Japan welcomes numerous religious faiths, and while its society is increasingly secular, two religions are intimately interwoven in the country’s history. Shinto is the indigenous religion, and Buddhism arrived in the sixth century. Each has distinct variations, and the two are often practiced together. Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples liberally dot urban and rural Japan. They are stunningly beautiful, meticulously crafted, ancient works of art.
My favorite is Rokkakudo, a tiny hexagonal Buddhist Temple, nestled among tall modern buildings in downtown Kyoto. It was originally built in the late sixth century. Its small plot features a pond with koi fish and swans, a fountain shaded by a cherry tree trained in the shape of a wide parasol, and a weeping willow tree upon which people tie their fortunes for good luck. Other tinier shrines dot the grounds, and a small gift shop is staffed by temple monks and two very sweet women. Rokkakudo is the birthplace of ikebana, the custom and art of arranging flowers in a vase.
Pigeons love this little place. Considered flying rodents and discouraged at most city buildings, the pigeon is embraced at Rokkakudo, which has made the bird its symbol. Bags of seed are sold to feed the motley selection of gray, blue, white, and brown birds in the resident flock. In the temple’s six-sided main hall, a half-buried brass Buddha peers from a jumble of religious accoutrements that looks more like a crowded antique store than an altar. It is cool, dark, and screened to keep those flying symbols from getting in and wreaking havoc.
When we visited in March 2010, the parasol-shaped cherry tree was in full flower to our utter delight and amazement. The surroundings are more subdued in November, but the swans, fish, and pigeons each offer their own poetic grace. To the left of the temple is a long row of assorted, short stone statues. Most are clothed in a red bib tied around the ‘neck’ and a knitted cap covering the ‘head.’ These statues are representations of Jizo.
Jizo Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) is revered in Japan. He achieved enlightenment long ago but refuses to become a Buddha until everyone is saved. He’s something of a jack of all trades, helping just about anyone with anything to ease suffering, though he is particularly associated with children and expectant mothers. Japanese Buddhism has refined Jizo’s role to become the guardian of all unborn, aborted, miscarried, and stillborn children.
In Buddhism, it is the Karma individuals accumulate on earth that helps them cross the Sanzu River to reach the afterlife. Without sufficient good deeds, the dead must pile rocks by the river in hopes of proving their worth and obtaining passage. Evil spirits often knock these piles down, frustrating efforts to cross over. Babies and young children have not built up Karma, plus their deaths caused their parents much pain. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage.
Grieving parents appeal to Jizo, dressing him in cap and bib for the protection of their poor child, seeking his assistance. Sometimes small stones are placed near the statue to further their child’s task and help her cross the river quickly. Small toys are often left there too.
At Rokkakudo, there is a lump of rock no longer discernible as a Bosatsu figure (if it ever was) adorned with a fresh red cap and bib. A small round rock has been placed in front of this mossy Jizo, and by its side is an old stuffed toy, a dog, faded and moldered, looking as though it, too, is slowly turning to stone.
The following week, Kate and I are in Tokyo walking through Zojoji Temple to the Tokyo Tower. Passing rows of small Jizos, our attention is arrested by an unexpected flash of bright blue fabric. A brand new Jizo statue is smartly clothed in a red-and-white striped, long-sleeved oxford shirt. Over this is a sky blue puffy vest with a hood by Mountain Camp. The shirt’s cuffs are tucked into the vest’s pockets. Fresh flowers and a colorful pinwheel are placed on either side.
Amid rows of traditional statues bearing faded red bibs and knit caps, this hip little Jizo stands apart, starkly different and so adorable. He would fit right in with the chic bustle of Tokyo’s streets. As an outdoor gear enthusiast, the sight of his puffy vest is just too cute. I cannot resist the urge to smile. The reaction tempers quickly, however. I understand quite well the deep stab of sorrow he represents. Somewhere in this city are two loving parents with heavy hearts and empty arms.