This small shrine within Hasedera temple is an example of the blending and co-existence of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan. I’m really interested in Japanese and Buddhist history so I was excited to find this spot at our first stop in Kamakura.
We visited on a spring morning, just after the temple opened for the day. During the cherry blossom season temples across Japan are really busy so our first stop each day is chosen to enjoy the serenity of the location before the crowds arrive. We only found the caves by luck as I hadn’t heard of them, a small group in front of us headed to the path up the hill to the main temple buildings so I veered right, past the fish pond and found a small Torii in front of a entrance that appears to lead inside the cliff. We wandered inside and waited when we noticed a monk ahead of us light a candle and place it in front of one of the statues carved into the wall of the cave. He continued paying his respects for a few moments and then acknowledged us a he left the cave. It was cool and slightly damp inside as you’d expect but was sufficiently lit by both electrical lighting and flickering candles to allow the interior to be seen clearly.
It was one of the times that I really wished I could read, or at least speak reasonable Japanese. I would have loved to know more of the history. They caves weren’t large and were built low so you had to crouch down to pass through. The tunnels wound around making it appear to be a larger complex, and considering it was dug into a cliff and the carvings were etched from the rock walls it was very impressive. We spent quite a while in the cave having the space entirely to ourselves.
From the small amount of information I’ve been able to obtain, the Benten-Kutsu cave is thought to have been used by Kobo Daishi and that he carved the small statue of Benzaiten with 8 arms located in the adjacent Benten-do Hall himself while in seclusion there during the 9th century. Benzaiten is a Japanese Buddhist Bodhisattva brought to Japan between the 6th and 8th centuries. She’s mentioned in the Lotus Sutra and is often depicted holding a traditional Japanese lute or mandolin. Benzaiten is also a Shinto deity of everything that flows; words, music, water and by extension knowledge.
Follow the general directions for accessing Hasedera Temple in Kamakura. Once inside the temple grounds, while still on the lower level head to the right and past the pond. The Torii will be ahead of you to the left.