Buddhapada in Kamakura

Where: Kamakura, Japan

When: July 2009

Camera: Canon Powershot A550


I found this decorated stone in Kamakura’s Hase-Kannon Temple. It is a stylized depiction of the footprints of Buddha. In early Buddhist art, it was considered taboo to directly depict a being as sacred as the Buddha, so they alluded to his presence by showing his footprints, called Buddhapada in Sanskrit. These Buddhapada are covered with a variety of symbols. Look at the most prominent one, which looks like a sun or wheel. If it looks familiar to you, you may be thinking of the Flag of India, which has a similar design in the center. The wheel shown on both these footprints and the Indian flag is a dharmacakra, or a “wheel of law”, and symbolizes the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. Japan’s many sacred places are filled with items and objects that are often laden with symbolism. Knowing even a little bit about the many cultural traditions that make up Japan can add a lot to a trip through the country.

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania


Kamakura’s Daibutsu

Kamakura's Daibutsu is unusual in that it stands out in the open, not enclosed in a building.

No visitor to Kamakura, or even to Tokyo, should miss this Great Buddha. Housed in the temple Kōtoku-in (高徳院), it is a popular destination and so easy to reach on foot or by bus. Most maps of Kamakura depict the Daibutsu visually, so you need not read Japanese to find your way.

Cast in 1252, this Buddha was originally housed in a wooden temple. Notably, it was built completely with donations – no government funding whatsoever. A 1498 tsunami destroyed this building, and crushed hundreds of Samurai who were taking refuge inside, but left the huge bronze statue standing. Some repairs were done in 1960, particularly to strengthen the statue’s neck, but otherwise it has been standing out in the open, in it’s present form, for more than five hundred years.

The statue is made primarily of copper, with a large component of lead and tin. Even today we are not one hundred percent sure how it was put together. Originally the statue was covered in brilliant, shining gilt, but over the course of 700 years it has worn almost completely off. Specialists have said that that statue’s balance, intelligence, powerfulness, and dignity surpass that of the Todaiji Buddha in Nara.

Among those impressed by the statue’s longevity and serene demeanor are Richard Cocks, who after visiting in 1616 said that the Daibutsu must be larger than the Colossus of Rhodes, and Rudyard Kipling, who, after seeing the Daibutsu in 1892, mentions it repeatedly in verses throughout his novel Kim.

This Daibutsu has windows on the backside!

“O ye who treated the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when “the heathen” pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!”

If you go around to the back, you can see that this Buddha in fact has windows!

It is hollow inside and in fact for a time it was a den for gamblers and the homeless.

Now you can go inside for only 20¥ – about 20 cents.




/Three Weeks of Japan Mania


Kyoto, Japan – July 25th, 2009

Even one of Sanjusangendo’s statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, is impressive. Each one stands life sized and is covered in gold leaf, has eleven faces, and twenty one sets of arms to symbolize the goddess’s thousand. Can you picture one Kannon now? Good.

Unfortunately you can't take pictures inside... so I had to rely on postcards and Google.

Now imagine 1001 of them, each one unique and hand carved from Japanese cypress, crowded into Japan’s longest wooden building. A giant statue of the Thousand-armed Kannon sits in the middle of the hall, with 500 smaller (merely life sized) Kannons on each side. The youngest of the statues are almost 700 years old. The effect is mind blowing.

As if the Kannons weren’t enough, the hall also contains the statues of 28 Guardian deities and of Fujin and Raijin, the terrifying Japanese Gods of Wind and Thunder.

I almost hurried off after seeing the statues, but I would have missed the fascinating story of the other side of the hall, which has been used for the Tōshiya archery tournament since the 1600’s. A small but fascinating display lists the truly awe inspiring records of Japan’s best archers.

The temple's exterior, painted a vibrant vermilion, is also worth a look.

In the Oyakazu competition, for example, archers shoot as many arrows as they can within a 24 hour period, hoping to ‘clear’ – shoot the length of the hall without hitting the roof, floor, or pillars – as many arrows as possible.

In 1686, Wasa Daihachiro shot 13,053 arrows in Oyakazu, clearing 8,133 of them. This averages out to nearly 6 arrows a minute for twenty four hours straight.

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania