Midwinter might not strike most as a good season for a walk, much less a pilgrimage. Nevertheless, at the beginning of January each year in Japan, large numbers of people participate in a short journey called the Shichifukujin Meguri (七福神めぐり) to pray at seven local temples and shrines for good luck in the coming year. With the pilgrimage backed up by the fortune-granting power of not only one but seven gods of good luck, a below-freezing walk is looking quite a bit more attractive.
The Shichifukujin (七福神), sometimes referred to as the Seven Lucky Gods in English, can be glimpsed all over Japan, no matter the season. Ebisu may be most well represented, as the god of fishermen and the face of Yebisu Beer, and Daikokuten, associated with wealth, has numerous stores and companies named after him. The five remaining gods, Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Jurōjin, Hotei and Fukurokuji, also often make appearances in anime, art and games.
A Shichifukujin Meguri isn’t necessarily limited to winter. However, the gods are said to arrive bearing gifts for the worthy in their treasure ship around the coming of the new year, so January is the traditional time to make this pilgrimage. In fact, some temples and shrines only provide the traditional stamps, described below, around New Year’s.
The pilgrimage is also a good opportunity to see temples you may not have known existed. In my own experience, the Shichifukujin Meguri gave me the chance to visit one of the only three sazaedō (turban shell) temples in Japan. Descending the spiral staircase of Sōgenji Sazaedō, designed so that it is not the same course as the ascending staircase, was apropos symbolism for new beginnings in the new year.
No matter where you live in Japan, there’s a chance you aren’t too far from an area that holds a Shichifukujin Meguri. Tokyo alone has several dozen Seven Lucky God Pilgrimage courses. Some localities have a special day and events set aside for their local Shichifukujin Meguri, but many areas simply keep the temples and shrines open for a set number of hours a day until mid-January. Along the way, these temples may give out tea, amazake (sweet rice wine) and other treats. One of my best memories from a pilgrimage is drinking tonjiru (pork soup) at the end of the course with friends.
The main ritual during this Edo-era tradition is collecting stamps, called shuin (朱印), from each of the temples and shrines on the course. These shuin are stamped on a piece of decorative cardboard called a shikishi (色紙), which can usually be bought for around 1000 yen at any of the temples or shrines on the course. The stamps themselves may be free, but some temples charge 300 yen. The stamped shikishi should be placed in your house for good luck.
Any reservations I might have had about facing the chilly walk again were dispelled by my own stroke of good luck not an hour after finishing the Seven Lucky Gods Pilgrimage in 2014. After the pilgrimage was over, the city held a lottery in which I won a large pack of Baby Star Ramen snacks flavored like the locally famous yakisoba. Who knows what fortune may await this year?
Seven Lucky God Pilgrimage Resources in English
Miyako Shichifukujin Meguri (Sekizan Zen-in Temple)
Note: Communities often publish information about the area’s Shichifukujin Meguri in the local newspaper.