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[A Photographer’s Notes] Portrait Session with Kamakura’s Great Buddha

“When I did this shoot, I pretended I was doing a portrait session with the Buddha. This forced me to look at the statue as more than just a well-shaped piece of bronze.” ー Jason Halayko





Having spent a large portion of my time in Japan living in the ancient capital of Kyoto, I have become quite the fan of Japan’s plethora of shrines and temples, which always provide great photographic opportunities. One such shrine I was able to visit recently was Kotoku-in (高徳院) located in the Kamakura area of Kanagawa Prefecture. 

A little over a hour from Tokyo Station, Kotoku-in is located in a quiet neighborhood of Kamakura, just north of Hase Station (長谷駅). If you arrive by train you will need to walk about 5-10 minutes up from the station to the shrine, but there are many nice little shops along the way. They can be great to check out if you want to pick up some gifts or souvenirs for friends and family. 

Also, on a side note, the station is also just a short walk from the Kamakura Yuigahama beach. So, if you visit in the summer, make sure to bring a swimsuit to cool off in the ocean before heading home. 

Photographing the Great Buddha

When you arrive at the shrine, there is a small fee to enter. Then you will walk along a short path to the shrine square, which houses the large bronze statue of Amitābha, known as the Great Buddha. 

Dating back to 1252, the bronze statue is an impressive 13.35 meters (43.8 ft) in height (this includes the base). When you first round the corner and see it in the distance it doesn’t seem all that big,. But as you approach, the sheer size of the statue slowly becomes apparent, especially if there are people standing close to its base. 

If you visit the shrine to take pictures of the Buddha statue, I highly recommend taking your time at first and spending a few minutes capturing some images from as far back as you can. 

If you are lucky and no one is there, it might be nice to get some clean images of the statue with no one in the image. On the other hand, purposely waiting for people to enter your shot for large scale statues like this helps give your viewers a sense of the true scale. This is why, although I did try and get a clean image, I actually prefer the photo I captured that has several tourists in the shot. It gives an easy reference point for anyone who sees the images. 

Close-up and Detail Shots

As you get closer and closer to the statue you can see many of the amazing details in its face, hair, clothes, and hands. Along with many full body photos, I also enjoy looking at and photographing these many details of the statue. 

I think my favorite would have to be the Buddha’s hand resting in his lap in a typical meditative pose. Something about the reality of the hands I just find fascinating. Give the statue a really good lookover, and choose what you think is the most interesting detail. You may be surprised at the level of detail you find. 

As you move around the statue you may notice a small door on one side that would allow you to enter inside the statue. Unfortunately, due to the current coronavirus situation you are not able to enter the statue at this time. Hopefully in the next couple months the restrictions will ease and we can enter it again ー it is really interesting to see what it looks like on the inside. Just be careful when entering as the entrance is a little low. I almost knocked myself out when I hit my head on the entrance several years ago. 

Enjoy and Explore With Respect

When I did this shoot, I pretended I was doing a portrait session with the Buddha. This forced me to look at the statue as more than just a well-shaped piece of bronze and try to capture more than just a quick snapshot. 

So take your time, and take pictures of the Buddha from all angles. And when you are done and happy with what you’ve been able to capture, it is nice to explore the rest of the shrine as well. 

In June there are many ajisai (紫陽花/hydrangea) plants located just outside the main square. With their many beautiful shades of blue and purple, ajisai can be quite enjoyable to see and photograph as well. 

Lastly, on a side note, please understand that Kotoku-in is a shrine, and not your general tourist attraction like Disneyland. While visiting shrines it is important to stay quiet and respectful of your fellow visitors. 

While I was at the shrine, several people were taking the time to pray at the base of the Buddha statue, and if you were loud and noisy around them it would be considered very rude. Have fun and enjoy your trip, but please respect the space and the other people using it as well.

So if you are looking for a nice day trip from Tokyo and enjoy visiting temples and more low key areas of Japan, Kamakura and the Kotoku-in Daibutsu are a great place to visit. 

Follow Jason Halayko’s series, [A Photographer’s Notes] on JAPAN Forward, here.

Author: Jason Halayko

Jason Halayko is a professional photographer specializing in action sports. Follow him on Twitter (@jason_halayko), and on Instagram (@jason_halayko). 

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