Kamakura is a city about 50 km from Tokyo and was the location of the nation’s capital during the Kamakura period, or around 1185-1333 CE. These days, it’s most famous for its daibutsu, or great Buddha statue. Daibutsu are fairly common throughout Japan, but the one in Kamakura is one of the most famous. It’s almost 800 years old and is an iconic sight in Japan.

A photo of the great Buddha of Kamakura. It is a seated bronze statue that has a lovely patina. He is sitting in the lotus position.
Have you seen me before?

My mother actually made a special request to come out to Kamakura and see this daibutsu. Her father had visited Japan before she was born, and she’d grown up with slides from his travels. My grandfather recently passed away, and I think she really wanted to feel closer to him by visiting the places he’d been. (We still have his walking stick from Mt. Fuji hanging up in our house.) She vaguely remembered seeing a huge Buddha statue in his slides — seated, outdoor. And I figured this was our best bet.

So we all set out on the train to Kamakura to go to Kotokuin, the home of Kamakura’s famous daibutsu. It’s not hard to find once you get to the train station. There are signs all over the city pointing to this single temple, and there were crowds to match. That said, it really is an overwhelming site. We spent a long, long time just sitting on the bench and watching him. There’s such a gentle feeling suffusing the statue, even with the crowds. It’s a definite must-visit.

A red statue behind protective lattice. He's muscled and scary and his mouth is closed.
You’re greeted by the “a” and “un” guardians as you walk in.
A red statue behind protective lattice. He's muscled and scary and his mouth is open.
These are common sights at large temples. See how one has his mouth open (“a”) and one has his mouth closed (“un”)?
A photo of the daibutsu from the front. There are people all over.
Yeah, you’re not going to get a photo of him without a lot of people in it. I wonder how many photos of him that I’m in…
A look inside the daibutsu. You can see all the pieces of bronze bolted together from the inside.
Yes, you can even go inside the daibutsu, which gives you a clue as to its size.
Another view inside the daibutsu. There's a whole leading up to the head, and you can see where it's been reinforced.
It was really fun to look inside its head!
A faded statue of Jizo.
A lot of people leave right after visiting with the daibutsu, but the grounds extend pretty far back. I recommend taking your time and exploring!

After visiting Kotokuin, my mother went off to find a knitting store and my father and I decided to walk to Hasedera. I didn’t know an awful lot about Hasedera, but I’d heard it was a really neat place to visit.

Y’all. I’m here to tell you. Nothing against the daibutsu, but Hasedera is freaking amazing and if you go to Kamakura, you have got to hit that place up — and leave quite a bit of time to visit it. The grounds themselves are beautiful, but there’s also a museum, a cave, and an absolutely incredible golden Kannon statue that, quite frankly, took my breath away. (Kannon is one of the most popular and prominent bodhisattvas that you’ll find in Japan. She is the goddess of mercy, and the Japanese version of the Chinese Guanyin.)

Hasedera isn’t that far away from Kotokuin, but it was just long enough to walk past a bunch of snack stands that of course we had to test out. I got myself a purple sweet potato croquette and yes, please.

Once we got there, I dropped off my stamp book and then we started taking a look around. There are quite a few smaller temples and neat statues around the complex, but I’m going to focus on a few of the places that I loved most.

The entrance to the temple. You can see the front gate as well as several gnarled old trees.
The entrance to Hasedera had some really lovely old trees.

First of all, the cave. THE CAVE. There is a small cave on the grounds that’s dedicated to Benzaiten, the Buddhist goddess of music, beauty, wealth, and wisdom. (She is in fact the Japanese import of the Hindu goddess Sarasvati.) She can usually be identified by the biwa (a type of Japanese lute) that she holds. The cave at Hasedera has statues of Benzaiten and her attendants carved into the walls, and as you venture deeper into the cave, has multiple altars and statues dedicated to the goddess. It is just so, so beautiful inside. I could have stayed there for hours.

A statue of a woman holding a lute carved into a cave wall.
This statue of Benzaiten was, of course, the centerpiece. Isn’t she beautiful?
Her attendants lined the walls in the main chamber.
a small statue of jizo set into the wall.
There were also various small statues set into little hollows.
Candles light up this small statue of Benzaiten.
The candles were highly necessary. It would’ve been pitch black otherwise.
A small statue of Benzaiten. There are hundreds of tinier votive statues scattered around her.
The last chamber had a little altar so people could leave votive offerings.
Rows and rows of the offerings.
Which they did.
Offerings stuffed into the crevices of the cave walls.
On every available surface.

