The great Senso-ji Temple

Sensō-ji is an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa district of Tokyo, Japan. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple, and one of its most significant. It is a very busy place during daytime so I decided to escape the crowd by visiting early at dawn and then returning back late at night.

We were staying at APA Hotel Asakusa-Kuramae. It is just a couple of minutes walk away from the Kuramae Station on the Toei Oedo Subway Line. I had intentionally reserved this hotel as it is at a walk-able distance from the historic temple. I left the hotel at around 6:30 am. The skies were a saddening, dull gray as I made my way along the quiet alleys.

Because the hotel was near the Sumida river, I choose to walk along the banks towards the heritage temple. Along the way, helping myself to some pictures. The picture below is a shot of the Azuma Bridge with the Asahi Beer Headquarter Building in the background.

You can cross the Azuma bridge from above, but I chose to go under a small dark tunnel. This tunnel is mainly used by joggers, so they don’t have to climb the stairs to cross over to the other side of the road above.

Across the tunnel, I found myself in the Sumida Park area. On the right there is a small dock for ferries. On your left, you can find the Tokyo Cruise Ship Asakusa office. If you are looking for a cruise around Tokyo on the Sumida River, this would be the place to go.

From here I took a left turn towards Senso-ji. From the Azuma bridge you can directly head for the temple, that is the more correct way, that leads directly to the temple main gate and then the temple, but I love to wander about a little.

The Nitenmon Gate

Coming from the river side, the first structure I encountered was the Nitenmon Gate, located on the east side of the Main Hall. Nitenmon in Japanese means “the gate of two ten”. It is named so because of the two protective Buddhist deities (known as ten) that can be seen on its left and right side.

The deities are called Zochoten and Jikokuten respectively. The original statues were destroyed in 19th century. Since then, substitute statues from the Ueno Kaneiji stands there. This gate leads directly to main altar of Senso-ji. It was originally built in 1618 CE and has been named an Important Cultural Property.

Asakusa Shrine

From the gate, towards my right I could see the Asakusa Shrine. I went in and paid my respects. The Asakusa jinja is a Shinto shrine also referred to as Sanja-sama (Shrine of the Three gods). It’s modest appearance belies its historical and cultural significance. The shrine honors the spirits (kami) of the three men – the Hinokuma brothers and Chief Hajino, who founded Sensō-ji.

After taking a few pictures, I made my way towards the main hall of the Senso-ji.

History of Senso-ji

According to legend, Senso-ji Temple was said to have been created when a statuette of Kannon was fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two local fishermen brothers – Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari in the year 628 CE. It is a mystery as to who carved the statue, or how it had come to be floating in the waters of Sumida, but everyone considered the discovery of the statue to be a miraculous event.

News was sent to the then capital of Japan, which was in Nara, a city to the south of Kyoto. Nara was at that time under the reign of Empress Suiko. She was a very devout Buddhist and is credited with establishing many of the oldest temples and monasteries in Nara. When she heard the story of the two fishermen and the statue of Kannon, she ordered that a temple be built to house the statue.

For those who don’t know, Tokyo was just a small village at that time. The chief of the village, Hajino Nakamoto was greatly moved by the presence of the idol and he decided to remodel his own house into a small temple where the villagers could worship the goddess of mercy. The statue was consecrated during the Kamakura period, around the year 645 CE, which makes the temple the oldest temple in the capital.

Centuries later, Senso-ji became associated with the Tendai school of Buddhism. This Mahayana Buddhist tradition brought over from China in the 8th century became the dominant form of Buddhism among Japan’s upper classes for many centuries.

Although most of the original temple buildings were destroyed by US bombs during World War II, the structures was rebuilt soon afterwards in 1950.

Actually, Senso-ji’s full name is “Kinryū-zan Sensō-ji” , Kinryu-zan meaning “The mountain of the golden Dragon .

The Main Temple Compound

It was quiet early but a steady stream of visitors were already coming in to pay their respects. The Main hall is the largest structure in the complex. In front of the main hall lies a large incense cauldron. You can light some incense sticks there if you prefer. Before entering the hall you can also indulge in some harmless fun by buying the Omikuji (paper fortunes) that costs 100 yen. But even if you unfortunately draw bad luck, don’t be discouraged, just tie them around a designated place nearby and hope for a better one next time, fingers crossed 🙂 A lot of Omikuji will already be hanging nearby like white flowers, so you can’t miss it.

The Hondo (Main Hall)

The Hondo or Main Hall houses the Kannon statue. The statue is kept deep inside the hall to keep it safe from pollutant degradation. The Hondo Hall is a national treasure and was originally built in 942 CE. It was later rebuilt by the third Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu. The current building dates from 1958. Photography is not allowed inside the hall.

Inside of the hall was rather cold, presumably because of lack of any sunlight inside. I paid my respects and walked back out. From the top of the stairs I took this photo of the Hozomon Gate.

I wandered around the main hall taking a few shots. With the thick cloud cover, the day was photogenically extremely boring. I have tried to spruce them up in Lightroom to bring some energy into them.

Five Storey Pagoda

While walking around the Hondo, I strayed into a small rock garden. From here I got a better shot of the Pagoda.

The Five Story Pagoda (Goju-no-Tou), which is said to contain some of the ashes of Buddha. The Pagoda is approximately 53 meters high and is especially picturesque at night when all lit up. The original structure was built in 942 CE. It was later reconstructed in 1973. It is a national treasure and the second highest pagoda in Japan.

In the garden on the right of the Hondo, there is a small landscaped garden. In the garden you can find a hexagonal temple. I am not too sure about its history but the small wooden structure tucked away in the north-west corner of the temple grounds was built way back in 1618.

It was originally built on top of a well, but was slightly moved from its original location in 1994. The inner structure follows an umbrella-like wooden structure called ougitaruki. The Higiri Jizō-son is enshrined in the small wooden structure, which translates as “Time-bound Ksitigarbha-bodhisattva.”

Directly opposite to the hexagonal temple lies a seated bronze Buddha. Talking of seated Buddha’s, if you are touring Japan, you must not miss these four:

The Hozomon Gate

After leaving the garden, I walked towards the Hozomon Gate. The Hozomon Gate is the gateway to the inner complex of Senso-ji Temple and the temple’s inner gate. The second floor of the Hozomon Gate houses many of Senso-ji’s treasures, including a copy of the Lotus Sutra, and the Issai-kyo scriptures.

When you are standing with your back towards the main hall, you will see the two large straw sandals hanging on the left and right of the gate. They are called waraji. These huge sandals were crafted by villagers in northern Yamagata Prefecture, and are meant to symbolize the Buddha’s power. It is believed that evil spirits will be scared off by the giant sandals. The Hozomon Gate was originally built in 942 CE. After it was destroyed during World War II, when the temple was bombed during the 10 March air raid on Tokyo, it was rebuilt in 1964.

In the same gate, from the other side you will find two statues located on either side. They are Nio Guardians, the guardian deity of Buddha, and the gate was originally known as the Niomon. You can find the pictures of the Nio guardians further down the article.


From the Hozomon Gate, I walked towards the main entrance gate. The two gates are connected by a long narrow corridor known as the Nakamise-dōri. It is said to have come about in the early 18th century, when neighbors of Sensō-ji were granted permission to set up shops on the approach to the temple.

In those times it was like flea market. So in May 1885 the government of Tokyo ordered all shop owners to leave to rebuild the area in an orderly fashion. In December of that same year the area was reconstructed in Western-style brick and the shop owners were allowed to come back to resume their business.

During the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake many of the shops were destroyed, then rebuilt in 1925 using concrete, only to be destroyed again during the bombings of World War II. The length of the street is approximately 250 meters and contains around 89 shops.

The Kaminarimon Gate

The Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate serves as the entrance to the Senso-ji Temple precinct. It was originally built in 942 CE by military commander Taira no Kinmasa. The gate has two protector deities, Fujin, the god of wind is on the right, and Raijin, the god of thunder is on the left.

The structure features a massive red and black paper lantern, dramatically painted to suggest thunderclouds and lightening and hence the name. The traditional lantern called chochin in Japanese is 3.9 meters high, 3.3 meters in diameter and almost 700 kg in weight. The original lantern burned down along with the Kaminarimon in the late Edo Period. It was rebuilt in 1960 and is renewed every decade with the current lantern created in November 2013.

My photo-walk of Senso-ji was done. Small crowds of tourists were beginning coming in. I spent the day casing out book stores around Tokyo. Mani needed some language books. I needed some Manga. We went to Maruzen Marunouchi Main Store, one of the biggest book store in Tokyo. It was just incredible, the sheer variety of the books they carry.

Time flies away on wings when I am surrounded by brand new books. It was late in the evening by the time we reluctantly came out of the building. By 8 pm I was back at the hotel, ready to return to the heritage site.

Night out at Senso-ji

I went down the same path as in the morning. On the way I took this shot of the bridge over the Sumida river. You can see the Skytree and the iconic Asahi Beer building in the background.

Before reaching Senso-ji, I stopped a couple of times near the Sumida river to catch the lovely Skytree. I haven’t been to the Skytree yet , but it sure is in my bucket-list.

It was late and the shops along the approach to Senso-ji were all closed. Though I couldn’t shop for souvenirs, it also meant I was not surrounded by hundreds of tourists. There are 54 shops in East side, 35 shops in West side; 89 shops in total. It gets really noisy here during daytime.

The Hozomon Gate at Night

I was at the temple by 9 pm. Even though it was late, there was a good stream of people still coming in. I waited for my moment to capture this shot of the Hozomon Gate. This is without any doubt, the most beautiful photo of Senso-ji that I have taken.

