The Japanese Camino de Santiago
Have you heard of the Japanese Camino de Santiago? If you are a lover of pilgrim routes or walking, we recommend that you continue reading because you will be interested to know the two Japanese routes that are twinned with the Camino de Santiago.
One is Kumano Kodo and the other is Shikoku Henro. Both routes are declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, as are the Camino de Santiago routes. Below, we’ll tell you about each of the routes that have become known as the Japanese Camino de Santiago in Europe.
But before you continue reading, if you can’t miss the urge to make a pilgrimage and by time or your budget doesn’t go that far, we recommend doing the Camino de Santiago from Sarria. If you are interested, leave us more details about your dates and we will arrange everything for you.
Kumano Kodo, the first twinned route with the Camino de Santiago
Kumano Kodo is a pilgrimage route located on the Kili Peninsula, on one of Japan’s largest islands. This Japanese Camino de Santiago is formed by several paths that go to the Kumano Temple.
Like the pilgrim path, this Japanese Camino originates in the Middle Ages. The pilgrimage dates back to 794 A.D., in the Heian period.
This Japanese route, despite being framed in a different religion, was twinned with the Camino de Santiago in 1998. Kumano Kodo is considered the cradle of Shintoism, a cult that venerates deities of nature, but also integrates the Buddhist religion. Therefore, on its tour you can find temples of both religions.
The Japanese Camino de Santiago itinerary
Kumano Kodo, the first Japanese Camino de Santiago, crosses various areas of south-eastern Japan and in its final stretch reaches Wakayama, which is twinned with Galicia. Like the Camino de Santiago, this Japanese route has several branches, the most popular being that of Tajijiri-Oji.
However, the four main paths run through rugged mountains where you will find beautiful cedar forests and beautiful waterfalls. You will also have the opportunity to visit the bucolic wooden villages that dot the route.
What to see on the Camino de Kumano
The entire route of this Japanese Camino de Santiago has an immense and beautiful landscape with a rich artistic and cultural heritage. Among the most emblematic places are the following:
- The Hongu Temple (Tanabe), which is equivalent to Santiago de Compostela, as the end point of the tour.
- The Kili mountain range
- Mount Koya, on which stands a monastic city more than a thousand years old.
- Kumano Hayatama Taisha, in Shingu. It is one of the largest and where the gods are believed to inhabit.
- Kumano Nachi Taisha in Nachisan
- The Camino de Kumano allows this pilgrimage route to be linked with the other Japanese Camino de Santiago (Shikoku-Henro) through a stretch called Koyasan. Below we tell you about this other Japanese Camino de Santiago.
Shikoku-Henro: the other Japanese Camino de Santiago
The other Japanese route known as the Japanese Camino de Santiago is located on Shikoku Island and is known as Shikoku-Henro or O-Shikoku. This Japanese route was twinned with the Camino de Santiago in 2015.
This 1,200-kilometre Japanese route, unlike the Camino de Santiago, is a circular route, allowing you to visit 88 temples. Shikoku-Henro begins and ends at the Ryozenji Temple and the pilgrimage is performed from left to right, following in a clockwise direction.
Like the Camino de Santiago and the Japanese section we told you about in the previous section, the origin of Shikoku-Henro dates back to the Middle Ages. The first pilgrim on this route was the Buddhist monk Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi.
Kobo Daishi is considered an important figure of Shingon Buddhism and devoted much of his life to spreading the teachings of this Buddhist branch throughout Japan. Most of the places this Buddhist monk visited while preaching his teachings are, today, places of devotion and worship.
The Shikoku-Henro Japanese route itinerary
This Japanese Camino de Santiago is divided into four sections that correspond to the four Shikoku (meaning prefecture) on the island. The first section, called Tokushima, is known as the Way of Awakening. In this section of Shikoku-Henro you will find 23 temples.
The second section is Kochi, known as the Ascetic Way, where temples 24 to 39 are to be found. This section of the Japanese Camino de Santiago is also called The Devil’s Land, as it is where many pilgrims abandoned by the toughness of the section.
The third section is called the Way of Enlightenment and is located in Ehime. The last section of the tour is known as The Way of Nirvana and houses the temples from 66 to 88.
