Opportunities like this you can find almost everywhere in Japan, stop by the local tourist information and ask about it.
Temple stays or shukubo, as they are called in Japanese, are growing in popularity with the foreign tourists. There seems to be a misconception and a lot of people think that shukubo are limited to Mt. Koya, but that is not true, many Buddhist temples in Japan offer this option and the best shukubo I did was at Taiyoji Temple near Chichibu near Tokyo.
At a good temple stay you eat the vegetarian food (shojin ryori), copy sutra, do zazen meditation and join in with the evening and morning ceremonies, chanting the sutra, etc.. Some people mentioned that they had done a temple stay but had declined to join in with any of the activities, that is just silly to me.
Buddhist pilgrimages are probably not the first thing you think of to do as a tourist but the interest is certainly growing. The most famous pilgrimage in Japan is the Shikoku Pilgrimage of 88 temples which is 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) long and can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete on foot. A shorter, more manageable pilgrimage for a tourist is the Chichibu Pilgrimage in and around the town of Chichibu close to Tokyo. This pilgrimage is about 100 kilometres long and can be walked or done by public transport in a few days. There are many other pilgrimages around Japan, you probably already visited some of the temples of the Tokyo 33-Kannon Pilgrimage without you being aware.
Festivals (or matsuri as they are called in Japan) are fun and diverse; if you have a chance, book your visit to an town or an area around a festival.
The New Year holiday, like Obon in August, is maybe not the best period to visit Japan as transportation is packed beyond capacity and almost everything is closed on New Year’s Day, but it gives you the chance to do hatsumode on New Year’s Day or shortly thereafter like virtually all Japanese people do. Hatsumode is the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year, you typically buy good luck charms and drink sweet sake. It also includes queuing up for an hour or so to get to the front of the shrine to say your prayers, but that is all part of the fun. I’ve now spent New Year in Japan twice and each time doing hatsumode was a unique experience and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.
Above are just my suggestions to make more of a trip to Japan. Let me know your ideas in the comments.
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.
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 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.
In 2013 I walked the 34 Kannon Temples Pilgrimage in Chichibu and enjoyed that very much. Next time I’m in Japan, I intend to do the Edo 33 Kannon Temples Pilgrimage right in the centre of Tokyo.
This will be a challenge as the best part of the Chichibu pilgrimage was the countryside and its friendly people whereas the Tokyoites are using a social Botox and dealing with the crowded streets and public transport by pretending they are alone. A lot of this pilgrimage will be done by public transport instead of walking which will be another big difference that I’m not particularly keen on.
For reference I bought the Kindle edition of The Tokyo 33-Kannon Pilgrimage: A guide to ancient Edo’s sacred path book by Marcus Powles which contains a wealth of information. Unfortunately the small hand drawn maps in the Kindle edition are almost indecipherable on my 3rd generation Kindle so I collected the locations of the 33+3 temples of the book in a Google map to be used in addition to the book.
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.
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.
Above: Kannon hall at Temple #31
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!
Above: Temple #28 under the rock
Since I had sort of messed up the official route by visiting more temples the second day of pilgrimage, I had to wing it a little and try to reach Temple 30 in a day so I would have only one more day left.
My route this day was: Temple #24 Temple #25 Temple #26 Temple #27 Temple #28 Temple #29 Temple 30. Between Temple #29 and Temple #30 I took the train from Urayamaguchi station to Shiroku station as I was running out of time and the walk between those two temples was over two hours. The only time I felt uncomfortable walking along a major road next to heavy traffic was just after leaving Temple #24. The caretaker at Temple #24 had warned me about the dangers and how right he was: it was a very curvy and tight road with loads of trucks and fast driving cars coming around almost blind corners with no pavement for me to walk on.
Above: Peaceful Temple #30 with its beautiful garden.
I was now really walking through the countryside and the pilgrimage had really grown on me by this time. The temples were getting further apart again after they were rather close together on the second day. I also started to get the feeling that fewer and fewer pilgrims would reach these temples and sometimes it took a bit of puzzling to find the location where to get the stamp as I don’t read kanji and a kind note on a door telling a pilgrim were to go was a big barrier.
I guess because I was carrying this large camera and camera bag around, this day monks and caretakers would regularly show me folders or photo albums full of photographs of the temple. Really helpful if you don’t have much time to find the best angle for your shots 🙂
You must visit Temple #26 to get the temple stamp but it is worth to climb the stairs up into the mountains and visit Iwaidou, the secret Kannon Hall of Temple #26. From there you can hike directly to the Giant Kannon statue that towers over Temple #27.
Above: Iwaidou — the secret Kannon Hall of Temple #26
Above: the Giant Kannon statue of Temple #27
Temple #28 was very impressive underneath its massive rock and Temple #30 was very peacefully located in a carefully constructed garden.
From Temple #30 I returned to Shiroku station and from there to Seibu Chichibu station.
