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Monumental statue makes special trip worthwhile. TRAVEL: KAMAKURA'S `GREAT BUDDHA'

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THERE are lots of reasons to take the one-hour train ride here from Tokyo: candlelit caves, a lotus lake, peony gardens, the lantern-lined main street. Kamakura is a town as elegant in its contemporary style as it is enchanting, with historic and cultural interest. There are no fewer than 65 temples and 19 shrines in this former seat of shogunate government, now a classy suburb. But you don't really need any of these reasons beyond the ``Daibutsu,'' the most subtly stirring statue I've seen on a month-long excursion through China, Korea, and Japan.

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The Japanese word for ``Great Buddha,'' ``Daibutsu'' is a representation of Buddha Amitabha, the Lord of the Western Pure Land, and is worshiped by the great majority of Japanese Buddhists. The statue is so serene in its majesty that it might be best described in poetry, and many have tried. I like this prose description in Bayart Taylor's book, ``Japan'':

``The Monument ... may be considered as the most complete work of the Japanese genius, in regard both to art and to the religious sentiment..., a gigantic, seated divinity of bronze, with folded hands, and head gently inclined in an attitude of contemplative ecstasy. ... There is irresistible charm in the posture, ... in the harmony of his bodily proportions, in the noble simplicity of his drapery, and in the calmness and serenity of the countenance.''

The statue was constructed in 1252 at the request of Idanono-Tsubone, a lady attendant of Shogun Yoritomo (1147-1199), who led the nationwide fund raising for the project.

A first image, completed in wood after five years of continuous labor, was destroyed in a storm. The one we see today, measuring 38 feet high and crafted with 93 tons of bronze, was housed in various wood structures through the years, each destroyed by fire, storm, or tidal wave. Since 1495, the Buddha - hollow as a bell - has stood out of doors.

On the way to see the Buddha, I had already fallen in love with Kamakura for everything it was besides a tourist attraction. I found it to be more ``real'' than, say, Nikko, the resort that forms a backdrop for the great Toshogu Shrine, also a popular day trip from Tokyo. There, besides the wonderful historic sites, you have a tourist-supported community of souvenir shops and seasonal restaurants. But in Kamakura, one finds well-kept neighborhoods, charming restaurants, fine galleries and pastry shops, all of which exist primarily to serve the local population, not tourists.

When you step off the train, you are in the middle of town, with tempting options in every direction. You can take any of a number of short walking tours, with the help of maps provided by local authorities, or you can just browse among the intriguing shops and sights.

Besides the Daibutsu, however, you should not leave town without seeing the great Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, whose torii gate appears at the north end of Wakamiya-Oji, a main street lined with lanterns, cherry trees, and azaleas. Originally built in 1063 near the seaside town of Yuigaham, the shrine was moved to its present site in 1191 by the first Shogun of Kamakura, Yoritomo Minamoto. Present buildings date from 1828 in the style of the Momoyama period (1573-1602).

About two hours of walking with a numbered map will take you past various shrines, ponds, halls, stones, and gingko and juniper trees. Gravel paths lead through impeccably manicured Japanese gardens and over bridges spanning tin-kling streams. Shrines contain armor, masks, and swords from the period when the city was the home of the central government of feudal Japan (1185-1333). Guidebooks relate the significance of the buildings, statues, and paintings produced by artisans from Kyoto and Nara.

There is plenty of history to be found in the small municipal museum, to the right of the shrine, and built in 1928. Memories of the exquisitely carved statues of standing and sitting Buddhas, as well as larger-than-life gatekeepers of hell - all in wood - stand out even after the trip.

The museum, built in the style of the Shoso-in found at the ancient capital of Nara, is an intriguing type of wooden structure that expands and contracts with the humidity, providing its own natural climate control. Adjoining it is Kamakura's Museum of Modern Art, built in 1951, a good stop for visitors who want to see the new as well as the old.

Besides the Daibutsu and Tsurugaoka-Hachiman shrine, you can follow your interests to other shrines on the outskirts of the city. Bus and train schedules will help get you to some, though many are within walking distance.

My guide took me to the Zuisenji Temple, a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect with a garden laid out by Muso-Kokushi, considered a famous example of the landscape architecture.

The hillside provides a fabulous view of the entire town, and it contains thousands of miniature, standing marble Buddhas, each representing an unborn child. I also toured the caves nearby - candlelit, musty, with the mood of the burial places they once were.

To the west of town lies a popular seaside resort, Katase. A marineland park is not far away. A wooded island is connected to the mainland by a bridge.

To the southeast, the Miura Peninsula divides Tokyo Bay and Sagami Bay. The nearest town is Zushi, 20 minutes by bus.

Some visitors may want to schedule their trip to coincide with, or avoid, the annual festival of Tsurugaoka-Hachiman Shrine in mid-September (with equestrian and archery contests); Mankakegyoretsu (also mid-September), a masked procession at the Gongoro shrine; and the Kamakura-matsuri (early April) a municipal festival with parades and tea ceremony.

Practical information

For more information, you can write to the Japan National Tourist Office at 630 Fifth Ave., New York, NY, 10111, or call (212) 757-5640.