Stories and pictures from my travels around Japan, including hundreds of temples and a walk of over 500 km (300 miles)
(more about my travels in Japan)

Ueno Pond, Tokyo

In September of 2006 I took Lila on her first (and so far only) trip to Japan. One of my favorite places is the area around Ueno Pond, a well-known site from back in the days of Edo.

We arrived near sundown on the next-to-last day of our trip, and did some shooting with our tripods. The second shot is mine; the other two are from her camera, though I think I shot the one of the shrine. (The fine shot of the lotus is definitely hers.)

This is the Benten Shrine on the little island in Ueno pond. It is the starting point of the "Shichifukujin" (Seven Lucky Gods) pilgrimage I wrote about before. Benten is patroness of music and art, and the beauty of this shrine is testament to her power.

Here is a shot of the shrine through the riot of lotus leaves growing on the pond in that time of year. On this side of the pond you can't even see the pond!

Lila captured this beautiful shot of a lotus bud. In Buddhist iconography, this represents potential (the opened lotus is the fulfillment of that potential).

I have dozens more shots of this place; in the future, I'll show you the little causeway that leads to the shrine, with its cheesy kiosks and ancient monuments.

Six Mizuko

There is a Buddhist figure known as Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva. His special vow is to save all the beings in the hells of the six worlds ("gods," "angels," humans, animals, hungry ghosts, hell-beings).

So in Japan, he's often depicted in groups of six, called "Rokujizo" or "Six Jizos," like this:

You'll also see six statues standing at crossroads.

I was very familiar with the figure, but didn't really understand the whole "six worlds" thing until I studied Buddhism back in the states.

But I did know something about a sad practice associated with Jizo in Japan. Look at these cheerful little guys:

Aren't they cute, with the hats and all?

They, and the many, many figures standing behind them, represent aborted babies.

It's not my intention to get into a right-to-life debate. Rather, I want to point out that the economic realities in Japan for years made having children prohibitively expensive. Many families turned to abortion, but it was never a happy choice.

Seizing on a "golden opportunity" (like most clergy anywhere), the temples began offering a way to appease these "water babies" (mizuko, the departed spirits of the aborted babies).

For a price, you could buy a statue of Jizo (Chinese Di Zang), patron of the dead, and dedicate it to your baby's spirit.

I have been in places where the hills are covered with such "offerings."

Close in, as below, you can see that some families still "care" for the baby on certain anniversaries by dressing the statue. I have seen toys and food offered at nearby shrines for this purpose, as well.

A sad practice, but if it brings some solace, can it be all bad?

Roadside Statues

In an ancient country with booming development, it's inevitable that relics will be unearthed.

In Japan they have a simple, elegant, and holistic approach to dealing with this: they find a convenient nearby location, often a street corner or a piece of a pocket park, and pile up whatever they find. This adds a nice visual touch to the neighborhood, and provides objects of veneration for the locals.

Here's a gang of them near my friend Simeon's house in Tokyo's Bunkyo-ku.

The Seven Lucky Gods: A Pilgrimage

In the first days of a new year, it's a Japanese tradition to go visiting the "Shichifukujin," or "Seven Lucky Gods." This may be because it's believed that they visit you in your sleep on New Year's Eve; dreaming of them predicts luck for the year.

One year while I lived in Japan, I did a pilgrimage starting in Ueno, and the beautiful little Benten Shrine in the pond in Ueno Park (Ueno no Ike, famous since the Edo Period).

Checking in at that the shrine, you can buy a map and a small scroll (just a piece of paper). Follow the map and visit the seven shrines on it, one dedicated to each God. Volunteers at each shrine stamp the paper and do calligraphy on it.

Here's my map, and my "scroll" (I shot it in two parts, hence the ugly seam; sorry).

