The syncretic nature of Japanese religious life is evident in the icons and practices associated with the deity Zao Gongen, the abiding spirit of Mount Kimpu, in the Yoshino Mountains south of Nara. Zao was the protective deity of Shugendo, a Shinto-Buddhist cult devoted to ascetic practices and mountain worship. Images of him are based on the vajra-bearing guardians of the Buddhist pantheon.
This finely cast bronzed image of Zao Gongen expresses the fervor of his cult in the latter half of the Heian period, as well as the refined aesthetic sense of the Fujiwara aristocrats who were its most powerful adherents. Poised on one leg, Zao brandishes a now-missing vajra (thunderbolt scepter); his might and ferocity are rendered in a sensitively modeled form embellished with delicately chased designs on the windswept garment. This icon was probably placed in a grotto similar to the one in which it was discovered in modern times, still worshipped, in a village on the Japan Sea north of Kyoto.