Japan 2017 – The Great Buddha

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Temples and Shrines

One of the more interesting things on many military personnel’s “To Do” list is to visit as many shrines and temples as possible, and get a book stamped by the monks who oversee that temple.  Here is how this works:

Buy a Goshuin-cho (朱印帳), then carry it with you wherever you go (you can get these at the various temples or at shopping areas).  “Go” is an honorific title; “shuin” is the stamp/writing; “cho” means notebook.  When you visit a shrine, give your book to one of the monks.  He will then use black ink to hand write the name of the temple and date using traditional Japanese calligraphy, and then stamp the book with a large red stamp that is unique to that specific temple.  The cost of this is an entry fee of ¥200-¥500 (US$2 to $5) and a donation for the stamping of about ¥50 (US$.50).  You use the same book at each temple (there are 1000’s of them in Japan) until it is full (about 40 or so temples).  When you fill up a book you can get another and continue on.  By the end of your sailor’s duty, they will have a collection of original artwork that traces their journey through Japan.  Everyone’s notebook ends up being different based on where they visit and when.  Aside from the names and dates being distinct, each monk and temple also has a different style.  The best part is that the book unfolds like an accordion … it opens up like a folded scroll so that all the pages can be revealed at one time.

The origins of the temple visits is rooted in pilgrimages to sacred and holy sites.  These may be sacred natural destinations like Mt. Fuji and Mt. Koya; or they may be early single-site holy places like Ise Shrine.  The idea is that since no one temple is more important than the other, all of them must be visited.

Some of the larger temples are so popular that you will be given a ticket and will need to pick up your journal later (sometimes in a few minutes, sometimes in a number of hours.)  The larger temples also have upped the ante by offering a unique and more expensive notebook, or they charge more for a larger stamp and artwork.

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Getting there

This is one of the closer tourist sites near Yokosuka Naval Base and is easily reached via trains.  To get to the Great Buddha, we took the Ikego train (Jimmuji Station on the Keikyu Zushi Line) which was right outside of our sailor’s apartment building to the end point at Shin-Zuchi; then walked to the Zuchi Station of the JR Yokosuka Line (about 1/2 mile).  We took the Yokosuka Line to the Kamahura Station; then transferred to the Enoden Line and got off at the Hase Station.  It was about a 10 minute walk from Hase Station to the Great Buddha.

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Transferring from JR Kamahura Station to Enoden Line

The Great Buddha of Kamahura
(鎌倉大仏, Kamakura Daibutsu)

The Great Buddha is a bronze statue that was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall. However, the temple buildings were destroyed multiple times by typhoons and a tidal wave in the 14th and 15th centuries. So, since 1495, the Buddha has been standing in the open air.  Entry fee was ¥200 per person; the interior tour was ¥20; and a book stamp was ¥50.

All temples have a main “gate” with minor gates at the sides and back.  The gates are guarded by Komainu (or “lion-dogs” in English).   These statues ward off evil spirits, and are almost identical except one has an open mouth (pronounced “a”) and one a closed mouth (pronounced “um”) which represent the first and last letters of the Sanskrit alphabet and mean the beginning and the end of all things.

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On entering the gates there are a few things you should know:

  • Behave calmly and respectfully. Traditionally, you are not supposed to visit a shrine if you are sick, have an open wound or are mourning because these are considered causes of impurity.
  • At the purification fountain near the shrine’s entrance, take one of the ladles provided, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands. Then transfer some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water beside the fountain. You are not supposed to transfer the water directly from the ladle into your mouth or swallow the water. You will notice that quite a few visitors skip the mouth rinsing part or the purification ritual altogether.
     

  • At the offering hall, throw a coin into the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. If there is some type of gong, use it before praying in order to get the kami’s attention.
  • At some temples, visitors burn incense (osenko) in large incense burners. Purchase a bundle, light them, let them burn for a few seconds and then extinguish the flame by waving your hand rather than by blowing it out. Finally, put the incense into the incense burner and fan some smoke towards yourself as the smoke is believed to have healing power.
  • When entering temple buildings, you may be required to take off your shoes. Leave your shoes on the shelves at the entrance or take them with you in plastic bags provided at some temples. Wear nice socks.  Bare feet (wearing sandals without socks) is considered rude in Japanese culture.

Most shrines and temples have stone or wood lanterns on the grounds.  They represent important symbolic offerings to the Buddha and to Japan’s native Shintoism.  They also act as a way to light various main paths.

 

Inside the Great Buddha

You can go inside the Great Buddha to see how it was constructed.  Since the stairs are very steep and narrow, you may have to wait for people to come up to down.  There is a fee (of course) to go inside.

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Some Shrines also have market booths inside the gates which sell goods that are made at the Shrine by the monks, or are offered as a donation from groups who support the upkeep of the area.  These items include incense, Goshuin stamp books, umbrellas!, Dharma dolls and omamori (お守り) (protection amulets).  The Tokyo Weekender blog has more about these at Tokyo Weekender Omamori Guide

Outside the Shrine or Temple

After we toured the grounds, we walked back down the main road.  There were many “tourist trap” shops selling souvenirs (and umbrellas!), and quite a few places to eat.  We found a very nice local restaurant.  They spoke very little English so we ordered via pictures.  The food, service, and drinks were awesome.

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Can’t read Japanese?  An English/picture version of the menu was available.

 

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