Kamakura: Hase Dera Temple

After lunch at Matsubara-an, we walked down to the Hase Dera temple, one of the few places I had identified in advance as a must-see on this trip, particularly for the Jizo-Do shrine. In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, Jizo is the boddhisatva charged with caring for and consoling lost souls, especially those of children lost to miscarriage or stillbirth. The shrine is home to thousands of statues of Jizo placed there by families who have suffered these losses.

This vacation in Japan was a break for us from a long struggle with infertility that included two miscarriages and several years of emotional and physical strain. Earlier in the year, we had found a path forward that gave us a good chance at success in starting our family. Our hope was that this trip would be relaxing and fun, and would help us close the door on past difficulties and open our hearts to the future. A friend had told me about the tradition of Jizo in Japan, and I found myself drawn to it despite the fact that I don’t follow Buddhism or any other religion in particular.

The gardens on the lower level were in full bloom, lush and beautiful, glowing serenely in the soft light of an overcast day. My first impression of the temple was very different than I was expecting – much less somber. 

As I climbed the stairs to the shrine, the impact of seeing rank upon rank of statues of Jizo packed into a small area was overwhelming. Individual statues remain in place for about a year before being respectfully removed. Over 50,000 statues have been placed in this shrine since World War II. In addition to the images of Jizo, the offerings of clothes, toys, and tiny forks and spoons were incredibly poignant. We were the only visitors at the shrine that afternoon, allowing us to take some time to absorb the emotion of the place. I lit a candle for our little ones, and allowed myself to sit with the grief I felt over their loss.

After this we spent some time in the upper level, admiring the justly famous wooden statue of Kannon, and enjoying the bamboo grove, wisteria blooming in a small garden, and the view out to the sea across a swath of rooftops in a beautiful, muted palette. I particularly enjoyed the signs warning about kites that would steal food out of your hand. We lingered until a little past closing time, the wound our way back down the hill and through the Benten-Kutsu Caves, with images of Benzaiten and her sixteen children are carved into the rock walls, before leaving the temple. 

The rain that had held off all afternoon started up on our walk back to the hotel. We made a short stop for coffee in a German-themed cafe, where the large central table was heaped with beautiful dogwood branches waiting to be arranged. From there, we had a leisurely walk back to the center of town and our hotel for a little rest before dinner.

We returned to Hase Dera the next day, which was the last one before we were to return home. It was a very different experience the second time, and the contrast highlighted the effect the previous visit had had on me. It was a bright and sunny afternoon, and we arrived just after a large group of tourists poured out of their bus and into the lower garden. It was still beautiful, but this time it was full of motion and activity. I climbed the stairs to Jizo-Do again, and immediately felt that the weight of the place had lifted – that the transformation I had hoped for, but not really expected, had occurred. We didn’t linger at the shrine this time, soon moving on to enjoy the rest of the temple grounds again before returning home.