On my second day in Tokyo we decided to go to Kamakura. I had heard of Kamakura before because it used to be the seat of a shogunate; it was a centre of power in Japan from 1180 until 1333, giving this period the name the Kamakura Period. In fact it is estimated that in 1240, Kamakura was the 4th largest city in the world!
We saw a lot of temples in Kamakura (which I will cover, never fear), but the most impressive and iconic sight to see is the great buddha. This Buddha, representing Amida, the Buddha that Pure Land Buddhists pray to, was built in 1252 by Lady Inada, a court lady of Minamoto Yoritomo, the first shogun of the Kamakura period. The Buddha is located at Kotoku-Ji (広徳寺) but the temple is entirely based around the Buddha.
Minamoto Yoritomo won the war of the Heike, which saw the death of the boy emperor (see Mourning on the Mountain) and the victory of the Minamoto clan against the Taira, securing his family’s position as military rulers of Japan. Minamoto Yoritomo saw the great Buddha at Nara and wanted to build one of his own to demonstrate his power. However, he died when he fell off his horse before he had time to even start construction. The lady Inada decided that she would carry out the project in his honour, initially building a wooden Buddha, and when it was destroyed in a Tsunami she raised funds for a bronze statue.
The Buddha is actually hollow and you can pay a mere 20円 (10p) to go up inside it (in addition to the temple fee of 200円, £1.10). The inside has a lot of graffiti from all through the ages. It also has a big metal bar that prevents the Buddha from being destroyed by earthquake which was added in 1960. It has lasted 700 years without the bar though, so I’d say it probably doesn’t need it. The metal of the Buddha was warm to the touch – it had retained the warmth of the day. If you do not like dark spaces and steep steps you may want to give going inside a miss. There are only about 10 steps but they are very narrow and steep.
The Buddha weighs 93 tonnes and measures 13.35 meters including the base. It was constructed in 30 separate stages, with different casts being stuck together to create the giant bronze statue. The Buddha is said to preside over the Pure Lands – a mythical land to the West where people can attain enlightenment. Pure Land Buddhists believe that if they pray to the Amida Buddha they will go to the Pure Land when they die.
On our way up to the Buddha, we tried these biscuit things called senbei (煎餅), which are a type of rice cracker. They looked good, but in reality they were pretty dry and I could only eat one. They were better with sauce than without and are an okay snack if you want a hard savoury biscuit. I personally would not recommend them, go for takoyaki instead.
Biscuits aside, the Kamakura Buddha is one of Japan’s National Treasures and I would recommend going to check it out if you visit Tokyo – Kamakura is just south of Tokyo proper and is accessible by train. It’s a good temple viewing location if you can’t make it to Kyoto.