Sunday, November 24, 2019

Guardians of the Ancient Roads

-- Susan, every other Sunday

A week ago, I returned from a nine-day, 120-km hike along one of Japan's medieval travel roads.

On the Kiso Kaido near Kaida

Technically, the hike took me along parts of three different roads--the Kiso Kaido (which dates to at least the tenth century), the Nakasendo (which dates to the 17th), and the Shio-no-Michi (exact dates unknown), each of which once served as an important route for transporting goods (and travelers) through the mountains of central Japan.

The Nakasendo near Jizo Pass, Kiso-Fukushima

Throughout Japan, travel roads are lined with stone statues and shrines that represent dosojin (literally "road-ancestor-kami") -- Shintō deities that supposedly protect people and animals traveling  on the roads.

Dosojin near the 17th century post town of Magome

In many places, stone Buddhas also watch over the roads, particularly images of the bodhisattva Jizō, a patron of travelers, children, and the lost.

Jizo statues on the Jizo Pass, Kaida

The Nakasendo, Kiso Kaido and Shio-no-Michi (which literally translates "Salt Road" because it was originally used to bring that vital commodity from the sea to the mountains, where it was sold) are no exception. Stone monuments, shrines, and Buddhas line the roads - particularly in the passes and along the steepest routes.

Dosojin near Kanazawa

In many places, the statues are set above the level of the road, allowing the deities to literally look down on the travelers passing by.

He has you covered

Large portions of these ancient routes remain almost as isolated as they were in the medieval age, and it's not difficult to understand why ancient travelers--lacking the ubiquitous mobile connectivity we enjoy today--would have wanted protection on these steep, forested trails.

Kannon, goddess of mercy, in a place where mercy is welcome indeed.

In other places, the guardians' presence reinforces the sacred feeling of these ancient woods and rambling paths.

A holy place along the Nakasendo near the Usui Pass

These roads may no longer be vital arteries connecting the mountain villages to the beating heart of the Japanese capital, but they still pulse with history and life--both natural and human.

Autumn in the Kiso Valley

And through it all, the dosojin stand guard, benevolent sentinels watching over both the roads and the travelers with ancient eyes that were here centuries before us, and will still be watching after all of us are gone.


  1. These days, it feels like everyone could use their own personal dosojin to protect them on their travels through life...

  2. Darling friend, I am pleased they kept you safe. Thank you for introducing us to them.

  3. Hmm, I could use a few of them around the hills and valleys of my farm. But I need the God who protects against errant hunters.