The Saigoku 33 Kannon Route

This route is called in Japanese the Saigoku Sanjusan Kasho (西国三十三箇所), or the "33 places (sacred to Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) in the Saigoku (Kansai) region."

"Saigoku" is Kansai (関西), the area of western Japan centering on Kyoto. The pilgrimage that covers the 33 sites--if one were to travel it sequentially (which I did not)--would run perhaps 600 miles (a thousand kilometers) or so, through seven of Japan's 47 prefectures. These are: Wakayama (3); Osaka (4); Nara (4 + 1 bangai); Kyoto (11 + 1 bangai); Shiga (6); Hyogo (4 + 1 bangai); and Gifu (1).



"History": The further back we go into history, the more we begin to encounter legend. In the case of the Saigoku pilgrimage, we reach back into the mists of time to the year 718 when a monk named Tokudo became sick. He descended into hell, where Emma-O (the Sanskrit Yama), King of Hell, said that the number of denizens in his realm was growing a bit too fast, but if Tokudo would establish 33 places sacred to Kannon, those who traveled the route could avoid hellfire. Emma gave Tokudo 33 seals to verify the visits (the origin of the custom of having one's pilgrim book stamped today). But people being skeptical and all, no one believed poor old Tokudo, who buried the seals before he died.

Fast-forward two-and-a-half centuries or so to the 980s, when Emperor Kazan retired and became a monk named Nyukaku. It was his good fortune (they say) to dig up the seals that Tokudo had buried and, with his retired-Imperial influence, finally got the pilgrimage off the ground (though this seems a little iffy, as some of the temples on the route hadn't been founded yet!) Kazan is also (even more incredibly) credited with the founding of the Bando circuit--a transparent effort by those upstart eastern barbarians to ride on the retried Emperor's robe-tails.

Anyway, history says the Saigoku route was more likely to have been founded around 1100; the Bando route came a century later. Hundreds of shorter routes dedicated to Kannon followed.



Map adapted from Wikipedia Japan

The Route: It starts in Wakayama Prefecture at Nachi [1], site of Japan's highest waterfall; wanders through the mountains [2-3] and into urban Osaka Prefecture [4-5]; then into Nara Prefecture [6-9], one of Japan's most ancient capitals and site of the Great Buddha; on to Kyoto [10-11] and Shiga [12-14] Prefectures, considered the center of Japanese cultural life for centuries; back through Kyoto [15-21] and Osaka [22-23] to rural Hyogo Prefecture [24-27]; into northern Kyoto [28-29] and Shiga [30-32] again, including an island in the center of Biwa-ko, Japan's largest freshwater lake; and finally to a single mountaintop temple in Gifu Prefecture [33].



My Approach: As Kyoto--the pilgrimage's center--is some 450 kilometers (280 miles) from Tokyo, where I lived, I had to plan my campaigns somewhat carefully, minimizing the number of pricey 2-1/2 hour plus shinkansen ("bullet train") trips. Once I tried a local--not so much for the savings as for the experience (you can see much more when things aren't whizzing past the window at 175 miles an hour!), but 8 or 9 hours of that pretty much cured me of the desire to do it again. Another wrong move: I once took the 8-1/2 hour night bus, which has specially-designed seats and blankets to allow for a comfortable sleep. When I woke up in the morning and saw the bleary glares of my fellow-passengers--who had been kept up all night by my prodigious SNORES--I crossed that off my to-do-again list, too.

Here then, year by year, are the trips and the goals achieved.

I visited these temples in random order, starting with Engyo-ji in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, in mid-November of 1999, when I was returning from a teaching job in Hiroshima. A week later, on a long "Labor Thanksgiving Day" holiday weekend, I was back in Kansai, operating out of Kyoto. I covered a whopping 10 temples (nine numbered + one bangai or "extra") in four days, in Shiga, Nara, and Uji, besides Kyoto proper.
[In order: Trip 1: #27; Trip 2: #14, bangai, 15, 17, 16, 18, 19, 9, 10, and 11]

I made Trips 3 and 4 in 2000. The third, to the south of Kyoto (Wakayama, Nara, and Osaka), included the Ise Grand Shrine at the end of April, followed by seven temples (six numbered and one bangai) in the first days of May; this was during the famed "Golden Week" holidays, and included my first visit to the amazing Koya-san, to which I would return. The next trip of 2000 was in November, the same holiday weekend as 1999, and covered four widely-spread temples in Wakayama and Shiga.
(Before and between these two trips in 2000 I worked on the Bando circuit around home in Tokyo.)
[In order: Trip 3: #2, 3, 6, 7, 8, bangai, and 5; Trip 4: #1, 13, 30, 31]

I finished up the Saigoku circuit during two trips in January and Golden Week of 2001. The fifth trip took in seven far-flung temples in northern Kyoto Prefecture, then down to Hyogo, into Osaka, and out to Shiga and Gifu (all in three days!). The sixth and final trip of this pilgrimage also took in seven temples (six numbered and one bangai) in Kyoto, Osaka, and Hyogo--in only two days!
(I finished up the Bando circuit, and did the complete Chichibu circuit, later that same year, before setting off down the Tokaido and to the Shikoku circuit.)
[In order: Trip 5: #29, 28, 26, 4, 12, 32, and 33; Trip 6: #21, 20, 22, 25, bangai, 24, and 23]

See "A Pilgrim's Progress" for details of what, where, and when.