Unfortunately, the museum was closing shortly and we had a lot of stairs to climb to get to it. The museum itself features a human-sized golden statue of Kannon as well as statues of her thirty-three avatars. There are also several ancient artifacts such as the old temple bell and assorted kakebotoke (hanging plaques). It’s a small but lovely little museum and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Next to the museum, though. Next to it! I’d heard about a Kannon statue at Hasedera, and while the one inside the museum was very nice, I’ll admit to being a little disappointed. I was so wrong. We walked out of the museum and into an adjacent room with one of the most beautiful statues I’d ever seen. The golden Kannon is enormous, 9.18 m (30.1 feet) tall, and splendidly regal. I did not take pictures in the museum or of the golden Kannon itself as we were instructed not to out of respect. That said, I’m sure you can find photos if you look — and I’m sure they won’t do the magnitude of it the least little bit of justice. It was yet another part of Hasedera that I could have spent an hour in, just staring.

A traditional-style peaked roof building. It's very elaborate and beautiful.
The outside of the complex that houses the museum and the giant golden Kannon statue.

Outside of the museum area, there’s a viewing/picnic area that has a gorgeous view of Kamakura. After sitting down and taking a break after going up all those stairs (a mad dash that my body did not thank me for later), and after exploring the statues in this area, we started back down.

A view from the top of Hasedera.
A statue of the historical Buddha surrounded by statues of guardian deities.
Some of the statues outside the museum.
A thick little bamboo thicket lit up for the evening. Two Japanese women are taking selfies inside it.
The bamboo thicket that led back to the sutra hall.
Instead of your usual wall of wooden ema, the wishes at the little Inari shrine at the top of Hasedera were written on oyster shells! Apparently, oysters are associated with the image of Kannon they have here; the oysters attached themselves to the statue to protect it while it was in the water.

The light started to get bad as we made our way back down, but there’s one more part of Hasedera I’d really love to talk about. There’s a stunning little section of the temple complex dedicated to the bodhisattva Jizo in his role as guide to deceased children. There is a ritual known as mizuko kuyo in Japan that’s sometimes undertaken after an infant dies. (Stillbirths, miscarriages, and abortions are included in this; it’s a somewhat controversial practice for many reasons.) One of the reasons why Jizo is so popular is that he watches over children, particularly as they navigate the afterlife. He’s said to hide children under his robes and secret them across the riverbanks of the dead. That’s why you will find thousands of tiny Jizo statues in this little garden at Hasedera. These are statues used in mizuko kuyo, and as such, the area should be treated with respect. Regardless of one’s personal feelings about the rite, these statues are proof of an awful lot of grief and terrible human experiences. It’s not unlike a graveyard.

Several outdoor stone shelves of middling to small Jizo statues. At least a hundred are in the picture.
There is a staggering amount of Jizo statues in this area. You can see that a few in the front have had hats and bibs knitted for them.
Another part of the memorial garden. Hundreds of Jizo statues line the edges.
It’s hard to convey just how many tiny Jizo statues there were out here.
A statue of several Jizo in a row, each in a different position.
A few of the larger statues; these weren’t used in individual rites.
More tiny Jizos as well as several human-sized ones.
There were Jizos in all shapes and sizes out here.
A high up ledge around the rim of the garden. Even this is lined with dozens of tiny statues.
Honestly? Thousands. There must have been thousands.

Still, there are joyful Jizo to be found on Hasedera’s grounds as well. The happy Nagomi Jizo greets guests as they arrive, and we passed Ryoen Jizo  on our way out. Jizo, like all of us, contains multitudes.

A large, very cutesy statue of a smiling Jizo.
This is the Nagomi Jizo near the front of the temple complex. He is very popular for selfies.
Three little Jizo, similar in style to Nagomi Jizo. The picture is a little blurry due to the lighting.
And this was the best picture I could get of Ryoen Jizo as we were leaving.

After we left Hasedera, we got dinner near the train station before heading back to Tokyo.

My father got a bowl of shirasu, or whitebait. It’s a popular dish in that region and looks like hundreds of tiny baby fish. I played it safe and got nabe.

All in all, Kamakura is a perfectly lovely day trip, and you could easily spend several days there exploring the temples and beaches there. We had a really nice day!