The convent with a big secret

Special destination: Jakko-in convent, Kyoto

Rokumantai Jizo at Jakko-in convent in Ohara, near Kyoto
I’ve seen my share of excellent healing Jizo figures, but this one was especially magnificent. There are five colored threads streaming down from its left hand to the mortals below, each symbolizing a gift that this Jizo can bestow on pilgrims. But that’s not the most amazing thing about it, by far…

It isn’t often that I set out to do book research and discover something far more amazing than I expected, but that’s exactly what happened when I visited one of the settings I’d picked out for The Last Tea Bowl Thief. I chose the Jakko-in convent because it was already well-established by the 1700s, within a few days walk of the character’s home town, and was the home of a healing Jizo figure that was famous enough for people to make pilgrimages to ask for its help. What I didn’t know is that Jakko-in’s Jizo figure had a profoundly moving secret…

The journey started off delivering what I’d expected in a most reassuring way…

Countryside near Ohara, Japan
Deep in the misty mountains near Kyoto? Check.
Countryside near Ohara, Japan
Accessed by narrow lanes that still resemble the ones people used when they came by foot in the 1700s? Check.
Street outside Jakko-in convent in Ohara, near Kyoto
Forest still crowds in upon the buildings, just beyond the small footholds of civilization? Check.
Pickle stand outside Jakko-in convent in Ohara, near Kyoto
Pickle vendor that had been selling pickles outside the convent’s gates for generations? Check.
Gate of Jakko-in convent in Ohara, near Kyoto
And what could be better than this gate? So far, so good.
Jakko-in convent in Ohara, near Kyoto
The convent grounds and buildings did not disappoint—they were exactly what I’d been hoping for—a secluded place where a good family might send their daughter to become a nun.
Jakko-in convent in Ohara, near Kyoto
I diligently scouted all the details that needed to be nailed down—like this bench where visitors wait, while enquiries are being made within

Then I sought out the healing Jizo.

The Rokumantai Jizo is larger than life, so it has its own building, and it’s so holy that it’s forbidden to take photos of it (but you can see part of it in this shot from Jakko-in’s Instagram. taken from just outside the door)

The most amazing thing starts with the tragedy that struck the convent in the year 2000. An arsonist broke in and burned it to the ground. After 1900 years of keeping the faith in that same spot, by the time they subdued the flames, every single building was toast. When the ashes cooled, the sorrowing nuns sifted through the rubble and confirmed that their sacred wooden figure was no more.

But among the charred remains, they also discovered a secret so deep that even from the convent’s founder hadn’t known it: the centuries-old Jizo was pregnant!

The sculptor had concealed a metal box inside, filled with over 3,400 tiny wooden Jizos. The main figure burned, but most of the little Jizos survived the fire. so, out of the sad end of one saint came a powerful rebirth of thousands more, and that made the temple (including its lovingly recreated Jizo figure) an even more powerful place of pilgrimage!

By now you’re probably wondering why I’m dishing up all the spoilers here, instead of telling you to read the book. It’s because I couldn’t put this in the book! That’s right—this convent figures in the lives of the 18th-century characters, not the modern ones, so when it appears in The Last Tea Bowl Thief, it won’t burn for another three hundred years.

If you’d like to visit Jakko-in and actually get to see the Jizo’s face (not to mention all the tiny Jizos, which are in the small museum they have on site)…

Here’s where Jakko-in is:

Map of Japan showing Jakko-in convent in Ohara, near Kyoto
It’s actually right outside Kyoto (which mysteriously does not show on this Google map WHY)
Local map showing Jakko-in convent in Ohara, near Kyoto
This gives you a better idea

Here’s how to get to Jakko-in from Shinagawa Station in Tokyo:

Train route from Tokyo to Kyoto

From Kyoto Station, take the 16 or 17 bus to the Ohara bus stop (it takes about 50 minutes, but it’s a very pleasant ride through Kyoto and its surrounding countryside), then it’s about a 20 minute walk to Jakko-in from there. The route from the bus stop is marked.

The convent is open from 9:00 – 17:00 every day (Mar-Nov) but closes early at 16:30 from Dec – Feb. There’s an entrance fee of ¥600 which includes the museum (and you don’t want to miss that, because that’s where they keep the box filled with tiny Jizos.)

There are more maps and info (in Japanese) on the Jakko-in website.

I used the Japan Navigation phone app to figure out this route, and you can easily use it too, with your actual date and departure time. It’s also good for finding the easiest way to get to Shinagawa Station from where you’re staying. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it and here’s where to buy a Japanese transit card and how to use it.

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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