According to Oei Engi, a chronicle written around the 15th or 16th century and the only source describing the establishment of Senso-ji, Hozomon Gate (known as the Niomon Gate when it was first erected), was built in 942 by military commander Taira no Kinmasa.

Here is a close-up of the ornate lantern adorning the Hozomon Gate. The central lantern has the characters 小舟町 (Kobunacho), written on it, because this is the name of the Tokyo district that donated the lantern in 2014.

The Hōzōmon houses two guardian statues that are located on either side of the gate’s south face. These are fierce-looking protectors of the temple. In the past the gate was called the Niomon after these statues, before being renamed the Hozomon.

If you want to read more about the Nio Guardians, please read this in-depth article on the history of Nio Guardians in Japanese temples.

Red Pagoda at Night

The illuminated pagoda looked amazing in the night. Even though I was extremely tired, I was glad I decided to come back again at night.

Senso-ji Temple at Night

I was truly surprised that even at 11 pm, people were still streaming in to see the temple. I wasted many shots as people would stroll into them. What I thought would be an hours job, was taking up way too much time.

By midnight I was really frustrated as people were still coming in. I took this last shot of the temple and made my way back to the hotel.

My thoughts on Senso-ji

Japan’s most visited Buddhist temple is not one of the peaceful temples. In-fact, the temple located in Tokyo’s lively Asakusa district, holds a record of welcoming about 30 million visitors annually. I had seen pictures of the temple and that is why I chose to come during the times when I can truly enjoy it in peace.

If you visit during the day, the atmosphere of this temple is certainly not one of serenity. With its crowds, noise, and enticing shops, Senso-ji, in its own way, entertains the residents and visitors alike, offering a lively alternative to the tranquility of a Zen temple.

The reconstructions have been true to their authentic designs and the complex resembles an Edo-period site, with several imposing gates, giant lanterns, and a five-story pagoda. At the heart of the complex the main worship hall you can witness one of the oldest statue of Kannon, and if you visit in these awkward times, as I did you can see the strong faith of the local people residing nearby as they start dropping in from 5 am in the morning. In all it was a good day. Although it started quiet dull with gray clouds et al, I was able to snap some nice photos for my journal.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to your reviews and questions. If you are looking to explore more of the Kanto region, follow my story as I visit the Osanbashi Pier in Yokohama .

When was Senso-ji built?

645 CE

Who built Senso-ji?


How to reach Senso-ji?

Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is just a 15-minute train ride from Tokyo Station

To which deity is Senso-ji dedicated to?

Senso-ji was built to honor Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

Utsunomiya Castle Ruins

I cannot forget this day ever. Today we went to explore the Utsunomiya Castle 宇都宮城 located in Tochigi Prefecture. The castle was okay but that I almost lost my Nikon D810 will stay etched in my memory for years to come.

We were staying at the APA Hotel Utsunomiya-Ekimae, a five-minute walk from the Utsunomiya Station. We try our best to book hotels near to the station. Even though they might be a little more expensive than those further away, it actually saves on travel cost and time.

We had arrived early in the day all the way from Aomori and took some rest at the hotel. After a small nap, we left the hotel in the evening to explore the Utsunomiya Castle grounds.

The hotel was about 25 minutes away on foot from the castle grounds. Rather than taking a bus or cab we decided to walk all the way to the castle. Might I add that walking along the lanes in these Japanese cities is a wonderful experience in itself.

How I almost lost my Nikon D810

As we were crossing the bridge over the Ta river, my Black Rapid camera strap broke from the hook and my D810 went sprawling on the pavement. For a few seconds I just stood in silence in complete shock. Thankfully it didn’t roll on to the road.

I hurriedly picked it up. The first thing I noticed was the 24-70mm Nikon hood was chipped in one side. But the hood had saved my lens. The camera had a few scratches on the side but was functioning without any noticeable issue. Now I understand what “built like a tank” means in all those camera reviews I had gone through before getting this hulk of a machine.

I was still shaken by the incident and I carried the camera, for the rest of the way in my hand. Black Rapid straps come pretty expensive and I didn’t expect the metal to break away like that.

Utsunomiya Castle Ruins Park

The Castle grounds falls right after the Ta river. It was the perfect evening time as we reached the Castle grounds.

Utsunomiya Castle is classified as a flatland castle. It was first built on a small hill in the Heian period by Fujiwara Sōen around the year 1063. His descendants took the name of Utsunomiya clan and remained in control of the castle for most part of the Kamakura Period between 1185 to 1333 CE.

During the Sengoku period (1467 – 1567 CE), the castle was greatly enlarged, enclosing an area over four kilometers in diameter with a series of concentric moats and high earthen ramparts. It was the most favorable time for the castle as it came to be renowned as one of the seven major castles of the Kanto region.

During their reign, the Utsunomiya clan faced repeated attacks by the Odawara Hojo clan. They were ultimately were defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and their lands including the castle were confiscated in 1597, and the castle came under the control of the Gamo clan, based in Aizu.

During the Edo Period, the castle was used as base for several Tokugawa loyalists. With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, Utsunomiya Castle became the center of Utsunomiya Domain, ruled by a succession of daimyo clans, beginning with the Okudaira in 1601.

In 1619, Honda Masazumi was appointed daimyo of Utsunomiya. Assisted by an able administrative staff, he largely reconstructed the castle and even hosted Shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada in the new palace when the shōgun was on his way to worship at the Nikko Tosho-gu. In particular Honda Masazumi is responsible for providing the basic layout for modern day Utsunomiya. Unfortunately the Ni-no-maru Palace burned down in 1683.

Destruction of Utsunomiya Castle

During the Boshin War of 1868, Utsunomiya Domain sided with the Imperial cause because of which it was attacked by a pro-Tokugawa army led by Ōtori Keisuke and Hijikata Toshizō. The castle fell to the pro-Tokugawa forces after a fierce battle during which most of the structures were destroyed. The battle left the castle in complete destruction.

The fall of Edo in the summer of 1868 marked the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, and a new era, Meiji, was proclaimed. Following the establishment of the Meiji government, the site of the castle came to be used as a garrison location for the Imperial Japanese Army until 1890. Prior to that it was handed over to private businesses, with the central portion becoming a public park. The rest of the area was converted into a wide lawn. Some purists have condoned the way the area has been turned into a commercial area with dozens of shops across the park.


In 2007, a large section of the walls, moats and two yagura on the site of the central bailey were reconstructed. This consisted of the Fujimi Turret, the Kiyoaki Dai Turret and a mighty section of an embankment. Utsunomiya Castle did not have a main keep, but the highly elevated yagura atop the large wall offers a nice view over the city. One can also go inside these yaguras and have a look at the wooden interior.

We wandered along the moat till late in the evening to capture this shot of the castle yagura casting a reflection in the moat below.

It was late in the evening as we started our walk back to the hotel. On the way, we spent some time at the Utsunomiya Station. There are some shopping malls alongside the station where you can shop for souvenirs.

Utsunomiya Castle does not have much for the photo enthusiasts but it does have a long heritage.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the dazzling Osanbashi Pier in Yokohama.

Daruma Dolls of Syorinzan Darumaji Temple

On the last leg of our trip to Kanto, I and my wife, Mani, were lodged at the Toyoko Inn at Takasaki. Over the last couple of days, Takasaki proved to be a great base for visiting places we had on our bucket list, around Tokyo in the Kanto region.

The town is itself famous for the tradition of the Daruma dolls used as a talisman for good luck. The Daruma doll is a hollow, rounded traditional Japanese doll with large eyes, modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. These dolls are typically red in color but can also come in different colors.

We were leaving for Nagano today and Mani couldn’t stand to leave without a Daruma of her own, so we set off for Syorinzan Daruma Temple (少林山達磨寺), the birthplace of these Daruma dolls in the Takasaki countryside.

Train to Syorinzan Daruma Temple

One can either take the bus or the train to Syorinzan Daruma Temple. We had our rail passes with us, so we used the train. If one is planning to use the bus, they should note that the buses are at long intervals.

From the Takasaki Station, we took the local to Gumma-Yawata Station along the Shin-Etsu Line. It’s just a couple of stops away and hardly takes about 10 minutes. From the station, though it’s a 1.5 km walk to the temple. It was a lovely sunny day, so we didn’t mind.

There are directional arrows along the way so it’s not hard to find, though personally I always prefer using Google Maps.

On the way we crossed Toyooka Bypass national highway, beside which there is a large Daruma for guiding first-time visitors like us towards the temple.

A few minutes across a small river brought us at a crossroad from where the path started to go uphill.

Up the hill, we went past many thatched houses before reaching up to a clearing. From here, a long series of stairs lead up to the main temple. It was 9 am but the temple grounds were mostly empty.

Syorinzan Daruma Temple

After climbing the steep stone stairs, we reached the main temple precinct.

It is said that a long time ago on the banks of the Usui river, there existed a small thatched hut holding a statue of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion. After a great flood, the villagers found a log of fragrant wood as the water receded near the hut. The local villagers took the wooden log and placed it inside the hut with the image of the Kannon. One day sometime in the year 1680, an old ascetic passed by the village. He took the fragrant log and carved a wooden image of Daruma Daishi out of it.

Subsequently, both the statues were enshrined here at the hut. Later in the Genroku period in 1697, Shinetsu, a priest from China, founded this temple. He brought with him a holy statue of Hokushin-Chintaku, that realizes the wishes of peace and happiness. It was his successor, a Japanese priest named Tenshu, who built a shrine to house the statue. In 1731, many years later, the crest of the Tokugawa family and a seal representing water were bestowed on to the temple. Since then the temple with all its religious artifacts became a place of prayer and devotion.