I have added here detail shots from the scroll, with a very brief description of each taken from Wikipedia. You can read more starting here. From left, going clockwise:

Ebisu, god of fishers or merchants,
often depicted carrying a sea bream
(see the fish in front of Daikokuten below)

Daikokuten (Daikoku), god of wealth,
commerce and trade

Jurojin, god of wisdom

Benzaiten (Benten-sama), goddess of knowledge,
art and beauty, especially music

Fukurokuju, god of happiness,
wealth and longevity

Hotei, the fat and happy god of
abundance and good health

Bishamonten, god of warriors

A Bodhisattva's Camera

When I was working in Japan, I heard a persistent rumor.

I heard that there had been a Japanese man who was a devotee of Avalokiteshvara Boddhisattva, known in China as "Guan Yin" and in Japan variously as "Kannon," "Kwanon," and "Kanzeon."

You could also add "Bosatsu" (Bodhisattva) after any of these to complete the full name. (When I walk, I often add the appropriate "Namo," meaning "Homage," to the front and say: "Namo Kanzeon Bosatsu," as its eight syllables make its rhythm perfect for walking.)

Anyway, this devotee was going to make cameras, and wanted to name his product after this great Buddhist figure, the Bodhisattva of compassion.

So he had a designer work up a logo, but it wasn't working. Then the designer suggested changing the spelling of "Kannon" a bit, and that's how "Canon Camera" came to be.

A wonderful story, but unconfirmed--until last March, when Lila sent me a link to this page, from which I stole the images below. I found a more coherent version of the story on the Canon home page, which confirms the details of the "rumor" as I heard it. Case solved.

Original "Kwanon" logo

Evolution of the Canon logo

Footnote 1: Another Canon page confirms that the "Kwanon" was never produced, and that the lens for the first Kwanons was called the "Kasyapa," the name of one of the historic Buddha's key disciples, and the purported founder of the Zen sect because he could "see" the truth of the Buddha's teachings clearly.

Footnote 2: When I was a tour guide at Hsi Lai Temple, I would tell this story, and say that security cameras made me think of Guan Yin (Kannon) watching over us. One visitor told me I had a rather naive understanding of the purpose of security cameras!


When I decided to move to Japan, my dad was really pleased.

He had been there in 1945 (for less happy reasons) and kept telling me stuff like, "You'll see the old ladies in their kimonos, sweeping their porches with big brooms."

Sure, Dad, I thought. That was over 50 years ago.

Well, I didn't actually see old ladies sweeping porches in kimonos. But I did see kimonos. And big brooms.

I saw lots of traditional clothing. Kimonos I only saw for formal occasions (weddings) or on restaurant workers.

But other types of traditional clothes were not uncommon--jinbei, a sort of "shorty pajama"; and samue, the work-wear worn by monks (and kitchen hands, and anyone who wants to be comfortable--I walked from Tokyo to Kyoto and around Shikoku in samue).

My favorite, though, for men and women, is the yukata. Often mistaken for kimono, they're actually much simpler, barely a flimsy bathrobe. With the right accessories, though--an obi (belt), geta (sandals), a bag and hair ornaments for the ladies--they can be quite stylish. I've seen them on people going to picnics and fireworks displays, or even just shopping.

Here are some some girls in yukata, on a train in Tokyo. Nothing special, just casual wear Japanese style.

Statue Molesters, Japanese Style

There's a very funny homepage called "Statue Molesters" ("Find a statue... make it smile").

Well (as they do) the Japanese have their own version of statue molesting.

Take a look at this statue, from the famous Sensoji temple in Asakusa:

If you look carefully, you'll see that his knee is "shining." That's not just a trick of light; it is shinier, because people (mostly old ladies) have been rubbing it.

The common belief is that, if some part of your body is bothering you, rubbing the corresponding part on a holy figure will heal you.

Now look at this statue of a sumo wrestler, found in the Ryogoku area of Tokyo, home of the Kokugikan (National Sumo Stadium).

