The reputation of most Japanese shrines is bounded by a somewhat narrow horizon. The Yedo folk-the Eastern Japanese-make pilgrimages to Narita, and up Fuji and Ōyama. Devout natives of the central provinces round Kyōto repair to the great monastery of Kōya-san, or perform what is termed the "tour of the holy places of Yamato" (Yamato-meguri), including such celebrated temples as Miwa, Hase, and Tōnomine; and they also constitute the majority of the pilgrims to the shrine of the Sun-Goddess in Ise. The religious centre of Shikoku is a place called Kompira or Kotohira; in the North that rank belongs to the sacred island of Kinkwa-zan, while the Inland Sea has another sacred and most lovely island-Miyajima-where none are ever allowed either to be born or to be buried, and where the tame deer, protected by a gentle piety, come and feed out of the stranger's hand. But some of the greatest shrines have branches in other provinces. Kompira has a branch in most Japanese cities; the great Kyōto temple of the fox-deity Inari has a branch in almost every village. Again there are shrines whose very nature is multiple. Such, for instance, are the Thirtythree Holy Places of Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy.
Pilgrimages are generally of a social nature. There exist innumerable pious associations called kō or kōjū, whose members contribute each a cent or two a month, and then, when the proper time of year comes round, a certain number of persons are chosen by lot to represent the rest at the shrine of their devotion, all expenses being defrayed out of the common fund. When these representatives form a considerable band, one of them, who has made the pilgrimage before, acts as leader and cicerone, recounting to his gaping audience the legend of each minor shrine that is passed on the way, and otherwise assisting and controlling the brethren. The inns to be put up at on the road are mostly fixed by custom, a flag or wooden board inscribed with the name of the pilgrim association being hung up over the entrance. Inns are proud to display many such authentic signs of constant patronage, and visitors to Japan will often notice establishments whose whole front is thus adorned. As a general rule, the pilgrims wear no special garb; but those bound for Fuji, Ontake, or other high mountains, may be distinguished by their white clothes and very broad and sloping straw hats. While making the ascent, they often ring a bell and chant an invocation which, being interpreted, signifies, "May our six senses be pure, and the weather on the honourable mountain be fair."
The Japanese, as has been often remarked, take their religion lightly. Ise and other favourite goals of piety are equally noted for the distractions which they provide of an evening. Nor is much enquiry made into the doctrines held at any special shrine.
Kompira was Buddhist and is now Shintō, having been made so by order of government during the present reign. But the pilgrims flock there all the same, the sanctity of the name of the shrine overbalancing any lapses in the theology of the priests. Nor need this be matter for wonderment, seeing that the pilgrim ranks are recruited almost exclusively from the peasant and artisan classes, whose members scarcely realise that Buddhism and Shintō are two separate cults, and are prepared to pay equal respect to all the superhuman powers that be. When tradesmen of any standing join a pilgrim association, they mostly do so in order to extend their business connection, and to see new places cheaply and sociably.
People who remember the "good old times," assert that pilgrimages are on the wane. Probably this is true. The influence of religion has been weakened by the infiltration of Western ideas of "progress" and material civilisation. Then, too, taxation weighs far more heavily than of yore, so that there is less money to spend on non-essentials. Still many thousands of persons, mostly pilgrims, annually ascend Fuji; over 8,000 pilgrims went up Nantai-zan this summer, and the concourse of worshippers at the temple of Ikegami near Tōkyō is so great that on the last annual festival for which we have statistics, over 51,000 persons passed through the wicket at the suburban railway station, where the daily average is only some 2,000. Many, doubtless, were mere holiday-makers, and the scene in the grounds was that of a great holiday-making. The happy crowds trot off to amuse themselves, and just do a little bit of praying incidentally,-give a tap at the gong, and fling a copper into the box,-so as to be sure of being on the right side. They are ten thousand miles away from Benares, and from Mecca, and from the Scotch Kirk.
The holy objects which Japanese pilgims go out for to see and to bow down before, belong exactly to the same category as the holy objects of Christian devotion, modified only by local colouring. Minute fragments of the cremated body of a Buddha (these are called shari), footprints of a Buddha, images and pictures by famous ancient saints, such as the Abbot Kōbō Daishi and Prince Shōtoku Taishi, whose activity in this direction was phenomenal if legend can at all be trusted,-holy swords, holy garments, wells that never run dry, statues so lifelike that when struck by an impious hand, blood has been known to flow from the wound,-these things and things like these are what will be brought to the notice of the traveller curious to pry into the arcana of Japanese piety.
Book recommended - Occult Japan, by Percival Lowell.