A gentleman was sweeping the front of the temple grounds as we walked towards the Reifu-do hall (hondo or main hall). The ground is covered with small pebble stones. A large number of Daruma dolls lay gathered at the front of the main temple building. It is said that Daruma Daishi stayed here for nine years, meditating facing a blank wall in a cave behind the temple.

Syorinzan Daruma-ji is a temple belonging to the Zen Buddhist Obaku School. The Ōbaku’s approach to Buddhism is tinged with a hint of Chinese influence. The sect is about disciplining the mind and experiencing truth and does not believe in idol worship.

Every year on the 6th and 7th of January during the Nanakusa Festival, a “Daruma Market (Daruma Ichi)” is held on the temple grounds. Many gather here every year seeking the divine protection of the temple’s deity through its lucky charm, the Daruma.

To the left, a bunch of Ema (wooden plaques for writing prayers ) in the shape of Daruma are hung, where visitors can leave their prayers.

Beside the temple, a tiny shop sells Daruma dolls as well as charms of all kinds featuring the dolls. Mani bought one for herself.


The dolls come with no eyes. This is because the Daruma doll is sold with no eyes and you draw the first (usually it’s left one) as you ask for a wish. At the end of the year, if the wish has been achieved, you draw the second eye.

Kaigen or the opening Daruma’s eyes is one of the popular folk rituals in Japan. The eyes on the Daruma doll you can buy here are purposefully left blank. Once a believer finds a doll to their liking, they can entrust their wishes to it by painting a black pupil in the left eye of the Daruma. After the wish has been fulfilled, they are supposed to show their appreciation by painting the right eye.

Daruma Kuyô

At the start of the year, one is supposed to bring the doll back to the temple. During a ceremony called daruma kuyô, these dolls are burned together after giving thanks to the Daruma.

Syorinzan Daruma Museum

To the left of the shop there is a small one-room museum. At the gate a huge life-sized Daruma greets visitors inside the museum.

The small but well curated museum and presents an astonishing variety of Daruma dolls, and also a collection of exquisitely carved wooden statues representing the legendary founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. Photography is not allowed inside the museum.

After some time we went back down the stairs to the garden.

The temple’s gardens are a quiet place to relax. There is also a small summer-house (Senshintei) designed by the German architect Bruno Taut in the early Showa period (1926-1989). The stairs to it were blocked maybe because of repairs. A Jizo stands in a corner beside the stairs.

In those days the Daruma was created as a prayer to help the suffering farmers during times of famine. After wandering around the garden we walked back to the Gumma-Yawata Station.

We were back at Takasaki in no time. At Takasaki, we had some time on our hands before the next scheduled train to Nagano, so we treated ourselves to some souvenir shopping.

It was an interesting trip to the Syorinzan Daruma-ji. I love how most cities in Japan have an identity of its own. Not only is it a beautiful and clean country, the rich historical heritage and the way they have protected it is worth mentioning.

The annual Daruma-Ichi fair is held on January 6 and 7 each year. During this time, thousands of people converge on the temple each year to find their Fuku-Daruma dolls for the new year.

Thanks for reading. I hope you found it interesting and informative. As always, please leave your comment below or follow my journey to the most lovely Matsumoto Castle.

When was Syorinzan Daruma-ji founded?

1697 CE

The shrines of Nikko

It was a sudden rush of the moment when I decided to visit the shrines of Nikko. The day before I was shuffling through some souvenirs at the Tougyoku Doll museum, when I chanced upon a set of hand painted cards of popular UNESCO sites in Japan. The box contained a set of six UNESCO sites, of which I had visited all, barring Nikko. So it was decided right then that we were going to Nikko the next day.

The “Shrines and Temples of Nikko” refer to the Toshogu and Futarasan-jinja shrines, the Rinnoji temple and the surrounding sacred forest located in Tochigi Prefecture, in the northern part of Japan’s Kanto region. These architectural and decorative masterpieces of Nikko, together with their natural surroundings, have been a sacred site for centuries.

Train ride from Takasaki to Nikko

We started out in the early morning from Takasaki. It was a dull cloudy day. We had been staying at the Tokoyo Inn in Takasaki. It’s just a 5 minute walk from the station and has good facilities.

I had been to Nikko once earlier when I visited Lake Chuzenji, so I knew it takes some time specially on the local train from Utsunomiya Station on the JR Nikko Line. I hope they would schedule some express trains in the future for tourists who generally go directly to Nikko, rather than stopping at all stations. That would save a lot of travel time.

We reached Nikko by noon. At the station the first thing we did was check with the information booth.

The lady at the counter alerted us that a huge traffic jam was underway and we would be better off on foot rather on the sightseeing bus. So we walked down the quiet streets. Along the way, we picked up a couple of ice cream cones for the road.

The city of Nikko is a cozy place with small shops and restaurants. We saw many foreign tourists also making their way towards the shrines. The city does not have many hotels and generally visitors come here on day trips and head out before dusk.

Shin-kyo Bridge

After walking for about 20 minutes we were at a beautiful arch-shaped bridge covered in vermilion lacquer and supported by stone piers. The Shinkyo Bridge acts as a gateway to the shrines and temples of Nikko.

Legend has it that once Shonin was unable to cross the strong rapids of the Daiyagawa river. So Shonin prayed to the gods and gods answered by sending two snakes which formed a bridge for him to walk across. We stayed at the bridge for some time enjoying the cool breeze across the river.

History of Nikko

From the bridge, we entered the forested area of Nikko. A series of moss-covered steps led us up the mountain towards the Tosho-gu Shrine. It had started to drizzle as we made our way uphill towards the shrine. Even though Nikko is 3 hours away, the cloud cover had followed us all the way from Takasaki

The sacred forest of Nikko dates all the way back to the 8th century. It was then that Shonin founded the Shihon-ryu-ji Temple (formerly Rinno-ji Temple). Later he also founded the Chuzenji Temple in 782 at the foothills of Mount Nantai. Shodo Shonin passed away in the year 817 and was buried in Kaizan-do Temple. Thereafter for centuries, the area with its forest and mountains became a training ground for Buddhist monks.

However it was only when the forest was chosen to house the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the ruling warlord of Japan, that Nikko became popular. People came from all over Japan to witness the  beautifully ornate shrine.

The path to the Tosho-gu shrine is lined with giant ancient trees that reminded me of the Kumano trail in Nachi.

At certain points pilgrims had tied Ema on the bushes.

After the initial climb, the trail is easy and we were quickly at the shrine.

I was surprised by the huge crowd that had gathered at the Tosho-gu Shrine. Nikko, it seems  is very popular among foreign tourists and even though it was a Monday afternoon, there was no letting up. Many of them are like me who may not be Buddhist but still appreciate the ornate temples created by craftsmen in the late 17th Century. From that moment on, I couldn’t enjoy the place. Too much noise disturbs me. A spiritual place like Nikko can only be enjoyed in silence. But since we were here we decided to at-least witness the decorative Tosho-gu Shrine.

Tosho-gu Shrine

Tosho-gu is the main Shinto shrine in Nikko, and the entrance is through the magnificent Omote-mon gate. It was built as a shrine and mausoleum to deify Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1617), founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that lasted over 2 centuries. As many as 450 thousand workmen and artisans labored over a period of two years to complete Toshogu.

There was a long queue for the admission tickets to the shrine. Beside the ticket booth there is a heavily decorated 5 storyed pagoda. The original pagoda dated from 1650 but burned down in 1815. The present tower is a reconstruction from 1818. The twelve Chinese zodiac signs are carved around the Pagoda’s first level.

While Mani stood in the queue to obtain the tickets, I took some shots of the Omote-mon gate.

The gate is protected by huge red Nio guardian kings on either side.

Through the Omote-mon front gate we found ourselves in front of the three San-Jinko Sacred Storehouses. The beautifully decorated storehouses with colorfully painted carvings are used to keep costumes for spring and autumn festivities. One can see a carving of elephants on the top-tier of the buildings, even though they are not indigenous animals of Japan.

To the left of the entrance is the famous Shinkyusha (meaning “Sacred Stable”), decorated with wood carvings of monkeys. The stable is Toshogu’s only unpainted structure. The only decorated carving is of the three, “Hear no evil, See no evil and Speak no evil” monkeys demonstrating the three principles of Tendai Buddhism. The stable houses a horse named Kotuku, donated by the government of New Zealand.

The “Three Monkeys”, carving below is famous throughout the world for the “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” poses. The carved monkeys covering their eyes, ears and mouth, respectively, were inspired by the Buddhist teaching that if we do not hear, see or speak evil, we ourselves shall be spared from evil.

To the left of the stable on can find some sacred lanterns made of stone and bronze.

Further on after a right-hand bend in the path is the Omizuya lavabo, a holy washing trough, dating from 1618. Water is siphoned from the nearby river for worshipers at the shrine to purify themselves.

A staircase leads up to the Yomei-mon gate. In front of the gate, there are two bells on either side, the roofs of which have a carved Baku on each of the four corners. The elephant-like Baku (獏) is an imaginary creature from Chinese mythology thought to prevent or devour nightmares. It has the trunk and tusks of an elephant, the eyes of a rhinoceros, the tail of a cow, and the paws of a tiger.

The Yomei-mon (meaning “Sunset Gate”) is another amazingly decorated structure with gold leaves, intricate, colorful carvings and paintings of flowers, dancers and mythical beasts and Chinese sages. Historians say about 2.5 million sheets of gold leaf were used, each gold leaf being about 4 square inches. The extensive decorations of the gate displays the artistic taste of this ruling family of Japan that lasted for two and a half centuries. The Youmeimon tower gateway is famous for its lavish decorations that include over 300 dazzling carvings of mythical beasts, such as dragons and Chinese sages. Unfortunately, the gate itself was partly covered due to the restoration underway.

