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HOW THE JAPAN 88 TEMPLE PILGRIMAGE IS DIFFERENT FROM THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO:

After walking the Camino de Santiago 8 times via 7 routes in the past 4 years, I recently walked the 88 Temple Pilgrimage in Japan. While they are both pilgrimages and have religious significance as well as spiritual and healing powers and other similarities the aim here is to explain how they are different to assist pilgrims who have walked one of these pilgrimages and are considering the other. Admittedly this is one pilgrim’s biased perspective but I have reviewed this with some other pilgrims and included their feedback as well. (Costs are in Yen for the 88 Temple and Euros for the Camino). ¥100 = $.96 = €.82)
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1. DIFFERENT RELIGIONS AND PATRON SAINTS:

The 88 Temple Patron Saint is Kukai, posthumously called Kobo Daishi. He brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan from China 1200 years ago. As well as being accredited with founding the Pilgrimage which means modern pilgrims follow in his footsteps, people believe he accompanies each pilgrim(henro) on their journey.

The Camino’s Patron Saint is Santiago (aka as St. James, St. Jacques, and St. Jakob) and one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. There is a legend that after his beheading in Jerusalem his body was recovered by knights who sailed with him on a stone ship to Galicia, Spain and buried him there in an unknown grave site. Then around 812 and at the same time as Kukai lived, a hermit reported a star hovering over a field and his religious superiors ordered excavations where St. James’ body was recovered. That field is the site of the Cathedral de Santiago and destination of its pilgrims.

2. 88 HAS A DEFINITE RELIGIOUS FOCUS WHILE THE CAMINO ALLOWED FOR A MORE OPEN PERSONALIZED PILGRIMAGE:

Religion is very personal and this point in particular is opinion more than fact. 88 has a more religious focus while the Camino allowed for making the pilgrimage unique to each pilgrim. 88 suggests you go to 88 Temples for a stamp and follow protocols; bowing at the gate, rinsing your hands and mouth, bonging a large bell, reciting sutras (prayers) at the Main Hall and Kobo Daishi’s Hall, getting your book stamped by a monk, and departing through the gate and bowing a last time. This ritual was repeated many times of course and tends to keep one focused on Kukai and Buddhism. The Camino requires no church stamps and allows you to get your credentials stamped anywhere you choose, ie.; albergues, hotels, bars, even supermarkets, or churches if you prefer. Just about any business on the Camino has a stamp. This allows for a Camino pilgrimage to go in any direction one wants or perhaps Santiago chooses. Of course, ultimately each pilgrim makes his own pilgrimage unique by following one’s heart and instincts so anything is possible and each pilgrimage is special.

3. 88 HAS AN OFFICIAL OUTFIT:

It starts with a special walking stick that is considered the embodiment of Kukai. A simple white cotton outer vest(hakui) that represents purity and innocence. A stole (wagesa) that is what a priest wears. A white bag for carrying your stampbook and other essentials. A Sedge hat(conical rice field hat) to block the sun and rain. A mala which is a circle of beads (sort of like a rosary) you hold in your hands while reciting prayers (sutras). Interestingly, this practice of being “officially clad” is only 70 years old having started after the end of the War, when a bus tour company started the practice. A nice benefit is that you are easily recognized along the way as a henro (pilgrim). Optionally, you can forego all of these items and just walk.

There is no uniform for the Camino. It is only a simple scallop shell hanging from backpacks that designates a pilgrim. Interestingly though in contrast to the 88, in the medieval ages there was a uniform; a heavy cape that served as a raincoat, comforter, and nightly blanket. Also an 8 foot stave with a gourd attached for carrying water and a broad-rimmed felt hat turned up front and marked with 3 or 4 cockleshells.

4. STAMPBOOKS:

While both have stampbooks or credentials, the 88 book “Nokyocho” is like a credential and Compostela(completion certificate) rolled into one and more. A Pilgrim buys the book with usually a floral print cover. The paper is “Washi” which uses local fiber processed by hand. Before leaving each temple you take your book to its office and a monk stamps it with 3 red stamps; the temple name, the temple number, and the temple deity. He/she then using liquid black ink and a brush writes in Calligraphy the following; A Sanskrit Character for the Temple Number, The Temple Name, The Temple Deity, and a Respectful Offering or Dedication to the Deity. Depending on how you look at it you are either giving a donation to the temple and receiving the stamp as a thank you or you are purchasing the stamp for ¥300. In either case you end up with a beautiful piece of art and treasured book. There is no requirement for this and some people just walk and do not get stamps.

