This is a great question, and one that as Westerners to a Japanese culture and environment I think we should talk candidly about.
Some people arrive in Japan and undergo an odd metamorphosis. It is like they are “Turning Japanese” (cue the music here). They act oddly, suddenly get very serious, have jerky bowing motions towards any and all Japanese people, and have decided to completely submerge themselves into an ancient Japanese world, and also at the same moment accidentally blotted out their own personal history and identity.
That is odd.
I’m not a psychologist, but perhaps that is going a bit too far. Of course, when you come to Japan to do the pilgrimage it’s a good idea to really do it, and to look the part. But there is no need to go full-on hard-core pilgrim. You can still be you. It is perfectly okay, and more honest perhaps, to be a curious adventurer rather than having a personality seizure.
There is good advice out there in Internet-land that the minimum of pilgrimage gear will suffice. The following is simply one pilgrim’s advice to another. Read on!
At the minimum, besides getting the “nokyochou” (book for collecting calligraphy and temple seals/stamps), I think wearing the white jacket (with or without sleeves) is something you should get. You can put it on right over your regular jacket or t-shirt and you are recognized as a true pilgrim.
If you would like Kukai to accompany you, he is personified in the walking staff. You might want that as well. Having the great monk as your companion on the road, is not a bad idea at all.
If you would like to wear the sedge hat, I think that is perfectly okay as well. I have a sadly lumpy and unusually large head so most of them scrape my head fiercely, so I tend to wear my Australian straw hat instead. Again, perfectly okay. Many Japanese pilgrims do not carry around the sedge hats and wear regular shorts and blue jeans as they trundle around the pilgrimage.
If you want to leave candles and incense for prayers, or in remembrance of someone, you might get those items. There is a white bag that you can get that carries all those items, and your stamp book fits nicely inside. That might be okay to get too.
If you are going to pray/chant at each temple you might want a copy of the Heart Sutra which is read at each stage. For people who come to Shikoku through our company, we prepare very thorough materials that help you at each temple so you can pray/chant like a pro.
Traditionally people leave a name slip at each temple to let Kukai and the deities that you visited. It’s your calling card, and those slips of paper are available as well and fit nicely in your white pilgrim’s bag.
Beyond that, while you can get other materials, like leg coverings, prayer beads, and sedge hat protectors, you might have enough already to get out on the road. If you are walking, you need to really look carefully at each item you put in your bag and have a Marie Kondo moment, “Will this item spark joy in my pilgrimage? Do I really need it?” and then make appropriate judgements.
As you prepare, make sure to get a good travel agency for Japan to help you. We have many friends in the travel industry who can book all your hotels and with us, organize your journey. Planning is critical, and it will keep you safe, and well-fed, and happier.
We had a case a few years before COVID, in consulting with another agency that was arranging walking journeys for pilgrims. One of their clients was lost in the dark and their batteries were running low on their phone. They were planning to just sleep in some bamboo forest because she was wet and sad and lost. We had a lot of panicky messages and phone calls out to local authorities to get out into the night and find this person. They turned out okay, but it was a momentary nightmare. Luckily, she was wearing a white pilgrim’s vest so was easily spotted on the road.
So there you have it, at the very minimum please get the pilgrim’s vest and wear it.
Also, let’s plan out our trip carefully too, okay?
We can help get you started.