We were finally inside the main area of the shrine. It was so crowded in there, we had to forego all hopes of getting inside the shrine.

During the years, the area has been subjected to many natural disasters, mainly due to earthquakes. Each time, the damaged buildings were restored faithfully, following rigorously the original plans and techniques, using the original materials whenever possible. This has enabled the site to maintain its authenticity and continue to function as a place of religious rituals drawing pilgrims from all over Japan.

Nikko is a vast area of shrines and temples that it is almost overwhelming! Outside the Toshogu shrine, we walked past many other small temples, some closed, some in ruins. The drizzle had stopped by 2 pm and we slowly started on our way back to the train station.

The Nikko shrines and temples is a perfect illustration of the architectural style of the Edo period as applied to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The shrine and temple buildings, together with their natural surroundings, have for centuries constituted a sacred site and the home of architectural and decorative masterpieces. It was a satisfied feeling to have visited the shrine, although I would have loved to be in a less crowded place.

Thanks for reading. Please leave your comments below or follow my story as we visit the Shorinzan Daruma Temple in Gunma.

The cute dolls of Tougyoku Doll Museum

Today we travel to the quaint town of Iwatsuki in Saitama Prefecture. Iwatsuki is today Japan’s largest producer of traditional dolls employing over over 300 doll-makers creating miniature masterpieces using only natural materials since the 17th century, a tradition that continues to this day. Just like manga or anime that appeals to the young and old alike, these Japanese dolls from Saitama are loved by people of all generations.

My fascination with dolls started in my childhood years when I visited the Children’s Museum in Kolkata. I was deeply touched by the depiction of the story of Ramayana in a series of figurines behind glass panes. Even as I transitioned to adulthood, my love for collecting and cherishing figurines depicting local culture never waned. To this day, I take immense delight in my figurine collection procured from different parts of the world.

The name of “Saitama” originates from the Sakitama (埼玉郡) district. Sakitama has a long history and even finds a place in the famous Man’yōshū (万葉集), the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled sometime after 759 CE. The colloquial pronunciation gradually changed from Sakitama to Saitama over the years.

Train from Takasaki to Iwatsuki

We were staying at the Toyoko Inn at Takasaki. From Takasaki, we took the Joetsu Shinkansen to Omiya, the biggest city near Iwatsuki. The Shinkansen does not go all the way to Iwatsuki so we had to change to the local Tobu-Noda Line at Omiya Station. From Omiya, it’s just a 15-minute train ride to Iwatsuki. If you are in the Kanto region, it is a good idea to obtain the Tokyo Wide Pass, or in my case the JR Pass.

After a short ride on the local train, we arrived at Iwatsuki Station at 11 a.m. The Tougyoku Doll Museum is just a minute away from the station in a tranquil neighborhood.

History of Saitama Dolls

In Japan, dolls have been a part of everyday life since ancient times. Japanese dolls reflect the customs of Japan and over the centuries have developed in many diverse forms. The Japanese term for “doll” (人形) is constructed by combining two kanji characters, where the first character signifies “human” (人), and the second character denotes “form” (形).

The first Ningyō (dolls) in Japan were the Dogu and Haniwa. The Dogu, appeared in the Jomon period (10,000 B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E) as a prominent fertility symbol. It held immense significance for the Japanese populace, representing the fertility of the land, animals, and people, and therefore played a crucial role in society.

The Haniwa, unglazed terra-cotta cylinders and hollow sculptures were most likely influenced by the Chinese terra-cotta. The Haniwa dolls added a new dimension to the Japanese Ningyō, introducing the concept of protection. These two elements, fertility and protection became the two most important factors of the Japanese Ningyō over the centuries to come.

Later around the 7th century, simple dolls made from wooden planks were created to entrust them with protection against misfortune in the coming year, after which the dolls were floated away on rivers. Katashiro paper dolls are still used today in purification rites for the same purpose at Shinto shrines throughout Japan.

With the introduction of Buddhism following the end of the Kofun period, the use of the Haniwa and Dogu faded and a new form of Ningyō was introduced that later evolved into the Amagatsu and Hoko. Amagatsu and Hōko (Nos.2,3) are dolls designed to protect babies from any misfortune that may befall them. As time passed and the Ningyō styles succumbed to the effect of commercialisation. Due to this the Ningyō slowly lost its connection to fertility and protection and their importance shifted to the aesthetics side.

The doll town of Iwatsuki

Around 3 centuries ago, Eshin, a Buddhist image sculptor from Kyoto, devised a method of making dolls out of Paulownia wood powder using a technique called Tosokashira. The process involved mixing the paste of Paulownia powder and Shobunori (paste made from wheat starch). In addition to Paulownia wood, the abundance of high-quality water found on Iwatsuki also became essential in creating the Tosokashira mix. The technique was passed down the generations and is still employed today for making these detailed handmade dolls.

Iwatsuki has a very interesting connection with the Toshogu shrine of Nikko. About 366 years ago, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu invited skillful carpenters from all over the country in order to build the Toshogu Shrine, a mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu. In those days Iwatsuki used to be a small castle town on the Nikko-onari-kaido road between Nikko and Edo (Old Tokyo).

The workmen and artisans labored for the next couple of years to build the heavily ornate Toshogu Shrine. Iwatsuki and its outskirts were abundant with the finest Paulownia trees. Once the Nikko Toshogu Shrine was completed, some of the disbanded carpenters chose to settle down in and around Iwatsuki and began earning their living by creating household furniture.

Tougyoku Doll Museum

The history of Tougyoku museum runs parallel with that of the town of Iwatsuki. Founded in 1852 CE, the museum was started with the idea of protecting and furthering the indigenous art of doll-making in Iwatsuki. Today, the museum exhibits hundreds of dolls including some really historical ones like the Iwatsuki ganso kamishimo hina doll.

From the outside, the Tougyoku Doll Museum building looks like any other building and is easy to miss. An elevator took us up to the museum on the fourth floor floor. Out of the lift, we found ourselves in front of a dimly lit room.

No one was around at the entrance so we just put the admission money in a box and entered the premises. The admission cost is ¥300 per person.

The museum was empty barring one family. Many of the dolls here, date back hundreds of years and are truly works of art. It is also interesting to see how they have evolved over time.

Dolls in Tougyoku Museum

Near the entrance there are various nifty little dolls made of fabric hanging on strings, creating a sort of curtain. Some were in the shape of Owls, one of the very popular creatures in Japan. Some time ago I did research on the Owl superstitions among the Japanese.

Clay Dolls

The first section my eyes went to was these miniature clay dolls. Beside it were the words – “Hatsu uma“, the first day of the horse. In the old Japanese calendar, the first day of the horse falls at the beginning of February, which coincides with the first planting of rice for the year. A festival is held at the “Fox Shrine” to pray for a good and prosperous harvest. This little figure is dancing at that festival.

This is a miniature clay art cute little boy, with a happy facial expression, who is taking part in the same Hatsu uma festival. He is shown wearing a beautifully painted kimono, decorated with colorful flowers and is playing a Japanese taiko or drum.

Shichou dolls from Taisho period

On the left wall, the Shichou dolls are on exhibit from the Taisho era (1868-1926). These impressive samurai warrior dolls were crafted for display on Boys’ Day, celebrated annually in Japan.

The exquisite detailing of these works of art is beyond words. Extreme effort has been put into making the expressions so human.

Another doll from the same era.

Ichimatsu Dolls

Ichimatsu Ningyō dolls were widely loved by people as a typical cuddly toy-doll during the Edo Period (1603-1867) and remain popular today as a gift for girls and as an art object. It is said also that a newly married couple will be blessed with a healthy baby when they display this doll.

The widely held explanations regarding the origin of the name of Ichimatsu Ningyō the name came from Ichimatsu SANOGAWA, a kabuki actor in the mid-Edo period.

Ichimatsu Ningyō, which consists of a head and limbs made from the mixture of sawdust of paulownia wood and wheat starch, or from wood, painted with a white pigment made from oyster shells (or that made from clam shells), connected to a body made from a sawdust-stuffed cloth, is sold naked and the purchaser makes its costume. It ranges in size from as small as 20 centimeters to larger than 80 centimeters, but it is generally around 40 centimeters high. There are girl and boy dolls, and the girl doll has a bobbed hair transplanted and the hair of the boy doll is drawn with a brush.

Kokin-bina Dolls

Hara Shugetsu, a doll-maker in Edo (Tokyo), developed the Kokin-bina style during the Meiwa Era (1764-1772 CE). The style’s name comes from the Kokinshu, a Heian Period poetry anthology. Kokin-bina draws from several earlier doll styles. The Emperor doll usually wears a simple black ho, emulating the courtly style of the Yusoku-bina. The Empress doll is more like the Kyoho-bina style, as she typically wears an elaborate junihitoe, the twelve-layered court costume of the Heian Period, as well as a crown styled into a mythical phoenix. These inspirations show how doll-makers balanced competing tastes by pairing the austere formality of the Yusoku-bina with the elaborate textiles of the Kyoho-bina.

This is a rare Edo Period Kokin-bina Empress. It is part of a Dairi-bina Imperial Couple for the Hina-matsuri Girl’s Day celebration. The me-bina lady is wearing a spectacular crown. The dress is a formal court attire.

