Skip to main content

The judge who tied up a god to catch a thief

Mukashi-mukashi, once upon a time, there lived a kimono maker in Edo. One day, after he had bought a beautiful bolt of blue fabric at the market place, he stopped at the local temple to rest in the shade of a tree. When he woke up, his cart was gone. Somebody had stolen it!

There was only one solution: ask the most famous judge in the land, Ōoka Tadasuke, for his help. Tadasuke called all the villagers to his court. "Who stole the cart?" he demanded, but everybody remained quiet. "Then," Tadasuke decided, "it must be the god Jizō's fault. Jizō is supposed to protect us all, but he didn't. Go to the temple, arrest a statue of Jizō, tie him up and bring him to the court." 

Bound Jizō at Nanzō-in

His bewildered guards obeyed. When they brought the statue into court, bundled up in ropes, everybody burst out laughing. "Silence!" thundered Tadasuke. "How dare you laugh in the presence of a god? I will fine you for contempt!" The frightened villagers wailed that they had no money. "Then I will accept a token fine," said Tadasuke. "Each person must bring a swatch of cloth."

You know what happened next, don't you? One villager brought a swatch of blue kimono fabric and could be identified as the thief. The judge personally removed the ropes from the Jizō statue, apologized to the deity and had him returned to the temple.

Ōoka Tadasuke (大岡 忠相), also known as Ōoka Echizen (大岡越前), was a real character who had a reputation as one of the wisest and most incorruptible officials of the Tokugawa era. It can't be proved that this particular incident of the stolen kimono cloth actually happened – perhaps it's just a folk tale – but we do know for a fact that a Jizō statue at a temple in present-day Kanamachi in Katsushika-ku has been swaddled in ropes for several centuries.

The temple's full name is Narihira-san Tōsen-ji Nanzō-in (業平山東泉寺南蔵院), but it's often referred to as simply Tōsen-ji or Nanzō-in. The Jizō statue is called Shibarare Jizō (縛られ地蔵) or Bound Jizō. You can still offer prayers for stolen or missing items at this temple: buy a rope, tie it around the statue and ask the deity for his help. The ropes are removed in a ceremony at the end of the year.

Bound Jizō at Nanzō-in. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Cool story, huh?

It gets better, because … there's another one! The second Bound Jizō stands at Rinsen-ji (林泉) near Myōgodani Station in Bunkyō-ku. The original temple was built in 1602, and it's said that the statue was donated by its founder, Ito Hanbei, in memory of his parents. It's not clear when Rinsen-ji's statue became a Bound Jizō, but the statue played a role in Zenigata Heijia detective story set in the Edo era, written by Nomura Kodō (1882-1963).

Bound Jizō at Rinsen-ji

The hero of the story, Heiji, used old coins with a hole, called kan'eitsūhō, to catch criminals, and it's interesting to note that modern 5 yen and 50 yen coins, which both have holes, are threaded into the ropes tied around Rinsen-ji's statue.

Bound Jizō at Rinsen-ji

So there you go. If you're missing anything, you know where to go. Hmm. I wonder if I could tie a rope for my missing short-term memory?


1) I recommend the book Ōoka the Wise: Tales of Old Japan by I.G. Edmonds. It's a children's book, but hey, it's never too late to have a second childhood. The book is available on

2) The judge was the main character in two TV dramas, Abarenbo Shogun (暴れん坊将軍) and Ōoka Echizen (大岡越前).

3) If you want to know more about Jizō and his dozens of manifestations, I recommend Mark Schumacher's website.

4) A special thanks to Minor for telling me about this statue!

The entrance to Nanzō-in. You can see the Bound Jizō in the background.

Bound Jizō at Nanzō-in

Close-up of Bound Jizō at Nanzō-in

Main temple at Nanzō-in

A Mizuko Jizō (水子地蔵), in other words, a Jizō for aborted or miscarried babies, at Nanzō-in.

Memories of unborn babies

I don't know why there's a Rilakkuma ema at Nanzō-in, but never mind, it's cute!

The incense burner at Nanzō-in has interesting feet.

Bound Jizō at Rinsen-ji

Bound Jizō at Rinsen-ji

Coins weaved into the ropes

Bound Jizō at Rinsen-ji, and below are two smaller Jizō statues at the temple.

Drinks on a grave: making sure the deceased won't get thirsty.

We talked about the proximity of graveyards to houses in the comments section of another post. Here's a good example. I wouldn't mind living in one of these houses, since this cemetery at Rinsen-ji is tranquil and well maintained. 

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

Popular posts from this blog

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

The Tenen Hiking Trail in Kamakura

"I can't do this anymore," my colleague said. The bell for the next lesson had just rung, but he was still sitting in his chair, looking like Marvin the Paranoid Android.
He's an eikaiwa veteran who's had a stint as a school manager, and he's a genuinely good teacher, but he's reached that saturation level that hits any eikaiwa teacher with half a brain and a smidgen of goodwill.
Eikaiwa teaching is a thoroughly unnatural job: you're supposed to make entertaining small talk with strangers you may never see again, and you're supposed to do this for eight hours. If it's an interesting person, great, but sometimes you're stuck with Kenji whose hobby is sleeping or Mariko whose hobby is to go to shopping.
I grimaced in sympathy. Only two things keep me going right now: knowing that university classes will resume shortly, and hiking. As I observed my colleague, I made an instant decision: Kamakura. Friday, my day off, Tenen Hiking Trail.


Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

How to control a killer flood on the Sumida River

This is epic! It started with mild curiosity. Why doesn't Tokyo do more with its rivers? Instead of entombing them in concrete, why not more parks and boats and bridle paths?
Then it escalated. Where does the Sumida River start? Why is the Arakawa in Tokyo such a straight line? Surely that's not natural? Iwabuchi sluice. What's that? Great Kanto Flood 1910. Cripes, look!, Sensō-ji was under water. Why is there so little information in English? Wait, hang on, Wikipedia is wrong!
Thus idle speculation unleashed a growing fascination with Tokyo's flood control techniques: a complex system of rivers, canals, sluices, locks, controlled water levels, super levees, evacuation areas and a massive underground discharge channel in Saitama. Research proved interesting but frustrating, so I rejected academia in favor of empirical evidence: I walked along Tokyo's most important waterway, the Sumida, from its origin in Kita-ku to Tokyo Bay. I covered 25 km and passed over/under…

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hiking in Nikko to Takinoo Jinja

Polish your boots, get your backpack and grab your camera. We're going hiking again, and this time we'll follow in the footsteps of a holy man.
Shōdō Shōnin (勝道上人) was one of the great monks of the Heian era. Not only the first person to explore the mountains of  Nikko, he also founded several temples in this area, including Shiunryū-ji (present-day Rinnō-ji) and Chūzen-ji.

It is said that when he wanted to cross the Daiya River, a flood cut off his access to the mountains beyond. A deity appeared on the opposite bank and threw two snakes across the raging river. The snakes turned into a bridge, and Shōdō could cross safely.
After his death in March 817 he was buried in Nikko. His statue stands at the entrance to the Nikko World Heritage Site in honour of his contribution to Buddhism in Japan.

You can still walk along one of his routes, a meandering trail¹ that takes you behind the famous Tōshō-gū, across the hills, past a famous waterfall and into a quiet gorge – no tourists! –…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …