Just down the road from Manmyōji’s ancient gate posts, you will see many small, almost childlike statues. These are images of Jizo, one of the most beloved Buddhist figures in Japan.
In Buddhist tradition, children who die are sent to the underworld, where they are unable to cross the River of Three Crossings because they have not performed enough good acts—in particular, acts of filial piety. Trapped, they sit naked along a sandy beach called the Sai no Kawara, where their only way of honoring their parents is to endlessly stack small rocks into stupas that are soon knocked down by the demons who torment them.
It is Jizo who comes to their rescue, protecting them in the folds of his robe and helping them on their way to paradise. For this reason, Jizo statues can be seen all over Japan, often wearing a red hat or bib and accompanied with small piles of stones or even toys. Parents will often leave these offerings in sorrow over their child’s death—or in thanks for their having overcome an illness.