Hase-dera temple’s origins are said to date from 721 AD when the pious monk, Tokyo Shonin, discovered a large camphor tree in the mountain forests near the village of Hase in the Nara region. He realised the trunk of the tree was large enough to carve two great statues of the eleven-headed Kannon.
The statue he commissioned to be carved from the bottom half of the trunk was enshrined in Hase-dera temple in Nara, while the statue from the upper half (the larger of the two) was thrown into the sea with a prayer that it would reappear to save the people.
Legend states that fifteen years later, on the 18th of June 736, it washed ashore at Nagai Beach on the Miura Peninsula, not far from Kamakura, sending out rays of light as it did. The statue was brought to Kamakura and a temple was constructed to honour it.
The eleven-headed (juchimen), 9.18 metre-tall statue is displayed the Main Hall, Kannon-do. The statue was said to be found drifting with oyster shells and today the shells are considered to bring wealth to the people. Outside the hall Shinto worshippers use oyster shells as Emas (votive tablets), on which they write their wishes or prayers.
The Buddha Kannon’s official name is Kanzeon Bosatsu or Kanjizai Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of infinite compassion. Bosatsu, or Bodhisattva, means a person who practices meditation in search of spiritual enlightenment. Kanzeon Bosatsu exists to listen to the voices from around the world requesting salvation and for this reason Kannon’s many faces each have a different expression.
Hase-dera temple is now known as the 4th station among the 33 holy places in the Kanto region and is the area’s most popular Jōdō sect temple. At the entrance to the temple is a beautiful pond and gardens filled with a wide variety of flowers that change with the seasons.
In addition to Kannon-do, the Hase-dera precinct is home to a number of temples. By the entrance is a grotto dug into the hillside, known as Benten-kutsu, dedicated to Benzaiten, the sea goddess and one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan. She is the patron of the music, the fine arts and good fortune and she usually carries a biwa (Japanese mandolin) or plays a lute. Enshrined in the cave is a small statue of Benziaten with eight arms, which is said to have been carved by Kobo Daishi while in seclusion. Numerous tiny statues of Benzaiten have been placed by visitors throughout the caves.
Jizo-do hall, which is found on the steps to the Kannon-do, enshrines a statue to Fukujo Jizo (Happy Jizo). Surrounding the shrine are countless little Jizo statues, some wearing bibs or knitted hats. These statues have been placed by visitors to comfort the souls of unborn children.
Jizo-Bosatsu (or O-Jizo Same) is a Bodhisattva and one of the most loved deities in Japan. He is the guardian of deceased and unborn children, as well as the protector of travellers, expectant mothers, firemen and pilgrims. Jizo is the only Bosatsu that is depicted as a monk.
Next to the Main Hall is Amida-do, where a golden seated statue of Yakuyoke (protector from evil spirits) Amida Buddha, is enshrined.
The temple is also home to Kamakura’s oldest bell, which dates from 1264, and the sutra repository, where cylindrical objects, called mani-guruma, that hold the sutras are kept. Rotating the sutras is said to earn as much merit as reading them. In the centre of the repository is an octagonal stack, called rinse. It can be turned on the 18th of each month and by turning it one gains the merit of reading all of the sutras.
A stairway leads up to the edge of the temple premises, through the gardens, to an overlook with magnificent views of the Sugami Bay and the Kamakura district.
Hase-dera is located around 10 minutes on foot from the Daibutsu.
Photography inside Kannon-do (the main hall) is forbidden.
Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00 (Mar-Sept) and 8:00 to 16:30 (Oct-Feb). Admission 300 yen.