5. 88 IS MORE EXPENSIVE:

It starts with purchasing your outfit which can total ¥15,000 or more if you buy everything. Also, the stamp costs add up at ¥300 X 88 = ¥26,400. I stayed in minshukus and ryokans (guesthouses) and occasionally a temple or hotel. Average daily cost was ¥7,000 which included 2 fabulous and filling meals. For those on a budget wearing the “uniform” and getting stamps is not required. Some people camp or stay in crude huts or look for people and temples that offer free accommodation to keep costs down. There are also Henro houses that usually offer cheaper, more basic accommodation, typically without food.

On the Camino albergues are usually no more than €10 and sometimes donativo. 3 course Pilgrim meals are €10-12. Consequently, average daily cost can be as low as €25. Getting a private room raises your costs but are quite reasonable.

6. 88 TEMPLE PILGRIMAGE IS LONGER AND HARDER THAN ANY OF THE CAMINO’S:

It is 1150 kilometers more or less depending on whether you take some busses or trains through the urban areas or walk all the way back from Temple 88 to Temple 1 creating a loop. Many of the temples are located on mountain tops or high up causing significant elevation changes on this pilgrimage. Probably the toughest day was from Temple 11 and up to 12 and down to 13 which required walking 37K and included 3,000 meters (4,951 feet) in elevation change. ( A wiser pilgrim would have stayed at Temple 12.) The last mountain was up Temple 88 and the last hour was perhaps the steepest and most difficult part of the pilgrimage. Scrambling parts if it using hands as much as feet.

Overall the landscapes are diverse, including; mountains, forests, and coastal walking. Also, there was much pavement walking and more urban walking than any of the Caminos. Japan is very populous and most of the ancient paths are gone, replaced by modern roads. For example, pilgrims are required to walk through several heavily trafficked car tunnels. Although similar to the Camino, one can choose to walk at a slower pace.

7. THE FOOD:

Huge difference here. No wine. Just lots of green tea or occasionally a roasted tea or barley tea. A typical dinner at a guesthouse included; a soup of miso or seaweed, sashimi, cooked fish, picked veggies such as radishes and or cucumbers, occasionally tempura veggies or fish. Occasionally a bit of meat. And of course all the rice you wanted and green tea. Beer and sake were available for purchase. Breakfast included the same rice and green tea, but almost always some crisp thin seaweed, an egg usually served raw that you poured into your rice bowl, soup, some pickled veggies and a small piece of marinated or cooked fish. Often you would get a bowl of natto, fermented soybeans with small packets of mustard and soy that you poured onto the soybeans and stirred up. Most meals included a small sour fermented plum (umeboshi) to aid in digestion and prevent food poisoning.

Very different from cuisine on the Camino where a typical pilgrim’s 3 course dinner includes;

A mixed or Russian salad or soup or spaghetti and plenty of bread.
A roasted meat of ham, pork, chicken or beef with fried potatoes.
A packaged ice cream, custard, almond cake.

And instead of green tea you usually get a half bottle to a bottle of wine, or water.

8. DAILY RITUAL:

On the 88 Temple Pilgrimage and staying in a Minshuku, Ryokan, and even a Temple you are served a breakfast before departing. Upon arrival you are greeted with a tea. Before dinner a hot bath is drawn where you soak your whole body in hot clean water and real hot spring water if you are lucky. Sometimes in a public bath. Bathing is a tradition and common everywhere in Japan. Afterwards one dons a very comfortable Yukata (bathrobe) before an always delicious dinner. Last you retire to your room and sleep on a futon. Occasionally a western bed.

Going to the toilet should be mentioned as it can be a strange experience in Japan for a westerner. Occasionally the seat is heated. Often the toilet will have a built in bidet. You press a button and your bottom is sprayed. Occasionally there is a blower to dry your bottom as well. Makes it kind of fun. Personally I won’t miss the toilets so much but I came to really like those hot baths after a long walk.

