A fairly common sight along backroads in my immediate area is Buddhist statues, mostly the various forms of Kannon and Jizo.
Jizo (地蔵), or Jizo Bosatsu (地蔵菩薩) is mostly known as a guardian of children and of travellers. Kannon (観音) is an abbreviation of Kanzeon Bosatsu (観世音菩薩), a deity of compassion and mercy. Kannon is usually male, but many female forms can be found. These two bodhisattvas are the most popular among the people and therefore the most frequently depicted in statuary.
I’ve tried counting the ones on my home-work route, but occasionally stumble upon one that has gone unnoticed before – sometimes in the shadow of a tree or hedge, tucked away at the entrance of a graveyard (where it looks like another grave marker), or behind another stone monument..
Some of these statues, or sometimes just a stone with the Kannon’s name – usually Bato Kannon – carved on it, can be found literally on the roadside. Some have their own housing, ranging from a stone to act as a roof to a wooden shrine, while others are left exposed to the elements. Some are gathered near temples or shrines – whether they were originally placed there or relocated when modern roads were constructed (part of route 50 follows the old Kamakura Kaido route) is not clear.
What I have been able to ascertain is some of my local statues date from the mid- to late 1700s. Most have engravings on the side showing the maker of the statue, the village it is dedicated to, and a date. Some of the dates can still be clearly read, and show names such as Meiwa (明和), which covers a period between 1764 and 1771, and the following Anei (安永) period of 1772-1780.
The original Japanese dating system was based on a period decreed by the reigning emperor or his courtiers. A new name was chosen if the emperor died and a new one was enthroned, or if something extremely misfortunate happened and it was deemed better to sever the association of the name with the event and start afresh, or if something extremely fortunate occurred, or when certain astrological cycles were complete, or…
A confusing system indeed.
Unfortunately, carvings on a 250-plus statue exposed to the weather and covered in lichens are often hard to read without the sun at the right angle, and even harder to photograph…
For those who want more in-depth information on Jizo and Kannon, this website contains a wealth of information, and is well worth looking at.
Jizo features in many folk stories. Some of these are widely known, while many are strictly localised. I have recently found some from Sayama, and will include these in a future post.