After five days that have been pretty much all urban madness, today was a day dedicated to reflection, introspection and contemplation: day trip to Kamakura, city of shrines and temples!
There are a lot of shrines and temples to visit in Kamakura, so it takes a lot of walking and a lot of fishing for change (since they all have an admission price of 200 or 300 yen, €1,60-2,45 at the current rate), but the good news is that with the notable exception of the Daibutsu, most of the shrines can be visited as you walk along the road from Kamakura station to Kita-Kamakura station, or vice versa.
In my case, I got on the train in Tokyo Station, skipped Kita-Kamakura and got off at Kamakura Station, because that’s where the Tourist Office is and I wanted to get a map first. A very kind lady there took the time to give me some recommendations on my itinerary; my guides mentioned the most famous shrines, but she pointed me out a couple of lesser-frequented ones that had blossoming plum trees and were worth checking out (as you’ll see in a few paragraphs, it was completely worth looking out for). I took a bus that dropped me off right in front of the Daibutsu. Is this the first bus I take in Japan? It took me by surprise that I had to pay when getting off, not when getting on.
The statue of Buddha is beautiful, but what’s astonishing about it is that it was built in the 13th century. It has survived a tsunami, a hurricane, an earthquake, and I don’t know how many other natural disasters that destroyed the structure that housed it and the base it stood on, but it looks like the statue itself held together.
Afterwards, and since it was on the way to the Hase train station (to get back to central Kamakura), I went into Hase-dera, a beautiful, sprawling temple with lots of little gardens, pathways and corners to lose yourself into. It has a tiny cave that you have to crouch to get through, with statues carved out of the walls. It also has a raised observation deck from which you can see the bay. It had a green hill on the edge of the bay; it looked like San Sebastian.
Back in Kamakura station, I had lunch and began the slow trek that would take me the rest of the afternoon. The first step is to walk down Komachi-dori, the main shopping street in Kamakura, for a healthy dose of crowds and window-shopping before getting on with your pilgrimage. Just about the first store is a Ghibli-themed shop with a lot more products (and cheaper, too) than the Ghibli Museum. Score!
My first stop on this leg of the trip was Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, a huge shrine and temple with enormous grounds. It was all red and bright colours. This and Hase-dera were the most crowded of all the temples I visited; strangely enough, as the day went on, there were less and less people at each subsequent place I visited. Where did everybody go?
Next up was Kenchoji, the first of the Zen temples, decidedly more sombre than the previous ones: the buildings themselves are made of dark wood, and it houses a frankly horrifying statue of a “fasting Buddha”, by which they mean an agonizing, skeletal figure sure to haunt you in your sleep. You can’t see them in the picture above, but right behind the big gate are two huge juniper trees said to have been planted 750 years ago from seeds brought over from China.
I had a very nice rest here in one of the outside corridors of one of the buildings, with views to a small Japanese garden. The grass was all yellow here, but it was serenely quiet, there was a nice breeze, there was shade to protect from the otherwise bright sun… I just sat there and read for a while.
I almost walked past Tokeiji, the recommendation from the lady at the Tourist Office, which turned out to be one of the most interesting sites I visited. As it turns out, the temple was originally a refuge for women who seeked to get away from the husbands. At a time when divorce wasn’t allowed for women (although I understand from the documents at the temple that men could repudiate their wives), the nuns running this temple managed to get the shogunate (who belonged to an enemy clan, no less) to make it legal that women who served three years in the temple would become officially divorced. Apparently this continued to work until actual divorce was implemented in the late 19th or early 20th century.
It was also just the perfect day and the perfect hour to visit Tokeiji. It was indeed chock-full of blooming plum tress, so there would be white blossoms everywhere you looked, and by this hour (it must have been three or four in the afternoon) there were only two or three other people in the temple grounds. The sun was only just beginning to hide behind a hill, and the temperature was slowly getting colder. Also of note: the gift shop here was unusually classy. Perfect for tasteful omiyage!
The ladies there made a point of complimenting my Japanese, as did several other people in Kamakura. Either they are less used to babbling gaijin in Kamakura than in Tokyo, where they take it in stride -or they’re nicer people! 😀
The last stop on my visit, literally a right turn away from the Kita-Kamakura train station, was Engaku-ji, another of the 13th century Zen temples. It looked much more restored than Kenchoji, and less creepy too. It also occupies a big area, although this one is much more landscaped and paved than the others. At this point it was just me and a Japanese couple on the other end of the grounds, and the sun was beginning to shine in that golden light it does right before sunset, so it was a very quiet and relaxing visit.
All in all, a day of beautiful and historic sights.