On our week off from school we finally had the time to explore beyond central Tokyo. We decided our first trip would be to Kamakura about 1 hour from Tokyo. By the sea, it is known for once having been the historic seat of power in Japan and for its important Zen Temples and monasteries. One of our fellow students from our first course lived in Kamakura and had told us many times how beautiful it was, so I was excited to go there for our first trip out of Tokyo and escape the cityscape and high rises of Tokyo for a day.
We took the train to Kita Kamakura (North Kamakura) direct from Shinjuku costing 920¥ each way (trains are roughly every 20 mins). The train ride was nothing special but it was a good opportunity to see more of Tokyo’s sprawl! Kita Kamakura is a seriously cute station, especially coming from central Tokyo! My first impressions of Kita Kamakura was how lush it was and the abundance of beautiful old tress. The landscape is on many different levels and it was very peaceful and beautiful.
Engaku -Ji Temple
Our first stop was to the Zen temple of ENGAKU-JI just a few metres from the station. The temple was founded around 1278 – 1282 by Tokimune, the Hojo Regent, who became fascinated with the new Zen teachings of Mugaku Sogen, a Chinese refugee, who he appointed the monastery’s first abbot. Here they adopted the Zen doctrine of ‘sudden’ as opposed to ‘gradual’ approach to enlightenment by means of using koan (‘riddles’) to move novice monks to enlightenment. It is said that during the construction of the temple, Tokimune helped excavate the foundations himself where he uncovered a stone chest that held the sutra of perfect enlightenment; a brilliant omen for the future of the temple!
You’ll see from the pictures where Shigeru Miyamoto got his inspiration from and why J was cursing the fact he didn’t have an ocarina with him! Though the moss garden and vegetation of this ancient monastery couldn’t help but leave you feeling a little zen. I particularly liked the Main Gate (first picture below) because if the beautiful wood it was made out of. The whole complex was very relaxing to walk around, and the different levels of the monastery added a feeling of it being its own little village.
Opening Times: 8am – 5pm (4pm Nov – March). Entry Fee: 300 Yen
Tokei-Ji Temple (The Divorce Temple)
Just a short walk away is the Tokei-Ji Temple commonly known as the temple of Divorce. It is known as this because in Japan, until the late 19th century, a man could, at any time, get rid of his wife by returning her to her family. However, the wife had no option of ‘escape’ from either her husband or a ‘difficult’ mother-in-law who would live in the house she shared with her husband. But in 1285, the widow of Tojo Tokimune, nun Kakusan turned her nunnery into a place of refuge for women escaping their husbands. Therefore, if a woman was able to escape to this nunnery and live there for three years she would legally be able to have her marriage dissolved.
The guide book adds: “Legend holds that if a woman arrived at night after the nunnery gate was closed, she need only throw her shoe over the nunnery wall to claim refuge.” Tuttle ’29 Walks In The World’s Most Exciting City’.
The Temple is very long and thin and you gradually walk further and further up the hill past huge tall trees and bamboo until you reach the cemetery at the top. I thought this Temple had a different feel to it and it did actually feel a lot more feminine in the way it was designed and with the beautiful collection of wild flowers dotted about the grounds.
Opening Times: 8.30am – 5pm ( Nov – Feb 4pm). Entry Fee: 100 Yen
The Daibutsu Hiking Course from Kita Kamakura to The Kotokuin Temple (BIg Buddha)
Then we embarked on the Daibutsu Hiking Course, which is a 3km hiking route which connects Kita Kamakura with Daibutsu in Hase. The trek can be picked up from just up the road from the Jochi-Ji Temple. It started off as a paved road and then turns into a friendly woodland path with some more challenging up and downhill sections. But fine to do in everyday foot ware. Not knowing we were doing. this I wore a dress which was maybe not the best clothing climbing up some of the steeper inclines. On the plus side, it was an exceptionally hot day (around 33 degrees) and the path provided a lot of shelter from the hot sun. About halfway, you come to a picnic area with tables and chairs and a view down the valley. On extremely clear days, if you’re lucky there’s also the chance to view Mount Fuji, unfortunately for us going a couple of days before the rainy season the haze was pretty complete. There are also vending machines here in case you didn’t bring your own drinks and a wc. The whole route takes about 1.5 hours in all but it went very quickly as we were entertained by a gradual horde of Japanese middle and high school students who each said either ‘Hello’ or ‘Konichi wa’ to us as they passed and then would giggle and say something to their friends like ‘I think they were speaking english’ or ‘where do you think they were from’ in Japanese. At the other end of the pass you arrive at the Big Buddha which is a great reward for the effort!
Maps for these hikes are a little hard to come by, but there are some on this official Kamakura website and they detail the other hiking routes in the area.
The Great Buddha of Kamakura
Our final temple of the day was Kotoku-In Temple which is home to the famous giant bronze buddha. The Daibutsu (or Great Buddha) was cast in 1252 and is an image of the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Eternal Light, the Buddha of the Western Paradise of the Jodo sect of Buddism. The buddha is 37 feet tall and weighs 93 tons. He is seated in the mudra position representing ‘steadfastness of faith’ and it is believed that it took 5 years to make and was cast from separate sheets of bronze and then soldered together. The Great Buddha is one of those super famous tourist attractions that usually don’t live up to their billing, but this was very cool to see in real life and a perfect end to our first day exploring the temples of Kamakura.
Check out the photo of J, without the ‘steadfastness of faith’! In his defence, the guide book again informs us that the statues is not anatomically accurate….
Opening Times: 8am – 5.30pm (5pm Oct – March). Entry Fee: 200 yen
When we were done Temple hopping we walked to Hase Station to take the quick ride to Inamuragasaki Station (a super fun, crazy narrow railway line between the backs of houses and a wooded area) to try and find an Italian restaurant the guide book recommended, Taverna Rondino. We hadn’t eaten any European food since we arrived in Japan but we were both in the mood for some carbs in the form of a pizza! It was quite easy to find and right on the sea front. We sat outside and enjoyed a surprisingly tasty pizza and relaxed after our busy day. Afterwards we took a walk down the beach (which is in no way a pretty beach and I do not recommend carving any time out of your day to visit it) and then headed back to Kamakura Station to take the train back to Tokyo.
I would highly recommend Kamakura for a day trip from Tokyo, the only problem is that there was so much to see you couldn’t possibly do it in a day (which is why we came back later two days later!). The temples were very beautiful and each held an interesting story. The Temples in Japan have a very different feel to others I have visited in Asia and the nature surrounding them and the overall setting seems to hold greater importance which is one of the reasons I have really liked the ones I have seen in Japan so far. Also, they are quite understated overall, yes they use a lot of gold but there is also a lot of natural materials left bare as well as some colours and laquer.
More blogs about Tokyo…