The Great Buddha at Kamakura
by Kate Tsubata
Snaking along the hairpin turns of the tree-thick ravines of Kamakura, in Kanagawa prefecture, a tour bus finally stops at a parking lot that has manifested out of nowhere, in which gleaming and highly-colored luxury buses park impossibly close to each other, sardine-style.
Tourists—not only foreigners, but Japanese school groups, retirees, and a sprinkling of families—pour out of the vehicles to enter the shady entry to Kamakura’s famous shrine.
Upon entry, a ceremonial cleansing fountain tinkles its invitation to the pilgrims, “Come purify your body and heart before entering.” There is a ritual: Pick up the long-handled scoop with the right hand, and pour water over the left. Now, scoop another dipper full and cleanse the right. The third dipper full is poured into the left, and lifted to the mouth, where it is swished and spat out to the rocks, to purify the heart. Then, the dipper is held straight up, letting the water course down the handle to re-purify it.
The sanctified visitors can now enter the main plaza where an enormous bronze edifice of Buddha sits, hands cupped in his lap, some 13 meters—yes, about 40 feet—high and nearly as wide. Covered in the same verdigris as the Statue of Liberty, the colossus also has visitors entering from the side to view its inner parts, for a few yen more.
Although a few souls do approach from the front, make a financial offering, and bow heads in prayer, most people seem less impressed by the spiritual and more by the photographic. Cameras click constantly; the groups pose and grin with fingers cheerfully flashing the peace sign. Immortalized in a medium a few centuries more advanced than bronze, they sit down and pull out their lunches, munching on rice balls wrapped in seaweed and seeded with pickled vegetables. Amongst the sea of contented picnickers, Buddha seems like a large and tolerant mama, happy that everyone’s getting fed.
Yet all was not always nirvana for this statue. Cast and erected in 1252 AD, the brainchild of a woman, Inadano Tsubone and a priest known as Joko, the sculpture was originally protected by a large temple built around it. Then, in 1498, while Christopher Columbus was island-hopping in the Caribbean, a tsunami of mammoth proportions swept away the entire temple leaving only the foundation stones.
However, the Buddha survived, and has survived the elements for five centuries since. His neck got reinforced about 50 years ago, and the base on which he sits was engineered for earthquake flexibility. But the handiwork of the two metal sculptors, Ono Goroemaon and Tanji Hisatomo is a tribute to the constancy and quiet endurance taught by Gotama Siddhartha in 500 BC.
—Kate Tsubata, reporting from Japan
Additional travel information from Japan-Guide.com
The Great Buddha of Kamakura is a bronze statue of Amida Buddha that is located on the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple. With a height of 13.35 meters, it is the second largest Buddha statue in Japan (the largest is located in the Todaiji Temple in Nara).
The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall. However, the temple buildings were washed away by a tsunami tidal wave in the end of the 15th century, and since then the Buddha stands in the open air.
Kate Tsubata is a Washington Times journalist and world traveler with her family, including home schooled children.