Kamakura: Daibutsu and Zeniarai Benten

The next morning, we met up with Dan’s brother and our niece to get some breakfast and see some sights together. We started with a walk to find a breakfast place our niece had spotted the night before. It was a longer walk than we were expecting, and I was feeling like I was made out of lead. After walking for about a mile, we found the restaurant, but it was closed. The upside of this was that we had walked most of the way to the first temple we wanted to visit. We looked around for some breakfast, but not much in this neighborhood was open. In desperation, we settled on a bento place that turned out to not be very good. We got some very greasy fried chicken –  and sadly, no coffee to jumpstart me. 

With a little bit of sustenance in us, we continued on to Kotoku-In, which is best known as the home of the Daibutsu, a massive bronze image of Amida Buddha. This statue is about 44 feet tall and has been in this location since about 1252. The Daibutsu was originally enclosed by a series of halls, the last of which was washed away by a tsunami in 1498. The statue, appropriately, was unmoved, and has remained in the open since. We took the opportunity to go inside it and see how it was constructed – a remarkable feat of engineering even now, much less nearly 800 years ago.

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When we finished at Kotoku-In, we found the hiking trail that would take us to the Zeniarai Benten shrine. The first part of this walk was a slog for me. I was still feeling slow and heavy, and the sharp uphills were doing me in, and I had trouble matching the pace of our group. The trail itself was lovely, though, winding through shady open woods punctuated by azaleas in bloom. Colorful butterflies floated past, giving the whole experience a bit of a fairy tale feel. We encountered many schoolchildren coming the other way, and it was fun to greet them with konnichiwa and hello and hear their giggled responses. We eventually came to a sign for a coffee shop that I think was sent from heaven. We stopped and enjoyed a coffee on their beautiful, multi-level terrace at the top of a hill, with a nice view into the woods. I felt much better after this, and we continued along the trail to the shrine.

Zeniarai Benten is completely enclosed within high rock walls, with the only access to it being through a tunnel. Visitors come to the shrine to wash their money in it’s natural spring, which is said to bring bring prosperity. The shrine is an interesting and somewhat unusual fusion of Shinto and Buddhism, dedicated to a deity that is a fusion of Ugafukujin, a Shinto serpent spirit, and the buddhist goddess known as Benzaiten. It was once common for shrines and temples in Japan to combine aspects of both religions, but this shifted due to the efforts of the Meiji government in the mid-19th century to separate the two. 

After a somewhat brief look around, we realized we were getting hungry for lunch and walked down the hill back into town, stopping in a cute store to buy some lazy bunny chopstick rests that I found irresistible. We found our way to Matsubara-an, a soba restaurant that was recommended to us by a friend. There was a short wait for a table, but it was so worth it. We decided to try the 3-course menu, and enjoyed grilled duck, tuna sashimi, and tempura before our soba arrived. These were all delicious, but the soba was amazing.  It was served cold, with a sesame dipping sauce garnished with green onions and shiso. I washed mine down with freshly-squeezed blood orange juice, which was also fantastic.