Maybe a nice anecdote: When I walked up the hill to reach Temple #30, I passed three kids who were dillydallying on their way home after school. After exchanging “konnichiha’ as I passed them, they practiced their English on me but after a few replies to their “hello” ‘s and “how do you do”’s I walked on to be able to use the last light of the day for my photos as the temple was on a slope facing north and the sun had already set behind the mountain. By the time I had collected my stamp and finished my prayer, the kids showed up at the temple and very enthusiastically started relating the whole ‘adventure’ to their father, the monk of the temple when they discovered me again taking the last of my photos. Their story cut short and they mumbled ‘ah, ano hito’ after which they became all very shy all of a sudden 🙂
Read all about the last day of the pilgrimage here.
Above: Giant Ojizō-sama, Temple #10, Chichibu
A few days later, I set off for the second day of pilgrimage. This time I left much earlier and walked from Seibu Chichibu station to Temple #10 to continue at the next temple from where I had left off last time.
The recommended route for the second day would cut off at Temple #18 and return by train to Seibu Chichibu station, but as it was still early and I was still fit, I decided the push on and take an advance on the next day.
Above: Ojizō-sama statues, Temple #19, Chichibu
At Temple #11 I had an amusing chat with the caretaker about from which country Häagen–Dazs ice cream originated and at Temple #16 I received a bit of chicken for lunch 🙂
From Temple #18 until Temple #23 I kept bumping into the same person so it became a bit of a habit to have a short chat at every temple. I loved these little interactions with strangers, this happens so rarely – too rarely when visiting Japan.
At Temple #15 I ran into a group of five pilgrims and we had a long chat. They asked me where I was from and long after we had said goodbye, I could still hear them talking about Holland. I ran into the same group at the end of the day at Seibu Chichibu station as they had just returned from Temple #19 and it felt like meeting friends.
Temple #12 was meticulously kept and at Temple #13 everybody was served a cup of tea (supposedly good for eyesight) and a short manga featuring the temple and explaining its background and why it does have a kindergarten associated with it. Temple #20 was very beautifully situated.
Temple #17 and the old bridge between Temples #19 and #20 had featured in the well-known Anohana anime and when I arrived at Temple #17 a couple of girls in cosplay were posing with their DSLR on a tripod. They had come on bicycle, so they were clearly going from location to location and, this I remember vividly, they were quite impressed with the sound of my Pentax 645NII medium format film camera 🙂
From Temple #20 one really starts to enter the countryside with the very rural Temple #22 as highlight for this day. After visiting Temple #23 it got dark and, coming down the hill again, it was a straight shoot into town back to Seibu Chichibu station.
Read all about the third day of the pilgrimage here.
Above: Temple #2 in the middle of the woods.
In October and November 2013 I walked the 34 Kannon temples pilgrimage in Chichibu in four days and I wanted to share my experience in case other people are interested and keen to walk it themselves. If you want a summary: it was awesome! Wholeheartedly recommended! !
Leave a comment or drop me an email in case you want to know more, I’d be more than happy to help you out.
I had read about the pilgrimage last time I visited Chichibu and this year I came prepared and had bought a second hand copy of Chichibu: Japan’s Hidden Treasure by Sumiko Enbutsu which turned out to be very useful and full of background information although it is perfectly possible to make the pilgrimage without it and pick up the booklet in English at Temple #1.
On day one, I took the bus to Misawa Minano from the bus station next to Seibu Chichibu train station to Temple #1 (Fudasho-Ichiban stop) where I arrived around 11:00 and where I bought a nokyocho (納経帳) which is a little book to collect the temple stamps and this book was my companion during the pilgrimage. There is a choice of different versions and I went for the one made of washi (Japanese paper.)
Above: The page for temple #18 in my nokyocho.
The book contains a page of each temple and at each temple the monk or caretaker will add stamps in red and some calligraphy. The donation expected for this service was ¥ 300 at the time I did the pilgrimage but this can be subject to change of course.
All temples are remarkably different and exceedingly beautiful and access is free. This was a little bit of a surprise as I had previously visited Nara and Kyoto where it is quite normal to pay ¥ 500 or ¥ 600 for entrance to a temple that is nothing special.
As Temple #9 is conveniently close to Yokoze train station and as the sun sets already around 17:00 in the afternoon in October, I decided to call it a day and return to Kawagoe where I was staying.
Especially in the Yokoze area of Chichibu the signs indicating the different temples are many and I didn’t have a lot of trouble finding my way. When I started I had no idea what to expect and I was surprised about the number of people making the pilgrimage. Some of them by car, others on foot like me.
At several temples I received a little gift in the form of a snack or a book about the pilgrimage which I found rather touching.
The other pilgrims and the people of Chichibu were really friendly and curious about a non-Japanese walking the pilgrimage and it was easy to have a quick chat with the different people who I met on my way and I think that the interaction and the friendliness of the people I met were a key contributor of the success of my pilgrimage experience.
Read all about the second day of the pilgrimage here.
There is now a free Android app to guide you through the Chichibu 34 Kannon Temple pilgrimage packed with loads of information and details of the temples.