An important difference between the Kokin-bina and earlier doll styles was how they were manufactured. As the popularity of the Hinamatsuri festival increased, doll-making was divided into different specialties. Carefully sculpted heads were fashioned at a workshop in Edo and the simpler bodies, hidden under clothes, were mass-produced in Kyoto. The extra care given to the heads allowed for other innovations, such as the extensive use of inset glass for the dolls’ eyes. Once complete, the heads were shipped to Kyoto where they were painted, matched with a body, and dressed.

By the time the “Kokin bina,” shown below, became popular, it had become the tradition to display other dolls below the imperial pair. Among these were the Three Court Ladies (Sannin Kanjo) dolls and Five Musicians (Gonin Bayashi).

Hina Ningyō

From the Shichou dolls, we moved on to the most favorite of all dolls – Hina Ningyō. The Hina Ningyō dolls have a history of over 1000 years. There are quite a few types of the Hina Ningyō, the Amagatsu, Houko, Tachi Bina, Kan’ei Bina, Kyouho Bina, Jirozaemon Bina, Yuzoku Bina, Kokin Bina and the Muromachi Bina. However, the latter six dolls are all different types of the Dairi Bina, who respectively are evolutions of the Amagatsu and Hoko.

These dolls are made with extremely ornamental details and calm expressions. They usually represent the Emperor, Empress, and other court attendants of the Heian period (794-1185) During the Hina Matsuri festival, celebrated on March 3rd each year, families with the girl child display their Hina Ningyō dolls and pray for their child’s growth and happiness. Most Hina dolls are heavily ornate.

The carpenters did not just make dolls. They also created some exquisite furniture to go with the cute dolls. The miniature vessels and furniture are perfect for a doll house. Hina Dolls are traditionally displayed on March 3rd, the Girls’ Day held to wish for healthy growth and happiness of girls. In the Heian period (794-1192 C.E.), people made dolls with paper or grass, imbued them with misfortunes and bad luck they might suffer from, and then released them to rivers or the sea as their bodily substitutes. Separate from that, there were also paper dolls called Hina Dolls which aristocratic girls played with. With time, the customs of Hina dolls that were floated on water and those that girls played with were integrated to give birth to paper dolls and standing earthen dolls that led to the Hina Dolls of today.

These Hina always appeared in pairs, and these pairs would always be placed on the highest part of the Hina display. These Hina as pairs were called the Dairi Bina. Two of the most important dolls would most likely be the Houko and Amagatsu, which have been thought to be the predecessors of the Dairi Bina. The Houko and the Amagatsu are thought of as a pair, where the Amagatsu is the male equivalent while the Houko is the female one.

Gogatsu Ningyō

On Boys’ Day which is observed on May 5th, families pray for their sons’ good health and success. On this day, also known as Tango no Sekku, families display figures of costumed warriors with miniature armor and warrior helmets. These dolls especially made for boys are called Gogatsu Ningyō and appear with fierce expressions, wearing armor, and showing the courage, bravery, and honor expected of the Samurais. Models of armor and dolls of heroes are put on display for the festival, and rice-cake sweets wrapped in blades of bamboo grass or oak leaves are eaten in celebration.

Hero dolls that are particularly popular include Momotarō and Kintarō, both known for possessing super-human strength and for having saved the people by overcoming monsters.

Origin of Gogatsu dolls

The origins of Gogatsu dolls come from an age-old samurai tradition. In the old days, when a boy was born in the family of a samurai, his parents used to put ornamental helmets and trinkets and hang them at the entrance gate to celebrate his birth. They also had a custom of gifting a new samurai body armor to the child. These items were put together to form the Gogatsu doll, though in a smaller size. To this day people display Gogatsu dolls to protect their sons from evil and Koinobori (carp streamers) along with wishes for good health and social success.

Oyama Doll

Oyama Ningyō is the name given to traditional Japanese female dolls which are, for the most part, inspired by ukiyo-e images from the Edo period. These types of Japanese doll express a woman’s beauty through a gorgeous costume and elegant figure.

This kind of doll has been very popular since the Edo period, and it is also used for the Girl’s Festival held on March 3rd. When girls of the Samurai class got married, their parents gave them the Dressed Dolls as a ‘substitute’ that would consume possible misfortunes on behalf of the girls. For this reason, the dolls were crafted as women of high ranks.

As the crafting techniques evolved with time, the dolls today have come to be enjoyed by all people. Particular among them is the doll modeling a Japanese traditional dancer called Oyama Doll named after Jirosaburo Oyama, a renowned doll maker in the Edo period.

Most of the Oyama dolls are derived from Kabuki each representing a particular dance.

I totally loved the intricate details on the kimono of this doll.

Eto Dolls

Introduced from China in the period of Yin, an ancient dynasty that reigned around the 17th century B.C., to Japan, Eto is a cycle of sixty years that consists of twelve signs relating to animals and ten elements. Originating in China and spreading to Japan, Vietnam, Russia, and Eastern Europe, it was used in the calendar, as well as to indicate angles, time, and directions. When applied to the calendar, each year has one of the twelve signs of animals.

Thus the calendar has a twelve-year cycle. The order of years is; rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. Each year, Japanese people place an Eto Doll of the animal of the year. They believe that the Eto Dolls absorb their misfortunes during that year.

After about an hour of going through some amazing history, we left the museum. Just across the street, opposite to the museum, one can find a souvenir shop that also has a huge collection of Hina and Gogatsu dolls for sale.

The biggest festival in Japan surrounding dolls is the Hina Matsuri, or the Doll Festival, even though the Hina Matsuri is still celebrated today the original meaning of the festival is lost to most Japanese people. In ancient times the Hina matsuri was about the cleansing of body and soul, but as it moved closer to modern times, it was the festivities and beauty of the festival that mesmerized the Japanese people

One of the cheaper ones can set you back by ¥200000.

The Hina dolls are kept on the 2nd and 3rd floors. Although the Hina display does not have a longer history than from the Edo period (1600-1868), the celebrations around it had been prominent since the Heian period (794-1185)

For the Japanese, these dolls enjoy a special place in their lives. In most countries, the term “doll” typically refers to playthings. However, in Japan, beyond being toys, Ningyō have evolved into forms of art, craftsmanship, and objects laden with wishes. There remains a prevalent belief in Japan that anything crafted in the likeness of living beings should be treated with respect. When someone can no longer keep a cherished doll, it is not discarded as waste; instead, it is dedicated to shrines or temples, where a Ningyō kuyo, or doll funeral service, is requested. This practice has endured since ancient times and continues to this day.

The ground floor has some nice cheaper souvenirs for tourists like us 🙂 Rummaging through the souvenirs I found a set of cards with hand-drawn paintings of 6 UNESCO sites in Japan. They looked beautiful. I had visited all barring the Nikko Toshogu Shrine. We decided right then to visit the shrine the next day.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the museum and the shop. I wasn’t carrying enough cash to own one of these from the shop today but I am really determined to come back one day to get one of these for my souvenir collection. After a fun morning, we were on our way to the Saitama Railway Museum.

Address of Iwatsuki main store

1-3 Honmachi, Iwatsuki-ku, Saitama City
TEL: 048-756-1111

Business Hours of Iwatsuki main store

10 am to 5 pm (May 6th to October 31st)
10 am to 6 pm (November 1st to May 5th)

Annual Closures of Iwatsuki main store

Mondays and Tuesdays (May 6th to September 30th)
Mondays (October 1st to October 31st)
Open every day (November 1st to May 5th)
*Temporarily closed 5/8/9 ·Ten

Address of Doll Museum

4F Higashitama Building, 3-2 Honmachi, Iwatsuki-ku, Saitama City
TEL: 048-756-1111

Open Hours of Doll Museum

10 am to 5 pm

Admission fee for Doll Museum

Adults: ¥300
Free: Elementary school students and younger Free
Free: Persons with a disability certificate with one accompanying person

Annual Closures of Doll Museum

Mondays and Tuesdays (May 6th to September 30th)
Mondays (October 1st to May 5th)
*Temporarily closed 12/31, 1/1, 5/6

Official website

History of Japanese Railways

After a beautiful morning among the cute Hina dolls of Iwatsuki, we were on our way to the Saitama Railway Museum. While Mani had a wonderful time with the dolls I was very much looking forward to my date with the historical trains.

I have had a deep crush for trains that goes all the way back to my childhood days. It was memorable, those rides to visit my grandma in the countryside during my summer vacations. 

The Saitama Railway Museum(鉄道博物館) is the largest museum of railways in Japan. The museum exhibits real trains ranging from age-old steam locomotives to cutting edge Shinkansen trains. The huge exhibit, almost the size of a football field, takes one on a ride through the history of the Japanese railway system.

From Iwatsuki Station, we took a local train to Omiya.

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From Omiya, the New Shuttle Rail took us to Tetsudo-Hakubutsukan Station. The Railway Museum is just a minutes walk away from the station.

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The Saitama Railway Museum was built as the centerpiece of the JR East 20th Anniversary Memorial Project by the East Japan Railway Culture Foundation, a non-profit affiliate of the East Japan Railway Company.

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The Railway Museum (鉄道博物館) opened amidst much fanfare on the 14th of October, 2007. It features about 30 railway cars excluding various miniature railway models. This historical museum tells the industrial history of the development of the railway system with displays of actual models of trains from each period

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The museum has a number of restaurants and shops selling railway souvenirs. Below is a list of some of the ancient beauties in the order of their manufacture.

