Kizugawa: Noiseless On The Stone Buddha Path

Kizugawa: Noiseless on the Stone Buddha PathWhen I was told in the mountains that we were to hike the Stone Buddha Path, I was perplexed. Here in Japan I had only seen Buddha statues near shrines and temples.
“You mean there are a bunch of these Buddha statues just ‘hanging out’ in the wild?” I asked the guide.

The Stone Buddha Path is in the Tono area of Kizugawa, which is on the southern tip of Kyoto Prefecture, just north of Nara, and is home to many historic and cultural assets.

Historically, Tono was a hideaway for monks who had grown tired of the secularization of Buddhism in Nara. They came here for the quiet, secluded environment to focus on their ascetic training so many hermitages and training schools were built. In time, Buddha statues were carved out of the rock formations by the devoted Buddhist practitioners frequenting the area. With many stone Buddhas remaining today, the area exudes a sense of peace and mystery.

The Stone Buddha Path is the most popular hiking course in Tono. It's a gradual downhill trek between two famous temples in the area--Gansenji and Joruriji. Our trip started from the beautiful Gansenji temple. It is nicknamed the “Hydrangea Temple” ("Ajisai dera") because during the rainy season in June, the flowers bloom profusely throughout the temple grounds. A cute and cheerful sea of colorful pom-poms is created that stands in contrast to the greenery and the solemn red pagoda.

“Too bad I missed the blooms, I must come here next June,” I was thinking to myself while gazing at the pagoda. Then, I suddenly felt someone or something was looking at me. I spotted something with beady eyes perched on the pagoda.

“They are called ‘sumioni.’ They support the rafters of the pagoda,” said our guide. They were four adorable little demon statues doing their hard work while pulling funny faces at visitors.

After Gansenji temple, we were to see one stone Buddha statue after another. And many of them had fun and creative names. We visited some of the most iconic statues of Tono: the One-Wish Acala, the Smiling Buddha, the Crow’s Pot, and Three in the Grove.

First we were greeted by the One-Wish Acala (Ichigan fudo), who I was told would grant one wish to those who offer a prayer to him. After wishing for a fruitful year, we hiked down to our next stop, the Smiling Buddha (Warai botoke). Greeting by-passers with its gentle smile, it is perhaps the most popular statue in the region.

“It’s actually rare to have a smiling Buddha statue. Most of them look very serious,” mulled our guide. “Much thought was put into the Smiling Buddha. It was made so the top rock could act as a natural roof for the carving.”

Upon closer inspection, you can see the passage for rain carved into the top rock, sparing the Smiling Buddha from water erosion.

Down a hill we reached the Crow’s Pot (Karasu no tsubo). There were two Buddhist deities carved into stone--Amida and Kshitigarbha.

“This little indentation here is for candles," proffered our guide. "Traveling monks would light a candle here to pray for their safety on their journey.”

Past the Crow’s Pot we came to a green valley with a mysterious stone staircase. “There used to be a temple called Zuiganji beyond those steps, but it burned down,” our guide informed us.

The stone staircase looked like something from a fantasy anime film. Perhaps in that movie the temple would only appear at night.

Down a path and just before our final stop we passed by the Three in the Grove, a set of three different deities carved into rocks.

“Three in the Grove (Yabunonaka sanzon) was a part of Zuiganji temple. They are the oldest carvings with a recorded date in the region,” our guide revealed.

Our journey ended at Joruriji temple. This elegant and serene temple features the Jodo-style garden formation, which is a central pond, a pagoda in the east, and the main hall in the west.

The main hall houses nine Amida statues. Symbolizing the nine stages of enlightenment in Jodo Buddhism, the nine Amida statues, along with the main hall, are designated National Treasures of Japan.

“There were more than 30 temples with nine Amida statues in Kyoto in the Heian Period (794-1185). However, among those temples the ones at Joruriji are the only remaining today,” said the guide.

Sitting in the main hall on a mild afternoon, with incense pervading the air and the sun shining through the cracks of the sliding doors, I got a feeling of what the monks thought back in the day. Away from the busy life, away from the noise. Here I found a sense of peace.