The Chichibu pilgrimage route is one part of the 100 Kannon Pilgrimage, three connected paths that link 100 temples across the regions of Chichibu, Bando, and Saikoku. Each of the temples along the route enshrine a statue of the bodhisattva Kannon, Goddess of Compassion.
Before the 100 Kannon Pilgrimage was established, each of the three pilgrimage routes visited 33 statues of Kannon. Sometime around the early sixteenth century, a thirty-fourth temple (Shinpuku-ji, No.2) was added to the Chichibu pilgrimage to create a single, unbroken route of 100 temples.
Although the Bando and Saikoku pilgrimages can take weeks to complete, the Chichibu 34 Kannon Pilgrimage is popular for being less strenuous. The Chichibu pilgrimage is tightly grouped within the Chichibu Basin and can be completed in just a few days. The route is about 100 kilometers long, and some portions can even be traveled by car.
Particularly during Japan’s medieval period (twelfth to sixteenth centuries), travel between regions was tightly controlled. The Chichibu route, being so compact, did not require travelers to pass through any checkpoints, and it was very popular with pilgrims. Even after the start of the Edo period (1603–1867), when travel restrictions were relaxed, the Chichibu pilgrimage remained popular.
Beginning in the late seventeenth century, worship of Kannon became fashionable, and the 34 Kannon Pilgrimage Route experienced a boom in popularity. Several times during the eighteenth century, the 34 Kannon statues were publicly displayed in Edo (now Tokyo), and the interest generated by these exhibitions led to an explosion in the number of pilgrims who traveled to Chichibu. Every day between 1804 and 1830, some 20,000 to 30,000 pilgrims were recorded on the Chichibu 34 Kannon Pilgrimage. This popularity has remained strong even to the present day: Over 180,000 people were recorded on the Chichibu pilgrimage route between April and June of 1996, when all 34 temples were opened up to display the Kannon statues inside.