In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pilgrimage in Japan

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Ancient Japan

Buddhism Pilgrimage in Japan
Barbara Ambros
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0195


While the first modern Western works on Japanese pilgrimage were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scholarship on Japanese pilgrimage has flourished since the end of World War II, particularly from the 1970s onward. There are multiple reasons for this development. In the postwar era, Japanese studies became a popular discipline spurred on by the Cold War and Japan’s booming economy. Simultaneously, nostalgic interest in local traditions grew along with the theory of Japanese uniqueness (nihonjinron). Yet as Japan became more affluent and urbanized as a whole, rural areas saw a population decline. Rural pilgrimage sites and communities eagerly embraced opportunities for revitalization. As a result, heritage tourism in Japan grew exponentially, leading to a revival, even the creation, of pilgrimage sites and routes. Japanese folklore studies and local history also gained popularity in the postwar era, resulting in the proliferation of Japanese scholarship on national and regional pilgrimages. Furthermore, the publication of Victor Turner’s essay titled “The Center Out There: Pilgrims’ Goal” (History of Religion 12.3 [1973]; republished in Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), in which Turner articulated his theory of pilgrimage as a liminal journey allowing pilgrims to experience anti-structure and communitas, led to an increased anthropological interest in pilgrimage. Turner’s influence reverberated strongly in the study of Japanese pilgrimage for the next twenty-five years as scholars applied Turner’s theory or used the Japanese case to disprove it. Since the new millennium, Turner’s influence has waned. Scholars have turned to other, more recent theories of pilgrimage and explored issues such as gender, economic contexts, and the relationship with heritage tourism, cultural identity, and nostalgia. Several aspects of Japanese pilgrimage are especially worth noting. One, which has been explored extensively by Allan Grapard, is the mandalization of sacred sites or landscapes, especially in the Shugendō tradition. Another is the (largely premodern) practice of excluding women from mountain sites, which has been explained variously as the result of the Buddhist monastic precepts regarding celibacy, medieval notions of uterine blood pollution, or economic motivations. Another common theme that runs through the scholarship on Japanese religious travel is the relationship between premodern pilgrimage infrastructure and modern tourism. Many scholars have noted that the Japanese penchant for package tours may be related to the custom of traveling in pilgrimage confraternities. It should be noted, however, that the correspondences between premodern pilgrimage and modern tourism are not completely consistent.

General Overviews

The works in this section introduce the topic of pilgrimage in Japan by establishing a typology and/or by surveying of the state of the field. There are three major typologies of pilgrimage in Japan. The first typology distinguishes between Shinto and Buddhist pilgrimages (Lowell 1895 and Sakai 1960), but as more recent studies of Japanese religions have complicated the demarcations between Shinto and Buddhism, this typology has become less useful. Furthermore, pilgrimages in Shugendō and in many new religious movements do not fit this dichotomy. A second typology distinguishes between pilgrimages to individual sacred centers and pilgrimage circuits, which combined a set number of religious sites into a circular route (Reader and Swanson 1997, cited under Anthologies, Ambros 2006). This typology is reflected in Japanese, which has different terms for these two types of pilgrimage. Visiting an individual, primary pilgrimage center is called mairi, mōde, or sanpai, all of which express movement toward a revered entity. The scholarly term for this type of pilgrimage combines the Chinese characters for mairi and mōde into sankei. In contrast, pilgrimage along a circuit of several, equally important sites is referred to as meguri, junrei, or junpai. In the case of the Shikoku circuit, the term henro is used, designating both the pilgrimage and pilgrims. These terms imply visiting a circuit of sacred sites. The connection to the ancient Buddhist practice of circumambulation is clear in the term kaihōgyō (literally, “the practice of circumambulating the peak”), which describes the circumambulation of Mt. Hiei by Tendai ascetics. However, it should also be noted that the term junrei often functions as the generic translation of the English term “pilgrimage.” In addition, a third category of pilgrimage exists, namely mountain-entry pilgrimages by the anchorites of Shugendō. These pilgrimages are called mineiri or nyūbu, literally, “entering the peaks,” and involve on a set course of sites in mountain ranges, but the motion is usually not circular. Kitagawa 1967 gives a third, tripartite typology: (1) pilgrimage to sacred mountains, (2) pilgrimages associated with specific divinities, and (3) pilgrimages associated with charismatic individuals. This typology is useful because it does not draw artificial lines between religious traditions and allows for the incorporation of pilgrimages in new religious movements. These three categories are also reiterated in much of the Japanese research on pilgrimage. Reader 2013 provides an excellent overview of Japanese scholarship on pilgrimage, coverage of which is beyond the scope of this bibliography.