Locomotive No.1

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1871[/su_icon]

The first railway in Japan, owned and operated by the Japanese government was opened in 1872 with the technical leadership of British engineers. The Locomotive No.1  was imported from Vulcan Foundry, UK, for the Tokyo-Yokohama Railway. Just prior to the fall of the Shogunate, the Tokugawa regime had issued a grant to the American diplomat Anton L. C. Portman to construct a line from Yokohama to Edo (present Tokyo). Since Japan lacked railway technology, British engineers were hired by the Japanese. On September 12, 1872, the first railway, between Shinbashi and Yokohama opened with nine round trips daily. Back then it used to take 53 minutes by train from Shinbashi to Yokohama (29 km) stopping at Shinagawa, Kawasaki, Tsurumi and Kanagawa stations. At that time the engine drivers were all British. The first Japanese engine drivers were appointed in 1877.

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Kaitakushi Passenger Carriage

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1880[/su_icon]

The Kotoku 5010 is one of the oldest surviving passenger carriages in Japan. The artistic classic passenger carriage appears to be directly adapted from some western classic movie. The carriage was imported from USA in 1880 for deployment on the Hokkaido Kaitakushi line. Being equipped with an air brake system, the Kutoku 5010 was a state of the art passenger carriage during its time. The saloon car was designated a VIP car and used mostly by American Kaitakushi officials.

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7101 Benkei Steam Locomotive

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1880[/su_icon]

The Benkei Steam Locomotive was established by the American-run Hokkaido Kaitakushi, and appeared very much like its American counterparts of that time.  The 7101 Benkei, named after a 12th-century warrior monk, was the first steam locomotive to operate in Hokkaido and played a major role in the islands development. The lightweight engine was built by H K Porter in 1880. It was designated a Railway Monument in 1958 and is currently coupled to a Horonai Railway coach at the Saitama Rail Museum.

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Hanifu 1 Passenger Carriage

The Hanifu 1 No.De 968 was a streetcar type of railway. It was inaugurated in 1903 in Tokyo running between Shinbashi and Shinagawa. It was the first Electric Railway manufactured indigenously by a private company called the Tokyo-Densha-Tetsudo Co. However, these small cars could not catch up with the increasing number of passenger transportation volume and were gradually scrapped from 1927 to 1955. In 2007, the Matsumoto Railway Co donated the below coach to JR-East for display at this museum.

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1904[/su_icon]

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9856 Mallet Steam Locomotive

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1913[/su_icon]

The Mallet-Type engines employed an extra pair of cylinders compared to other stem locomotives in the same category. The extra set allowed the engine to make tight curves in spite of its long body. This locomotive was used to cross Gotemba on the Tokaido Main Line.

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C515 Steam Locomotive

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1920[/su_icon]

The C51 No.5 was one of Japan’s first high-speed steam locomotives. It was manufactured in 1919 at the Ministry of Railways Hamamatsu workshop, equipped with faster 1750 mm drive wheels. It was initially deployed to Kobe area and later transferred to Himeji, Takasaki and Umekoji depot. After World War II, the engine was stationed at the Nara depot ferrying passengers around Kansai until it was retired in 1962.

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ED17 Electric Locomotive

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1923[/su_icon]

The ED17 No.1 was one of the first electrified locomotives in Japan.  After Word War I, Japan had only a handful of electrified sections and this engine was imported from the United Kingdom in preparation for the electrification of the Tokaido Main Line.

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Oha 31 Passenger Carriage

The Oha 31 No. 26 was one of the first steel mass-produced typical passenger car series in pre-WW2. Until 1926, most Japanese passenger cars used to be made out of wood. As a direct impact of the 1926 Sanyo line derailment that resulted in many deaths, the railways pushed forward into the era of steel designs. In 1927, the first steel passenger car replaced the wooden Class Oha-44400. OHa-31s slowly lost their prominence during the early years after the WW2 and were retired by 1966.

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1927[/su_icon]

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Maite 39 Passenger Carriage

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1930[/su_icon]

The Maite 39  No.11 was Japan’s first observation car. It was imported from the US by the Kyushu Tetsudo Co for use exclusively by distinguished guests. The MaITe-39 shown below was manufactured at the Oi workshops during 1930. It used to be coupled to the tail of the limited express “Fuji” and was active between Tokyo and Shimonoseki on the Tokaido, Sanyo line. In those days, few people used Fuji’s observation car, as the upper class was quite less in numbers. Some time in 1941, the observation car was removed from duty due to bombings. After the war the MaITe39 went into ruin because of its poor state of preservation. In 1999, it was restored at the shops of Oi and a few years later the “Momoyama” style interior decoration was also restored as authentically as possible before putting it up for exhibit here at the Saitama Museum

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KiHa 41300 Railcar

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1933[/su_icon]

The KiHa 41300 No.41307 was one of Japan’s first domestically mass-produced internal-combustion railcar. It was manufactured at the Kawasaki-Sharyo Co. and was completed on the 30th of January, 1934, as a gasoline-engine car. After its inception, the KiHa was active mainly on the Koumi line, in the Nagano area. During December, 1948, it was remodeled as a natural-gas engine at the Nagano workshop, and was renamed, the Class KiHa-41200 No.41207. KiHa-41000s were deployed to many local lines, but their passenger carrying capacity was inadequate. During November 1952, it was re-fitted with a diesel engine, and renamed, the Class KiHa-41300 No.41307. Around the 1980’s, it was retired and exhibited at the Sakura Transportation Park in Tsukuba city, Ibaraki prefecture. In 2007, she was restored to the original condition of the KiHa-41307 and was moved to the Saitama Museum.

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Kumoha 40 Electric Railcar

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1936[/su_icon]

The Museum exhibited Class KuMoHa-40 No.074, which was produced during 1936. It was developed primarily for Tokyo’s urban neighborhood where the population saw rapid growth during 1910-1920. Accordingly, with the increasing number of passenger transportation volume, there was a need for more train service. But the Tokyo urban lines could not accommodate the 20 meter long body cars, as the platform or block lengths were not long enough. Therefore, in the Tokyo area, 17 meter short body cars were used in new models up to 1933. The Tokyo area’s track improvement construction was finished during 1933, and Series-40 classes were deployed to the Tokyo area from the next year 1934. The seven classes had a total of 425 Series-40 cars that were produced by 1940, and they were to become the standard model of urban commuter electric cars during the pre-WW2 period. Of these, seventeen Class KuMoHa-40 were still active at the following places during 1976. However, the last Series-40 were retired during March 1987.

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EF55 Electric Locomotive

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1936[/su_icon]

The Class EF55 is a 2Co+Co1 wheel arrangement electric locomotive type consisting of three locomotives built in 1936 by Hitachi, Kawasaki, and Tōyō Electric in Japan. They were nicknamed “Moomin”. They were originally intended to haul limited express trains on the Tōkaidō Line. The locomotives were placed in storage from 1958, and then officially withdrawn in 1964.

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Nahanefu 22 Sleeping Car

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1964[/su_icon]

In 1959, JNR announced its long term plan to withdraw all steam locomotives from regular operations. The Nahanefu 22 No.1 was the first modern permanently coupled type passenger car series for night limited express.  When all of the Tokaido main line was electrified during November 1956, there was a need for long-distance trains between Tokyo and Kyushu. The Series-20 passenger car unit was completed in 1958 designed with a diesel generator equipped ONE-POWER-SUPPLY car. All the train’s electrical consumption like air-conditioning, heating equipment and illumination were provided from this power supply car. The brown colored traditional passenger car color was changed to a cool blue color with a white line. This color went on to become the standard color for all night trains in Japan, and they were called “Blue Trains”. Because of their luxurious interiors, they were also called “Running Hotels”. The Nahanefu Series-20 gradually started to become obsolete from the late 1970s and the last running “Akebono (dawn)” train between Ueno to Aomori via Akita was finally retired in 1980.

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Series 21 No. 21-2 Shinkansen

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1964[/su_icon]

Built in April 1964, this was the first Shinkansen fleet delivered for use on Hikari and Kodama services on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen route. The first shinkansen, linking Tokyo and Osaka, had its maiden run on Oct 1, 1964, just nine days before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. The train was decommissioned in 1978. For some time it was on display outside Tokyo Transport Museum before being moved here at the Saitama Railway Museum.

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ED75 No.775 Electric Locomotive

[su_icon icon=”icon: info” background=”#f20000″ color=”#ffffff” text_color=”#4a4a4a” size=”14″ shape_size=”10″ radius=”4″ text_size=”18″ ]Manufactured: 1975[/su_icon]

The ED75 No.775 is a Bo-Bo wheel arrangement AC electric locomotive that operated on passenger as well as freight services in Japan since 1963. The first two prototypes, ED75 1 and 2, were delivered in 1963, built by Hitachi and Mitsubishi respectively. From 1971 to 1976, 91 Class ED75-700 locomotives continued to be built by Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Toshiba, for use on the Ou Main Line and Uetsu Main Line.

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It was fun checking out these locomotives and carriages from yesteryear. The gradual evolution in the railways is also a reflection of the Japanese society, as to how they have improved upon everything in their daily lives and helped create such a beautiful country. From having to employ foreign drivers to run their own trains in the 1800’s they have come a long way.

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During my stay I have travelled thousands of kilometers in a day without the least bit of hindrance. In terms of safety, punctuality and cutting-edge technology none in the world even comes close. I had a great time reliving my childhood fantasy surrounded by these historical pieces of human ingenuity.

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It was late afternoon but the day was not over for us yet. We were very near to Chiba, so we headed down to picturesque Chiba Castle for the evening.

The picturesque Chiba Castle

The Chiba Castle was not on my bucket list, but while we were in the Kanto region, we decided to give it a visit.

