Summary: Encounters with many Jizo statues, which protect and bless children, particularly those who passed before their time
They are said to be the guardians of the souls of children, particularly those who passed too soon (who died before their parents, still-borns, and miscarried or aborted fetuses). Some also believe Ojizo-Sama protect travelers and firefighters.
In some Buddhist traditions, it is believed that the souls of children who die before their parents are trapped in the underworld. They are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River to the afterlife because they have not accumulated sufficient good deeds to compensate for having made their parents suffer. Jizo saves these souls.
They are easy to recognize. They are usually small stone statues wearing a red bib or bonnet. Some hold a cintamani (a sacred wish-fulfilling stone or jewel) in the left hand, and a staff in the right hand (to alert small animals and insects so they will not accidentally harm them).
I always found these diminutive statues comforting.
We saw many of these throughout our trip. Sometimes there was a single, small statue, sometimes a small cluster, and sometimes large groups of tiny Ojizo-Sama were assembled in one place. Here are a bunch of pictures of assorted Ojizo-Sama we encountered:
As I finished writing this entry, I recalled a Japanese folk story I learned as a child about a poor man and his wife. During a cold, snowy day, he passes five Ojizo-Sama statues, and thinking how cold they must be, brushes the snow of their heads and shoulders. He later buys hats for them with the money he was supposed to use to buy rice cakes to celebrate the new year. He returns and places the hats on them. Running out of hats, he removes the cloth from his own head to cover the last statue. For his kindness and generosity, he and his wife are woken in the middle of the night to find a wonderful gift of gratitude from the Jizo at his door. Here is retelling of the story.
I imagine the combination of the kind, smiling faces of the Ojizo-Sama, the remembrance and blessing of children, and the long-buried memory of this sweet folk tale is what makes seeing Ojizo-Sama so comforting and calming to me.