  • Ambros, Barbara. “Geography, Environment, Pilgrimage.” In Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions. Edited by Clark Chilson and Paul Swanson, 289–308. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.

    An overview of the state of the field with a focus on scholarship in Western languages. Also reviews the major terms for pilgrimage and adopts Kitagawa’s typology.

  • Kitagawa, Joseph. “Three Types of Pilgrimage in Japan.” In Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem on His Seventieth Birthday by Pupils, Colleagues and Friends. Edited by E. E. Urbach, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, and Chaim Wirszubski, 155–164. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967.

    Useful typological introduction to pilgrimage in Japan. Distinguishes three basic types of pilgrimage: pilgrimage to sacred mountains, pilgrimage sites associated with specific divinities, and pilgrimage to sites associated with charismatic individuals. The essay was republished in On Understanding Japanese Religion, 127–136 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

  • Lowell, Percival. Occult Japan: An Esoteric Study of Japanese Personality and Possession. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895.

    First Western academic study of pilgrimage in Japan. Covers Mt. Ontake, Shugendō asceticism, and pilgrimage confraternities. Asserts that Japanese pilgrimage is of Shinto origins. Underscores the ludic aspects of religious journeys in Japan. Posits that pilgrimages by confraternities are most representative. Previously partially published as “Esoteric Shintō: Pilgrimages and Pilgrim Clubs” (Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 23 (1893): 241–270).

  • Reader, Ian. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230375840

    Contains several chapters dealing with issues related to pilgrimage, such as the appeal of ascetics as charismatic individuals, sacred sites as centers of power and entertainment, and amulets and this-worldly benefits. These chapters provide an accessible introduction to the topic of pilgrimage in Japan.

  • Reader, Ian. “Japanese Studies of Pilgrimage.” Unpublished conference paper presented at Itineraries, Gaps and Obstacles in Pilgrimage Study: Research Traditions in a Global Context. Museum of the Mediterranean, Marseille, 3 October 2013.

    Survey of the seminal Japanese scholarship on pilgrimage including historical, sociological, and anthropological studies by Asakawa Yasuhiro, Gorai Shigeru, Hayami Tasuku, Hinonishi Shinjō, Hoshino Eiki, Kaneko Satoru, Kanzaki Noritake, Kojima Hiromi, Matsuzaki Kenzō, Miyake Hitoshi, Mori Masato, Numata Kenya, Oda Masayuki, Osada Kōichi, Satō Hisamitsu, Shinjō Tsunezō, Shinno Toshikazu, Takeda Akira, Tanaka Hiroshi, and Yamaori Tetsuo.

  • Sakai, Usaku. “Les pèlerinages au Japon.” In Les pèlerinages: Égypte ancienne, Israël, Islam, Perse, Inde, Tibet, Indonésie, Madagascar, Chine, Japon. Edited by Jean Yoyotte, 343–366. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1960.

    Distinguishes between two broad types of pilgrimage in Japan: Shinto and Buddhist. Contends that Shinto pilgrimage, though influenced by concepts introduced from the Asian continent, is by far more important and pervasive. Gives two examples for Buddhist pilgrimage circuits: the Shikoku circuit and Saikoku Kannon circuit. The pilgrimage to the Ise Shrines serves as an example for Shinto pilgrimage.

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