The Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage is a 1,300 year old, 1,000+ km pilgrimage to 33 Buddhist temples, each dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy Kannon. It stretches across Japan‘s fabled Kansai region. Every year, pilgrims from Japan and around the world follow this MEXT Japan Heritage route to introspect deeply and see western Japan through a different lens.

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What is the Saigoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage?

The Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, also called the “Saigoku 33 (西国三十三所)” or the “Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage”, is Japan’s oldest Buddhist pilgrimage route, established over 1,300 years ago. It winds over 1,000 kilometers through beautiful western Japan, taking pilgrims to both rural and urban locations. Along the way, travelers visit 33 temples dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Compassion and Healing, Kannon (known to other cultures and languages as Guanyin, Avalokitasvara, and Chenrezig).

For more than a thousand years, the sacred sites of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage have been tied to stories of healing. Each temple along the way is associated with a miracle, and tales of the release of physical, mental, and spiritual pain surround the pilgrimage’s rich traditions. To this day, completing the Saigoku 33 is an expression of a desire to heal suffering in oneself and in the world. It is also an opportunity to experience popular destinations in Japan (like Kyoto’s famed Kiyomizudera Temple) through a different lens.

These days, the Saigoku Pilgrimage is mostly done by car, taxi, bus tour, or public transportation. Certain sections of the trail are connected by historical routes that are wonderful when walked. Since many of the historical footpaths have long been replaced by long freeways, it is very rare for someone to walk the entire route.

The Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage is the first of three pilgrimages in the “Japan 100 Kannon Pilgrimage” (“nihon hyaku kannon”, 日本百観音 or “hyakuban kannon fudasho”, 百番観音札所). The other two are are the Bandō 33 Kannon Pilgrimage and the Chichibu 34 Kannon Pilgrimage. The Saigoku 33 has inspired more than 200 other 33 Kannon pilgrimages around Japan, many now historical in their own right.

What will I see in Saigoku?

Saigoku (西国, literally meaning “west country”), sometimes pronounced “Saikoku,” is an old name for what is today known as “Kansai” (関西, literally meaning “west of the tollgate,” which refers to the Osaka Tollgate). Kansai itself is also called “Kinki” (近畿, literally meaning “proximal to the imperial city,” referring to when Kyoto was Japan’s capital). It comprises 6 prefectures: Osaka, Kyoto, Hyōgo, Shiga, Nara, and Wakayama. About 20% of Japanese people live in Kansai.

The Saigoku Pilgrimage route is long and its sights are incredibly diverse. It begins deep in Wakayama near Nachi Falls, crosses the Hase River and forests of Nara, zig-zags through the bustling streets of modern Kyoto, winds up the mountains north of Kobe city, and traces the misty perimeter of ancient Lake Biwa. Pilgrims will visit 3 temples in Wakayama, 4 in Osaka, 4 in Nara, 11 in Kyoto, 6 in Shiga, 4 in Hyōgo, and 1 in Gifu (which is in Japan’s Chūbu region, not Kansai).

Those on the Saigoku Kannon 33 experience both old and new Japan, side by side. In Kyoto, places usually seen from behind the heads of tourists are instead viewed through a pilgrim’s lens. In the countryside, time slows.

Why do people do the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage?

Pilgrims go on the Saigoku 33 for many reasons. Historically, the Saigoku Pilgrimage has been a journey of healing and devotion to Kannon. From the 1950s through the 90s, the route was seen as a manifestation of Japan’s national identity, and people flocked to the Saigoku 33 to immerse themselves in authentic Japanese culture (from the 90s, it was displaced by the Shikoku Pilgrimage for the same reason).

Nowadays, people go on the Saigoku 33 to seek physical, emotional, and spiritual healing; to see popular tourist destinations through a more meaningful light; to visit impressive temples in locations less often visited; to immerse themselves in the nature of rural Kansai; to pause life and grow as a person; or to embark on a respected adventure. Everyone has their own reason for pilgrimage, and travelers are encourage to go at their own pace.

How do I prepare for the Saigoku Pilgrimage?

The first thing one must do to prepare for the Saigoku Kannon 33 is to decide their modes of transportation and the timing of their pilgrimage. Will you rent a car, book a bus tour, hire a taxi, connect using public transport, or go by bicycle?

Next, you should decide whether you will visit temples in their traditional order or whether you instead plan to optimize for time. While it can be rewarding to trace tradition, there are no hard rules to finishing the Saigoku pilgrimage, so long as you visit all 33 temples.

Traditionally, pilgrims start from Temple 1 - Seiganto-ji (青岸渡寺) and visit the others in sequential order, ending up all the way in Gifu Prefecture. Some people visit the 3 additional bangai temples along the way.

Due to work schedules or familial duties, pilgrims will often choose to complete the pilgrimage in stages. This can extend a journey over weeks, years, or even a lifetime. Other times, a pilgrim will do it all in one trip.

Additionally, a prospective pilgrim must decide whether they will visit the 3 additional “bangai” (番外, meaning “outside temple”) temples, or if they will just stick to the main 33.

Budgets can vary widely based on transportation and approach. You’ll need to plan lodgings, food, and the degree to which you’ll sightsee along the way. You’ll also want to decide if you’ll collect calligraphy stamps from temples and wear traditional pilgrim garb (highly recommended). The Kansai region of Japan is stuffed with wonders, UNESCO World Hertiage Sites, and delicacies that should not be missed.

Lastly, a pilgrim should review pilgrimage culture and etiquette before they go. By immersing oneself in tradition and partaking in local customs, they can leave their comfort zone and learn new things about themselves and others. Understanding the local way of life is also a good way to stay polite and safe along the journey.

COVID-19 Information

Since October 11, 2022, Japan has allowed foreign nationals to enter Japan on short-term tourist visas. Pre-arranged package tours are no longer required to obtain a tourist visa. Please check whether a visa application is required for your nationality, and for any additional documents required to enter Japan.

If you are not a foreign national, please visit the official website of your country’s embassy or consulate in Japan for further details. More information here

What is the Saigoku Sweets Pilgrimage?

Local shops, temples, and the official Saigoku 33 Pilgrimage Association partnered to create a “sub-pilgrimage” which focuses on Kansai’s many specialty sweets. Around each temple, pilgrims will find diverse treats for sale, from turtle mochi to plum ice cream to Daruma chocolate. It is an incredibly fun way to explore with your taste buds.

All participating locations in the Saigoku Sweets Pilgrimage are marked on our pilgrimage map. In many cases, confections are sold in the temple offices.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Do I have to be Buddhist to do the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage?

Do I have to wear the “official” pilgrim attire?

What happens at the end of my pilgrimage?