In this detail, you'll notice something peculiar about the rikishi ("powerful man," the term for the wrestler):

That's right: they've been rubbing his belly!

Should we assume from this that Japan is a nation of dyspeptics?

Probably not. The belly is the seat of power (and not just in sumo wrestlers, who slap it to intimidate their opponents.) Near the belly button, it is the center of gravity in the body, the third chakra (that of power) in Indian belief, and very near the "solar plexus," a place you would be familiar with if anyone has ever hit you in the stomach and "knocked the wind out of you."

So passersby rub the rikishi's belly for power. I rubbed it, too.

And I think it worked.

The Froggie is In

"Frog" and "Clinic," you may ask? (Don't even get me started on the topic of "Mental health care & Dance studio.")

I saw this sign on a ramble (heading for a temple, of course) in a southern suburb of Tokyo.

There is a strong association of "frog" and "healing" in Japan.

My friend Karen once invited me to help carry a portable shrine up Mt. Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture (for which I've never quite forgiven her). Images of frogs are ubiquitous there; there's even a giant one squatting on top of a phone booth (or there was in 1997).

It turns out (of course) there's a myth.

A Daoist immortal named Gama Sennin was imported from China, where he's Liu Hai. Liu Hai was a 10th-century alchemist who learned the secret of immortality from a toad with three legs (called "The Money Toad"--it's a long story).

Gama Sennin ("The Toad Immortal") is often found in netsuke and other folk arts. He walks with a cane, and generally has a three-legged toad on his shoulder. This toad has magical properties.

There is a species of toad that lives on Mt. Tsukuba, called Tsukuba-San gama-gaeru (Mt. Tsukuba toad). His sweat (really, this is not legend) is gathered and made into an ointment called "gama no abura"--toad oil. Although a "folk" remedy, modern doctors attest to its value.

(A new film titled Gama no Abura is being released this month, starring and directed by famous face Koji Yakusho [Babel, Memoirs of a Geisha]; I can't get enough info to figure out what it has to do with the oil.)

So toads and healing are associated in the Japanese mind. Could this be the source of the "Froggies Clinic" brand?

By the way, I can't help but notice that the illustration resembles a couple of Balinese flying frog statues given to me by a TV actress I used to date.Another source of healing?

"See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil"

These "Three Wise Monkeys" are seen everywhere in Japan. The originals are supposed to be at Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko (though this may just be the most popular example). I have a picture of them I'll publish some day.

My favorite set, at a small temple in Kyoto, had a fourth monkey covering his groin; guess what that meant!

Anyway, here they are on some stones at Honsenji, a temple on the old Tokaido Road in Shinagawa, in southern Tokyo.

The first picture shows the situation of the stones under a large gingko tree on the temple grounds. The second shows the monkeys at the base of the large stone, and the third, at the base of the mid-sized (center) stone.

The order in both cases seems to be speak - hear - see. This is not always the case (but it is at Nikko). The wearand tear on the carvings indicates that they are quite old.

My dad and Gandhi: On our dinner table when I was a kid there was always a toothpick container with the three monkeys ranged around it. My dad was in Japan in late 1945; I wonder if he brought it home with him? Anyway, it's a prized possession. And according to the Wikipedia article on the monkeys:"Mahatma Gandhi's one notable exception to his lifestyle of non-possession was a small statue of the threemonkeys."

The article also has a discussion on the "Meaning of the proverb." I think that's silly. Isn't it obvious?

Japan: My First Posting Abroad

I lived in Japan from early 1997 to late 2001. I never holidayed in other Asian countries; aside from my yearly trip to the states, I spent all my vacations and long weekends exploring Japan. Here you’ll find a lot sites around Tokyo, and some around Kyoto, as well as miscellaneous forays into Kyushu and a few other places. (My walking trek from Tokyo to Kyoto is here, and the Shikoku pilgrimage here.) I also have been back a few times and added to my stock of experiences.

Everything on these pages is © 2009 by James Baquet.