From the interesting Saitama Rail Museum, we took the JR train to Chiba Station. From Chiba Station, we took the Chiba Urban Monorail, a two-line suspended monorail system. It is the world’s longest suspended monorail system travelling along a 15 km route. This dual-tracked system was built by the Mitsubishi Company, to connect the suburbs of Chiba Prefecture with main city.

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It was fun watching the cars go by below our feet as the Chibatoshi-Monorail passed through the heart of the city. The ride is short, all of 6 minutes and costs ¥‎200. The monorail dropped us off at Kencho Mae station from where the Chiba castle is just a 10 minute walk. It was a cloudy evening as we walked towards the park.

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The directions are easy to follow and we at the Inohana Park in no time. A wide paved stone path leads to the castle grounds.

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A series of steps carried us up to the castle. The park was deserted, we were the only ones around. A vending machine was sitting in a corner surrounded by trees. As we faced the castle, it appeared fairly well maintained.

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The white castle was built by Chiba Tsuneshige around 1125 CE. Tsuneshige and his descendants ruled over the domain from this castle until the 1400’s. In front of the castle, on the left lies a bronze statue of the castle’s founder, Tsuneshige Chiba, on a horse.

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In 1455, Makuwari Yasutane, a related member of the Chiba clan, attacked the castle and took control of Chiba. He built a new castle (Motosakura Castle) nearby, abandoning the Chiba Castle and leaving to ruin for hundreds of years.

When the Satomi clan moved to southern Chiba Prefecture in the mid-15th century, they too ignored the Chiba castle and ruled from a newly created Otaki Castle created in 1521 by Nobukiyo Mariyatsu. Over the years as the control of the land passed from the Satomi to the Tokugawa shogunate and subsequently to the Abe, Aoyama, and Inagaki clans before being handed to Matsudaira Masahisa, whose descendants continued to rule from Otaki Castle until the Meiji restoration period.

It was only in 1672, when an application was made to the Tokugawa shogunate for permission to rebuild the Chiba castle. By that time, the castle had undergone severe devastation. It didn’t have a single functional gate and the 4-story donjon had fallen into ruins.  The castle was rebuilt in the 16th century. However the reconstructed donjon again burned down in 1842. The current castle we see today is actually a reconstruction from 1967. A new donjon was added in 1975. Even though it looks picturesque, this reconstruction is not in keeping with the original castle design.

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Due to lack of any surviving records indicating the appearance of the original donjon, the current structure was modeled after a 1832 sketch. However for a castle built in the 1100’s there should not be such a magnificent keep. Keeps came into prominence much later.

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The castle houses the Chiba City Folk Museum. There are five floors inside exhibiting personal effects relating to the Chiba Clan. Many artifacts like swords, guns, and other samurai weapons or on display here. The museum also talks about Chiba’s history and includes photos comparing it from the early 1900s until now.

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Chiba Castle is very easy to reach and can be visited for a quick couple of hours tour. If you just want to see a castle, this would be an easy trip, but if you are deep into historical things like me, you might not enjoy it so much. Not many people visit this castle and that makes it a quite and peaceful place to spend some time.

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It was dusk and we started on our way back to Takasaki, stopping for a brief moment at Tokyo.

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An evening at Enoshima

From a quick tour of the Niigata Manga Museum, we reached Takasaki in the afternoon. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we hopped on a train to Enoshima. I had heard it’s a lovely place to enjoy the evening. On clear days one can even see Mt. Fuji from the nearby Shonan Beach.

Enoshima is a small island near Kamakura. Samuel Cocking, a British trader who arrived in Japan in 1860s, married a Japanese woman and bought most of Enoshima Island. He built a botanical garden and power plant on the island. The power plant was one of Japan’s first and grew to become the Yokohama Cooperative Electric Light Company, we know today.

Armed with our JR Rail passes we caught the Joetsu Shinkansen from Takasaki to Ofuna Station.

Shonan Monorail

At Ofuna we hopped onto the Shonan-Monorail bound for Shonan-Enoshima StationShonan Monorail opened on March 7, 1970, the first monorail of its kind in Japan. The monorail goes up and down along the mountains and valleys in the region. It was a thrilling experience as we made our way along sharp curves and through a tunnel as if on a roller coaster ride.

The three-car monorail runs every 7 minutes except early mornings and late evenings. It conveniently connects Shonan area between Ofuna in Kamakura-shi and Enoshima in Fujisawa-shi. It took us about 14 minutes to reach the Shonan-Enoshima Station from Ofuna Station.

From the Shonan-Enoshima Station, a narrow stone-paved lane leads towards the beach. Many animated tourists, still in their beachwear were heading back. On both sides of the lane one can find various restaurants, souvenirs stalls and convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart.

The Enoshima island is connected to the mainland by bridge. It’s also known as a romantic island and said to be created by the love goddess Benzaiten. At the bridge, we turned right. It was late in the afternoon and we were not thinking of going to the island per se. We were here just to enjoy the lovely breeze on the Shonan Beach and if possible see Mt. Fuji in the distance.

The sun was about to set as we reached the beach. A narrow wooden pier snaked its way far into the sea. The pier offers a lovely view of the island and the Sagami bay. Further up along the pier, we took up seats on the some rocks facing the wide, long surfing beach.

The weather was quite foggy and it was futile attempting to make out Mt. Fuji. I was barely able to make out a silhouette of some mountains in the distance. Still we just sat there watching the sky slowly turn red and purple.

Shonan Beach

The Shonan beach was still full of surfers having fun in the warm waters. Although not one of my favorites, Enoshima beaches are the closest to Tokyo. But if you want to play in the waves, get some sun, play beach volleyball, or just chill outside, this is where you want to be. ere’s a wide, long surfing beach on both sides of the bridge to Enoshima known as Shonan. On the other side Enoshima was just getting dressed up for the evening.

Enoshima Island

The day grew dark and gradually the small restaurants and shops on Enoshima Island lit up. From the pier on the beach the island looked like a mystical land in the middle of the sea. We went up to the end of the pier till the we were at the end.

There is an interesting story behind the Enoshima island. There are three different shrines on Enoshima that are collectively known as Enoshima Shrine. They are all dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten. According to Japanese mythology, Benzaiten created Enoshima Island as part of her battle with a troublesome sea dragon. In some variations of the myth, she agrees to marry the dragon if he will tame his troubled ways. In the popular imagination she is the goddess of love. Enoshima Shrine offers pink ema with hearts on them that are popular amongst couples.

Enoshima Sea Candle

The lovely breeze across the bay drew us into a long discussion of the lovely beaches we had been to in Japan. As the night grew, the lighthouse on the island was glowing in Azure light. What I thought was a lighthouse is actually a mobile phone tower.

We stayed around till 7 pm and then head back to the monorail. Most places in Japan become deserted by 6 pm. It was surprising to see heavy crowds still lingering along the beach at this time.

It was night by the time we reached Takasaki Station. The Toyoko Inn is just a 5 minute walk from the station and we were back in the comfort of our room in no time.

Enoshima is a lovely place to spend a day for travelers who are looking for a day trip near Tokyo.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the amazing Togyoku dolls of Iwatsuki.

Jizo of Kamakura Hase-Dera

This is the second part of my day tour of Kamakura. I spent the early part of the day basking in the glory of the great Kamakura Daibutsu. That concluded my bucket-list of visiting all the three most-revered Buddha Temples in Japan. The first one obviously being the Great Buddha of Todai-ji and the other – the Takaoka Daibutsu.

For those who didn’t read the first part of my story, I traveled for more than 4 hours today, all the way from Nara in Kansai, on the train, to visit the Kamakura Daibutsu and then, if time permitted spend some time at the Kamakura Hase-dera.

Once I had my fill of capturing photos of the monumental bronze statue of Kamakura Buddha at the peaceful Kōtoku-in, I made my way down to the lovely garden of Kamakura Hase-dera.

About Kamakura Hase-dera

Hase-dera, commonly known as the Hase-kannon (長谷観音) is one of the popular Buddhist temples in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture. It is located in southwestern Kamakura, nestled seamlessly within the hills of the valley. Its official name is Kaikozan Jishoin Hasedera, but people generally refer to it as just Hase-dera. Halfway up the Kamakura mountain, its main hall houses one of the world’s largest wooden statue of Kannon, the real reason for my interest.

Before I delve deeper into the history of Hase-dera, I must clarify that there are two Hase-dera temples by the same name. The one famous for its Ajisai gardens lies in Nara in the Kansai region. To be clear, I will refer to the temple in Kamakura as Kamakura Hase-dera.

Kamakura Hase-dera is also famous for its “Ajisai” or hydrangeas that blossom every May and June during Japan’s monsoon season. During these times queues to enter the temple grounds often swell with wait times of up to two hours. The temple originally belonged to the Tendai sect of Buddhism, but eventually became an independent temple of the Jōdo shū. Local folklore suggests the inception of the temple in the Tenpyō era (729-749 C.E.). However, documents at the temple suggest that the temple really came into its own during the Kamakura period (1192-1333).

Sammon Gate at Kamakura Hase-dera

Kamakura Hase-dera is not far from the Kōtoku-in and it didn’t take me long to reach the temple gate, also known as the Sammon Gate. The entrance fee is ¥300 per head for adults. The temple has a simple exterior with a symbolic large red lantern hanging from the age-old gate.

Kamakura Hase-dera Temple grounds

Once inside the temple, I was greeted by a relaxing landscape of vibrant greens, with the tranquil sound of the water flowing in the ponds. Summer flowers were in bloom. They add a nice touch to the heritage site. An array of circular paths surround the ponds at the base and lead up to the stone stairs, which take you up the mountain.

