Ep. 020: The Great Buddha at Kamakura

Let's visit Kotoku-in!

Though not the largest in the world--or even in Japan--his serene expression is perhaps the best known image of the Buddha in the world. Let's meet the Great Buddha of Kamakura in this episode of--


Note: Some of the information in this episode, and a terrific map of the grounds, can be found at Kotoku-in's website.


The serene countenance of the Great Buddha of Kamakura

If you catch it on a weekday outside of the tourist season, you would never guess that the sleepy little seaside town of Kamakura--population under 200,000, and less than 30 miles from Tokyo as the crow flies--was the de facto capital of Japan during the period named for it, the Kamakura Shogunate (1185 -1333). Thus traveler and Japanologist Lafcadio Hearn called it "the city that was and is not." Perhaps it was not in his day--he died in 1904--but I suspect it's grown some since then. Its population is once again close to what it was in 1300, though some of that may be due to annexation of surrounding towns.

Being surrounded on three sides by hills that were only easily traversed after seven artificial passes were built, and on the fourth by the sea, the location of the city was a natural fortress. It may also have given the site its name: though a different character is now used, kama may have been a reference to a cooking stove, banked with earth on three sides. And kura is a warehouse, another secure location. (The kama character used today is a weapon, which also harkens back to the days when Kamakura was the seat of a military government.)

Based in Tokyo as I was for five years, and living even closer--in Yokohama--for the first half of that time, I have been to this furukusai ("stinking with age") city over a dozen times, and nearly every time paid my respects to the iconic Daibutsu (Japanese for "big Buddha," but translating the first character as "Great" gives it more gravitas).


The bases which used to hold up the hall now hold up tired tourists

As his counterpart in Nara is today, the Kamakura Big Buddha was once located inside a building. The one in Nara, less than an hour's drive outside of Osaka, is in a that building was--until recent decades--the largest wooden structure in the world.

So, even though the Kamakura Buddha is only 3/4 as large as the one in Nara, its building must have been mighty big. Which makes it all the more shocking that, in 1498, the tsunami that resulted from the Nankai Earthquake (which is estimated at 7.5 on the Richter scale) completely tore away the entire structure. My whimsy imagines a monk coming down out of the hills after solitary meditation and, sleepily noticing the now-exposed statue, mumbling, "'Morning, Lord Buddha...EH?!"

This destruction was not an entirely new phenomenon. A wooden statue preceded the current bronze one, built over the ten-year period from 1233 to 1243. Its building was destroyed, and the statue damaged, in a 1248 storm. The current statue was completed about four years later, and its hall was destroyed by a typhoon in 1334 and damaged by another in 1369. When the third hall went, in 1498, the priests gave up and have left it out in the open air for over 500 years, losing most of its golden luster to the elements.

One more thing: The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 measured at "only" 7.9 MMS, but lasted anywhere from four to ten minutes. It moved the Great Buddha, whose weight is somewhere over 100 tons (Wikipedia puts it at 133) some 20 inches! Since then, a steel plate between the statue and its base allows it to skitter around a bit in an earthquake. So far, so good.

Kotoku-in Temple

The six-foot sandals for the Buddha's happiness-giving walkabout

The Great Buddha is actually part of a temple named Kotoku-in. You can still see the bases of the old hall, and small halls stand behind and next to a separating wall around the Buddha.

The temple has hung a pair of large sandals on a side wall of the compound. The first such pair was woven by the Matsuzaka Children's Club in Hitachi-Ota, Ibaraki, in 1951. This being just a few years after World War II, the children prayed that the Buddha would wear them as he roamed around Japan "bringing happiness to the people." For this is Amida Nyorai, the Amitabha Buddha. Those who chant his name sincerely can gain admission to the Western Pure Land. The nearly-six-foot sandals are supposed to fit the Great Buddha's (invisible) feet, and have been replaced every three years since 1956 by the same children's club.

The Approach

Some stumblebum walks through the Two Kings Gate

Leaving the narrow side street out front, we enter a small tree-lined lane and shortly pass the Nio-Mon or "Two Kings Gate," with its fierce (though not particularly large) figures of the two temple guardians. The gate and its occupants were moved here from another temple and restored in the 18th century.

