It would be wrong to think that every pilgrim observes the same devotions and practices. While there is a prescribed set of prayers but this more of a suggestion than a command and is honored more in the breach than the observance. Everyone has their own peculiar way of go about things. I developed mine fairly quickly using a combination of the rituals I follow in Tendai and those unique to the pilgrimage.
To understand the practices, it is helpful to know the general physical layout that applies to all the temples. At the entrance to the temple grounds is a large wooden gate which generally houses two wrathful looking guardian deities there to insure that evil remains outside the sacred temple grounds. They can be quite colorful and are all meant to be intimidating, not to the pilgrim, but to evil itself. As you stand on the threshold of the gate, you simply bow to indicate your respect for the sacred place you are entering and your good intentions. Stepping over the threshold into temple grounds you quickly encounter a place for water purifications. Usually this is some kind of stone basin with water running in it with a number of ladles propped over the basin. You dip a ladle in the water and pour some over your left hand, then repeat the process over the right hand, then pour some water into your cupped left hand and take that into your mouth cleansing it and expelling the water on the ground. Each temple has at least two buildings. The Hondo or main temple contains the image of the Buddha or Bodhisattva to which that temple is particularly dedicated. A second structure called the Daishido is dedicated to honor Kobo Daishi the venerable Buddhist monk and teacher who established many of the temples, not to mention the pilgrimage route itself, and who was also the founder of the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism. The pilgrim goes through rituals at both buildings, starting at the Hondo. You approach the Hondo and light a small candle in a shelter where numerous candles are usually already burning. Then from the flame of the candle you light you light three sticks of incense which you place in a huge incense holder where dozens of incense sticks are burning. There are three sticks of incense because in the Buddhist way of things one acts and practices using the body, speech and mind. Then the pilgrim climbs the few steps up to the threshold of the Hondo and places a kind of calling card known as an osamefuda in a receptacle. This indicates your name, where you are from and your intentions for the pilgrimage. The color of the osamefuda indicates how many times you have made the pilgrimage, white being reserved for the first four times. Then you deposit a coin at the Hondo and begin your prayers. The process is repeated at the Daishido.
In my case I developed a sequence of prayers and chants that differed between the Hondo and Daishido. At the Hondo I followed the general structure of Tendai rituals by reciting mantras and performing mudras (hand gestures) intended to act as purification. Then I would recite a brief prayer of repentance for my past misdeeds and a prayer designed to focus myself on the importance of the teachings contained in the Heart Sutra which I recited immediately afterward. After completing the Heart Sutra I would recite the mantra associated with the Buddha or Bodhisattva of the particular Hondo and ended with a prayer that dedicates any merit I might have attained because of my practice to all beings rather than myself alone. At the Daishido I would recite a mantra associated with Kobo Daishi, the Heart Sutra and end with reciting the Mantra of Light (Komyo Shingon) which is used in Tendai but also in Shingon practice. In this second sequence I would recite the Heart Sutra in Japanese.
After completing these devotions one simply walks back to the gate, turning around at the threshold and bowing in farewell.
Many pilgrims recite their prayers out loud. Sometimes WAY OUT LOUD. I kept my words to myself since I found it very distracting when others were chanting nearby. When other pilgrims chanted out loud I would either wait until they finished or silently fall in with what they were doing. Some days I would be so tired I would have a complete lapse of memory. Then I would just draw my attention to my purpose and recite the prayers later while on the way to the next temple.
Over the course of the pilgrimage I noticed a change in my mental state when performing these devotions, becoming more focused and peaceful. I could tell then that the practice was having its effect on me, imbuing its benefits in me. But you don’t have to go on a pilgrimage to experience that. Meditate every day, chant a sutra every day, repeat any practice and over time it will change you – and for the better.