You’ve probably noticed them at temples around Japan – silent rows of miniature statues, some clad in red caps or bibs, some with candles burned to stubs at their feet. Who are these tiny guardians? They’re jizo, protectors of travelers, women and – especially – children.
Jizo, also known by their longer title of O-jizo-sama, are one of Japan’s most popular Buddhist deities (bodhisivattas). Most people remember jizo for his connection to children; while pregnant women will often adopt or place a jizo statue at a temple to pray for the health of their unborn child, a fair number of the statues one sees are to commemorate children who passed away (this includes children lost in utero, stillborn infants, and even those who were aborted). Parents who lost a child often dress a statue of jizo in a red bib or hat; while the reason is not exactly clear, according to folklore, the Jizo deity hides children under his robes to protect them from demons and safely shepherd their souls to salvation.
Walk along a rural road or a mountain path and you might stumble across a jizo at an intersection as well. Having the dual function of guardian of travelers, jizo statues are often placed as a means of signposting. I’ve run across these statues in places like the trails of Mt Takao outside Tokyo and in small rural communities in the Japan Alps.
You can find groups of jizo at almost any temple or cemetary in Japan. However, a few places stand out in my mind as the place to see these statues en masse:
- Hasedera (Hase Shrine) in the Hase neighborhood of Kamakura – Hundreds of jizo are clustered together on the path up to the main temple. Climb the main staircase at the back of the garden and you’ll see them off to the right.
- Zojoji (Zojo Temple) in Tokyo – This was my neighborhood temple when I lived in Tokyo and I used to wander down here to enjoy the quiet. On the grounds to the right of the main temple are several areas set aside for jizo; many are adorned in red caps and bibs.
- The trails of Mt Takao outside Tokyo – Mt Takao is one of the most popular autumn escapes for city dwellers. If you choose to walk down the beautifully maintained trails rather than head back to the chairlift, you’ll pass a number of jizo statues on the forest path.