The Great Buddha in Kamakura is one of the largest Buddha statues in Japan. It’s just one of several great attractions that make this coastal city, just an hour from Tokyo, the perfect day trip.
The Great Buddha statue was at the top of my list of places to visit on our day trip to Kamakura. It is a well-known landmark and a recognized image of the city. The statue is at Kotokuin, a Buddhist temple from the Jodo sect and is the third-largest Buddha statue in Japan, the largest being at Mt Nokogiri in Chiba prefecture and the second largest at Todaiji Temple in Nara which we visited later.
Kamakura was one of the first places we visited in Japan, and Kotoku-in was the second temple after Hase-dera on our Kamakura day trip. I’m sure the novelty of finally being in Japan and visiting a place I’d only read about for so long had an impact on how awestruck I was when I first saw the statue but I don’t think it would be possible to see it without appreciating its beauty along with its cultural and historical significance.
Managing to arrive in Kamakura while the city was covered in cherry blossom was really lucky, they were a few days earlier than expected and it’s a great city to enjoy them. There are many cherry trees all around the city including the Dankazura on the approach to Hachimagu Shrine.
The bronze Buddha was cast in 1252. At 13.35 meters tall and 121 tonnes the statue was originally housed within a large temple hall but when that was repeatedly destroyed in the 14th and 15th centuries during typhoons and a tidal wave the statue was eventually left uncovered as it now stands from 1495. There’s a concept of the peaceful acceptance of impermanence that is central to Buddhist beliefs and it appears that accepting that such an important relic was to remain exposed to the elements has done it no harm.
As you enter the temple of Kotoku-in there is a sign in Japanese loosely translated to English:
Stranger, whoever you are and whatever your creed, when you enter this sanctuary remember that you tread on ground hallowed by the worship of ages. This is the temple of the Buddha and the gate to the eternal and therefore should be entered with reverence.
I’m sure the sign is unnecessary, the atmosphere and awe of the location would be sufficient to ensure no one could enter without the appropriate reverence. I know some people talk about being “templed out” on their visits to Japan but after three visits and dozens of shrines and temples, from the huge ones with UNESCO protection to the small local temples in the smaller towns and cities they each offer their own beauty and history.
Inside the Great Buddha Statue
You are able to enter the statue where you can see how it was made for a token Y20 fee (around 25 cents). It’s quite a humbling experience to stand inside and observe the workmanship of a 760-year-old statue.
Once inside you can see the complex work that has gone into the construction, it is especially impressive considering the age of the statue.
To create an icon that size it was cast in 30 separate stages and from the lattice pattern on the interior walls they were able to tell that many layers of moulds were placed on top of each other to create strength.
A unique method of attachment was used to interlock the pieces called ikarakura. Much of the statue is unchanged from the original construction but in 1960 the temple undertook some work to preserve the statue. These included a stainless steel plate at the base and around the neck area you can see where fortified plastic ERP was used to reinforce it.
The story behind the Warazori
Warazori are traditional Japanese straw sandals and a giant pair hangs at Kotoku-in near the Buddha statue.
The warazori was first donated by the Matsuzaka Children’s Club of Hitachi-Ota City in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1951. It was a time when Japan was starting to recover from the terrible cost of the war and they were sent by the children with the wish that the Great Buddha would don them to walk around Japan, bringing happiness to the people.
The sandals were hung in the temple and the tradition continues, every three years the Matsuzaka Children’s Club send a new pair of warazori to Kotoku-in.
Getting to the Great Buddha
From Kamakura JR station change to the adjacent station for Enoshima Electric Railway. You want a train headed to Fujisawa then get off at the third station which is Hase. The ride is around 7 minutes. From the station the Great Buddha statue is about 5-10 minutes walk.
Entry to the Great Buddha is between 8 am and 5 pm, there is a notional fee for entry of Y200.
While at this station consider a visit to Hasedera, it’s one of my favourite temples in Japan. Hasedera is a large temple complex and the Benten-Kutsu cave and carvings there are quite unique.
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