"Kannon," of course, is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, called Guanyin in Chinese and Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit. Each of the 33 temples on the circuit-- as well as the three "extras" (called bangai 番外 or "outside of the numbering")--is dedicated to Kannon, with a figure of him/her (it's complicated) on the main altar. You can read more about him/her on the Kannon page.



Seiganto-ji, Temple #1 on the Saigoku Pilgrimage
(Note Nachi Falls in the background, Japan's highest waterfall)

The List: Here are the temples in order, with the bangais listed at the end. Click the linked names to see my post about each temple; the "map" link shows the temple's location on Google Maps.
  1. Seiganto-ji (青岸渡寺); Nachikatsuura, Wakayama (map); visited Thursday, November 23, 2000
  2. Ki-mii-dera (金剛宝寺); Wakayama, Wakayama (map); visited Tuesday, May 2, 2000
  3. Kokawa-dera (粉河寺); Kinokawa, Wakayama (map); visited Tuesday, May 2, 2000
  4. Sefuku-ji (施福寺); Izumi, Osaka (map); visited Sunday, January 7, 2001
  5. Fujii-dera (葛井寺); Fujiidera, Osaka (map); visited Friday, May 5, 2000
  6. Minamihokke-ji (Tsubosaka-dera) (南法華寺); Takatori, Nara (map); visited Thursday, May 4, 2000
  7. Oka-dera (岡寺); Asuka, Nara (map); visited Thursday, May 4, 2000
  8. Hase-dera (長谷寺); Sakurai, Nara (map); visited Thursday, May 4, 2000
  9. Nan'endo (Kofuku-ji) (南円堂); Nara, Nara (map); visited Monday, November 22, 1999
  10. Mimuroto-ji (三室戸寺); Uji, Kyoto (map); visited Tuesday, November 23, 1999
  11. Kami Daigo-ji (上醍醐寺); Fushimi-ku, Kyoto (map); visited Tuesday, November 23, 1999
  12. Shoho-ji (Iwama-dera) (正法寺); Otsu, Shiga (map); visited Monday, January 8, 2001
  13. Ishiyama-dera (石山寺); Otsu, Shiga (map); visited Friday, November 24, 2000
  14. Mii-dera (三井寺); Otsu, Shiga (map); visited Saturday, November 20, 1999
  15. Imakumano Kannon-ji (観音寺); Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto (map); visited Saturday, November 20, 1999
  16. Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺); Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto (map); visited Saturday, November 20, 1999
  17. Rokuharamitsu-ji (六波羅蜜寺); Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto (map); visited Saturday, November 20, 1999
  18. Choho-ji (Rokkaku-do) (六角堂); Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto (map); visited Sunday, November 21, 1999
  19. Gyogan-ji (Kodo) (行願寺); Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto (map); visited Sunday, November 21, 1999
  20. Yoshimine-dera (善峰寺); Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto (map); visited Monday, April 30, 2001
  21. Anao-ji (穴太寺); Kameoka, Kyoto (map); visited Monday, April 30, 2001
  22. Soji-ji (総持寺); Ibaraki, Osaka (map); visited Monday, April 30, 2001
  23. Katsuo-ji (勝尾寺); Minoh, Osaka (map); visited Tuesday, May 1, 2001
  24. Nakayama-dera (中山寺); Takarazuka, Hyogo (map); visited Tuesday, May 1, 2001
  25. Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺); Kato, Hyogo (map); visited Tuesday, May 1, 2001
  26. Ichijo-ji (一乗寺); Kasai, Hyogo (map); visited January Sunday, 7, 2001
  27. Engyo-ji (圓教寺); Himeji, Hyogo (map); visited November Sunday, 14, 1999
  28. Nariai-ji (成相寺); Miyazu, Kyoto (map); visited Saturday, January 6, 2001
  29. Matsunoo-dera (松尾寺); Maizuru, Kyoto (map); visited Saturday, January 6, 2001
  30. Hogon-ji (宝巌寺); Nagahama, Shiga (map); visited Friday, November 24, 2000
  31. Chomei-ji (長命寺); Omihachiman, Shiga (map); visited Friday, November 24, 2000
  32. Kannonsho-ji (観音正寺); Omihachiman, Shiga (map); visited Monday, January 8, 2001
  33. Kegon-ji (華厳寺); Ibigawa, Gifu (map); visited Monday, January 8, 2001
  • Bangai (near #8). Hoki-in (法起院); Sakurai, Nara (map); visited Thursday, May 4, 2000
  • Bangai (near #15). Gankei-ji (元慶寺); Kyoto, Kyoto (map); visited Saturday, November 20, 1999
  • Bangai (between #24 and 25). Bodai-ji (菩提寺); Sanda, Hyogo (map); visited Tuesday, May 1, 2001



Resources: The Wikipedia article entitled "Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage" has links to articles on many of these temples, as well as latitude and longitude for each site.

My only guide for most of these journeys was Ed Readicker-Henderson's The Traveler's Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages, published in 1995. (Used copies are now going for $100 and more on Amazon, new ones start at over $300, and one used copy is priced over $800--and I cut mine up for easier carrying!) I'm sure many other guides are available in English today.



Google Map:

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Last updated Mar. 12, 2019

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