Osettai is the act of giving gifts to pilgrims “ohenros” on the Japan 88 Temple Pilgrimage. These gifts or offerings could be anything; food, drink, trinkets and crafts, money, or even a meal and a room for the night. A few temple monks even gave Nokyo stamps waiving the ¥300. A couple times I was offered a ride in a car.
The 88 Temple Pilgrimage is an ancient ,1200 year old journey around the island of Shikoku, Japan. The pilgrimage was founded by Kukai, called Kobo Daishi posthumously. In ancient times, Shikoku was a place of exile, wild mountains and forests so walking the pilgrimage was dangerous. Pilgrims walked the route in white burial robes, signalling their preparedness for death, physically or metaphorically. Today, it is common for pilgrims to wear the white robes as they walk.
A traditional belief is that Kobo Daishi walks with each pilgrim and his spirit resides in the ohenros walking stick. Furthermore, ohenros are considered to be monks while on the pilgrimage, and in Buddhism it is common to support and offer gifts to monks. Consequently, the concept of giving to the pilgrims evolved on the island of Shikoku into Osettai.
Some of us, and certainly westerners like myself grew up being uncomfortable with gifts from strangers, but one learns on pilgrimage that sometimes it is important to accept a gift because it is the giver who needs to give. Thus one should always accept a gift with humility and gratitude. You can always pass on the gift to someone more in need, or choose to keep the kind act of generosity flowing by offering gifts to others.
Getting into the flow of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage one learns to accept these gifts, and at some point the act of giving starts to become a natural instinct. I for one realized that often, I have given because it makes me feel good, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, when one starts to give without thought or any ego involved, a great joy fills the soul.
I was familiar with Donitivo or services to pilgrims via donation that is common on the Camino de Santiago, Via Francigena, and other Christian Pilgrimages. On these pilgrimages, there is a similar spirit, but it is usually by donation (donativo) and not as frequent and usually pertains to accommodations and food. This is beautiful as well but I find the “settai” spirit even more special as it is a pure gift. There is no desire to receive anything in return by the giver. This is not to say that donativo is a lesser gift. It is still a gift and all gifts should be accepted with gratitude. It also provides the opportunity for the receiver to be a giver and one learns on pilgrimage that there is more joy in giving than receiving.
I had no knowledge of settai as I started walking in Japan, but on the second day stopped for a settai (gift) of tea and snacks offered by a couple in their 90’s. They had been doing this for 17 years and have served over 10,000 pilgrims. There was no request for a donation or even a box or cup to place some coins. I asked them but they just smiled and explained to me that it was a gift. As I walked on the settai became frequent and at least 2 or 3 gifts were usually offered daily. Sometimes, a piece of fruit, a cold drink or hot tea, even accommodation in a home with breakfast and dinner.
One day well into my pilgrimage, I stopped about 11K before Temple 46 where a tiny woman, Kayochan, offered tea, a slice of cheesecake, and a small ohenro trinket. She had an aura of joy around her that touched me. We had a wonderful hour with her sharing her story and feeling her positive beautiful energy. She was 77 years old and the previous year in 2018 had moved from her home and purchased a small house here and started to offer Osettai to pilgrims.
As we were approaching the end of our pilgrimage, we heard of a gentleman, Tomo, who welcomed pilgrims into his home. My partner Mika reached out to him and Tomo picked us up in his car at Temple 75 and drove us to his home where he provided us our own room, an evening meal he cooked himself, and a hearty breakfast in the morning. Afterwards he drove us back to Temple 75 but not before taking us to a local Udon Noodle Restaurant where we learned about the art of making proper Udon.
I believe that the giving has important meaning to the giver. Some even believe they are making an offering to Kobo Daishi himself. Consequently, one learns to accept all of these gifts with gratitude. Thus, this pilgrimage becomes more special because of the beautiful “osettai” spirit that is prevalent.
On the Camino, there is a similar spirit, but it is usually by donation (donativo) and not as frequent and usually pertains to accommodations and food. This is beautiful as well but I find the “settai” spirit even more special as it is a pure gift. There is no desire to receive anything in return by the giver. This is not to say that donativo is a lesser gift. It is still a gift and all gifts should be accepted with gratitude. It also provides the opportunity for the receiver to be a giver and one learns on pilgrimage that there is more joy in giving than receiving.
Also, while I mention the purity of it, many Buddhists here do believe settai givers are giving to Kobo Daishi and gaining merit for their next lives. But some of the settai givers have been doing so for years and you sense they are no longer concerned with gaining merit but just do so for the joy of being of service. It is quite beautiful to sense and experience.
Reflecting upon completing the 88 Temple Pilgrimage after 36 days, it dawned on me that “Osettai” is the essence of this Pilgrimage. The unique culture of Japan, the deep dive into Buddhism and its rituals, the connection with other pilgrims and the wonderfully kind polite people of Japan all make for a most special experience. However, the constant experience of Osettai has a way of pervading into your soul and changing the way one looks at things and perhaps our actions.
Experiencing Osettai has led me to opening Global Pilgrim House. Our home is in Muxia, in the region of Galicia in northwest Spain. Our home on the edge of the medieval world, overlooks Muxia and the ocean sea. We welcome pilgrims to visit, and to learn about the many Camino de Santiago options as well as other pilgrimages around the world. All in a comfortable setting over a drink or two. And of course all on an Osettai basis.
More information on the 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage and Kumano Kodo are available on this website. And there is lots of information on it in the post: How The Japan 88 Temple and Kumano Kodo Pilgrimages Are Different From The Camino de Santiago.