On the trail of the ancients

The medieval miracle of the Asahina Pass that leads into Kamakura

by Burritt Sabin

Today, most visitors to Kamakura reach the former shogun’s capital by rail. But the railway was not blasted through hills until 1889, and in shogunal days travelers arrived via the seven kiridoshi, passes cut through hills as entrances to the city. Deciding to enter Kamakura like the ancients, we took a bus to Asahina in Yokohama from Kanazawa Hakkei Station on the Keikyu Main line.

The Asahina Kiridoshi had to go through a hill in order to easily connect Kamakura with Mutsuura, now in Kanazawa Ward, Yokohama, at the behest of Regent Yasutoki Hojo in 1241. The pass was important, for Mutsuura was a center of salt production and also Kamakura’s outport, bustling with ships from the Boso Peninsula in present-day Chiba Prefecture and as far away as China.

Yasutoki personally supervised the construction. He even provided his horse as a pack animal. From the following year, 1242, salt and other commodities were carried from Mutsuura over the Asahina Pass to Kamakura.

Yasutoki also had a strategic purpose in building the road. The shogunate was at odds with the Miura, a clan of Sagami Province (now Kanagawa Prefecture). In case of war, Hojo-clan reinforcements from the Boso Peninsula and elsewhere could disembark at Mutsuura and quickly reach Kamakura through the pass.

A short distance from the bus stop, we saw a sign pointing to Asahina Kiridoshi. Of the seven passes, Asahina is said to be the one best preserved since the Middle Ages. We were skeptical; arriving at the entrance to the pass, our ears were assaulted by the whoosh of vehicles bowling along an elevated highway and the clanging of hammers and whir of machinery from a foundry. But we bucked up at the sight of a row of hoary stone monuments.

Our eyes were drawn to a koshinto,a stone monument reflecting belief in koshin — a day in an ancient calendar when, during your sleep, three worms dwelling within you emerge and report your sins to the celestial god. Because this snitching was believed to shorten your life, it was considered wise to stay awake.

The Chinese character for “shin” is read “saru” (monkey) in Japanese;so many koshinto are depicted by three wise monkeys. At the base of this koshinto they admonished us to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The monument bore the year Kansei 6 (1796).

The noise from the foundry abated and, turning around, we saw workers, steaming cups of tea in hand, observing us.

As the road hugged dun rock fringed with greenery there heaved into view shallow grottoes, resting places of the dead’s ashes, yagura in the parlance of Kamakura, where flat land was too scarce for burial in the ground to be the norm.

We exchanged greetings with hikers descending the road. Ahead a man lingered, as if wanting to talk. We obliged. Yujiro Yamazaki, from Mutsuura, was reconnoitering the Asahina Pass in preparation to serve as a voluntary guide for seniors.

The road steepened between palisades, which, together with the bedrock underfoot, disclosed the pass had been scooped out of solid rock. But how was it done in an age before any kind of mechanical power?

A signpost pointed to Kumano Shrine, whither we directed our steps. We gingerly tread for 500 meters over a ferny trail skirting the brim of a ravine shaded by tall sugi (cedar). Yamazaki judged, from the wide spaces between them, that the sugi had been planted in the not-too-distant past.

“Kumano Shrine was established in conjunction with the completion of Asahina Kiridoshi,” he explained. “The deities of Kumano Sansha, the collective name for three shrines in Wakayama Prefecture, were transferred to the new shrine to protect Kamakura from the north, the direction of the Demon’s Gate.”

There’s another explanation as to the origin of the shrine. Hojo Yasutoki (1183-1242), third regent of the Kamakura Shogunate, is said to have enshrined here a guardian deity in supplication for the successful completion of an upgrade of the Asahina Pass.

For a place associated with illustrious men, Kumano Shrine has few visitors.It is, after all, remote and architecturally undistinguished. Neither, according to Yamazaki, does it hold festivals. But it presents such a pristine appearance in its sylvan solitude that I wondered what invisible hand swept the grounds and touched up the facade and signboards.

We broke out sandwiches and tea purchased at Kanazawa Hakkei Station. Yamazaki recounted childhood visits to the shrine, where he heard the bark of hunting guns as he fashioned mouth harps and helicopters from leaves.

As we retraced our steps to Asahina Pass, he pointed out more yagura and faults in the rocks resulting from the upthrust of the land from the sea eons ago.

We climbed to the peak, the Yokohama-Kamakura border, where holes in the rock face were reportedly used as supports for a teahouse where men would have savored a cup, lingered over their pipes, and flirted with serving girls. The teahouse existed until the Taisho Era (1912-1926).

Thereafter the road dropped between mossy rock walls overhung with vegetation. Streamlets purled at the shoulders or rippled in tiny cascades down the stone-flagged center. The streamlets, canopies of branches and water oozing from rocks kept the road cool and would have given burdened men and animals respite from summer heat.

The call of an uguisu (bush warbler) broke the silence. Yamazaki said the bird is a harbinger of spring and that to Japanese ears its song sounds like “hoo-hoke-kyo,” a phrase from the Lotus Sutra, an influential discourse attributed to Buddha himself.

He handed us binoculars and, after much straining of the eyes, we sighted the diminutive songbird perched on a branch. The olive-brown passerine, dubbed the “Japanese nightingale” by English speakers, is unprepossessing — better heard than seen.

Toward the end of the kiridoshi there came into view a collection of large yagura on the scale of a miniature of the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra, India.

Farther down, a bamboo pipe conducted water from a spring to a roadside stream. This was the Kajiwara Tachi-arai no Mizu (Kajiwara’s sword-washing water), so called because the warrior Kagetoki Kajiwara (?-1200) supposedly washed in this spring the sword with which he killed fellow samurai Chiba Hirotsune (?-1183).

We came to a small waterfall. Next to its plunge basin stood a stone monument, erected in 1941 by the Kamakura Young Men’s Association to mark the entrance to Asahina Kiridoshi. Its inscription recounts how the road was built in a single night by the eponymous supersamurai Saburo Yoshihide Asahina (1176-?).

The upheaval of land from the sea, a road hewn from bedrock, tombs yawning in cliff faces, birds warbling sutras — the wonders of the Asahina Pass were such that I was ready to believe in a miracle by its namesake.