The Camino is fairly similar except for the hot bath and Yukata. And while sometimes there is a communal dinner at the albergues, more often you go into town to a plaza and enjoy dinner outside with other pilgrims.

9. 88 IS A SINGLE ROUTE WHILE THERE ARE SEVERAL CAMINOS.

88 is a loop and while for westerners it is best to travel clockwise to follow the markers, there is no particular reason to start at Temple 1 or any other temple and thus no reason to end at any specific one. I ended at 88 and there was a rest stop before 88 where you got a certificate. Otherwise it is all about the journey and visiting each temple. Upon arriving at 88 it was a bit eerie in that it was quiet and no hugging or much celebrating. Very Buddhist, quite different from arriving in Santiago.

The Camino de Santiago has many paths;(Frances, El Norte, Primitivo, Portuguese, Via De La Plata, Sanabres, Invierno, Aragones to name some) all leading to Santiago and/or Finisterre. The longest is Via de La Plata at 1,000 kilometers. However, some Camino pilgrims start from their homes and those people can walk up to 2,000K or much more.

10. MOST 88 PILGRIMS ARE NOT ON FOOT:

88 Temple Pilgrims are typically traveling by auto or bus or motorcycle. Some bicyclists as well. Out of approximately 100-150,000 pilgrims per year only 3,000 or so complete it on foot. While on the Camino, most pilgrims are walkers with some bicyclists and only a few traveling via auto, bus, or horse. Consequently, there are few other pilgrims walking making it more like the Via De La Plata than the Frances.

11. MAKE UP OF THE PILGRIMS:

The 88 pilgrims were 90% Japanese and the rest a mix of Americans, Danish, French and other Europeans, as well as a few Australians and Brazilians. Mostly older retired men walking solo. A few couples, usually retired, and a few female solo pilgrims. A Japanese henro told me that young people in Japan typically don’t have the time required, and see this as a religious experience. The trend in Japan as in many other parts of the world is the young are moving away from religion.

The Camino, especially the Frances, has a much more diverse group. While there are some Spaniards, there are many German, French, Italian, Irish, Polish, American, Australian, Korean, etal. Old people, young people, families, people with handicaps, ie.; blind, wheelchair, one arm, cancer patients.

13. SETTAI VS. DONATION:

On the 88 walk people will try to give you things. This is called settai, or Osettai, which is a little more polite. The items people will try to give you might include anything; food items, full meals, canned drinks, beer, money, nōkyō stamps at the temples, lodging for the night, towels, clothing, various trinkets and crafts, a ride in their car.

I had no knowledge of settai as I started walking 88, but on the second day stopped for a settai(gift) of tea and snacks offered by a couple in their 90’s. They had been doing this for 17 years. There was no request for a donation or even a box or cup to place some coins. As I walked on the settai became frequent and at least 2 or 3 gifts were usually offered daily. Sometimes, a piece of fruit, a cold drink or hot tea, even accommodation in a home with breakfast and dinner.

I believe that the giving has important meaning to the giver. Some even believe they are making an offering to Kobo Daishi himself. Consequently, one learns to accept all of these gifts with gratitude. Thus, this pilgrimage becomes more special because of the beautiful “osettai” spirit that is prevalent.

On the Camino, there is a similar spirit, but it is usually by donation (donativo) and not as frequent and usually pertains to accommodations and food. This is beautiful as well but I find the “settai” spirit even more special as it is a pure gift. There is no desire to receive anything in return by the giver. This is not to say that donativo is a lesser gift. It is still a gift and all gifts should be accepted with gratitude. It also provides the opportunity for the receiver to be a giver and one learns on pilgrimage that there is more joy in giving than receiving.

Also, while I mention the purity of it, many Buddhists here do believe settai givers are giving to Kobo Daishi and gaining merit for their next lives. But some of the settai givers have been doing so for years and you sense they are no longer concerned with gaining merit but just do so for the joy of being of service. It is quite beautiful to sense and experience.
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In conclusion, either pilgrimage is a special experience. I hope you are blessed to be able to walk one or both. Arigato(thank you) and Buen Camino!

“You cannot travel the path before you have become the path.” Buddha

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Thank you for sharing and sounds like you have had wonderful experiences as a Pilgrim
Kevin Considine
Kevin Considine
You are welcome. Thank you for taaking the time to Rate it and of course for the 5 stars.
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