Hakui – Buddhist pilgrim coats (1)

June 1, 2009

hakui 1  hakui 2

To dress in the garb of a pilgrim or henro in Japan indicates a deliberate act of commitment to religious pilgrimage. Clothes and artifacts worn or carried by pilgrims indicate an involvement in a protective bond between the pilgrim and Saint Kobo Daishi in the case of Shingon Sect pilgrimages. Kobo’s presence is especially manifest in the staff, shirt and hat. The staff (o-tsue) is the most important item. It is washed before taking it indoors; it is leaned up against a wall in the corner of a room. Buddhist pilgrims wear large round hats (kesa), necessary head protection even in spring when it’s possible to encounter snowstorms and rain.

Buddhists who undertake a pilgrimage will wear white outer garments – a traditional short coat and pants. White is the colour of purity and death in Japan and is important in pilgrimage because it represents the spiritual pursit of self and death-of-self and detachment from the world. The coat is tied in reverse order from normal clothing, an act normally only done when dressing a corpse. As such it represents the pilgrim’s burial shroud, as the kasa represents the pilgrim’s coffin especially since it bears a Buddhist poem about transience commonly engraved on coffins in Japan.

I have noticed three terms for white pilgrims’ coats: hakui, byakue and oizuru. The last seems to refer to coat with pockets. Byakue seems to be used in the contect of red temple seals applied to coats. I have seen references also to zutabukuro, a pilgrim’s white shoulder bag of old – and in some cases, today. Pilgrims travel in a single set of clothes and pockets/bags are important for carrying paper slips, maps, guidebooks, the temple ‘passport book’ and personal items. Devotees may include in their routine, perhaps at each temple or at the end of each day’s walking, the regular writing out of the Hannya Shingyo, 262 ideograms long and copied in under an hour.

The pilgrim’s coat is an outer garment made of undyed cloth, handwoven from cotton, asa/hemp, banana fibre or linen, sewn with fine thread. Despite their thinness, they offer more psychological or spiritual protection than physical. A premium is put on simple, natural handwoven cloth. Sewing until the post-war period was done by hand. Only in the 1950s  and 60s was pilgrimage promoted in rural areas again such as Shikoku as a direct result of the need for tourism in order to survive economically.

The most popular Buddhist pilgrimage is the 88 Temple pilgrimage around Shikoku Island. Coats will show wear and stains from the physical exertions of trekking in mountains if not the training exercises undertaken at each temple stopfrom by some. The most sought-after coats from Shikoku pilgrimages have seal stamps in  serried ranks and substantial amounts of calligraphy. Pilgrim coats are decorated with calligraphy, both traditional and bonji, and seal stamps, sometimes with ink drawings as well. Seal stamps were entered into a seal book, overlaid with black ink calligraphy, as well as applied to the pilgrim’s coat. Smaller red or cinnabar stamps would have been received at various smaller, unnumbered temples deep in the mountains. Shikoku temple seals tend to be oblong-shaped, but gourd- or round-shaped seals are also possible, some larger ones several inches in diameter.

Pilgrim coats feature both everyday Japanese calligraphy and special characters known as bonji. Bonji are a form of Japanified Siddham script and are used essentially by Buddhist monks to write down passages of sacred text, so the literature using bonji is exclusively that of Buddhist sutra. Large hand-painted bonji characters, brush-written in black sumi ink, are to be found on the back of pilgrim coats as three characters: one on the spine, one on the back left sleeve and on the back right sleeve.

Coats seem to follow the hanten structure which has no side panel like the haori short jacket does. The hanten is worn by traditional craftsmen as well as labourers, carpenters, fishermen, farmers and firemen, so it follows naturally that pilgrims would wear this type of simple garment as well. The collar stands up behind the neck and curves around to lie flat at the opening of the garment. The coat overlaps slightly at the front but doesn’t overlap completely to the side like the wrap-around top style known as jimbei.


Asian costumes and textiles from the Bosphorus to Fujiyama: the Zaira and Marcel Mis Collection. Milan, Skira, 2001.

Kodama, Yoshitaka (Griyu Kodama). Bonji Hikkej (How to draw bonji characters). Tokyo, Toski Shobo, 1991. ISBN-4886021395.

Marshall, John   Make your own Japanese clothes: patterns and ideas for modern wear. Tokyo, Kodansha, 1988. ISBN-9780870118654

See websites – Omniglot. References to bonji, various web pages relating to Shikoku Island and other Japanese Buddhist/Shinto pilgrimages.

This is a condensed version published in the Complex Weavers Journal, Feb 2008 from a much longer article distributed among members of the Conplex Weavers Japanese Textile Study Group newsletter October 2007 .

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