While walking in Japan, you’ll likely spot small stone statues shaped like children or depictions of Buddha. While these may seem like mischievous forest sprites, moss-covered and popping up from between trees at the most unusual locations, their real identity tells a different story.
Jizo (地蔵/womb of the earth), as they are called, are made in the image of Jizo Bosatsu, guardian deity of children and travellers. They're also known as the ‘earth bearer’, so jizo statues are made out of stone, which is said to have a spiritual power for protection and longevity that predates Buddhist beliefs.
Jizo Bosatsu is a kind and patient deity, and so the statues are fine with eroding under rainwater and being covered in moss. These small stone incarnations greet us along the trail, bringing protection and power when we need it.
And where there is a jizo, you may also find a small tower of stones nearby.
Another purpose of the jizo is to protect the spirits of children who have passed away. It is said that when a child dies before their parents do, they are not able to cross the river to the afterlife and so their days are spent making towers of stones to help gain merit for their parents in their own afterlife. However, mean spirited yokai (妖怪/monster or demon) knock down these stone towers each day, so the children begin their Sisyphean task anew.
As an act of kindness, travellers build stone towers in front of jizo to reduce their workload, and you can find an interesting jizo called Sainokawara (賽の河原/children’s limbo) along the Kumano Kodo where thousands of stones have been piled up in front it - the combined effort of hundreds of travellers over the years.
The value of these stone towers is not only in their ability to gain credit for the afterlife; they are also a form of protection. Once the stone towers are destroyed, the yokai are free to hunt the children, and this is when Jizo Bosatsu hides the children beneath his clothing. He becomes their caretaker in place of their parents.
In the colder months local people will take care of jizo by dressing them with red bibs and hats, as helping a Buddhist monk is a virtuous gesture and, again, earns more of that credit for getting into the afterlife. The color red, in Japan, wards away illness and danger, so it is the perfect colour for a guardian deity.
Now, be sure not to confuse these jizo with dosojin (道祖神/road ancestor god), another type of statue found along the road. These small statues depict a couple and are Shinto deities of protection which have been replaced over time by the Buddhist Jizo, but their presence on hiking trails and pilgrimages is still strong.
A pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo was once meant to be a rigorous journey of spiritual salvation or repentance. Jizo not only protect the souls of children but also travellers, and have been made as memorials to protect the spirits of those who passed away died before they could complete their pilgrimage.
While the statues are small and may seem insignificant, it is important to recognise their role on the trail where they offered encouragement to weary travellers and were one of the few road markers during the early days of the Kumano Kodo trail. If you have an extra rock or two to hand then be sure to add to a stone tower if you see one - the jizo would surely be very grateful.