Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Jizo




Other than festival days, few visit the hamlet of Jizo. The guidebooks don’t mention this place, which is nothing more than a few rice paddies and humble thatched roof houses. Behind the village is a steep hill overgrown with broom grass and bellflowers. Thousands of statues of jizo, or children of stone, stand alongside the ascending path. These armless stone children are common throughout Japan, but Jizo is full of them. Some are dressed in red bibs and knitted caps, others have pebbles piled on top of their heads or shoulders. They gaze sweetly at the solitary traveler who passes by them.
On top of the hill, nearly hidden by wild grasses and ivy, is a shrine dedicated to the white fox. Someone once said that at nightfall, just when the last rays of the sun yield to the inky darkness of the country night, the villagers change out of their shabby clothes and become their old selves again - twitchy wild foxes who dance on their hind legs and roam the fields looking for mischief.
Jizo has few visitors outside festival days. That’s because travelers have to make several train transfers and pay extra for this private line, that independent line, to get there. Stationmasters, not wanting to look up routes in their thick, incomprehensible train schedules, direct travelers to towns that sound similar, like Juusoo or Jigoo. Only on festival days do direct, uncomplicated schedules appear, as if cast by a fox’s spell.
Among geishas, however, the route to this village is passed along by word of mouth, from experienced geishas to their younger sisters. There’s no need to consult with unhelpful stationmasters. If they set out early, they can reach Jizo by nightfall.
As evening shadows sweep over the village, a young geisha named Kikue arrives at her guesthouse. Tomorrow she will journey home, and resume her duties as an entertainer. But tonight she will be treated as an honored guest. A hot bath is prepared, and she’s given an indigo-dyed cotton kimono in the old arrows pattern to change into. In her room, Kikue finds a husk pillow and wadded cotton bedding laid out on the floor. Flushed from the bath, she feels the tickle of worn-out tatami on the soles of her feet. She runs her fingers over the coarse autumn leaves used to patch holes in the paper sliding doors. The smell of burning wood wafts up from the kitchen below. When the moon rises, Kikue gazes into her small, oval mirror and catches a glimpse of her own village, where her parents and younger sisters share their meager meal of millet and radishes.
Later that evening, a white fox dressed in an ivory kimono steals into the room. The creature breathes over the geisha’s face and Kikue smiles, dreaming of her baby floating peacefully in her womb. Each time the baby turns inside her, it grows older, more like a child. After a while, the fox coughs three times and Kikue awakens to find a small child beside her.
The fox leads Kikue and the child up the steep hill. She will try hard to memorize the spot the child picks, under a large red pine whose serpentine limbs offer shelter from the elements. Kikue clears away the pine needles so her child can more easily dig its tiny feet into the damp earth. She pats the child’s head and promises to visit the village in the spring. She will bring a red bib and the sweetest bean pastry she can find.
And so this child joins countless other unborn, unnamed playmates alongside the hilly path. Watched over by white foxes, the jizos stand quietly. In the spring they will listen to the bush warbler’s magnificent trill, in the summer they will be soothed by the cicada’s cadence, in the fall they will look up wistfully at the ducks migrating south and in the winter they will wear cloaks of snow to stay warm. Each waits longingly for its mother, who will renew her love when she makes her pilgrimage up the steep hill.