The inevitable ticket office stands to the left (not far from the inevitable gift shop); after ponying up and entering, one walks toward a leafy wall on a path that slightly zigs to the right and then zags left again. This feature may be meant as a "screen wall" to discourage the entry of malevolent spirits. But for us, it creates a bit of fun.

These multitudes have just "zagged" around the screen wall

The first time I visited the Big Guy, my friends did this to me, and I have done it to others since (most recently my wife-to-be, in 2006). You make the right zig, and ask your friend to close her or his eyes. You then lead your friend around the zag, move forward as much as you dare (depending on the crowds), and TA DA! Your friend opens his or her eyes and is overwhelmed by the stupendous sight before them! (Your friend will miss the hand-washing basin next to the screen wall, but can always go back to be "purified" later.)

The path to the Buddha; note the hills behind

It's actually a fairly long walkway toward the Buddha, maybe over 200 feet, with some steps. But never mind: as big as he is, he still appears colossal from a distance. The statue itself is about 37 feet high, roughly twice as tall as the statue of Lincoln in his Memorial in Washington, D.C. (and that's pretty magnificent). The base adds another six feet or so of elevation.

It has been pointed out that the Buddha's proportions and pose are somewhat grotesque when viewed from the side: his head is too big, and he's hunched over. But the effect is meant to impress when viewed from the front--remember he was once in a hall--and that is right on the money. Orientalist that he was, Hearn said that "you feel that the image typifies all that is tender and calm in the Soul of the East."

Today the hills behind, which once kept armies at bay, form a pleasing backdrop to the serene figure, which is around a half-mile from the sea he faces. (Great feng-shui!)

The Kangetsu-do was once part of a Korean imperial palace

In the rear of the heavily planted-grounds stands a small hall, the Kangetsu-do, which may once have been part of a 15th century imperial palace in what is now Seoul, Korea. It had once been in the garden of a Tokyo mansion, and was donated to the temple in 1924. A late-Edo Period (perhaps 19th century) figure of Kannon Bosatsu (Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) stands inside.

Really Getting into the Buddha

Looking up the Buddha's neck-hole

But we're not done yet! To the right-rear of the Buddha is another ticket office where, for a nominal fee, you can go right inside the Buddha! It's quirky, yeah, but kind of cool, especially looking up into his neck-hole. One source says that in periods when the temple was pretty run-down, "homeless and gamblers lived inside, making it as their den." And now, tourists--is that an improvement?

There is some graffiti inside. A recent restoration effort found it easy to remove writing done with markers; alcohol did the trick. More difficult were the markings done with sumi ink and brush. But what were those things doing in a visitor's pocket anyway? It's speculated that long-ago temple administrators supplied the ink-and-brush to would-be vandals--for a fee, of course, as a fund-raiser.

Facts and Figures

Those hands, that mouth

The Wikipedia article on Kotoku-in gives the following data, which I have expanded on for fun:

  • Height of face: 7 ft 9 in (slightly less than the average ceiling height in an older American home)

  • Width of eye: 3 ft 3 in (or one meter, slightly longer than a yardstick, and exactly as long as a meter stick)

  • Width of mouth: 2 ft 8 in (slightly longer than my fingertip to my armpit, or as long as a healthy, middle-aged man's step); the circumference of his thumb is an inch longer

  • Height of ear: 6 ft 3 in (about as tall as Donald Trump, and just slightly shorter than Abraham Lincoln, our tallest president to date)

  • Width from knee to knee: 29 ft 11 in (about half as long as the lane in a bowling alley, or twice as long as a giraffe is tall)

  • Diameter of the byakugo (forehead "dot"): 7 inches (about half as tall as a bowling pin--I see a theme emerging here!); each of the 656 hair coils on his head is the same height, 7 inches. This item comes from the temple's website.

Some of these comparisons were found at "The Measure of Things." Put your height in and see what happens! (My height times 214,685,100 is the distance from the Earth to the Moon!)


A last look; there are almost always offerings in front of him


Well, that's about it for this quick visit to what Hearn described as "the dreamy passionlessness of those features." I hope you felt a little of what I have felt on every visit!

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Master Huineng is touted as the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan (Zen) tradition. We'll take a quick look at this fascinating character, and visit the place where he nearly got roasted--literally!