As you wander the towns and villages of Japan’s Kanto Region, and particularly in Shinshu (Nagano), you might occasionally come upon some peculiar stones carved with seemingly content men and women getting rather cuddly with each other. Yes, of course – peculiarity is one of Japan’s greatest talents. And with every interesting tradition and detail there is an underlying a story. These stone Dōsojin (道祖神) are no exception.
The typically affectionate Dōsojin.Dōsojin is a sort of catch-all name for the deities (kami) originally found at village borders, along country roads and near mountain passes. Those placed at the edges of the community were meant to protect the people from poisonous spirits, evil kami and, perhaps, foreign English teachers who might wish to bring pestilence and disaster in from the outside. Those standing along country roads watch over travelers, pilgrims and, in a broader sense, people in transition.
Along a trail heading into the mountains of Shinshu.These kami are sometimes represented by stones carved into human male and female genitalia. Others are simply rounded rocks. But the most common (and, for the unofficial majority, the most endearing) Dōsojin are represented by the aforementioned couple, a slightly elderly man and a woman standing arm-in-arm.
Protectors of Hayashi-mura, Matsumoto.As the demarcations of neighborhoods and named communities in Japan can be difficult to pin down, Dōsojin can appear in seemingly random places. And though they date back over a thousand years they are still placed at intersections and at the ends of bridges – in their happy, cuddly couple form so as not to impress the wrong ideas upon the hordes of elementary school children walking and biking past them every day.
On the north end of a footbridge in Matsumoto.Dōsojin, as protectors of the people of a given town or village, have also been referred to as Sai no kami (塞の神 – the god of the fort or stronghold, which makes a lot of sense), Sae no kami (障の神 – the god of failure or breakdown, which might make some sense in a roundabout way), Dōrokujin (道陸神 – god of the road, which makes perfect sense) or Shakujin (石神 – stone god, also completely sensible but not entirely informative). As they are so often depicted as an elderly couple, they have long been seen by some as a symbol of a long and happy life. In some areas – and related to the tradition of depicting Dōsojin as phallus and cunnis – they are considered gods of easy childbirth and healthy upbringing.
Dōsojin are everywhere.Though they represent divine protection against nefarious forces wishing to bring disaster upon a community, Dōsojin are not infallible. It was believed by some that a damaged Dōsojin was a harbinger of an impending epidemic. Nothing seems to be said, however, about the consequences of wearing away over time and from the elements.
Dōsojin and the ravages of time.To round out the cultural and traditional significance of the Dōsojin there is in January every year the Nozawa Onsen Dōsojin Festival (野沢温泉道祖神祭り). This festival, like many around Japan, includes a shrine (in this case Nozawa Onsen’s Kosuge Shrine), a large wooden structure (for this festival a sort of tower called a shaden), a fire to burn said wooden structure to the ground, and plenty of yelling, quasi-violence and sake. This festival takes place in January, in Nagano Prefecture’s northern onsen village of Nozawa. For all the English info you need on this festival check out this page from the Nozawa Onsen Guide.
Dōsojin enjoying the park in Utsukushigahara’s Onsen Village.Keep an eye out as you travel through the Kanto Region, for an up close look at an ancient godly custom. While you are taking their picture you can thank these Dōsojin for keeping you extra safe in this decidedly non-dangerous country.
And if you want a little extra protection, go down to your local stone cutter and pick up your own Dōsojin to take home.
Encyclopedia of Shinto: http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=205
Japanese Buddhist Statuary: http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/dosojin-stone-markers.shtml