One of the most ubiquitous features of any Japanese shrine is the round-headed stone statue clothed in a knit red bib, hat, and soft smile.
They are the guardians of travelers, saviors of unborn children, and all around good guy spirits.
And they are everywhere: from shrines to cemeteries to hiking paths high on a mountaintop.
They are jizo.
Borrowed from India and traveling through China into Japan, these enlightened bodhisattvas have delayed Buddhahood to help all of us still stuck in the cycle of suffering.
Although I have seen countless jizo statues since arriving in Japan, the ones adorning the top of Mount Misen on Miyajima Island are particularly eye catching. Unique in their less conservative fashion, they cheekily wear round framed sunglasses, pearl necklaces, and oversized beanies.
The hip and fashionable statues are a warm welcome after tackling the zillion stone steps up the mountain. I chose to hike the Momiji Dani Route because it was the easiest to find.
This path features lots of beautiful stone areas, a shallow river most of the way up, dense foliage, and stone steps as far as the eye can see. It is a beautiful quiet hike that takes about an hour or so. I would rate it as a moderate trail. The steps are average sized, rarely those huge awkward ones where you have to jump a little to clear. It is 2.5 km.
Unlike near the tori gate in the water just minutes away, this trail was sparse of people. I saw four people the entire length. Everyone else must have taken the cable car. I did see an impressive buck (impressive at least in comparison to the docile deer eating out of tourists’ outstretched hands), a mountain mouse, and even a Japanese pheasant.
10 for 10 would do again.
Once you reach the 95% top, you come across a temple, lots of people, and those cute jizo I mentioned earlier. Gone is the serenity of the trail, but you’re almost at the top and are all sweaty and ready to sit and enjoy your packed lunch so power through (or pause at the cherry trees) and finish the remaining 5%!
On this last stretch, the trees are all gone and the rocks take pride. You begin to get a good breeze here too and all the hard steps are gone so you should be feeling pretty good right about now.
Just before clearing the rocks and cresting the top, I noticed piles of stones all stacked up like festie-goers do in riverbeds back home. Some had money perched on top (which I haven’t figured out.)
Apparently these are connected to those lost, unborn children stuck in limbo between heaven and hell, or whatever the Buddhist equivalent is. They are stuck because they didn’t accumulate enough karma since their lives were cut short.
In order to climb out they have to stack these stones day after day until they are tall enough to climb and escape into Buddhist paradise. Because damned demons knock over these kids’ progress each night (they are demons after all), people will help the kids out by stacking the stones for them. Of course the jizo are there too, to slip stones from the sleeves of their robes to help these children.
Passing these curious piles of stones you are quickly at the top of the mountain! There is a nice two storied observatory for you to take in the panoramic view of the water and adjacent islands. It is absolutely beautiful and totally worth the stair climb.
I don’t recall there being food or drink sold at the top, so bring a bottle of water and a small snack. This isn’t a grueling hike so no need to pack a whole picnic unless you just really want to.
Other than this route, there are two other hiking trails you could take down. They both supposedly take about the same time as the Momiji Dani one. The Daishoin Route (3 km) is paved and features a shrine and statues and apparently a view of the Tori at some point. I didn’t see where this one began or I maybe would have taken this one (still very happy with my choice.)
The other route is the Omoto Route (3.2 km) and features a cool rock and some history.
You can find info on all three trails here.