Question: Where have these protective stone guardians gathered—and why are they all wearing bibs?
Answer: These Jizo statues are found at Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto, Japan
The 14th-century Kinkakuji complex was initially the retirement home of a shogun and, at his request, became a Zen Buddhist temple after his death in 1408. What began as a single villa was expanded into a sprawling complex of buildings, ponds, islands, and gardens, including one that boasts a cemetery full of the cheerily-adorned statues. The blend of beauty and history on display make this one of Japan’s most visited sites and a true national treasure.
- Bibs for a Bodhisattva: Among the most colorful features in the otherwise serene complex is the collection of Jizo statues. Jizo is the Buddhist bodhisattva whose job is to guide departed souls. He is said to favor the souls of children, saving them from limbo and, in some cases, even sparing them from death entirely, so he is honored especially by parents. That’s why Buddhists often dress his statues in bright-hued bibs, baby blankets, or even children’s clothing—it’s difficult to miss this deity!
- Ashes to ashes: In the mid-15th century, caught in the crossfire of civil war, the complex was burned to the ground—with only one building spared: the pavilion itself. That the pavilion remained unscathed seemed providential, at least until the night of July 2, 1950, almost five hundred years later, when a suicidal monk tried to burn it down and kill himself. He succeeded only in the first of his tasks, as his blaze destroyed the building (a tragedy later fictionalized in a novel by Yukio Mishima). It took five years to rebuild after the fire, but, somewhat ironically, once it was finished, it became the permanent home of more ashes (said to be those of the Lord Buddha).
- All that glitters: The first pavilion was known for having a thin layer of gold leaf covering the exterior of its two upper floors. In the rebuilding, Japan doubled down on the glitz, making the golden lacquer twice as thick as it had been and leaving not an inch uncovered. Three decades later, it was decided to ramp it up again, with a new and much thicker coating of gold leaf. When the reapplication was done in 1987, the gilding was five times as thick as was originally—no chance of its luster dimming any time soon.
- No stone unplanned: The lovely gardens and water features speak to the glory of nature, yet they’re anything but natural in origin. Every path, hill, pond, and rock placement was designed in accordance with Zen philosophy, and can be related to descriptions of famous landmarks both earthly and ethereal, from an islet that represents Japan to a series of rocks meant to be sailboats sailing off toward the Island of Eternal Life.
- The stuff of legends: The bib-wearing Jizo statues aren’t the only whimsical flourishes here. The complex is full of details based on Japanese folklore. There’s a cluster of statues surrounding a small cup into which locals try and toss coins; legend has it that if your coin goes into the cup in a single toss, your wish is granted. (Wishing wells and fountains are child’s play in comparison!) Other imaginative features include the Toryumon waterfall; folktales say that any fish that can swim up the cascade will be transformed into a resplendent dragon. And then there’s the White Snake, which resembles a rock cairn, but which is said to actually be the remains of a grieving lover who threw herself into the pond and turned into a serpent.
- A gem among gems: Just as the statues are only one facet of the gardens (which in turn are only a part of the temple complex), Kinkakuji is but a single beauty among the many treasures to be found in Kyoto. In 1994, UNESCO collectively designated the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto as a World Heritage Site. The 17 locations in and around the city include the memorable Kiyomizu Temple, known for its “Leap of Faith” terrace; and Nijo Castle, where one palace is equipped with “nightingale” floorboards that sing to betray intruders.
- Spared by love: One reason Kyoto still boasts such a high concentration of architectural gems is that it was spared most of the destruction of World War II. It wasn’t firebombed like so many cities because the Allied forces were seriously considering it as the site of an atomic bomb drop. At the last minute, Secretary of War Harry L. Stimson personally intervened for sentimental reasons: he and his wife had honeymooned in the city.
Soak up Kinkakuji’s legendary beauty and see the Jizo statues for yourself during OAT’s Japan's Cultural Treasures. adventure. In this video, meet Trip Leader Mariko Okada, who is eager to show you around.