Don’t overlook Ofuna - off the beaten Buddhist track

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By Vicki L Beyer

Ofuna is a railhead, transportation crossroads, and working class suburb of Kamakura. Daytrippers from Tokyo to Kamakura may notice JR Ofuna station because it’s the last stop before Kita-Kamakura on the Yokosuka Line. Beach-goers and others headed for Enoshima may catch the Shonan Monorail from Ofuna. For commuters on the Keihin-Tohoku Line, it’s the end of the line for the southbound trains.

But Ofuna is also an easy place to find a fascinating day’s worth of sightseeing and entertainment, including medieval Buddhist meditation caves, a glass blowing studio and a giant hillside statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. And since most tourists just pass through without leaving the station, it’s somewhat off the beaten tourist track.

Start with the Taya Caverns. Exiting Ofuna Station from the west exit, catch the #72 bus or take a taxi (approx 1,000 yen) to “Taya no Dokutsu” (田谷の洞窟). It’s only about two kilometers, so will take around five minutes by taxi or 7-10 minutes by bus. (It may be easiest to take a taxi out and catch the bus back.)

The so-called cavern is in the precincts of Josenji Temple, an unassuming Shingon sect Buddhist temple nestled at the foot of a small hill in a suburban neighborhood with rice paddies just across the road. The temple was originally affiliated with Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangu (back in the day when Buddhism and Shintoism were commonly practiced together). Entry to the temple grounds is free, but there is a fee (400 yen) to enter the cave, which was carved into the limestone hill by meditating Buddhist monks between 1200 and 1700. It is interesting to note that the cave was in existence as a site for religious meditation before the temple was founded.

When you pay your entrance fee, you receive a candle and are directed to proceed to the right. Beside/behind the temple you find a small covered stand filled with wooden handles sporting a nail at the end. This is your candle stand (the candle has a hole in the bottom). Just inside the entrance to the cave you will find a flame for lighting your candle. The interior of the cave has dim electric lighting; the candle is for atmosphere, and to give you the chance to examine more closely the intricately carved walls of the various chambers of the cave. Nonetheless, a small flashlight would not go astray. Less than half of the cave complex is currently open for viewing and the circle route takes less than an hour (unless you spend longer viewing the carvings). Photography is prohibited.

Among the bas relief carvings you will find myriad Buddhas in various positions; 33 versions of Kannon, the goddess of mercy; the 12 Chinese zodiac animals; Sanskrit characters, murals of landscapes and medieval village life as well as images affiliated with Buddhist mythology and totems. Follow the corridors from chamber to chamber, also moving up and down to pass over and under other chambers. Because most of the cave is man-made, the ceilings are not particularly high, usually 180 to 200 centimeters in the corridors, but often 3-4 meters in the chambers. At one point you will go through a meditation hall with its platform for sitting in the requisite meditation posture.

At the lowest point is a flowing spring and a “noiseless river”, a channel of water that eventually flows out of the cave. It is said that you can splash water from the spring onto any part of your own body that is weak and be cured. Since the 2008 earthquake, some reinforcement has been added to protect visitors from falling rocks which, unfortunately, makes it more difficult to see and appreciate the carvings alongside the noiseless river. I was assured that in fact there were no falling rocks during the earthquake; the current proprietors of the temple are just being cautious.

When your subterranean exploration is finished, nearby is an opportunity to explore other forms of traditional Japanese folkcraft. Suenosato is a pottery and glass gallery on the hill behind Josenji (turn right at the main road when leaving the temple grounds and take the first right). Look for a big brown sign advertising Suenosato (陶郷) and Kokonotsuido (九つ井) and follow the arrow up the laneway. The gallery is right at the end (don’t give up -- it’s actually only 3-4 minutes from Josenji). The gallery building, the garden, and the expansive view of the valley below all make the climb worthwhile. The pottery and glassware in the gallery range from extremely practical to extremely whimsical and, like most galleries, is available for purchase (delivery is also available). If you make a reservation in advance, you can try glass blowing for yourself from 3,150 yen. Phone 045-851-8855; there are English-speaking staff.

The history of Suenosato goes back about 40 years. One of its founders wanted to open a restaurant but couldn’t find dishes suitable for serving the Japanese-style food he wanted to offer. So he learned pottery and made what he felt was needed. He then formed a consortium of like-minded potters to open the gallery. He now operates four restaurants named Kokonotsuido (“9 wells”), including one on Ring Road #4, just a few hundred meters from the gallery. The name is taken from a nearby well which served as a resting place for medieval samurai warriors passing through during the Warring States Period (mid 15th to early 17th century).

After your visit to Suenosato, return to the main road. The bus stop is easy to spot and buses returning to Ofuna Station run 3-4 times an hour.

Once back at Ofuna Station, cross the Kashio River and take the laneway to the right of Lawson’s. Turn left at the end of the lane and you will see the approach to the Ofuna Kannon wending its way up the hill (entrance fee: 300 yen).

The 25-meter Ofuna Kannon is a 20th century structure made of reinforced concrete. It was begun in 1929 as a prayer for world peace but work was suspended in 1934, when only the frame was completed, due to the outbreak of war. The statue, really a bust atop the hill, was finally completed in 1960. In the small hall inside the statue (entry at the back) is an eternal flame taken from the fire that ensued after the 1945 nuclear attack on Hiroshima. Further to reclaiming its world peace aspirations, the temple features stones from ground zero in both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in its lower garden (at the entry level to the temple grounds halfway up the hill).

The Ofuna Kannon hosts the annual Yume Kannon Asia Festival, inviting Buddhist priests from across Asia to ecumenical religious observations and also hosting various Asian ethnic musicians and food stands. The 2013 festival will be held on Saturday, Sept 7 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (entrance fee: 500 yen). Mark your calendar now.

If you’ve enjoyed this troika of sights, but still have a little energy, consider visiting the Ofuna Flower Center, a botanical garden on the former site of the Kanagawa National Agricultural Experiment Station. While this is a modern garden — only opened in 1961 — it is pleasant and relaxing. Like all Japanese gardens, you will always find something blooming. It is located about one kilometer from Ofuna Station; just follow the right bank of the Kashio River downstream.

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I was lost in Ofuna after a long night of drinking and getting on the wrong side of the kehin tohoku line. No wonder I found the area so confusing. XD

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