Kamakura

One of the day trips from Tokyo that comes highly recommended is a trip to Kamakura. Kamakura is an ancient city dating back to 1192, containing more than 65 Buddhist temples and 19 Shinto shrines – many as old as the town itself. The sheer number of temples and shrines, combined with a lack of tall buildings (which are forbidden), makes Kamakura a beautiful and serene place to visit. Kamakura also contains a dramatic background for its buildings, as it is surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth side it is closed in by the sea. It even has a nice sound to it; every morning and evening you can hear the sound of bells tolling at the temples.

This time Elliott not only navigated and mastered our way on the metro; he created an entire walking tour of the town for us to follow. And boy did we walk!!! First up was the Zeniarai-Benten Shrine, a good surviving example of the fusion of Buddhism and Shinto (whereas most other shrines were eventually stripped of their Buddhist connections). This shrine is a popular place for people to visit and wash their money (zeniarai means “coin washing”). It is said that money washed in the shrine’s spring will double. Unfortunately we didn’t think to bring and wash our American money so we won’t know for sure.

Our next stop was to see Daibutsu, the Great Buddha. I was so excited to see my second big Buddha in a matter of two weeks! And although we hiked through town to this one, we didn’t have to climb 50 billion steps to it! When we arrived I kept thinking it had just been too easy. But I couldn’t let that stop me from comparing the two biggest Buddhas I’ve ever seen.

The Great Buddha of Kamakura is a bronze statue of Amida Buddha, which stands on the grounds of Kotokuin Temple. It is 13.35 meters high, making it the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan (We didn’t see the tallest one so I don’t think it counts). This great Buddha *appeared* smaller than the Big Buddha in Hong Kong, but when I looked at the measurements, it turns out they are similar in size. The one in Hong Kong is deceiving because you have to climb so many steps to get to it!

When it comes to age though, Daibutsu in Kamakura wins hands down. It was cast in 1252! (The one in Hong Kong was started in the 90’s.) Daibutsu has also proven its strength over time. It was originally located inside a large temple hall. Over the years, the temple buildings were destroyed multiple times by typhoons and a tidal wave leaving the Buddha standing in the open air since 1495! Finally, Daibutsu was different in that you can actually go inside the statue itself, which I found pretty cool. I found myself standing in the bottom saying quite happily, “I’m in a Buddha!”

After Daibutsu we walked towards Hasadera Temple, and on our way we came upon another temple named Kosokuji. This temple was originally the home of someone who locked up a Buddhist priest. When the captor later decided to follow the religion of his captive, he had the home converted into a temple. My favorite parts were the earthen jail where I later found out the captive was held, and the cemetery. It was my first time in a Japanese cemetery, and I just loved it. There were terraced hills, flowers, brooms for keeping the tomb areas clean, drink offerings, wooden slats(?) resembling old fashioned skis, and of course Japanese characters galore.

We never did go inside Hasedera Temple, our next destination, simply because it was interesting enough from the outside and had an admission charge. There were many free temples, we decided to go check them out. Now we were getting farther away from the downtown area, and our map was less detailed. We walked and walked, and before we could find any temples, we saw the ocean. I was excited – I love going to check out any new beach! It turns out we were at Yuigahama Beach, and it was nice and empty. We strolled a bit, played with the cool seaweed (still a novelty for a Jersey Shore girl), and stuck our toes in the water.

There were many more temples to see, and Elliott preferred the idea of shopping, so we split up for a bit. One of the things I loved about Kamakura was that as I walked in search of a temple on the map, there were always additional “surprise” temples and shrines on the way. It made for a great walking tour because even if you were to get lost and never find your destination, there was still plenty of great stuff along the way. All in all I visited four more temples before finishing up at one last big one.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is Kamakura’s most important shrine. It was founded in 1063, and was later enlarged and moved to its current site in 1180 by Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder and first shogun of the Kamakura government. The shrine is reached via a long, wide street that leads from Kamakura’s waterfront through the entire city center, with multiple torii gates (a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the common ground to the sacred) along the way. But my favorite way to walk to the shrine is in the center of the street(!), where you can walk along the beautiful and tranquil Dankazura, a pedestrian path lined with several hundred cherry trees and hanging lanterns.

On the grounds, there are two ponds, one with a garden, on either side of the main approach to the shrine. The pond with the garden represents the Minamoto Clan and has three islands, while the other represents the Taira Clan, the Minamoto’s arch rivals. It has four islands, as the number four can be pronounced the same as “death” in Japanese. We noticed there is a lot of superstition surrounding the number four for this reason; for example, in one of our host’s building elevators, there were no floors containing the number “4”, so the 50th floor was really only 45 floors up!

The main hall of the shrine (Hongu or Jogu) stands on a terrace at the top of a wide stairway. It includes a small shrine museum containing various treasures owned by the shrine, but was unfortunately closed when we were there.

Earlier, Elliott had checked out Komachi-dori, the major shopping street, before coming to the shrine. He came bearing some delicious treats – Japanese Cheetos for me, and Green Tea Kit Kats for him. We sat on one of the benches along the bamboo fence outside the Dankazura (that gorgeous walkway with cherry trees) eating our new treats, enjoying the dim light emitted by the lanterns. It was a quiet and peaceful ending to a very long day.

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