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