Sunday, April 15, 2018

Traditional Japanese Wayside Shrines

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Wayside (or roadside) shrines appear around the world, and in many religions. Some take the form of memorials placed on the site of an accident, while others exist to invoke a blessing or protection on places or passersby.

This shrine is a guardian of roads and village boundaries.

Japan has tens of thousands of wayside shrines and memorial tablets, many of which date back at least several centuries. I see (and photograph) dozens of them while hiking the old travel roads and through the mountains.

Many of these shrines feature images of Buddhas or bodhisattvas.

Japan's open air folk house museum, Nihon Minka-en, features a lovely collection of wayside shrines.

A pair of Buddhas which once protected travelers on Japanese roads.

Many of the monuments were moved from their original locations to the museum when modernization (mainly expanding roads) required their removal.

Some consist of small house-like shrines, like this one dedicated to the kami (god) Inari, patron god of fertility, rice, agriculture, creative and worldly success, swordsmiths, and merchants (among other things - Inari Ōkami really gets around) and Kaikogami, the patron god of silkworms.

You can fit two gods in this tiny shrine. Who knew?

Others show carvings of Buddhas or bodhisattvas, like this rokujizō, which shows six copies of the bodhisattva Jizō - one for each of the post-death worlds from which Jizō can supposedly save the dead.

Whatever your post-death fate, Jizō's got you covered.

Most of the museum's shrines have helpful signs describing the small shrine's history, original location, and purpose. In some cases, however, you're on your own.

In case you can't read it, this says "A Small Stone Shrine" - in English and Japanese

Some of the shrines sat at the outer boundary of a village, and protected the entire community from harm:

This once protected the town of Sakuho, in Nagano Prefecture

While others serve as memorials to the dead.

The most unusual such memorial I've seen sits on a hillside just outside the old post town of Tsumago on the preserved section of the Nakasendo - a feudal travel road through the Japan alps. It's called the Gyutou Kannon, and it exists to honor the memory of "black cattle" (a breed of black haired Japanese oxen) that gave their lives while hauling cargo over the hills along the travel road.

In honor of cows.

Along that same stretch of the Nakasendo, additional monuments honor the horses that gave their lives as well.

There are also wayside shrines for people, like this Jizō, which stands near the place where the travel road enters Tsumago.

Bibs and hats are a common offering on Jizō statues.

These shrines are ubiquitous in Japan, especially in the countryside (though you can find wayside shrines in the cities too - including high-tech, urban Tokyo, if you keep your eyes open). Even so, people often walk right by without considering the history and spiritual importance of these carvings. Centuries later, they still stand watch over many Japanese roads, trails, and villages. If you find yourself in Japan, keep an eye out for them - and know that they'll be watching over you.


  1. There is one in my neighborhood -- of the village boundary kind. It is a man and a woman. He carries a scythe and has his arm around her. It's tucked in between a mailbox and 7-11! Thanks for showing me what it means -- nobody I have asked has known specifics!

  2. The area around my farm has lime kilns in the most unexpected places, as if temples awaiting the arrival of your shrines!