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Image: George Lloyd

Taya Caves, an underground wonder of ancient Buddhist artistry near Kamakura

By George Lloyd, grape Japan

Taya Caves is a sacred gem of Buddhist carvings in the grounds of Josen-ji Temple near Kamakura. This maze of halls and galleries is decorated with hundreds of reliefs carved into the rock, picturing Buddhist deities, past masters of Buddhism, famous temples, real and fantastic animals, mandalas, zodiac signs, and family crests.

The caves were excavated and sculpted by Shingon Buddhist monks between the Kamakura period (1192-1333) and the Edo period (1603-1868). Their history begins in the thirteenth century, when the first shogun established his government in the nearby city of Kamakura.

Image: George Lloyd

With the new government went many Buddhist disciples, who dedicated themselves to ascetic training, rituals, and pilgrimages. In their quest for enlightenment, they practiced meditation, prayed, chanted, and fasted for weeks on end. At Taya, they began excavating an underground maze of tunnels as a site for spiritual training.

The practice of retiring to isolated underground places for meditation and worship originated in India, where, from as early as the third century BCE, Buddhist monks would excavate grottoes in the sides of cliffs, before adorning them with altars, sculptures, carvings and murals.

Image: George Lloyd

Although Taya Caves are formally safeguarded as Japanese Cultural Property, they are not well known in Japan, let alone overseas. They are a long way off the traditional tourist circuit, but they make for a fascinating day trip from Tokyo (or even half-day trip from Yokohama).

When you arrive at Josen-ji, you will be given a candle, which you light from the candle inside the entrance to the caves. Don’t worry if yours goes out - there is backup lighting in the passageways. All the same, it's a good idea to bring a small flashlight so you can see the carvings properly.

Image: George Lloyd

The caves are made up of 17 chambers of various sizes, spread out over three storeys and connected by a network of passageways that span almost 600 meters. The countless chisel marks still visible in the interior are evidence of long and strenuous manual work.

As you make your way along the silent, damp passageways between the meditation chambers, you’ll notice candles and offerings placed in wall recesses. The walls and ceilings of each small, domed meditation chamber are decorated with carvings of fantastic creatures and Buddhist images.

In total, there are about 300 rock-cut high and low reliefs on the caves' walls and ceilings, and many of them are of fine artistic quality. The great turtle and birds carved on the walls of the spring room are particularly impressive.

Image: George Lloyd

There are many examples of caves decorated with religious art in the Kanto region: Iwaya in Enoshima, Benten Kutsu in Kamakura, Oya-ji in Utsunomiya, Nippara in Okutama and Tamagawa Daishi in Tokyo being the best-known. There are also countless mountain grottoes where Buddhist saints are buried, which still attract devotees.

Most of the carvings in the Taya Caves were created in the mid-nineteenth century, after the caves became a pilgrimage site for Buddhists throughout the Kanto region. Most devotees could not afford to make pilgrimages to Japan's most famous temples, such as those found on the Shikoku pilgrimage and the Kannon pilgrimages of Bando, Saigoku and Chichibu. Instead, they would make a one-day pilgrimage to worship the carved images in the Taya Caves.

Image: George Lloyd

You'll find Taya Caves in the precinct of Josen-ji Temple, Sakae-ku, Taya-machi 1501, Yokohama. Don't be fooled by the address. Officially, the caves might be in Yokohama, but in fact they are much closer to Kamakura.

Josen-ji temple is a ten-minute bus ride from Ofuna station. From Shinjuku, there is a Special Rapid Odawara train on the JR Shonan-Shinjuku Line which will get you to Ofuna in 44 minutes. You can also take the JR Yokosuka Line from Kamakura two stops north to Ofuna.

From Ofuna station, take the west exit and look for bus #72 bound for Totsuka Bus Center. You’ll find it across the bridge, near the entrance to the Kannon temple. The journey takes seven minutes (six stops). Get off at the ‘Dokutsu-mae’ bus stop (it is also called the Radon-no Onsen stop). Josen-ji temple is just to the right of the large Radon-no Onsen building).

Taya Caves are open every day between 9:00 and 16:30. Admission is ¥400 for adults, ¥200 for high school and junior high school students and ¥100 for elementary school students.

For more details, visit their website or call Taya Caves on 045-851-2392.

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© grape Japan

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With all due respect, Kamakura and Edo period caves are not really 'ancient'.

In India there are Buddhist caves going back to 200-300 BC, which is ancient.

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