Perhaps you’ve heard of Jizo Bosatsu, the Buddhist deity who looks after travelers, children and the underworld. No, not that underworld, the other one — the one you go to after you die.
Stone Jizo statues are often seen at crossroads, ostensibly to protect pedestrians and other traffic. The effigies are usually looked after by neighborhood elders who make red bibs and sometimes hats for them to wear. But I wonder why you hardly ever see Jizo statues at bus terminals or train stations? And never have I seen one at an airport. Perhaps Jizo, who originally protected the ambulatory, is just an old-fashioned kind of guy — even a modern Luddite. Or maybe he’s just too busy to make it to the airport.
I decided to get to know this deity a little better by going on a 24-site Jizo pilgrimage in Kamakura that longtime Kamakura resident and Buddhist statue aficionado Mark Schumacher had tipped me off to. In this way, I could meet 24 manifestations of this deity, whose name is often translated as “Womb of the Earth.”
Some people walk pilgrimages. Others take a bus, taxi or car. I run them. For me, running pilgrimages provides the perfect balance between a physical and metaphysical workout. But rather than vying against my usual pilgrimage competitors — rain, mud, varying temperatures and steep terrain — this time my foes were automobile traffic, pollution, hordes of tourists meandering down narrow sidewalks and screaming children on school trips.
Not your average pilgrimage. Or is it? These days, you’re more likely to find a pilgrimage winding through the city that has grown up around it. The roads have been paved over many times since 1752, the earliest point the pilgrimage has been traced back to. So, allow me to introduce you to the ancient asphalt roads of Kamakura!
Kamakura is the home of four different pilgrimages that merge — and sometimes collide — with one another. In addition to the Jizo pilgrimage, there is a Kannon pilgrimage to 33 temples, a shichi fukujin meguri encompassing sites related to the Seven Lucky Gods, and another taking in the Thirteen Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
All routes take you to temples, some of which sit on two or more pilgrimage paths. Pilgrims carry a stamp book in which they receive that temple’s unique seal (for a small fee), corresponding to the pilgrimage they are doing.
I used Mark’s suggested three-day pilgrimage itinerary but broke up the order of temples so I could do them in chunks.
I started out running behind my guide — Mark on a motorbike — as he led me to the first few temples. Each stop would require 30 minutes to hobnob with the designated Jizo statue and receive the stamp. At temple No. 1 we visited the Child-rearing and Sutra-chanting Jizo, a wooden statue dating from 1365. At temple No. 2 the venerated Jizo Sitting Atop a Rock awaited us, and at temple 3 we saw a Black Jizo, a statue from the Kamakura Period (1185-1332). After this, Mark and I stopped for cake and tea at a local cafe, where we also met up with some friends. Ah, the joys of city pilgrimages!
From there, I left my companions at the cafe and ran onward with Mark’s pilgrimage map in hand. Unfortunately, however, without my guide’s assistance, I experienced my first colliding of pilgrimages at temple 4. Perhaps I should have been forewarned, since the object of worship there is called Substitute Jizo. Still a neophyte Jizo pilgrim, I inadvertently received a double Kannon stamp at this temple, home to two of the goddesses. The clerk scolded me for not having specified which pilgrimage I was doing.
“If you want a Jizo stamp, you’ll have to pay again!” she told me.
I was ready to kindly accept her offer, as it had never occurred to me that I shouldn’t pay for a second stamp.
“And you better decide right now if you want it because I’m closing!” she added. It was 4:30 and I was testing her patience.
I definitely wanted the stamp, but not a disgruntled stamp, so I quietly walked away. At this time, I also realized this temple was the location of two Jizo statues (Nos. 4 and 6), and thus two stamps. But I had received a double Kannon! Not surprisingly, the second Jizo located here is called Nun-Warlord Jizo.
The next morning I chose to run to some temples that were close to my accommodation. I headed toward Kamakura’s famed Zaimoku Beach and turned southeast, arriving about 8 a.m. at temple 22, home of Net-caught Jizo. Shortly after, I stopped for a breakfast of kinako (soy flour) and soy donuts at Hoa Cafe, across the road from the beach. Eating outside on the deck, I watched women surfing the cool waves in wetsuits. With kinako powder now gracing my running pants, I jogged casually along the water’s edge on the beach to the end of the bay on my way to temples 21 and 20.
By early morning I had already met three Jizo, and after having worshipped five the day before, I felt as if I were running through an Earth-Womb paradise: here a Jizo, there a Jizo, everywhere a Jizo.
So I decided to take a small Jizo-break and peek in on the 13-meter-tall bronze Great Buddha at Hase, which I passed on my way to temple 23. By the time I arrived at temple 24, Time-Limiting Jizo, the afternoon was getting on and I was running out of daylight hours, so I hopped a train from Kamakura Station to Kita-Kamakura to find temples 14, 13 and 12 to finish off the day.
I was exhausted by the time I finally found temple 12, but what awaited me in addition to Jizo Disguised as a Monk was a complete surprise. The temple, Jochiji, is a designated Important Cultural Property and is considered one of the five great Zen temples of Kamakura. Inside, a live solo violin performance was taking place, with the performer standing in front of three Buddhas: Amida (Buddha of the past), Shaka (Buddha of the present) and Miroku (Buddha of the future). A private audience sat on their heels, seiza-style, on the floor. It was a breathtaking performance and a perfect way to end the day.
The balls of my feet were so sore from pounding the pavement that I couldn’t help but wonder: Where is the Jizo of Sore Feet?
The next morning I set off on my last day of temples. At No. 8, the man at this tiny temple encouraged me, despite the posted rules against taking photos, to “Go ahead and take a picture. It’s a secret!” How fitting that this was the place to pray to Please-Accept-My-Apology Jizo.
Before heading to No. 7, Hardship-Everywhere Jizo, I thought it best to stop for a rest at a cafe and look in at some of the interesting shops along the road. More joys of city pilgrimages!
Soon after, I had visited temples 7 and 5 — Salt-tasting Jizo — and was back at No. 6, where I had received the two Kannon stamps. I wanted to get the Jizo ones, but since I had arrived just after a group of bus pilgrims, I had to wait 20 minutes for my turn. Luckily, there was a different person at the window this time. He treated me so kindly that I thought it must have been my destiny to come back and have a good experience at this temple to cancel out the bad one.
The last temple to hit was No. 19, the Jizo of Mount Higane. There is a good reason I left it until last: It has been moved to Yokosuka, an hour’s bus ride away! I stopped at this temple on my way back home to Okayama.
Jizo certainly proved to be an all-encompassing Womb of the Earth. He seems to mold his many selves to the wishes of the people in the name of their salvation.
I’m sure I’ll go back to Kamakura someday. After all, I already have two of the 33 Kannon pilgrimage stamps!
Amy Chavez is the author of “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment.” Your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.