Nikko is one of the most popular day trips from Tokyo, and for more than a good reason: it’s got gorgeous shrines, tons of history, and is situated in a really beautiful nature. But besides all the standard stuff you’d see in a trip to Nikko, Kanmangafuchi Abyss (憾満ヶ淵) is probably the most interesting.
The area practically untouched by tourists boasts beautiful ravince, rows of shrines, and also a row of stone Jizō statues.
How many? Nobody knows for sure, because apparently each time you count them, you end up with a different number because they, literally, disappear.
We are in Nikko National Park, known for its Unesco World Heritage Site with a number of important temples and shrines, where you can do some great hikes here that will keep you busy all day.
This is a 2-hour walk along the Daiya River near the world-famous temples of Nikko. But that walk might be longer if you start counting the red-clad statues…
Officially the Shinkyo bridge is not the start of Kanmangafuchi Abyss, but if you walk from the station towards the temples you can’t miss this popular bridge at all.
This is where the famous monk Shodo Shonin (735-817) crossed the river in the 8th century A.D. with the help of two snakes that formed a bridge and founded a number of temples.
In 1636 it was decided to build a bridge here to honour the monk itself. However, the current Shinkyo bridge dates back to 1907, because the original was completely wiped out after a major flood.
If you turn left after the bridge and follow the river, you come across mysterious statues.
The reason they “disappear” is pretty simple.
It is in the nature of the Narabi Jizō (literally Jizō in a row) or, due to their apparently ghostly nature and disappearing tricks, also called Bake Jizō, or “ghost Jizō.”
According to popular belief Jizō is one of Japan’s most beloved deities and is regarded as the Bodhisattva who cares for travelers and lost souls, but is also the guardian of children. And a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who would like to become a Buddha, but puts it off to help living people on earth.
The story goes that all young children go to Sai-no-kawara after their death. In the underworld this is the dried-up bed of the river of souls.
Because they have little experience, they have to build little towers of stones, and each tower represents a prayer. However, every night the oni, or the devils, come and knock these towers down and the young souls have to start all over again.
But then it is Jizō who comes to their rescue: he wanders around and hides the children in his red bibs. The colour red probably refers to earlier times, as an old tradition in the Asuka period (522-645AD) was that children with diseases had to wear red bibs to distinguish them from other children. But red is also seen as the colour that offers protection and security.
Not by chance, this particular group of Jizō statues are decorated with red cloth bibs and crocheted caps.
There are roughly 70 of them, lined up in front of a wall stretching around 97 meters and overlooking the Daiyagawa River.
The decorated statues are ensconced in the Kanmangafuchi abyss, which was formed around 7,000 years ago when lava flows from an eruption of the nearby Mount Nantai combined with the water of the river. And It was also the last time an eruption took place of the 2484-metre high volcano. The resulting landscape is extraordinary and the abyss offers a pleasant trail to walk along.
Located about 40 minutes by walk from Nikkō Station, the whole hiking trail is about 2 hours and a half long.
Asian black bears and bloodsucking land leeches sometimes appear in the walking trail so be wary of them if you decide to hike beyond the Narabi Jizō!
Another interesting sight in Nikko National Park is the Kegon Falls. But this beautiful waterfall also has a dark side, and this is another story…