Ep. 012: On the Banks of the River of Souls

September 14, 2001, had been one of the most daunting days of my 320-mile trip down Japan's Old Tokaido Highway, completed 400 years earlier to link the Shogun's government in Edo (Tokyo) to the Emperor in Kyoto. Tough walk, and a sad, creepy ending.

Odawara to Hakone

On that mid-September day, I started out near Odawara Castle and walked at least 15 kilometers, maybe 20, to the shores of Lake Ashinoko in Hakone. (Distances are hard to gauge, because a good deal of the walk was on a cobble-stoned foot path from the "old days.")

But the distance is not what had me atwitter. What scared me was the change in elevation: starting out just a quarter mile from the ocean, I would end up at 723 meters--that's nearly 2,400 feet. In a day. It was notorious as the highest pass and greatest elevation of the Tokaido, the first, five-week portion of my trip.

Tea house in the mist, on the climb to Hakone

Oh, once I left the city and started really climbing, the path was beautiful enough--a tea house in the mist, moss-covered stone monuments, secluded temples, tinkling rills--you know, the usual. No big whoop.

And of course, there were the slippery stone pavings, which added a certain number of thrills to the whole thing. My journal says that at one point, I stepped on a "patch of mud over some smooth stone, and as I stepped toward a little picnic table I went mud-skiing." I then comment, as though I hadn't been scared to death, "I twisted my ankle a bit, but didn't fall (thankfully)."

Sai-no-Kawara, the River of Souls

At last, I arrived at the lake, Ashinoko, which boasts a modern resort nestled in an old volcanic caldera. The time stamps on my lakeside photos read after 5:30; timeanddate.com tells me that sunset at Hakone that day was about 5:50 (assuming you weren't standing in the shadow of one of the many mountains that surrounded the lake 360 degrees). So I was headed into deep gloaming. And, as my Japanese friend taught me to say, "My knees were laughing"--and that's not a good thing.

The Sai-no-Kawara on the banks of Hakone's Lake Ashinoko

But what's this? What to my wondering eyes did appear but a collection of statues and monuments prominently featuring O-Jizo-Sama, the Japanese form of the Sanskrit Kshitigarbha, the Bodhisattva who promises to save all beings from the six Hells, easing their sufferings and working for a sort of "early release."

In Japan, at least in the popular mind, Jizo is particularly associated with the "Mizuko" or "Water Babies," a euphemism for children lost through abortion. As such, he was near and dear to me, as my twin was lost to a miscarriage before I was born.

This story gets creepier.

Jizo and stones at the Sai-no-Kawara

The place where I had arrived, at the side of the lake, was mythically the side of a river, and called in Japanese Sai-no-KawaraKawara means a riverbank (or dry riverbed); Sai means "west." So Sai-no-Kawara is the banks of the western river, and west, as we know, is the direction of death (where the sun sets).

This river is like the one that the ancient Greeks called "Styx," the river that must be crossed to reach the Land of the Dead. And on this western river bank, the Japanese have believed since the 14th or 15th centuries that children who die prematurely are stranded, in limbo, where they must gain passage by building up towers of stones. Metaphorically if not physically, these small piles will become their means of climbing up into Paradise.

Naked babies in faded red caps at the feet of a Jizo statue at Kamisaki-ji in Mito, Ibaraki

Their case is worsened by the fact that demons come and knock down the stone piles, so their plight is a little like that of Sisyphus. Hence the need for Jizo's help. A truly nasty demon also strips the clothing from the children, so Jizo hides them in his sleeves, and supplies them with replacement clothes. You will often seen Jizos wearing bibs and other pieces of clothing, to pass on--I assume--to the Mizuko. In Japan as in China, demons fear the color red; thus its prevalence on Jizo statues.

Stones on a stupa at the Sai-no-Kawara

The children also benefit from our help. The custom at the various Sai-no-Kawara sites around the country (and at any shrine or temple dedicated to the Mizuko) is for visitors to pile up stones as a way of helping the little ones escape. Creepy and charming.

Clothing on small Jizo statues at Hase-dera, Kamakura, Kanagawa

Another, particularly dark, factoid is that their punishment is due to the sorrow they have caused their parents in dying prematurely. How this reconciles with the case of aborted babies is not explained.

Trying to shake the feeling (the Japanese call it kimochi warui, literally "bad feeling," but with the connotation of "creepy"), I boarded a bus back to my lodgings beyond Odawara. The next morning, I took a train around the mountain, and another bus up the other side to Lake Ashinoko, where I had left off, and continued my walk.

Visit the Temple Guy site for more pictures of the Hakone trail and the Sai-no-Kawara by the lake.

Now, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: It's Missions Monday again! This one is not a mission exactly, but it is a Spanish church in the old walled city portion of Manila, Intramuros. San Agustin Church was consecrated in 1607, even before the entrada of the Spanish into what is now the United States. Come see this amazing edifice--and its sometimes-macabre museum!