The Yomiuri ShimbunPilgrimage sites in Japan have been working together with European counterparts to promote themselves, and these efforts are helping increase the number of visitors to both sides.
In one case, the 88-temple pilgrimage route in Shikoku and the Kumano Kodo sacred route, mainly in Wakayama Prefecture, have teamed up with the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage routes, which run through France and other countries all the way to a pilgrimage site in Spain. The other involves the municipal government of Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, which is home to Itsukushima Shrine, and the local government of Mont-Saint-Michel in northwestern France.
In the first case, Shikoku’s four prefectural governments, which are working to have the local pilgrimage route featuring 88 Buddhist temples designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, signed an agreement in September 2015 with Spain’s Galicia region, home to Santiago de Compostela, the supreme goal for some of the most famous Christian pilgrimage routes. These routes have already been given World Heritage status.
Shikoku’s four prefectural governments were inspired by a successful case of exchanges between the routes of Santiago de Compostela and the Kumano Kodo, also a World Heritage site. The two sides have been working together to promote each other since 2008, which has helped increase the number of visitors to both routes.
Under the agreement, the four prefectural governments get advice from Galicia on how to have their local pilgrimage designated as a World Heritage site, while each side promotes the other among visitors to their sites.
Shikoku has seen the number of foreign pilgrims rise sharply over the past decade.
According to the Network for Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage and Hospitality, a nonprofit organization that issues certificates as “henro ambassadors” to those who complete the 1,200-kilometer pilgrimage on foot, foreign travelers accounted for only 1.2 percent — or 33 — among the 2,796 who made the achievement from July 2006 to June the following year. The percentage rose to 8.7 percent in the year starting July 2015, with 221 foreign pilgrims out of the 2,554 who visited all the 88 temples on foot.
Marie-Edith Laval of France completed visits to all 88 temples on foot over about 50 days in 2013. The speech therapist had been inspired to try the pilgrimage when she heard about it from a Japanese pilgrim while traveling on the routes of Santiago de Compostela.
“I was able to be reborn by traveling on the [Shikoku] pilgrimage,” Laval said.
Back in France, Laval introduced her experiences in Shikoku — such as being shown the way to go and offered cold tea — via the internet and when she was featured on radio programs. She wrote a book in 2015, with its Japanese edition published in 2016.
Probably thanks to Laval’s promotion, 36 French pilgrims were issued the certificates from July 2015 to June 2016, a threefold increase from two years earlier.
Harunori Shishido, secretary general of the nonprofit organization, assisted Laval in her Shikoku pilgrimage. He traveled a 114-kilometer section of the Santiago de Compostela routes in September last year.
“It was a fresh experience for me to receive another form of hospitality amid landscapes that are totally different from those in Japan,” Shishido said.
A poster boosts tourism
In 2008, one beautiful poster drew great attention in Japan and France by featuring two iconic sightseeing sites standing on the same sea at sunset — Itsukushima Shrine’s grand torii gate and the illuminated Mont-Saint-Michel abbey.
The promotional collaboration between the homes of the two superb views was a major project of French tourism authorities in 2008, the year of the 150th anniversary of the start of exchanges between the two countries.
Itsukushima Shrine, which looks as if it were floating on the sea, and the Mont-Saint-Michel on a small island have much in common despite their different cultural backgrounds. Designated as World Heritage sites, they both have served as pilgrimage sites for more than 1,000 years. Visitors to the shrine can walk to its grand gate at low tide, while pilgrims used to walk to the Catholic abbey from the French mainland at low tide.
Representatives of the Hatsukaichi municipal government promoted its tourist attractions in Paris and also visited the city of Mont-Saint-Michel in 2008. The following year, the two cities signed a friendship agreement on Miyajima island, where the shrine is located.
The deal produced immediate effects. Foreign visitors to Miyajima totaled 134,336 in 2008. French visitors were ranked third with 14,562, following Americans and Australians, according to the Hatsukaichi city government. However, the French were the largest group among foreign visitors the following year, with 17,748 among a total of 111,571. They kept the top position in the standings up to 2015.
The number of Japanese visitors to Mont-Saint-Michel has also sharply increased. Japanese led the rankings of foreign visitors to the abbey by country in 2012, accounting for 42 percent of the total, according to the local tourism office.
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