Despite being a smaller country, Japan's landscape is extremely varied and the spiritual connection with nature runs deep. One particularly unique way to experience Japan's natural beauty firsthand is to walk one of the many spiritual pilgrimage routes that wind through misty mountains, along ancient coastal roads, and through deep valleys to the many sacred shrines and temples along the way. Pilgrims or "o-henro" are easily recognized by their white clothing and rice hats. Those identified as pilgrims by locals are often offered encouragement in the form of snacks and drinks to keep up energy and spirits as they travel. Whether you’re looking for a spiritual journey of self-discovery or just to connect with Japan's magnificent natural surroundings, here are just a few of the must-experience pilgrimage routes Japan has to offer.
The Izumo region of Shimane prefecture, alongside the Sea of Japan, is a deeply sacred area known for being the 'land of the gods.' It is believed that the gods meet yearly at Izumo Grand Shrine to discuss the fate of the world for the coming year and it is in this mystical region that Izumo Shinbutsu pilgrimage begins. Stretching from Shimane to neighboring Tottori prefecture, the pilgrimage route begins in the mountains before descending into the foothills and along lakes and the sea. This pilgrimage showcases Japan's uniquely blended spiritual beliefs by including both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples along the route. Pilgrims are encouraged to purchase stamp books and rosary necklaces which they can use to collect stamps and beads at each location to document their spiritual journey.
For more information: http://visitshimane.com/?p=3644
The Kumano Kodo stretches through a good deal of the Kii peninsula and the area around Mt. Koya in the Wakayama prefecture where revered Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi first established a monastery. The area has become a spiritual mecca for practitioners of Shingon Buddhism and the surrounding Kii Mountains have been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are several different routes available ranging from a 1 day hike to a week long trek which passes through smaller towns offering comfortable accommodations to tired pilgrims seeking shelter and rest. In addition to the beautiful coastal routes, the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo takes pilgrims past the spectacular Nachi falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan.
For more information: http://www.tb-kumano.jp/en/kumano-kodo/
Perhaps the most immense pilgrimage undertaking, the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage on Japan's smallest main island of Shikoku crosses through 4 prefectures and hits, you guessed it, 88 different temples and sites where Kobo Daishi was said to have trained and spent time during his life. Most pilgrims elect to complete smaller routes that focus on specific areas but those daring enough to take on the full pilgrimage route will travel over 745 miles by journey's end. There are many temple lodgings that cater to pilgrims and locals are always eager to lend a helping hand to those traveling along the sacred route.
For more information: http://www.tourismshikoku.org/henro/
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