The Hase-dera temple complex is a large area. Built into the Kamakura mountain there are several buildings to check out. I am posting the local official map below for assistance.

I was a bit short on time so I didn’t visit all of them but I did get the pictures of most. Kamakura Hase-dera is most popular for its wooden Kannon statue measuring 9.18 meters tall. So I started to make my way up the stairs towards the main hall.

Along the path I found this very cute ensemble of three Jizo statues. The charming statue is sure to warm your heart. The idols reminded me of a tiny stone-carved Jizo, I found about a year back while ony wanderings around Arashiyama.

According to religious beliefs, Jizo is a Buddhist deity believed to protect unborn children and give prosperity to one’s descendants. This statue in particular is known as Ryo-en Jizo (Jizo of good match). For the photographically inclined enthusiast, it is one of the most photographed spot on the temple grounds.

This route also features a beautifully carved rock lantern, quite similar to the ones in Nara, which are lit during the time of festivals in Summer.

Jizō-Do at Kamakura Hase-dera

My first stop was at the Jizo-do Hall. It lies midway, up the stairs, on the way to the main hall. This sacred area is dedicated to Jizo, the patron protector of children.

Re-incarnation is a central tenet of Buddhism, and parents who endure miscarriages, still-births, or abortions often donate a statue in the likeness of Jizo to ensure a safe passage to the next life for their unborn child.

Also known as Kshitigarbha in the ancient Sanskrit language, the Jizo is represented in the guise of a Buddhist monk, devoid of the crown and jewels were customarily worn by bodhisattvas.

The word Jizō is literally translated to as “Womb of the Earth”, for JI 地 means earth, while ZŌ 蔵 means womb. Jizō is one of Amida Buddha’s main attendants and, like Kannon, is one of the most popular modern deities in Japan’s Amida Pure Land (Jōdo 浄土) sects.

Just outside the Jizo Hall, you can see countless jizo statues carved in stone. It is estimated that over 50,000 Jizo statues have been donated to Hase-dera since the end of World War II. Most of these statues only remain in the temple for about a year, before being removed to make way for newer statues.

I went up close to catch the details of the stone carvings. Near the hall, you can also find the Mizukake Jizo (water-pouring Jizo). It is believed that one can purify one’s mind by gently pouring water over the statue.

Continuing up the stairs, I reached the Shoro Belfry. According to local tradition, this giant bell is rung 108 times on new years eve to dispel the 108 sufferings of humanity according to Buddhism.

Next to the belfry you will find the Kannon-do and Amida-do halls. The bigger of these halls – the Kannon-do houses the wooden statue of Kannon, said to be one of the largest wooden structures in the world. But first I stopped to check out the Amida Hall.

Amida-do Hall at Kamakura Hase-dera

The Amida Hall lies right next to the Kannon Hall, The hall houses a 2.8 meter tall golden statue of the Amida Buddha. Amida or Amitābha as it is known in Sanskrit, is a celestial Buddha according to the scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. It is the principal Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism.

According to historical records, this sacred depiction of the Buddha was commissioned by the first shogun of Japan, Minamoto no Yoritomo, in 1194.

Kannon Statue at Kamakura Hase-dera

After paying my respects at the Amida-do, I was finally at my destination. I removed my shoes and went inside. The gate leads into a dimly-lit large hall. Photography is not allowed inside the main hall. A sublime smell of incense sticks surrounds the hall.

Inside the hall there was pin-drop silence, one cannot even hear the chirping of the birds. I found myself standing in front of the revered Kannon statue. The idol itself is made from camphor wood and gilded in gold. It has 11 heads, each of which represents a different phase in the search for enlightenment.

The Hase-dera Kannon statue has an interesting mythology surrounding its origin. Known by the name of Avalokiteśvara in ancient sanskrit, Kannon is the bodhisattva associated with compassion and mercy. The main statue of Kannon is one of the largest wooden statues in Japan.

According to legend, this statue is one of two statues of Kannon that were carved together by a monk named Tokudo Shonin in 721 CE.

The pious monk discovered a mammoth camphor tree in the mountain forests near the village of Hase in the Nara region. The camphor tree was so large, that he decided that he could have two statues carved from it. The one he commissioned to be carved from the lower part of the truck was enshrined in Hase-dera Temple near Nara, which was part of the then Yamato Province. He didn’t know what to do with the other. So he set it adrift in the sea, for it to find the place with which it had a karmic connection.

According to local folklore, some fifteen years later on a stormy night in 736 CE, the statue washed ashore at Nagai Beach on the Miura Peninsula not far from Kamakura.

It is said, that year Kamakura was ravaged by a terrible storm. Winds hissed with fury and dark waves reared their angry crests, some as high as mountains surrounding Kamakura itself. When the tempest was at its height, the figure of the goddess was discovered floating upon the billows. The statue was immediately brought to Kamakura where a temple was built to honor it.

Next to the Kannon-do there is also a small museum dedicated to Kannon. The museum exhibits materials related to the ‘Goddess of Mercy’ as well as some other Buddhist artifacts of note.

Right in front of the Museum, beneath the branches of a venerable tree, sits a stone figure of extreme antiquity, depicting Buddha in the Dharmachakra Mudra. Carved in stone and set up on a hexagonal base, it sits among the lush green garden surrounded by 4 bronze statues of Devas (Heavenly) Kings.

Let’s take a closer look at the stone Buddha’s posture – the Dharmachakra Mudra. Dharmachakra, in Sanskrit, means the wheel of Dharma. The Dharmachakra mudra represents the setting into motion of the wheel of the teaching of the Dharma. As the gesture is performed with the hands held in front of the left side of the chest, or in front of the heart, the Dharmachakra mudra also represents the teachings are straight from the Buddha’s heart.

Also known as the Chaturmaharaja, the four heavenly kings are the protectors of the world and fighters of evil, each being able to command a legion of supernatural creatures to protect the Dharma.


After taking a bunch of photos, I took a break at one of the tables near the Observation deck near the Kannon Hall. The temple sits about half-way up Mount Kamakura and the observation deck commands an impressive view over the Sagami Bay and the Kamakura valley.

After the long hike, if you’ve managed to work up an appetite, there is a full-service restaurant called “Kaio-kan” nearby. After an energizing break, I was ready to visit the cave at the base of the temple.

As I mentioned at the start, the temple is built on two levels and includes a cave on the northern side of the mountain. The cave, called Benten kutsu, consists of small winding tunnels with a low ceiling, connecting rooms with various statues of Benzaiten. The Benzaiten is a sea goddess and the only female of the Seven Gods in Japanese mythology.

I walked down the same set of stairs and turned towards the left at the base. Before you hit the cave, you find the Daikoku-do Hall. The original statue of Daikokuten, which was carved in 1412, is the oldest of its type in Kanagawa Prefecture (exhibited only on special occasions). The current enshrined Daikokuten is believed to give success in life and business.

Benten-do Hall at Kamakura Hase-dera

Fukutoku-benzaiten, known as the Goddess of music and wisdom is enshrined inside this hall. It is believed to dispel misfortunes and to give answers to prayers for developing technical skills. The Shonan area of Kamakura and Enoshima have a special relationship with the goddess and there are a lot of sites bearing her name.

Records suggest that Kobo Daishi carved this statue with his bare hands when he stayed on the temple grounds in the Heian era(794-1185).

Benten-kutsu Cave at Kamakura Hase-dera

Hase-dera’s intense dedication to the goddess can be found carved into the mountain.

After passing through the Torii gates that mark the entry to the caves, I found myself in a bit of an eerie surrounding. According to legend, these caves were carved by the founders of the Hase-dera many centuries ago, but I couldn’t find anything corroborating on the Wiki pages.

This is believed to be the place where Kobo Daishi, the Japanese Buddhist saint practiced in seclusion. Benzaiten and her followers of the Sixteen Children are chiseled out of the rock walls in one of the chambers inside the cave.

Each of the statues is linked via tunnels inside the Benten-kutsu cave. It’s a mysterious feeling, with dimly lit bulbs. At times with no one nearby, I cannot deny that I felt a little creeped-out.

Be warned however, especially for the tall visitors out there, the ceiling can get REALLY low at points and you might have to drop to your hands and knees if you’re not flexible.

It would take about half an hour at leisurely pace to fully explore the caves. As I came outside I found another cute jizo. As with most Buddhist temples, the grounds close around 5:00 PM.

In all, it was an inspirational day in Kamakura. I still had a 4-hour journey ahead of me – going back to Nara. Do note that this temple is also popular for its Ajisai, that bloom in the monsoon months. I was lucky to experience the Ajisai bloom in Nara Hase-dera.

It was a peaceful ride back home, staring at the lush green landscape of rural Kanagawa. I spent the time mostly listening to music and going over the pictures I took on the day.

In my opinion, a day tour is enough to explore both Kamakura Daibutsu & the Hasedera temple. Both are extremely exciting heritage sites with a plethora of mythical stories associated with them.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to your reviews and questions. If you are looking to explore more of the Kansai region, follow my story as I capture the iconic Yasaka-no-tou Pagoda during one of the lovely evenings in Kyoto.

When was Hase-dera temple built?

736 C.E

Who built Hase-dera?

Tokudō Shōnin

How to reach Hase-dera Temple

10-min walk from Hase Station on the Enoshima Dentetsu Line

Opening Hours / Holidays

March – September
08:00 – 17:30 (last entry at 17:00)

October – February
08:00 – 17:00 (last entry at 16:30)

Admission fee (Updated 23-05-2020)

Adults 400 yen, Children 200 yen

Important Cultural Events at Kamakura Hase-dera

*Dates might differ from year to year.