Doing the complete route allows you to visit all kinds of places, from small rural villages to urban environments. In total, the route crosses 40 villages, where pilgrims are very well received by its inhabitants, making it an ideal environment to interact with the locals. It also allows you to explore both plains and mountains and valleys, without forgetting some beach sections.
Many pilgrims who do the Shikoku-Henro route visit Koya Mountain in Wakayama. It is believed that Kobo Daishi died there.
Some people visit this small town, with more than 100 temples and a population of 3,000 people, before starting the pilgrimage to ask the monk for favours. Others do so at the conclusion of their challenge, as a token of gratitude for the protection that you have enjoyed throughout the route.
Features of the Japanese Camino de Santiago pilgrimage
As happens on the Camino de Santiago, on the Japanese layout, you can also seal on each of the stages. What would be the equivalent of the pilgrim’s credential on the Shikoku route, is a beautiful Japanese-style book, which could well be a work of art.
This is known as Nokyocho or Shuincho and is sealed exclusively in temples. Unlike the Camino de Santiago in Spain, you have to pay a small amount for each stamp. Generally, about 300 yen each of the stamps (approximately 2.50 € at current rates).
Another feature of Shikoku’s Japanese Camino de Santiago is clothing. Pilgrims often wear white, wearing a vest (Hakui or Hakue) and cotton trousers. This colour represents purity and innocence in Japanese culture.
Clothing on the Japanese Camino de Santiago
It is also common to see pilgrims carrying different elements of traditional clothing, which can be acquired in different temples. Some of these elements are:
- Sugegasa. It is the traditional peaked hat, made of bamboo, which is used to protect yourself from the sun and rain. Unlike Spain, in Japan you don’t need to take off your hat when entering sacred places.
- Juzu. It’s kind of a rosary. According to the religious beliefs of the Japanese, holding the Juzu in your hands helps the pilgrim to be covered in good fortune.
- Jirei. It is a bell that pilgrims ring when they recite the sutras (Speeches by Buddha or one of his disciples)
- Zudabukuro. It is a bag in which pilgrims carry incense, candles, etc. In the dress of the Camino de Santiago would be the equivalent of the pilgrim’s bag.
- Wagesa. It is a handkerchief that pilgrims usually wear around their necks.
- Kongozue. It is the pilgrim’s Japanese pole, which would be the equivalent of the pilgrim’s pumpkin on the staff. In Japanese culture, it is believed that Kobo Daishi inhabits the pole and that from there he guides the pilgrimage of each person.
If you are encouraged to do the route, we recommend that you wear at least the white clothing and carry the Japanese pole with you. In this way, the locals will be able to identify you as a pilgrim and welcome you.
It is common for pilgrims to be presented with osettai, consisting of tea and fruits and sweets. This fully selfless gesture is interpreted as a warm welcome and will give you the opportunity to interact with the locals.
Customs and rituals
As you may already know, customs in Japan are very different from those of other countries around the world. That is why if you decide to do the Japanese Camino de Santiago you must research very well about the protocol that must be followed when entering a temple.
For example, it is part of the protocol of entering a temple to bow in front of the door and wash your hands, starting from the left. Ringing the bell outside the temple is unlucky.
In the main room of each temple you can deposit a sutra or a osamefuda (a wish), but it is important that each of them put them in the appropriate box. It is also common to light three incense sticks and a candle.
How to do the Japanese Camino de Santiago in Shikoku
In Shikoku you can find pilgrims who do the route on foot, by car or by bus. If you decide to make the full Japanese Camino de Santiago on foot you will need a month and a half, if you complete an average of 30 kilometres per day.
If you choose to do so by bus, you will need approximately 10 to 12 days. There are different bus companies that offer this route.
If you do it by car, you need about the same time. In the immediate vicinity of the airport you can rent a car.
Of course, other options to do the Japanese Camino de Santiago are the bicycle and the motorbike. You can also choose to combine different types of pilgrimage.
What do you think of the Japanese brother of the Camino de Santiago? Are you now encouraged to make pilgrimage in Japan?
If your answer is “Yes”, do not hesitate to share your experience with us, either through this post or on Santiago Ways Facebook page. We’re sure that all our readers of the Camino de Santiago will love to know more details about the Japanese Camino de Santiago.