August 18, 2016

Charming Hase-dera

Situated not too far from the coast of Sagami Bay, the Hase-dera temple complex is one of the Kamakura area's many must visit attractions.

The iconic lantern outside of Kamakura’s Hase-dera temple complex

Anyone who follows me on social media knows I am very much a fan of the Shonan area and especially Kamakura. I frequently visited this region over the summer months while continuing my quest to source content for this site as well as other social media channels. As one might expect, I was quite shocked to find yet another location that had exceeded my expectations. Known as Hase-dera, the temple can be found close to the shores of Sagami Bay and Yuigahama beach.

Hase-dera is most famous for its hydrangeas that bloom every May and June during Japan’s rainy season. However, due to their popularity, lines to enter the temple grounds often swell to wait times of up to two hours. This, coupled with the fact that Hase-dera is very much situated along the tourist track, has dissuaded me from venturing past the unremarkable temple gates until now. Yet, much like my experiences viewing Kamakura’s famous giant Buddha statue, I feel the crowds tend to diminish the temple’s aura of spirituality.

Honestly, I had written off the temple somewhere between seeing the busloads of Japanese and Chinese tourists pulling into Hase-dera’s parking lot and its location on the “normal” Kamakura itinerary. Needless to say, when I found myself drifting towards Hase-dera on a drizzly Sunday morning, I was rather surprised to discover what the temple’s simple exterior had been concealing all along. I highly recommend visiting Hase-dera, but again, try to avoid the midday crowds if possible.

Getting to Kamakura & Hase-dera

Hase Station is the closest train station to Kamakura’s Hase-dera temple complex

Hase-dera is located in southwestern Kamakura and nestled seamlessly within the hills of the valley that encase the ancient capital. The easiest way to get to Kamakura is via the JR Yokosuka Line from Tokyo, Shimbashi, or Shinagawa stations. If you are not staying near the Yamanote loop line then I suggest you consult Hyperdia to map out your best route to Kamakura. Once on the JR Yokosuka Line, the trip is a 50 minute, one-shot journey into Kamakura. After arriving at Kamakura Station, visitors can opt to walk to Hase-dera or hop a ride on the charming vintage Enoden line from Kamakura to Hase Station.

My preferred route to Hase Temple actually involves some walking and a short detour; first, a visit to Sasuke Inari Shrine and then on to the Zeniarai Benten. I absolutely recommend my fellow travelers check out both sites! When you are ready to leave these two spots, a back road will take you directly to the Daibutsu at Koto-in. From there you can easily make your way to the nearby Hase-dera but make sure to stop in for the local Shirasu-don special on the way!

Here’s a map showing the location of Hase-dera. As with most Buddhist temples, the grounds close around 5:00 PM. Get an early start and be mindful of the time as you may want to take in other sites or venues along the way.

Hase-dera is a Temple of Mercy

A map of Kamakura’s Hase-dera temple complex

Legend holds that Hase-dera was originally established over 1,200 years ago though temple documents note the founding as being during the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Today, Hase-dera is part of the Jodo sect of Buddhism and is famous for its wooden Kannon statue measuring 9.18 meters tall. Known by the name of Guanyin in ancient Sanskrit, Kannon is the bodhisattva associated with compassion and mercy. The statue is housed in the main temple hall. You’ll find this located halfway up the hilly ranges of Western Kamakura. The terrace on which Hase-dera’s core structures are built offer some STUNNING views of Sagami Bay and the Kamakura valley.

Entering the grounds of Hase-dera costs 300 yen. The temple has installed electronic ticketing machines outside of the main gate to streamline the entry process. Certainly these machines seem out of place yet they are a welcome addition for the monks who tend to the grounds. In addition, these ticket machines are a valuable asset during the rainy season when throngs of visitors descend upon the temple. I’m all for overlooking this potential eyesore as the machines also offer a universal language and communication option.

Once inside the temple you’ll be greeted by some stunning ponds and arrays of pathways. Hase-dera has a collection of spots to check out and you’re free to wander at will. As always, I urge you to check things out at your own pace as the temple meanders through the hillsides and the stairs may take the wind out of your sails! The entire Hase-dera complex is comprised of seven buildings and each is introduced level-by-level in the following section.

