Temple Etiquette for Pilgrims

Going to Shikoku as a pilgrim for the first time? Follow these steps below so you can get the full temple experience at every temple. After all, there are 88 of them (and optional bangai ones as well), so you want to make sure you're doing the right thing. First of all, it is important to keep in mind that all temple offices along the Shikoku Pilgrimage route are open from 7am to 5pm, every day of the year. At 5:01pm, the stamp office closes its doors to the public, but the temple grounds will remain open for a while longer. Therefore, if you are running out of time and arrive just before 5pm, you can first rush to get your stamp, then take your time performing the other rituals and enjoying the scenary.

(1) Slightly bow in front of the sanmon (山門), the main gate into temple grounds. Take off your hat, unless you are wearing the pilgrim sedge hat.

(2) Purify your hands at the temizuya (手水舎), usually located near the entrance, by following these steps:

  1. Pick up the ladle (柄杓) with your right hand, fill it with water from the basin (手水鉢), and pour it onto your left hand to rinse it.
  2. Transfer the ladle to your left hand, and repeat the rinsing process for your right hand.
  3. (Optional) Transfer the ladle back to your right hand, fill it with water, and rinse your mouth. Be sure not to touch the ladle directly with your mouth.
  4. Lastly, hold the ladle upright to let the leftover water pour out onto the ground or the drain next to the temizuya (not back into the clean water).
  5. Some temples provide towels on the side for you to dry your hands.

(3) Head over to the bell tower (鐘楼), and gently ring the bell once using the rope attached. Some temples do not allow this, and will either place a tape around the bell, write a notice, or remove the stool so you will not be able to reach it easily. Do not ring the bell as you leave the temple, as this is considered very bad luck.

(4) Bring your copy of the Heart Sutra, spare change, candle, incense sticks, and name slip (納め札) to the main hall (本堂). The candle and incense are optional; I've seen many pilgrims without them. If you do bring them, you should bring one candle and three incense sticks for each the main hall and Daishi Hall. Now, follow these steps at the main hall:

  1. Place your walking stick into a container located next to the steps of the hall.
  2. Light one candle and place it in the candle box (蝋燭立て).
  3. Light the three incense sticks, and place them in the middle of the incense burner (香炉), or as close to the middle as possible if it is crowded. Each incense is an offering to the the past, present, and future Buddha (although there are many other ways to interpret this).
  4. Whether you are leaving just a name slip or additionally a hand-copied sutra, place them in their corresponding containers. The container for name slips is called nōsatsubako (納札箱), and the container for hand-copied sutras is called shakyōbako (写経箱).
  5. At a close distance, gently throw about ¥5-¥25 yen, or more if you'd like, into the monetary offertory box (賽銭箱) in front of the deity statute. The statute is located behind the front doors of the hall.
  6. If there is a bell above the monetary offertory box, gently ring it once.
  7. Clip your hands together (合掌), then begin chanting the Heart Sutra in front of the deity. You should start from the first page of the Heart Sutra, read from right to left, and then flip to the other side to and continue from right to left again. The following gathas should be chanted three times: 発菩提心真言, 三昧耶戒真言, 御本尊御真言, 光明真言, and 高祖弘法大師御宝号.

Main Hall of a temple
Bell for prayers at a main
Main hall of a temple

(5) Perform the exact same ritual at the Daishidō (大師堂). The main hall faces the entrance of the temple, and the Daishi Hall is typically somewhere off to the side of it.

(6) It's time to get yourself a souvenir! At each temple, a pilgrim receives a nōkyō at the nōkyōjo, which is handwritten and stamped in the stampbook (nōkyōchō). It is comprised of a piece of calligraphy writing (sumigaki) and two red stamps (shuin) on each side. They typically cost around ¥200-¥300. You'll be able to collect these at bangai temples as well. If you run out of pages, kindly ask the temple staff and they will sew on a few more pages for free.

(7) Next, don't forget to collect your miei (御影), an image slip of the deity at that temple. You will find them somewhere on the counter in the stamp office (納経所). This is included in the price you paid for the stamp. The year I went was the 1,200-year anniversary of the pilgrimage, so they had special colourful ones, but the ordinary ones are just black and white. You can ask for a miei-bukuro (御影袋), a small paper bag, to hold all your miei, or simply buy a miei collection book (御影帳). At the stamp office, you will also be able to shop for other goodies, like this good luck charm (お守り) shown on the right below.

(8) Lastly, turn around and slightly bow toward the sanmon when exiting the temple.

Pilgrim stamp from Temple 66
Pilgrim stamp from Temple 66
Pilgrim stamp from Temple 66

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