Saigoku Sanjusankasho (the 33 temples that are visited during the Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage) (西国三十三箇所)

The Saigoku Sanjusankasho is the collective name for the thirty-three holy places of Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) scattered around Gifu Prefecture and the six prefectures (Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Shiga, Nara, and Wakayama) in the Kinki region. A pilgrimage to visit these holy places as the fudasho temples (a temple of pilgrimage where pilgrims originally nailed a 'fuda,' or wooden votive plate, to the pillar or ceiling of the temple) is the oldest form of pilgrimage in Japan, and is still enjoyed today by many worshipers as the Saigoku Sanjusankasho Junrei (Pilgrimage).

Saint Tokudo, the founder of the Hase-dera Temple in Yamato Province, met Enma Daio (King Yama, or the King of Hell) at the entrance to the other world when he died of disease at the age of sixty-two in 718; he received from Enma Daio an oracle telling him to build thirty-three holy places of Kannon and save people by having them make the pilgrimage, then received the kishomon (written oath) to Kannon and the thirty-three hoin (temple seals), and was sent back to the world to accomplish these tasks, for too many people had been sent to hell from bad karma. The holy places are believed to have been designated according to the temple seals. Saint Tokudo persuaded people to make the Sanjusankasho junrei (pilgrimage), but it did not become popular due to the lack of trust towards him among the public; thus, he decided to wait for the right time and placed the hoin he had received from Enma Daio in a stone urn at the Nakayama-dera Temple in Settsu Province. The Saigoku Sanjusankasho Junrei was gradually forgotten.

Two hundred and seventy years after the Saint Tokudo's placement of the hoin at the Nakayama-dera Temple, when Emperor Kazan confined himself to the Mt. Nachi in Kishu Province for meditation, Kumano Gongen (the deity of the three grand shrines of Kumano) appeared in front of Emperor Kazan and gave an oracle to him that said he must revitalize the thirty-three holy places of Kannon that Saint Tokudo had designated. Emperor Kazan then found the hoin at the Nakayama-dera Temple, made the pilgrimage to the thirty-three holy places of Kannon accompanied by Saint Shoku in Mt. Shosha in Harima Province and Saint Butsugen at the Ishikawa-dera Temple in Kawachi Province, and as a result, the pilgrimage began to spread among people.

The number 'thirty-three' is said to have come from the legend that Kannon Bosatsu (Goddess of Mercy) disguises herself in thirty-three forms when she saves all living things. It is believed that all the sins committed throughout one's lifetime would be washed away and a person would go to paradise if he/she made the pilgrimage to the thirty-three holy places of Kannon in western provinces.

The first historical document to refer to the Sanjusankasho junrei (pilgrimage) was the 'Kannon Reijo Sanjusankasho Junrei-ki' (Memoirs of the pilgrimage to the thirty-three holy places of Kannon) written by the Buddhist monk Gyoson of the Onjo-ji Temple (known as Mi-dera Temple) in Omi Province in 1090. In this pilgrimage, the first temple for Gyoson to visit was the Hase-dera Temple and the thirty-third one was the Mimuroto-ji Temple. In the Edo period, the Kannon pilgrimage spread among ordinary people, and together with the Bando Sanjusankasho (Thirty-three Holy Places of Kannon in the Bando region) and the Chichibu Sanjuyonkasho (Thirty-four Holy Places of Kannon in the Chichibu area), the Saigoku Sanjusankasho came to be called the 'Nihon Hyaku Kannon' (hundred Kannon temples in Japan). Consequently, the number of the pilgrims from the eastern provinces increased, and this Kannon pilgrimage in the Kamigata area (area centering around Kyoto) came to be called the 'Saigoku Sanjusankasho;' it is believed that the Seiganto-ji Temple in the Kumano area of Kii Province became the first temple because many people made the pilgrimage to the three grand shrines (including the Seiganto-ji Temple) of Kumano first, that the Kegon-ji Temple in Mino Province became the thirty-third temple because of the easy access to the eastern provinces when returning home, and that the current route of the pilgrimage was decided in this way. In the early Edo period, the 'junrei-ko' (pilgrim groups) were organized in many parts of the country, and group pilgrimage became popular. There were even professional pilgrims called 'sanjusando gyoja' (literally meaning 'thirty-three times ascetic') who completed one pilgrimage by making the Sanjusankasho pilgrimage thirty-three times at the request of others such as a local area. There still remain the 'Mangan Kuyo-to' (memorial towers), which were built for the commemoration of the mangan (completion of the pilgrimage) achieved by these pilgrim groups and sanjusando gyoja.

Recently many fudasho temples became independent.
This clearly shows that each fudasho temple is in good financial shape due to the increasing number of pilgrims

Holy places in the Kannon pilgrimage are generally called 'fudasho' (fudasho temple). The name originates from the old custom that pilgrims nailed wooden votive plates inscribed with their names and birth provinces to the main hall of a temple, hoping to make a connection with the principal object of worship, Kannon (Goddess of Mercy). At a fudasho temple, pilgrims have the temple collect their shakyo (hand-copied sutra) and pay it the nokyo-ryo (fee for the collection of the shakyo) as a donation after a prayer, and they receive the stamp of the hoin in the nokyo-cho (a book in which they collect the stamp of the hoin and the signature at each fudasho temple). Some pilgrims leave the nokyo-fuda (prayer paper) at each temple instead of the shakyo.

The pilgrimage route of the Saigoku Sanjusankasho includes, as additional holy places, three more temples associated with the founder of the pilgrimage Saint Tokudo and Cloistered Emperor Kazan, who revitalized it. As the orei-mairi (a visit to a temple to show gratitude for the completion of the prayer) for the completion of the pilgrimage, pilgrims pay a visit to the Zenko-ji Temple at last, resulting in making the pilgrimage to the thirty-seven temples in total. The Saigoku Sanjusankasho Junrei may include, as additional holy places, the Oku no In (innermost sanctuary) at the Kongobu-ji Temple in Koyasan, the Konpon Chudo (main hall) at the Enryaku-ji Temple in the Mt. Hiei, the Nigatsu-do (literally February hall) at the Todai-ji Temple in Nara, and/or the Shitenno-ji Temple in Osaka, and, accordingly, some believe that pilgrims can select one temple for the orei-mairi from the five temples of these four additional places and the Zenko-ji Temple.

The total distance of the junrei-do (pilgrimage route) from the first fudasho temple to the thirty-third one is approximately 1000 kilometers, which is shorter than the henro michi (pilgrimage route) of the Shikoku Hachijuhakkasho (Eighty-eight Holy Places in the Shikoku region); because the distance between two fudasho temples of the Saigoku Sanjusankasho are long except in Kyoto City, however, a few people nowadays walk the entire pilgrimage route and instead most use their own cars or public transportation. For one month from March, 1935, the 'Saigoku Sanjusankasho Fudasho Rengokai' (Federation) in cooperation with the Hankyu Railway held the 'Kannon Reijo Saigoku Sanjusankasho Hankyu Ensen Shukkaihi' (観音霊場西国三十三ヶ所阪急沿線出開扉). As a result of this, more than 400,000 people are said to have visited fudasho temples for thirty-three days.

Railway and bus companies still organize many pilgrimage tours, and a lot of people join them.

[Original Japanese]