Entering the Caves at Hase-dera

If you’ve been following this site, you have come to see that I have a spirited affinity for finding places dedicated to Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows (water, time, words, speech, eloquence, music and by extension, knowledge). The Shonan area of Kamakura and Enoshima have a special relationship with the goddess and there are a lot of sites bearing her name. As such, I was not the least surprised when I came upon another sacred site dedicated to Benzaiten at Hase-dera.

As with Enoshima’s legendary caves, Hase-dera’s dedication to the goddess can be found carved into the mountain. Known as Benten-Kutsu Caves, they can be found on the northernmost side of the temple grounds. Nearby is also a small shrine dedicated to Benzaiten known as Benten-do, a common name for auxiliary shrines to the illustrious goddess.

After passing through the Torii gates that mark the entry to the caves, visitors will be greeted by eerily spiritual carvings of Benzaiten and sixteen children. According to legend, these caves were carved by the founders of the Hase-dera many years ago. Be warned however, especially for the tall explorers out there, the ceiling can get REALLY low at points meaning that you might have to drop to your hands and knees if you’re not flexible.

Praying for the Lost at Hase-dera

Halfway up the stairs towards the main hall you’ll find a spot known as Jizo-do Hall. This sacred area is dedicated to Jizo, the patron protector of children. It is estimated that over 50,00 Jizo statues have been donated to Hase-dera since the end of World War II. Given reincarnation is a central tenet of Buddhism, parents who endure miscarriages, stillbirths, or abortions often donate a statue in the likeness of Jizo to ensure a safe passage to the next life for their unborn child. Each small statue remains in place for approximately one year. Together, the overwhelming number of statues create a memorable atmosphere of somberness and awe.

The Main Hall of Hase-dera

The main hall of Kamakura’s Hase-dera temple complex

Continuing up the stairs, you will discover a terrace that is home to the main hall of Hase-dera. First up, on the far right of this stretch, you’ll find the Shoro Belfry. Tradition holds that this giant bell be rung 108 times per on December 31 to dispel all 108 sufferings of humanity. If you happen to be visiting during New Year’s Eve, you must just be lucky enough to hear the bell being rung. Next to the belfry you will find the Kannon-do and Amida-do halls. The first of these halls houses the aforementioned 9.18 meter wooden statue of Kannon. Reported to be one of the biggest wooden structures in the world, the Hase-dera Kannon statue has an interesting mythology surrounding its origin.

The temple’s official site has the following to say:

According to the legend, in 721 AD the pious monk Tokudo Shonin discovered a large camphor tree in the mountain forests near the village of Hase in the Nara region. He realized the trunk of the tree was so large that it provided enough material for carving two statues of the eleven-headed Kannon. The statue he commissioned to be carved from the lower part of the truck was enshrined in Hase-dera Temple near Nara; the statue from the upper half (actually the larger of the two) was thrown into the sea with a prayer that it would reappear to save the people.

Fifteen years later in 736 on the night of June 18, it washed ashore at Nagai Beach on the Miura Peninsula not far from Kamakura, sending out rays of light as it did. The statue was then brought to Kamakura and a temple was constructed to honor it.
The Buddhist artifact museum at Kamakura’s Hase-dera temple complex

Next to the Kannon-do there is also a nice little museum dedicated to Kannon. As one might expect, the museum exhibits materials related to the Goddess of Mercy as well as some other Buddhist artifacts of note. Additionally, to the right of the hall housing the Kannon statue, visitors will find a 2.8 meter tall golden statue of the Amida Buddha in Amida-do Hall. History recounts that this sacred depiction of the Buddha was commissioned and paid for by the first shogun of Japan, Minamoto no Yoritomo, in 1194.

Attractions Near Hase-dera

Paths to various minor attractions at Kamakura’s Hase-dera temple complex

Hase-dera also has several other cool spots to check out. Both the view point and the walking path offer some stunning views of Sagami Bay from the hillside. If you’ve manage to work up an appetite there is actually a full service restaurant called Kaio-kan that is host to a similarly beautiful view. Even if you only stop in for a cup of tea or coffee, I highly suggest checking popping in if only to take in the scenery.

Last, but by no means least, there is a building called a Kyozo that is located outside the restaurant. Inside this wooden structure are rotating book racks that are known as Rinzo meaning a place where important Buddhist sutras for the temple are kept. The popular belief is that by turning the rinzo, you can earn the same merit as from reading all the sutras. Talk about saving time!