Crossing Enoshima Benten Bridge to Enoshima Island in Sagami Bay, 80 km south of Tokyo, I was stopped in my tracks by a pair of mustard-eyed dragons slithering down gray granite lanterns. A man dismounted his bicycle and asked if I needed help. No, only his story, I replied.

Nobu Ogawa (b. 1940) had retired to the shore community in Kanagawa Prefecture where he grew up. He told me how, when he was a boy, he and his mates would wade to Enoshima and return over the then wooden bridge, which only levied an outbound toll.

He recalled the inns that jostled on the island before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics brought change. Then, off the island’s south shore, the sea was reclaimed for a yacht harbor, expanding its circumference to 5 km from 4, and this Olympic venue was joined to the mainland by a new vehicular bridge.

But why were coiled beasts glaring at pilgrims midway across the bridge?

Ogawa explained. A five-headed dragon fell in love with a celestial nymph, vowed thenceforth to do good, and became her messenger. The goddess was none other than Ejima Myojin, later Benten, the goddess enshrined on the island.

“I love Enoshima,” Ogawa said as we parted.

Crossing the bridge and passing through a weathered bronze torii of 1821 vintage, I climbed a narrow road between eateries touting iso ryori (shore dinner) with lashings of sea-ear and clams, squid and whitebait; emporiums dangling strings of shells tinkling in the salt air; shops wafting the sweet miso tang of roasting rice crackers.

The road ended at a second torii. To the left was an escalator (¥350) up to the Samuel Cocking Garden on the summit. Instead, I opted for exercise and the catharsis of pilgrimage.

A flight of steps through a large gate with paintings of guardian dogs brought me to a terrace, the site of Hetsunomiya, the principal shrine of a trio with the collective name Enoshima Benten Shrine, each dedicated to a different goddess of the sea. Visitors were stepping through a circle of thick cogon-grass rope — a rite of purification performed before worshipping at the shrine.

Across the terrace an image of the White Dragon King reared up from a small pond. A notice implored visitors to cleanse their souls and money in the golden waters. The bestowal of beauty, it said, was believed to follow this ablution, and interestingly those washing coins in baskets and casting them into the offertory were all women.

I paid ¥150, promised not to take photos, and entered the Octagonal Hall of Statues. Benten sat half-cross-legged, lute in hands, upon a pillowed dais in a niche. Unclothed, ergo “Naked Benten,” the image is counted among the three great Benten images, the others being those on Miyajima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture and Chikubushima Island in Omi Prefecture.

A head of cerulean hair was adorned by a golden chaplet, the expression was beatific, the body milk white. A recorded loop explained that the image was realistic down to the symbols of womanhood. Noting the nipples of the small breasts, I stood on tiptoes to verify the full truth of the audiotape. But I could not see above her legs, and left wondering if the image had been placed at a height to frustrate Peeping Toms.

I climbed several more flights of stairs to the second shrine, Nakatsunomiya, a bright vermilion fane at the end of a path between stone lanterns donated by renowned kabuki actors in the Edo Period (1603-1867). The lintel bore carvings of the island’s ubiquitous totems, the dragon and turtle.

At Enoshima Garden Parlor, a sprawling cafeteria-style restaurant, I ordered curry with nan. I sat on a terrace overlooking Sagami Bay and contemplated the small island so replete with legends and religious associations. Here the Shinto and Buddhist faiths were syncretized, for which reason Benten, of the Buddhist pantheon, was venerated on ground demarcated by torii, Shinto shrine gates. But the Meiji government in power from 1868 to 1912 progressively purged Shinto of Buddhist elements. Hence Lafcadio Hearn, visiting the island in 1890, lamented he was unable to see the image of Benten, by then gathering dust in storage.

Buddhism’s official fall from grace presented merchant Samuel Cocking (1842-1914) with an opportunity. He purchased the grounds of a defunct temple on the island’s summit and there, in 1882, built a villa and garden with a 660-sq.-meter greenhouse — reportedly the largest in the East. The greenhouse vanished in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, though its foundations and coal-fired boiler system were unearthed in 2002. Then, in 2003, a garden was opened on the site.

It is really several gardens in one, many planted with flowers of sister cities of Fujisawa, within whose boundaries Enoshima lies. I was too late for the camellias and too early for the roses of Sharon in Boryeong Square, named for the South Korean sister city. But I did savor the roses, courtesy of Windsor, Canada, blooming scarlet at the edge of the exposed brick foundation.

I walked through a file of palms to the lighthouse whose outdoor observation deck commands a panorama of Oshima to the south, Mount Fuji to the west, and the Miura Peninsula to the east.

By the time I exited the garden, the heavens had opened and I sought shelter in the Garden Parlor, where I fell into conversation with a couple from the nearby resort of Chigasaki. The husband said Enoshima is frequently introduced on TV because “it has the feel of old Japan.”

The shower passed, the sun came out. I followed a meandering path to the Okutsunomiya, the third building of Enoshima Benten Shrine. It proved my favorite. The wooden facade, shades of brown and gray, harmonized with the surrounding grove; it was nearest to the sea, the realm of its divinity, and in fact was an otabisho (place of rest), where the goddess resided to escape the summer heat; and it was far from any escalator.

I looked up at the ceiling of the shrine’s divine gate and my gaze was returned by Happo Nirami no Kame, the turtle who looks in all directions, a masterpiece by Hoichi Sakai, an artist in the Edo Period — albeit the present painting is a replica by his protege, Kayo Kataoka.

Steam was rising from puddles on the path undulating between restaurants perched on shelves with sea views. Iso Mutsu, writing in the early 20th century, had deplored the restaurants, shops, and inns mushrooming on the island — “the Mammon of unrighteousness.” I forsook such base temptations and followed the path to a footbridge on the cliff face that took me to the mouth of the 152-meter-long Dragon Cave, named for its resemblance to the mythical beast. I paid ¥500 and plunged into the dimness.

Midway, I came upon a booth where a man handed me a candle and warned me to watch my head. I heard the sound of dripping water and observed roughly hewn images on the walls of, among others, the Buddha and Benten, the Dragon god and the Snake God, Kannon with a Thousand Arms, and Kannon with Eleven Faces. The cavern tapered to a gate behind which lay a rock venerated for its resemblance to the sleeping figure of the 13th-century Buddhist monk Nichiren.

A sign suggested that if you felt a cold wind, it was blowing from Mount Fuji, as by legend the cavern extended to the sacred mountain. But I only heard eerie music piped through speakers.

Then, exiting back to the footbridge, I walked to a second cave. At its farthest point I came upon a Day-Glo dragon in a niche where thunder clapped and lightning flashed — a funhouse attraction sufficiently realistic as to elicit cries of protest from a 3-year-old whose mother urged her toward the monster.

Retracing my steps I passed the Okutsunomiya, and, in the distance to one side of the shrine, I saw a snowman in top hat and red muffler. The juxtaposition distilled the essence of Enoshima — an invitation to worship and to also have fun. Benten, after all, is the goddess of music and entertainment.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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